Paganism as a Religion

•June 18, 2017 • 5 Comments

From the outset of my time in the public sphere, I have been against a seemingly needless division and splintering of the concept of Contemporary Paganism as a religious grouping or term.  As an example, I loathe the term “neopagan” in any of its iterations.  If one looks at the history of the word and concept of “paganism” as it has been used inside academia and outside, the term simply does not make any sense.  The traditional use of “pagan” has, since the fourth century, meant one who is a non-Christian.  This use of the term persisted throughout Christian-dominated discourse, often with strict negative connotations.  It has only been comparatively recently that there has been a push to more accurately define traditional “paganism” in the contexts of their cultures, as individual indigenous belief structures and religious enactments.

Neopagan, then, implies a “new not-Christian”.  It continues to hold back the development of an identity by dragging the concept of the “Pagan self” back into a Christian-oriented paradigm.  It effectively puts the whole of the movement (as it exists) back within the shadow of Christian-dominated ideology.  I have found that most people who profess to be Pagans cannot properly articulate what their religious practices are and defining their “religion” without inversely comparing it to Christianity.

Ask someone to describe part of their religion and they may say “We do not believe in Original Sin”, instead of describing their theology.

Is it because they figure that framing their explanation within a Christian context helps to inform whomever they are talking to?  Or is it because they do not know how to articulate their theology without doing such?  I believe it is more the latter.  This is obviously problematic for the creation of a healthy self-image.

So because I have detested the needless division of “Paganism”, I followed a system of treating that word as a proper noun – making a clear distinction between traditional (or “academic”) paganism and Paganism.  To further drive home the fact that this religious grouping is very much a new religious movement, I have followed a handful of scholars and writers int he use of “Contemporary Paganism” as a qualifier.  It makes a bit more sense than “neopagan”, despite being a bit more clunky to write.

But it’s becoming clear to me – perhaps finally – that this terminological use is insufficient due to the varying philosophies, theologies, and agendas that are often at odds within the public fora of Contemporary Paganism.  Of particular note and interest is the shifting and moving definitions (and, in some cases, goalposts) of what constitutes a “religion”.  This is often done in order to accommodate some of these philosophical and theological outlooks (and, I find, necessarily edge others out).  

So it is perhaps important that we define what “religion” is, and how it should be approached in the discussion of the contemporary iteration of Paganism as a new religious movement.  And, above all, whether Paganism qualifies.

We shall be going back to basics, as it were.

Religion, on Wiktionary, is defined as:

  • (uncountable) The belief in and worship of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.
  • (countable) A particular system of faith and worship.
  • (uncountable) The way of life committed to by monks and nuns.
  • (countable) Any practice to which someone or some group is seriously devoted.
  • (uncountable, obsolete) Faithfulness to a given principle; conscientiousness. [16th-17th c]

“Religion” in colloquial parlance has evolved from describing a system of belief and worship to anything which one might find a zealous adherence to – sports teams, political affiliation, other ideologies.

So the dictionary definition is particularly unhelpful, if anything can be considered a “religion” if there’s enough conviction.  I find that it also helps to look at the various definitions from disciplines that actually study the emergence of religion as a human institution.

The anthropological definition, in some quality, of religion is: a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to a supernatural power.

In sociology, Durkheim described religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

A further breakdown shows a distinct difference in the function and role of religion in society.

Further, we can see various definitions in some of the descriptions of religions across other multiple disciplines (already featured on this blog but reproduced here):

“Religion is ‘a verbal and nonverbal structure of interactions with superhuman being(s).” – Hans Penner, Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion.

“[Religion is] a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules, and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God.” – Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

“All religions follow the same structural contours.  They invoke supernatural agents to deal with emotionally eruptive existential anxieties, such as loneliness, calamity, and death.  They have malevolent and predatory deities, as well as many benevolent and protective ones.” – Scott Atran, “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape”, in Handbook of Cultural Psychology.

It is held, with fair frequency, that the overwhelming definition of a “religion” is a series or grouping of rites, practices, and beliefs which concern themselves with both human society and the “intersection of” or “concern with” a supernatural power.

There will be disputes to any of these definitions, of course.  Durkheim also said that religion can appear and change due to the needs of society and the culture in question – which necessarily means that the concept is not as static as some people would otherwise like.

But it also needs to be remembered that “religion” as a term is definitely influenced by our own cultural contexts, with a nuanced history of being informed by Christian and Romanticist concepts as to what constitutes “real” or “valid” religion.  This is the case in various scholastic circles predating the mid-20th century.  These definitions come in and out of vogue, as with many things in the course of human events and, despite the foundational quality to religion as a feature of society, this creates these shifting opinions as to the essential nature of religion.  

All too frequently these attempts to describe “religion” are monothetic when it is perhaps best described as a polythetic practice.  That is, the act and description of religion cannot necessarily be reduced down to a single basic idea or principle, often transcending ontological or epistemological concerns.

More simply put: religion cannot be properly described according solely to a checklist of attributes.

Stanley K. Stowers has a lengthy description of what he considers the polythetic aspects of a definition of “religion”, as presented in his paper “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families“ and published in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity.  

He defines religion on page 11 as “often the linked and combined practices (i.e., doings and saying) of particular human populations (e.g., imagined as cultures, societies, ethnicities, groups, global movements) that involve the imagined participation of gods or other normally non-observable beings in those practices and social formations, and that shade into many kinds of anthropomorphizing interpretations of the world. Religion is the unfolding activity (including thinking and believing) involving those practices that postulate participation with and make reference to gods, normally non-observable beings and anthropomorphizing interpretations of the world.”

One of the characteristic and most inherent flaws in the discussion of religion, either in the discussion within the contemporaneous expression of Paganism or other discussions of historic incidences within the wider academic community, is that any discussion treats these myriad practices as autonomous from the human condition of society and culture.

“Religion is a class of practices that involve a broader, species-wide cognitive propensity.”, Stowers describes.  

There are no clear boundaries at the margins for what is or is not “religious”, or what constitutes a “religion”.  This is especially true when one speaks to the nature of folk religion, which much of Contemporary Paganism follows.  These religious beliefs can splinter off and justifiably be considered within the realms of philosophy, “folk science”, psychology, mythology, etc.  

These disciplines all constitute what a religion is, which can’t be reduced down easily (if at all).

This also ties neatly into my partial discussion about how the definition of “secular” space is inherently a triumph of hegemonic monotheism and that those Western polytheists that don’t see a distinction in the spheres of secular and religious.

What is clearest is that we can see there is no working definition of “religion” that is going to satisfy everyone within the conversation.  Each individual is going to have their own perceptions based on their practice, traditions, academic backgrounds, and experiences if at all applicable.  Any quality of the definition of the word “religion” is going to be, at most, “not bad”.  Let alone “good” or “perfect”.

If we approach religion as a polythetic experience, a spectrum of interrelated practices, beliefs, and systems which cannot necessarily be reduced down to a minimum essentialistic nature, then we have to accept that there is never going to be a perfect definition.  It is the unicorn of religious studies.

Those definitions which I employ above are based on three or four disciplines of academia, all of which concern themselves with social science (and thus, empiricism).  They are not perfect, and they do not cover all facets of religious definition, but if we treat the term “supernatural” (itself problematic) not necessarily as concerning the worship of “gods” but instead concerning with greater-than-human powers, then we see the number of recognized religions which would be edged out by definition are few in number.

Even Jainism, the posterchild example in the West of a “non-theistic religion”, recognizes and engages with a variety of supernatural beings, depending on the philosophical school.

There’s also something to be said about the fetishization by the West of Eastern religions for political purposes or other agendas.

How does this discussion of the definition of religion tie in with the contemporary incidence of Paganism?  Paganism is a similarly difficult concept to articulate properly.  Its traditional monothetic definition (a “nature-based” fertility religion) has fallen out of favor for a polythetic definition (a spectrum of religious identities which are likewise “not bad” in definition).  

Contemporary Paganism consists of both “true” new religious movements (Druidism/Druidry, Wicca/British Traditional Witchcraft, etc.) and traditionalist pagan revivals or restorations (reconstructionist/revivalist polytheistic traditions like Heathenry or the Religio Romana, etc.).  On paper, they do not seem to have much in common, yet are nevertheless grouped under the term of Contemporary Paganism.

A closer examination of the traditional understanding of “pagan” (excluding the non-Christian qualifier) religions would show that they are not as dissimilar in nature as they first appear.  In his book Pagan Theology, Michael York attempts to describe some of the qualities which these traditional pre-Christian pagan practices included.  These are

  1. A number of male and female deities.
  2. Magical practice.
  3. Emphasis on ritual efficacy.
  4. Corpospirituality.
  5. An understanding of gods and humans as codependent and related.

There are others, of course.  This list is neither comprehensive, nor wholly indicative.  But it is a useful baseline in comparing “Pagan” religions with other world religions.  Though Michael York’s writing treats this list as a historic incidence, I find that much of Contemporary Paganism features these.  What we see here is that these religious qualities largely persist across both of the spectrums of Contemporary Paganism.  That is, they are features in some way in the “New Religions” and the “Revived Religions”.  I will attempt to describe.  

In the case of these traditions, divinity is directly experienced and intertwined with the visible and material world.  This is true of a polytheistic revivalist, a dualistic Wiccan, or a panentheistic druid or a vaguely Emersonian naturalist.  The wills of these religions do not seek to transcend the world around them and recognize that we are only a tiny part of a larger whole.  Where they differ is in their concern for the recognition of the numinous divine.  This is the nature of corpo-spirituality.  It does not matter if divinity is a staunch multiplicity, a theological duality, or a distant universality of all (or most things).  It is immanent and inherent in the world.

Amusingly, this extends towards a predisposition to classical concepts of “idolatry”, featuring the sacredness of place and thing in a way which inherently makes Christianity uncomfortable.

Paganism is generally said, and commonly argued, to be concerned with orthopraxy over orthodoxy, that there is more emphasis on the proper action instead of proper belief.  I would perhaps make the argument that it is a blend of ritualism and orthopraxis instead.  Ritual efficacy and the role of custom, in both life and ritual, in the proper enactment of religious expression is seen.  What we cannot say is that belief is unimportant to any kind of theism.  It is simply that the adjudication of orthodoxy is less of a concern.

One must understand the theory (belief) to put it into action (praxis).

At first glance, York’s inclusion of “magical practice” as a qualifier for pre-Christian pagan religions (and thus, something that Contemporary Paganism is indebted to) might appear to be out of place, particularly with some religious philosophies opposed to the idea of “magic”.  Modern concepts of “magic” are conflated with the ceremonial magic of Wicca and British Traditional Witchcraft, inherited from the esotericist orders of the late Victorian era.  It is to be remembered, however, that “magical practice” in the context of some of these traditions include various operations of sacrifice, bribery, “low magic” (cunningcraft), and other similar items.  Even prayer, with its formulaic and intentional purpose, can be argued as a magical process.

I do find the term “deity” and “gods” to be particularly loaded, and one of my concerns with York’s list of these traditional qualities are the use of these terms.  There is an unfortunate baggage which arises from the use of these words, constituting an unnecessary predisposition towards the concept of the “big gods” – that the term “god” must be a figure of renown as Jupiter or Odin.  The study of traditional pagan cultures would show that the terms “deity” and “god” can include a plethora of varying divine figures including, but necessarily limited to, deified ancestral figures, nonspecific local spirits, tutelary beings of limited scope, and those traditional divine figures of renown and ethno-cultural importance.

This baggage is paramount in some modern restorations – notably Heathenry – who view these beings through an unnecessary lens of “power” or hierarchy, limiting the fundamental understanding of the importance of the “small gods”.  The theological language of modern Paganism is still very much couched within a Christo-centric world, and care should be made in light of that. The theological understanding of these beings in antiquity was nuanced, but few were viewed as “lesser” which the modern hierarchy would like to portray.  They simply held different roles and spheres of influence.

York’s biggest distinction in the incidence of Contemporary Paganism with traditional pre-Christian paganism (classified by him as neopagan, geopagan, and recopagan, all terms which I consider problematic) is the lack of emphasis on shrine and temple culture that the latter had promulgated.  What I believe he is referencing is more the establishment of a formalized priesthood, because the concept of the sacredness of space and delineation of sacred and profane is largely unchanged across the Paganisms.  The age of York’s book is apparent, given his articulation that “contemporary neopagans” do not exhibit a devotional quality before altars.

An inherent issue in hiving off the traditional, Christo-centric definition of “pagan” from the concept of Contemporary Paganism is what exactly the term incompasses.  As we’ve seen above, the concept of Paganism as a religion largely holds true throughout the contemporary incidence of it.  But so too do many other worldwide cultures.  In this way, “paganism” as a concept is very much like the usage of “shamanism”: it unhelpfully describes a collection of attitudes and folk practices, some of which can span the globe.  

This, of course, leads to a handful of problems:

  1. It implies that these practices are “the same”, across cultures, which lessens the overall impact each might have in their respective group.  
  2. This causes a reduction of agency of the individual religious traditions, and tries to force them into a Christian-themed paradigm.  
  3. It encourages a sometimes deleterious concept of “mutual ownership”, leading to negative practices of cultural appropriation.

All three of these issues are problematic in their own way, although one and two are intrinsically linked together.  Calling a tradition like African Tribal/Diasporic Religion (ATR/ADR), Shinto, or Hindusim (among others) “pagan” tends to receive negative responses, because of the implication that these cultures are “outsiders” in their own cultural and social context.  It diminishes their rich history, their own traditions, and the experiences of their religious developments.  Jordan Paper’s book The Deities are Many discusses this a bit, and the (then) growing trend of the recognition of indigenous practices in their own contexts.

The third point is one that is particularly important to me, as someone who identifies as a Contemporary Pagan.  The popular expression of Paganism when it became semi-”mainstream” in the 1990s often relied on appropriating concepts from other religions in order to fill gaps in practice or belief, or because it interested the practitioner, or any number of reasons.  The closeness at the time between Paganism and the New Age movement encouraged a brand of eclecticism (used here not as a pejorative) and cherry picking which was ultimately harmful to many of the cultures which were being drawn from.

We see this attitude replicated again and again, and one of the most recent and extreme examples I can think of came from the recent struggle at Standing Rock and the actions of some of the “allies” there (Part 1, Part 2).  While we’re not sure that these women were “Pagan”, this attitude is all too frequent.  The discussion of this practice merits its own entry.

But the value in narrower definitions, as tools to generate a more thorough identity should be shown.  A group with a watery and ill-defined identity will not have a firm foundation in order to thrive – as a comparison, the Unitarian Universalist membership and reenrollment have been trending downward every year since 2008.

One of the methods I employ in the definition of “Contemporary Paganism” as a distinct religious grouping is to utilize a firm cultural boundary, and I extend it to the religions which are either largely descended from (revived) or inspired by the folk religions of both the European-Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cultural basins.  This positions Contemporary Paganism as a purely Western religious expression, recognizing and advocating for a distinct identity which can be erected, and reasonably encompasses the history of “the West” (Pre-Classical and Classical antiquity), while at the same time including new religious movements that are inspired by that expression.  

Of course, not everyone will agree.  But I find that the definition, again, is “not bad”.  And, what’s more, it’s workable.  

By studying these new religious movements and the revived traditionalist religions of Contemporary Paganism, we see that Paganism aligns with the themes and essential concepts of religion.  Its emphasis on supernatural/greater-than-human interaction, the definition of a continuum of sacredness and delineation of profanity, and an inherently foundational concept of interrelated and codependent reciprocity all assist in positioning Contemporary Paganism as a religio-spiritual institution.  Where these Pagan religions differ are in the emphasis placed upon these facets.

Like Stowers said in the quote previously shared, “religion” is a problematic term, with numerous pitfalls and qualities that are inextricably linked.  It ultimately encompasses, not excludes, a diversity of discipline and opinion, which form the totality of its expression within a culture.  Paganism, as a contemporary religious grouping, is likewise problematic and encompasses disciplines as theology, philosophy, and folk psychology, which all inform its existence.  In comparing modern iterations of Pagan religiosity with traditional concepts of pre-Christian pagan religion, we see that it is a series of orthopraxic and ritualistic lineages within what amounts to a truly multi-faith milieu.

When approaching Contemporary Paganism and contrasting it to traditional concepts of “pagan religiosity”, we’re struck with the growing development that within Contemporary Paganism of two distinct interpretations.  The first is to treat Paganism, as I have done here, as a religio-spiritual edifice.  The second is to treat Paganism in the vein reminiscent of Loyal Rue and Ursula Goodenough and approach it, instead, as an “attitude”.

 


Works Referenced

Atran, Scott. “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape: An Evolutionary

Perspective,” in Handbook of Cultural Psychology, edited by Shinobu Kitayama and Dov Cohen, pgs 417-453. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.  New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Goodenough, Ursula. “Religious Naturalism and naturalizing morality”, Zygon no: 38. 2003: 101-109.

Penner, Hans.  Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1983.

Paper, Jordan.  The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology.  Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Rue, Loyal. Nature is Enough. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Stowers, Stanley K.  “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families“ in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, edited by John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan.  Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press 2003.

On Favorites

•June 14, 2017 • 3 Comments

“<X> is my favorite deity!”, an anonymous Pagan scrawls on the internet.

This has always struck me as an odd statement.  I understand where it is coming from, in the same vein as “<Name> is my favorite person”.  We play favorites as social animals, and it’s been something that’s been criticized for a long time.  It’s in the Bible even – well, one of them (The Message).  No, seriously.  Check out Proverbs 28:21-22.  It’s there.

If one were to ask me which one of the pets I have known, or friends I have known, were my absolute favorite, I wouldn’t be able to answer.  I’m a person who tries to approach people on their own merits.  The people I am friendly with are not better than the other – they have different strengths and weaknesses.  To me, reducing them down to “favorites” creates an unnecessary bias towards them, in which one is necessarily diminished compared to the other.  The same thing goes with living beings – each one is different.  Each one has its own unique personality.

I feel the same way about the deities.

Sure, there are deities which we approach with more familiarity (for lack of a better word).  Individual beings which we’ve entered a more intimate gifting cycle with, perhaps a formal relationship of patronage and obligation, or beings which have more interest in us as individuals.  We have more in common with some of them, less with others.

But favorite?

I have a favorite color.  I have a favorite food.  A favorite smell.  A favorite place, a favorite time period, a favorite architectural style, a favorite band, and a favorite song.  I favor a side, a firearm, a writing or artistic medium, a type of beer, and a hundred other things which inform my tastes.

Like Mary Martin said: these are a few of my favorite things.

This way of treating deities – like treating people – is, to me, like reducing them down to these things.  While it isn’t intentional, it feels like they’ve less agency and are somehow reduced to mere qualities that aren’t necessarily experienced in reality.  Sometimes it comes across as finding favoritism with the idea of a deity, instead of the deity itself.  What they can do for us, or what qualities they have on paper which we find preferable.

I know that the definition of “favor” isn’t negative in its initial definition.  But in modernity favoritism has enough of a negative connotation that I’d avoid falling into that mindset. A parent showing a son more favoritism than the other is considered negative.  A boss showing favoritism to an employee is considered unethical at best, and illegal in some spheres.  Family showing preference to family in a professional or political setting is nepotism and is largely considered undesirable.

Showing favor to someone implies an unequal power dynamic.  And I don’t profess to hold that level of influence with the gods.  We enter into a mutually sustainable relationship with them, except in very rare circumstances.  There are deities that will hold to more unfavorable (ha!) relationships.  They are the ones in charge of the dynamic, here after all.  

At least as far as I see it.

There are beings that I like, just like there are people who I like.  There are some who I am afraid of (the overwhelming majority of greater-than-people, to be honest, but I digress).  There are some who I routinely offer to on a week-to-week basis (tutelary deities, ancestral deities, a few big name ones with outstanding obligations), and some I will not unless absolutely necessary.  There might even be some that I dislike.

But I’m not sure I could say that I favor any, over another.

However, I just got off an eleven hour shift at the office.  So I’m not entirely sure I’m making much sense.  But.  I’m going to throw it up here, anyway.

The Problem of Apples, Pt. IV: The Problem of Apples

•June 6, 2017 • 6 Comments

Author’s Note: This is the fourth part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

The sum of this entire discussion is what amounts to the “Problem of Apples” – the problem of a broadly reductionistic association between deities of wildly different spheres of cultural and religious matters and meanings.  Though many polytheistic restorations and revivals make similar claims in regards to the reduction of divinity, Heathenry appears to be unique in the frequency with which it is engaged.  In some cases, it appears to be the passive reaction to the concept of pluralistic divinity.  It is an act of modern convenience and an anachronistic prevalence that serves little apparent purpose in light of the discrepancies of etymology, iconography, and other socio-cultural contexts.  As has been shown, all of these elements are broadly positioned by their role in the religious and social culture, and all inform the religious hypotheses and experiences of their individual systems.

In the case of the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn, we see dissimilar deities inorganically melded together for little apparent purpose.

Within contemporary Western polytheism there is much to-do that is made about the implications of negative appropriation and appropriative acts, crafting a double standard in terms of reception towards the inclusion of divinity.  It appears that these appropriative actions which are performed within something like the Heathen cultural group – within the wider Germanic foundational culture – are not critiqued in any meaningful way as being inherently deleterious to identity.  This paper has endeavored to show that care must necessarily be taken in the forced association of deities with such vastly different scopes and roles.

Traditional indigenous European polytheism, which ultimately anchors these Western restorations, was a highly mutable concept of divinity; deities would go through several localizations, redefinitions, and other gradual changes.  This culture was never static, as should be expected within any meaningful living system.  Appropriations were common between different cultural groups – various cults made their way around the Mediterranean basin through conquest and trade.  This is easily seen throughout the spectrum of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian religions when new aspects of divinity were codified, as well as the dissolution of older concepts that had once circled around the identity of the god.  These all melded their divinity in inherently different ways.

In some cases this metamorphosis was encouraged by new aspects of deification entering the (particularly local) mythology of the individual deity.  Other deities experienced the removal or the loss of their functional foci, which inherently altered the understanding of the deity in question.  Syncretism, the act in which deities were correlated and commingled within an alternative cultural paradigm, is an almost inherent part of polytheistic identity and absolutely happened within these traditional cultures.  Dissolution, likewise, was not uncommon.

We can see this metamorphosis even within the Germanic system, despite the paucity of information that we have.  The recognition of two deities within the Norse polytheistic paradigm, that of Frigg and Freyja, is an example of this.  Earlier Germanic peoples, it is commonly argued, understood the role of the singular divinity (originating in the Proto-Germanic *Frijjō).  Through the dissolution of the functional foci and the change, this unity was dispersed between two Nordic deities.

Within the polytheistic system, these are all valid interpretations and experiences within the realm of hierophany and the experience of the numinous.

The theology of syncretic belief is, however, deeply nuanced and extends beyond simple equation of deities and their equivalencies (or not) within their culture.  It encompasses a detailed understanding of divinity that is unfamiliar to many modern polytheists, either through their inculcation from other belief systems or due to a lack of resources for more accurate study.  The case of the conflation of Ēastre and Iðunn serves no apparent syncretic purposes in a religious culture.  It was born not from an organic or identified need, but an easily understood comparison and appropriation between deities because of a fundamental deficiency in Heathen understanding of polytheistic theology.  

It is this deficiency which should be endeavored to be recognized.

An important point to consider is the overall status of Western polytheism in its present state as an organized attempt at restoration.  As decentralized as it is, it still maintains an identity of necessity as a minority religious culture beneath a more domineering paradigm.  The comparatively young age of these restored/reinterpreted traditions necessitate care in divine appropriation, and the role of divinity within the various expressions of polytheistic theology should be considered in light of this.  While the modern trend of Globalization and the rapid exchange of ideas has fundamentally altered the manner in which information is disseminated and adopted – creating a culture almost reminiscent of traditional cosmopolitan ethos that support the commingling of ideas – it has opened up ever-greater risks for the erasure of tradition.

There was an implicit understanding of the essential nature of the divine that amounted to a wholesale cultural acceptance that pervaded every layer of society that was so concerned.  This understanding extended to those instances of syncretic development and tendencies towards religious amalgamation.  This enabled syncretic deities to exist alongside the common conceptions of their “constituent parts”, with little in the way of potential erasure.  Even when the divinity of one deity was ultimately subsumed by another (as in the case of Rome and Quirinus/Romulus) the recognition of the essential qualities and foci of the subsumed deity persisted.

Western Heathen polytheism, a modern practice which exists beneath the fairly hegemonic monotheistic cultural force of Protestant theology, does not maintain this basic understanding of divinity on an inherently understood level.  It must ultimately be reoriented and redeveloped.  The threat of erasure of these arguably minority restored traditions and beliefs by the larger mass is very real, especially when done out of convenience or an ignorance of theological concerns.  The false perception of a singular Heathen identity only serves to reinforce this potentially disrupting and diminishing paradigm.  

Reductionist theology, for a lack of a better term, isn’t the pluralistic understanding which most traditional polytheistic theologies are known for.  It is ultimately the product of an incomplete and haphazard theological understanding, one which possesses an inherently limiting effect on one’s exploration of the vibrancy of polytheistic worship.  Understanding the multiple nuances of divinity from functional foci, to innate contexts that intersect their expression within the religion, to a myriad of other discussion which are ultimately beyond the scope of this paper, are crucial to the proper expression of religious action and right ritualism.

Misunderstanding these concepts impacts more than simple acceptance of differing deities.  They potentially risk significant repercussions within the very structure of the religious enactment itself.  The end result is not an offense to practitioners, but a fundamentally dangerous mistake in the performance of ritual – one which possesses theological consequences.

Associating Ēastre with Iðunn due to these theological implications does nothing to further the cult worship of either and instead reduces a characteristically Anglo-Saxon deity to subservient and lackluster role under a more dominant cultural force.  Heathens who are of differing cultural orientations from the Anglo-Saxon exegesis are more than capable of (if not encouraged in) engaging in Ēastre’s cult; this is not an admonition of worship or an attempt at “divine gatekeeping” in this regard.  

What this is constitutes a discussion on the realities of realistic syncretism and divine commingling in light of concerns with proper practice and religious sensitivity.  Ritualism and orthopraxis ultimately imply a correct form of ritual and practical action, a guide to religious enactment and the proper approach of divinity.  Heathenry, if it continues to be mired in these reductionist tendencies, will never be able to fully embrace its polytheistic quality of religious theology and remain a stunted and lackluster expression of belief.

fin

The Problem of Apples, Pt. III: Words, Icons, and Apples

•June 6, 2017 • 1 Comment

Author’s Note: This is the third part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

In the last entry we discussed the concept of approaching the deity in terms of their functional status within society, as well as detailing some of the pitfalls in a methodology that seeks to look at the religious tradition outside of the social and cultural structure in which it was found.  In this we will endeavor to delve into the background of either deity and discuss how Ēastre and Iðunn compare in deeper terms.

Linguistically and etymologically, the words which came to describe both goddesses are unrelated, and do not come from words of similar root meanings.  Though the reconstruction of linguistic lineages is based on comparative analysis they are still only theoretical, they nevertheless provide useful clues for the understanding of divinity and divine relations.  

The etymological lineage for Iðunn is particularly lacking, and only a handful of name-meanings have been suggested by various scholars [10].  Jacob Grimm associated her name with the Old Saxon idisi, of which the Old Norse dís is a North Germanic cognate [11].  Old Norse dís, meaning “goddess”, is thought to be derived from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *dīsiz, meaning “goddess”, itself from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European *dʰēs-, taken to mean “holy one, hallow, deity” [12].  This association is, however, unsubstantiated and is at best a hypothetical and as-of-yet unproved theory.

Conversely, the etymology of Ēastre/Eostre has been treated at length variously by scholars in attempt to prove her origination one way or another, whether pan-Germanic, regional, or a simple fabrication of Bede.  Ēastre “is thought to have evolved from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *austrǭ, for “dawn”, which is variously argued to be of uncertain lineage from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“dawn”) or *h₂wes- (“to dawn”) [13].  Any permutation of linguistic ancestry denotes references to the dawn, the act of dawning, a reddish or bright coloration, etc.  An interesting point of consideration is the related term *austraz (“east, dawn”) which also derives itself from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“east”), which may intimate less of a dawn-based facet to Ēastre and more of a directionally oriented one, as the assumption that Ēastre is potentially related to a linguistic shift from the Old English word “ēast” [14].

Comparative etymological study with Ēastre is critical, for Jacob Grimm utilized the naming convention for his popularization of an Old High German Ostarâ in his etymological deconstruction of the then still-used ôstarmânoth.  This Ostarâ is familiar to many contemporary Heathens and Pagans as the Goddess most worshiped on the Spring Equinox.  His ultimate etymological recreation was *austrǭ, already mentioned [15].

Supporters of the etymological connections between Ēastre and a German continental  contemporary point to a remarkable discovery of a series of 150 votive objects discovered in the vicinity of modern day Bonn, Germany.  These votives date from the 2nd to 3rd centuries, and have all been dedicated to a series of regional deities known as the Matronae Austriahenae [16].  Their use in the argument for the support of a pan-Germanic goddess necessitates a brief discussion here.

Initial printings of some of the inscriptions occurred in 1960, but a secondary printing occurred in 1962 containing the following:

MATRONIS

AVSTRIAHENIS

M • ANTONIVS

SENTIVS • P

S • E • S • L • M

“To the Mothers Austriahenae, M. Antonius Sentius, for him and his, gladly and deservedly.”[17]

The similarities between “Austria” in the Austriahenae with Grimm’s austrǭ (and thus with Ēastre) should be readily seen.  The apparent etymological connection between the Matronae Austriahenae and Ēastre appears to satisfy most in the exploration of any continental antecedents to this putative goddess.  Here we have to return again to the etymology of Ēastre as it is supposedly associated with *austrǭ which is, as a term in Shaw’s estimation, consisting of the root to be “east”.  As stated above, these terms are clearly related, but by no means are they cognates nor are they identical or possess any features which would indicate a commonality of association [18].

Given the uncertain suffix of -henae, which is only assumed to correlate with the Latin suffix of -ium and thus denoting a place, it would perhaps not be unwise to assume that the Matronae Austriahenae to be the ‘Mothers of the East’, or “the eastern most people”, perhaps those surrounding the legionary fortress of Bonna.  This is circumstantially supported by Shaw’s interpretation of the existence of the Austriates as a social or tribal group [19].  

In light of this, the assumed correlation of Ēastre with *austrǭ is apparently unfounded.  Shaw further, following Sermon and McKitterick, supports the influence of a more unconventional method of transmission of Ēastre/Ēostre-influenced names into the Old High German which gave rise to Grimm’s Ostarâ and ostarâmânoth.  It is not at all implausible that conversion activity in the region, undertaken by Anglo-Saxon missionaries who repeatedly requested the treatises of Bede and his contemporaries from their Northumbrian colleagues for a lengthy period of time, helped disseminate the material and was not indicative of a pan-Germanic goddess figure [20].  This is an opinion that the author holds.

With the differences in etymological lineage established, some word should be said about presumed and inherent iconographies between both of these deities.  Iconography and image remnants are another significant batch of evidence in the understanding of the divine.  Again, these are particularly under-attested for the lesser known Anglo-Saxon deities and only assumed through their roles in society and estimated cults; the epigraphic corpus is unfortunately scant.  There are no known native depictions of Ēastre in an Anglo-Saxon context, and the images alluded to her cult in particular are based off of comparative study with the festivals of the period of the year of Ēostremonath from Germanic and Germanic-adjacent peoples [21].

Comparatively, there is merit to the idea in order to develop a more thorough understanding of the cult of a deity, as this forms the basis of reconstructionist methodology.  It is often utilized in polytheistic practices to fill in the holes that may be had through the shoddy material record.

Ēastre is linked with Iðunn through the assumption of iconographic similarity with other Northern European goddesses, notably the connection to the Matronae Austriahenae.  As a whole, the Matronae tend to consist of similar iconography, with fruit often being associated with deities particularly concerned with fertility, wealth, and plenty, as well as who they bless with their good fortune.  As Ēastre has been commonly and paradoxically characterized as a spring or fertility goddess, the assumption is that fruit is a valid representative symbol for her.  

At best, this is tenuous, as there are a number of concerns regarding the proliferation of apples and their role in early Germanic society from which the Old English came.

Iðunn is inextricably associated with a specific iconography which has become intrinsically representative of her mythology: that of the apple, and her role in the maintenance of the divine youth of the gods.  This iconography is itself thought to be a representative remnant of a fundamental Proto-Indo-European mythological construct, as the origination of it in the North Germanic mythos is uncertain.  Whatever the origin of this, Iðunn herself is an enigmatic figure of an uncertain linguistic etymology.  H.R. Ellis-Davidson claims it was possible that her figure was an extra-Germanic origin and later borrowing, identifying both the Celtic West (Ireland) or the classical world as probable transmitters of the myth [22].  The latter classical influence would be in mimicry of the Garden of the Hesperides.  Davidson also claims that fruit had a long association with the gods in traditional Germanic paganism and particularly notes that the apple is representative of this [23], although this line of inquiry appears to be largely unrecoverable.

Iðunn’s account in the Skáldskaparmál mirrors other Indo-European mythologies centered around the iconography of apples, replicating in a certain capacity through Greek and Irish mythology primarily and forming the basis of Davidson’s claims of mythological transmission.  Indo-European myth contains several references to the incidence of apples, as explored in Roger Woodard’s book To Fetch Some Golden Apples.  Variously identified as apples, quinces, or oranges, these iconographic features have become a staple of mythological convention, most common to modern Westerners through the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden, although the role of the apple is inherently different.

It is ironic that those who would utilize Dumézil ’s functionalist approach for linguistic commonality would be willing to take a less-literal position to this mythological iconography and assume that representations of apples are not in actuality supposed to represent apples.  If apples are Iðunn’s most recognizable feature – who fundamentally is identified as a fertility and rejuvenatory goddess [24], then some commonality in representation should occur.   The lack of the emphasis, indeed, the lack of an identifiable role of the apple in early Germanic society as a whole, casts some doubt on the pan-Germanic association that Davidson would otherwise claim.

Native apples have grown wild in Britain since the Neolithic period, however these were crab apples consisting of a particularly bitter flavor for much in the way of culinary use.  They were sparsely scattered, as well, as they were of an anti-gregarious tree type which limited their proliferation [25].  The Mediterranean had known more palatable varieties of apple since at least the time of the Greeks, having been introduced to them through trade contacts in the Ancient Near East.  These fruits entered into the epics and mythologies, making their appearance in Classical literature by being featured in Homer’s Odyssey.  Eventually, like much of the Germanic world, the introduction of these apple varieties and their system of cultivation came about through the influence and settlement of the Romans [26].

The Roman withdrawal from Britain saw the abandonment or degradation of much of the classical infrastructure and cultural traditions which had taken hold during the period of the Roman administration.  In particular, this included the tending of apple orchards and, presumably, the knowledge of their propagation as the Germanic tribes which pushed into Britain had no known understanding of this agriculture [27].

This lack of awareness of the use and cultivation of the apple in Anglo-Saxon England is presumed by a distinct lack of the appearance of what would be identified as a modern apple – or products made of that fruit – in the Anglo-Saxon food-rent lists [28].  While the Old English language did contain a word which gives rise to the modern word for “apple” (“æppel”) it was used as a general term for fruit of all types, as was the case with the blackberry (“brembel æppel”).  It was not until the end of the Anglo-Saxon period where accounts can be found of the general cultivation of fruit in what can be identified as orchards (“orceard”), with the apple being reintroduced into Britain by the Normans after the Conquest and, even then, consisting of only one account within the Domesday Book [29].

The apple as either literal or metaphorical theological symbol arises only within a Norse context, and is not generally found within a wider Germanic exegesis.  Religious symbols, broadly, retain two particular purposes: practical and representational interpretations.  This is obviously how they interact within the wider community and the role that they take in what is considered performative acts as compared with how the symbols are thrown back to the religious object or belief in question and are containing representative qualities [30].  Of course, theological symbolism is inherently difficult to interpret as this thinking is highly contextual, easily misinterpreted, and consists of varying qualities of implied and ascribed meaning.  These meaning-contexts are subtle, as are the ways in which these constructs are portrayed.

In the Republic, Plato first asserted that it was mainly through repetition and imitation in which the spiritual parts of the soul is educated – that is, the ways in which one’s religiosity and spiritual paradigm were inculcated.  This is in contrast to the ways in which one’s desires and rationality are likewise informed [31].  These symbols can both be divine hypotheses and representations of the devotion of the worshiper, which are only realized through proper cultural interpretation.  Repetition and imitation would imply a reoccurrence of imagery, which is woefully under represented in Anglo-Saxon art, mythology, and society, as shown.  

What is shown is that on all the levels that have been discussed – the linguistic, symbolic, and iconographic – that there is truly no connection or similarities between the two deities other than in the most superficial of ways.  Even the connection to the Matronae Austriaheae are weak attempts at forcibly fitting the evidence into the hypothesis that Grimm had previously championed.  These features, seemingly innocuous and artifacts of their time and place in history, are absolutely important to the proper understanding of the context of divinity so that one can engage ritually with them.


Endnotes, pt. III

[10] John Lindow, in Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (2001) gives her meaning as ‘Ever Young’, while Andy Orchard in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend (1997) gives as Iðunna’s meaning ‘Rejuvenator’.  Rudolf Simek in Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) gives the meaning of her name to be ‘The Rejuvenating One’.  A clear connection to the mythology of her being the guardian of the Asgardian youth and immortality is apparent.

[11] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. I (London: George Bell and Sons, 1882) p. 402.

[12] Wiktionary. “dís.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified May 25 2017, accessed May 17, 2017. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/d%C3%ADs

[13] Wiktionary.  “Easter.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified March 25, 2017, accessed: May 17 2017. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Easter

[14] Wiktionary. “Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/austraz”, Wiktionary: The Free Dictionary.  Last modified March 27, 2017.  Accessed May 17, 2017.  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/austraz

[15] Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. I, p. 291.

[16] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.  No images of the iconography of the Matronae Austriahenae have been published. It is presumed that they were of a similar iconographic continuum with other Matronae figures found throughout the Continent, of which their association with “fruit” (and thus, apples) is assumed.  This is especially notable in traditions that seek to reconstruct a pre-Germanic Proto-Indo-European religious identity as found with the PIE Religion website at: http://piereligion.org/easter.html.

[17] Alfred Merlin (ed.), “Item 99”, l’Annee Epigraphique, Presses Universitaires de Frances, Paris, 1963.  Elaboration by author.

[18] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.

[19] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.

[20] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.  This naturally intersects with Shaw’s theory that Bede revived the “character” of Ēastre in the writing of his works.

[21] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. II (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883) p. 380.

[22] H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 165.

[23] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[24] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[25] Contributors, “A Brief History of Apples and Pears in UK”, English Apples & Pears, accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.englishapplesandpears.co.uk/history_of_apples_in_uk.php.

[26] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[27] Peter C. Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”, Ða Engliscan Gesiðas: The English Companions, March 18, 2011, accessed May 17, 2017, http://www.tha-engliscan-gesithas.org.uk/archives/the-alcoholic-drinks-of-the-anglo-saxons.

[28] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[29] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[30] Robert C. Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, (New York City: SUNY Press, 1996), p. 135.

[31] Plato, The Republic.  See books 2 and 3, respectively.

 

Part IV can be found here.

The Problem of Apples, Pt. II: Function

•June 5, 2017 • 3 Comments

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

Previously, we have been introduced to the idea that Heathenry, as a modern polytheistic religious restoration, contains within itself an inherent deficiency in regards to polytheistic theology.  In this section we will approach concepts of divine functionality and approach a number of influences that impact what is considered the “function” of a god within its context.

Divine concepts are often and commonly related to functional spheres of control “possessed” by the divinity in question.  This is one of the key characteristics of polytheistic and animistic religious identity, and in this Heathenry is no different.  Recognition of these functional and spatial foci was of the utmost importance and constituted a defining feature of the polytheistic religious system. These were not static, but fluid: a deity which was associated with “wine” might, on specific days, be associated with the “vintage” or other, broader, agricultural concerns in conjunction with “wine” [4].  In this way the deity “of wine” is truly not focused just on “wine”.

It needs to be remembered that these people, however, understood their gods within the contexts of their polytheistic environs.  Western civilization has largely been supported by a religiously exclusivist position: that of hegemonic monotheistic Christianity and the idea of divine functional exclusivity.  The fluidity of polytheistic identity, as it was understood in its own context, enabled the transmission of multiple deities despite having similar or dissimilar foci and selectiveness.  A deity could travel from Egypt to Greece to Rome and never truly be an outsider to any system because it was inherently anchored in polytheistic identity as a concept, although the cults might emphasize different qualities.  They had no need to be changed to fit the system, so long as they could be anchored into the system they were being moved to through the use of functional (cultural role) and spatial (cultic locations) foci.

The West, mired in a tradition focused around the nameless, formless, and above all hegemonic concept of the Judaeo-Christian ‘god’ has lost the implicit understandings of the polytheistic system and the ability to conceive of these gods, their functional foci, and how to approach the re-engagement with a polytheistic identity.  Their emphasis on the function of the deity is sanitized, much in the same way that the concept of do ut des was reduced through the application of Pauline theology to a mere business exchange between worshiper and divinity [5].

This lessening of polytheistic identity under this hegemonic force has lead to a simplistic understanding of the divinity, and Heathenry is in particular no exception.  These functional foci which form a core aspect of that religious identity have been placed to the side in favor of well ordered lists that offer one dimensional “god of..” functions, with the invariable result of being subsumed into the facets of other deities with the loss of these foci and theological understandings.  To identify them strictly by their function reduces deities to mere actions, and ignores important facets to the understanding of their perfection and essence [6].  

We see this mirrored in various social scientific disciplines, including the study of Classical history.  Notably driven by the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century, the idea that Mediterranean religion (particularly in this instance the study of Roman religion) was “sanitized” was common.  It was presented as a joyless, soulless religious expression, being portrayed as an emotionless transaction not unlike a client and patron.  What is lost in this strict concern with the sanitized, contextless function is the character of piety.  This, of course, informed the later approach to these “primitive” non-Christian religions.

Though it existed and pervaded scholarship prior to the publication of his works, Georges Dumézil popularized a particularly structuralist and culturally functionalist approach to Proto-Indo-European culture, which investigated the spread of concepts regarding culture and divine.  His interpretation of this theory was most elaborately published in his work L’idéologie tripartite des Indo-Européens, which was published in 1959 and had been built off of his earlier works Flames-Brahman and Mitra-Varuna, published in both 1929 and 1940 respectively.  

Conceptually, the theory devoted itself originally to the functions of Proto-Indo-European cultural development and expression, but was later expanded to include those representative divinities associated with those social and cultural groups.  In essence, each social group had a representative god or group of god-families which matched it in functional role (eg. groups of deities concerned with the priestly, warrior, and common social classes).  Dumézil and those bearing the torch of his tripartite hypothesis sought to apply this theory in a contemporaneous sense throughout the breadth of the studies concerning the Indo-European cultural spectrum.

What is found is that religion and culture are indelibly more nuanced than Dumézil would otherwise portray.

While popular, this functionalist approach nevertheless fails within the parameters of its own methodological concerns; most important to remember is that linguistic affinity does not necessarily lead to the existence of an expected conceptual affinity.  If we approach Dumézil’s theory heuristically, the lack of these concepts in action and, more specifically, the lack of any known mutual tripartite cultural structures cast significant doubts on the validity of this popular flagship theory [7].  It quite simply exists as a theory and has not been found to be replicated in cultural reality.

Despite this, the limited idea of the function of divinity, the role of the divine within a culture as it pertains to the reflection of society, remains well-entrenched within both secular academic scholarship and contemporary polytheistic research.  Often, deities are reduced down to their basic components within the culture in which they are found, for ease of interpretation or dissemination or for a plethora of other reasons.  In other religious fields, the functionalist approach to exploring the divine has been slowly replaced by other – more sociological – approaches.  

Specifically important in this instance is the academic approach of Émile Durkheim in viewing the religion from the perspective of the society, rather than viewing society from a series of postulated theoretical categories and attempting to fit the religion into that theory [8].  We find that the true understanding of the role of the “function” of a god is not just in the “of..” qualities or the associated sphere, but in the effects of social and religious forces.  The sphere of a deity’s true foci is impacted and informed by qualities of tradition, social adjustments, etymology, and other developments between analogous deities, which confer importance in many cases into both the private and public spheres [9].  This approach has only been employed by the late 20th century, and largely only within an academic sense.  It is rare to find its mirror within the largely academically-adjacent polytheist reconstructionist communities.

In terms of Heathen polytheistic approach towards the reconstruction of religiosity there is still a great deal of concern maintained around the apparent function of the divine, and the resultant role that the deities had in society.  This is ultimately exacerbated by the comparatively small population of known deities in the Germanic world.  The lack of divinities, as compared with the other larger and more established polytheistic traditions of Eurasia means that a reconstructionist understanding will ultimately suffer in its execution.

Engaging in reconstructionist methodology is ultimately an exercise in empiricism, built upon a continuum of linguistic, historic, and extra-historical academic disciplines in order to inform the practical foundations of the revival that is Heathenry.  In most cases it begins with approaching any literary sources which remain known to scholarship.  In a Heathen context, this research results in an unfortunately limited scope of information, necessitating the inquest of researchers in other directions.  The secondary and tertiary stops for Heathen reconstructionism are generally etymological and material remains, in either order.  These inquiries are nevertheless of supreme importance to the piecing together of religious practice, let alone concepts of divinity, from the fragmented sources which have survived the passage of time.

In the case of the erroneous comparison of Ēastre with Iðunn even a cursory glance of either aspect will show that there is little to no association between the two deities which exist other than the most superficial and circumstantially reductive ways.  That is what will be approached in the next section.


Endnotes, Part II:

[4] Michael Lipka, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach, (Boston: Leiden, 2009) p. 67.

[5] Lipka, Roman Gods, p. 4.

[6]  James R. Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace in Its Graeco-Roman Context, (C.B. Mohr, 2003), p. 284.  This discussion on perfection as it concerns a divine unity (and thus a mischaracterization as reductionist monotheistic tendencies) is in part explored from a particularly Platonic perspective in Edward Butler, “Polycentric Polytheism and the Philosophy of Religion,” in Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion,  (New York City: Phaidra Editions, 2012), p. 74.

[7] Lipka, Roman Gods, p. 4.

[8] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Carol Cosman (London: Oxford, 2001) pgs. 154, 318.  This approach was particularly championed by Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.

[9] Lipka, Roman Gods, p. 69.

 

Part III can be found here.

The Problem of Apples

•June 3, 2017 • 17 Comments

Author’s Note: The length of this article got too big for a comfortable readership on the format of this blog, and so I have broken it up into four parts which will be released consecutively.  Endnotes will be released along with each part, but will maintain a running total throughout all four parts consecutively.  If there is demand, I will format it properly into a .pdf for future use.

Heathenry’s approach to conceptions of divinity is unnecessarily limited and self-curtailing, despite being a reconstructed polytheistic revivalist religion.  Evidence most often used within Heathen reconstruction generally consists of literary, material, toponymic, or folkloric elements and despite the value of these disciplines, the material with which Heathens have to reconstruct the knowledge of their religious fundamentals is limited. This is especially true when compared to the restoration of other polytheistic traditions.  The paucity of this information appears to reinforce a an unwillingness in exploring new theological perspectives outside of a few specialized corners.  The end result is a narrow, stunted, and misinformed interpretation of divinity that is transmitted into the general Heathen population.

When the idea of “Heathenry” is brought up in discussion, it  is often done so in terms of a singular religious monolith.  This is excusable perhaps from the position of viewing it as a new religious movement and one that is still getting its religious identity and basic foundation built underneath it.  In this regard, a singular religious identity is often easier to work with, especially concerning the development of comprehensive ideas and their eventual transmission.  

Religiously, of course, Heathen practice and belief are both descended from a continuum of common religious ancestry that of the related Germanic cultures.  These cultures themselves are indebted to both Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European antecedents and share some similarities.  As a result common themes exist across the spectrum of Heathen religious identity, in some cases a mirror of common cultural themes shared between the Germanic peoples of the pre-Christian era.  This similarity of expression is what ultimately provides for a mutually intelligible religious dialogue between practitioners, regardless of the historic cultural expression of choice.

Yet the cultural expressions which form a core component to any individual Heathen religious practice nevertheless have an understated impact on that resulting practice.  Composed of linguistic considerations, geographic influences, or cultural and historic divergences, these factors are just as inherently important in the identification of a unique religious tradition and often help to separate the identity of one practice from another.  It is ultimately what marks a difference between a Heathen with an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon practices and a Heathen who focuses on Norse practices.

It is an unfortunate fact that these unique expressions and developments are often placed to the wayside in the discussion of the religion.  They are most often ignored, either in favor of advancing the religious understanding of the whole of the religion, or due to some other consideration.  

These cultural mores and historic interpretations are, at best, treated as extraneous hangers-on in the discussion of Heathenry in a communal space.  They exist as a cultural ‘skin’, draped around the common skeleton of identifiable “Heathen” practice and belief, but are ultimately viewed as an aesthetic with no true formative distinctions.  Despite an ever-increasing willingness within modern Heathenry to embrace the uniqueness of regional variations of Heathen identity, this tendency remains unfortunately common in the public sphere.

At worst, and all the more frequently, these cultural differences are ignored or simply subsumed under the most dominant cultural paradigm in Heathenry, eg. Eddic or Nordic Heathenry.  Worse yet, some of these cultural differences are cherry picked or negatively appropriated into the larger, creating an untenable and unstable pan-Germanic morass.  The end result limits and diminishes the even-more minority expressions in favor of the wider dissemination of information for appeal and consumption in public.

In some cases this practice is innocuous and ultimately harmless: instead of referring to urðr it is commonly known by the Old English wyrd.  The two terms and two interpretations are close enough that referring to it as either does neither harm, although their expressions may differ somewhat within their cultures of origin.

In other cases it is a more deleterious force in regards to the traditional understanding of individual group identity.  This is often the case with the Anglo-Saxon deity Ēastre (Ēostre), who is perhaps the most well known of the native pre-Christian deities of Anglo-Saxon England who does not have an identified mirror elsewhere.  Due to the association of her name with the Christian observance of Easter (Pascha), she has become a popular entree into general Heathen consciousness, having been lifted out of her native Anglo-Saxon context and embraced by Heathens regardless of their own cultural orientations.  This is done despite having little in the way of external identifiable reflection in much of the wider Germanic linguistic and etymological corpus.

Ultimately, Ēastre is an enigmatic and putative figure.  She exists only in a Christian recording of contemporary month names, and is generally associated with the coming dawn, and contemporaneously with the Spring and fertility [1].  

The veracity of these accounts or the existence of this figure is not the focus of this piece and will not be discussed here, despite there being some debate to this end in both Heathen and academic circles.  Suffice to say, Philip A. Shaw’s work Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World provides a compelling argument for the figure’s historic existence – albeit in a far more limited scope and minor divine role than commonly portrayed in Heathen religion.  It is that perspective which is used here.

This enigmatic nature has both benefited and hindered the development of Ēastre’s cult and, more importantly, has encouraged her appropriation into extra-Anglo-Saxon cultural enactments.

As an Anglo-Saxon deity – or, rather, a deity arising strictly within a native Anglo-Saxon cultural Context – Ēastre is contextually very much a suitable representation of the conditions of early pre-Christian England as well as of the people who venerated her.  She fits into the Anglo-Saxon worldview through her positions as a near-tutelary goddess and representative divinity of her group of people [2].  In comparison, she is markedly out of place within the wider community of pan-cultural Heathens, given their focus on Norse and Icelandic cultural lore, or the even smaller Germanic cultural groups drawing their traditions from the Continent.  In order to fit, her figure has taken on roles which it did not originally have.

Those changes are similarly not up for discussion.

Regardless of her adoption outside Anglo-Saxon circles, Ēastre is  nevertheless wedged into a pan-Germanic Heathen identity.  This is most often done in a reductive association with the Norse deities of Frigg, Sif, or even Iðunn [3].  All of these conflations are problematic and inexact in their interpretation and etymologically false, providing no baseline for the association between the figures.  For the purposes of this discussion, the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn will be the focus of the piece.  In this way we will see how an incorrect equivalency will not only harm the understanding of the cults of the deities in question, but also perpetuate poor history and effectively whitewash a minority perspective within a larger, dominating culture.


Endnotes, Part I:

[1] Bede, De Temporum Ratione.  “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

[2] Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddess in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, (London: Bristol Classic Press, 2011) p. 70.

[3] “Edmund”, r/Pagan Discord message to the author, February 8, 2017.

 

Part II can be found here.

The Realization of Polytheism

•June 1, 2017 • 7 Comments

“Religion is ‘a verbal and nonverbal structure of interactions with superhuman being(s).” – Hans Penner, Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion.

“[Religion is] a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules, and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God.” – Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

“All religions follow the same structural contours.  They invoke supernatural agents to deal with emotionally eruptive existential anxieties, such as loneliness, calamity, and death.  They have malevolent and predatory deities, as well as many benevolent and protective ones.– Scott Atran, “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape”, in Handbook of Cultural Psychology.

“Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should outlive them were termed ‘superstitious’ (from superstes, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called ‘religious’ from relegere (to retrace or re‑read), like ‘elegant’ from eligere (to select), ‘diligent’ from diligere (to care for), ‘intelligent’ from intellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of ‘picking out’ (legere) that is present in ‘religious.’” – Cicero, De Natura Deorum II.72.

 

On the surface, despite many numerous differences, definitions of religion are predicated on – or otherwise revolve around – the concept of an identified object of extra-human and “supernatural” quality.  Something which necessarily sets itself apart from nature or is otherwise added to the natural world.  Of course, as a trained anthropologist, as well as a historian who has dealt with religious history quite frequently, religion as a definition genuinely transcends the notion of a mere supernatural qualifier.  Pascal Boyer’s quote, above, is largely comparable to my own internalization and use of the definition of the phenomenon of “human religion”.

This year – 2017 – marks the twentieth year as identifying as a Pagan in the contemporary religious sense.  While I’m not hardly in the running for that being any length of time, I am particularly seasoned.  And as that anniversary draws closer I will do my best to commemorate it.  But, to me, it has always been the pull to the “supernatural”, to the imminency of this religious quality, that gets ascribed to the definition of religion by academics.  I do not feel that the term “supernatural” is wholly appropriate as a description of the quality of the divine, as I view it as pervasive within the natural world.  The description of the gods, the spirits, and other holy powers is diminished through the use of this word, implying that they exist beyond nature – a transcendent quality which informs the greater understanding of “religion”.  It, in some way, simply does not apply.

I am an empiricist.  I have training in two social sciences and rely on qualitative observations and the collection of identified facts in order to orient my deductions and assumptions.  Two of the primary philosophical schools which I ascribe, and which inform my worldview, are Empiricism and Scepticism as they’re understood in the humanistic understanding of the Renaissance, prior to the period of the Enlightenment.  I trust in the scientific method.  I am excited by new discoveries that rewrite our understanding of our place in the cosmos, of evolution, and of the geologic timescale.

As a result of this very logical framework to my training and my approach to life I do not particularly favor coincidence, repetition, and other probable qualities as indication of some greater-than-human force within the world.

And yet, I am an ardent polytheist and animist.  This is because of my experiences in this world, many of which do not have a logical answer.

I suffer from a very mild form of depression, which is being treated.  Who from the millennial generation doesn’t?  That is the extent of any “aberration” to my mental health.  I do not have a history of greater mental health problems in my family.  I do not “crack” under stress.  I am considered healthy and active. Other than a bout of unemployment, I’m productive.  I’ve never done drugs, other than drinking a ton of coffee and socially drinking alcohol.  I’m generally pretty boring.

Why is this laundry list important?  Because they are generally the first qualities which skeptics and atheists look for in the overtly religious, in order to denigrate our intelligence or our actions.  That there’s something wrong with us.  That our intelligence is up to question.  Or we’re inherently inferior.  I find that polytheism receives the brunt of this, because we don’t believe in just one “imaginary friend”, but many.  

But, because of this, I am forced to accept that there is more to the world than what I know and conceivably articulate or explain.  To me, and to my experience, that translates to a multiplicity and plurality of divinity, and an intersection with a world of spirits that I share the space with.  I never “lost” the worldview of my youth, was fortunate that it was never stamped out by over-zealous parents.  I was raised in a fairly a-religious household, with a mother and grandmother who were interested in other religions.

So being a polytheistic Pagan is very much just a natural progression of my life.

But what I learned early on was that being a polytheist – and by that I mean one who doesn’t reduce down the deities into a mere two (or less) beings, or view them as facets and manifestations of the human condition – was very atypical.  I came to Paganism during the heyday of the Llewellyn craze, after the SRA panic settled and Wicca and Paganism were commodified.  After The Craft.  One year before Charmed.  

Paganism, Wicca, and “the supernatural” were suddenly trendy.  Marketable.  

Polytheism, however, was not.  At least, not in the same way.  Our gods were “petty and cruel”, according to the lead-in of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.  They were really aliens, either little grey men or parasitical worm that enslaved worlds, as in Stargate.  Fast forward into the Aughts, and Supernatural, and Loki was really Gabriel and the Gods were all demons.  Or whatever, that show is trash.  While Wicca and Paganism were being rehabilitated (regardless of their accuracy), polytheism languished as a cheap television trope.  Something either blatantly wrong, or the hallmark of primitivism.  (We’ll see if American Gods changes that, but I’m hardly expecting it to).

And, it seemed, that these common themes were repeated in the wider Pagan community in attitudes and reception.  I ventured into the world of online Paganism shortly after I embraced it and what I found was reductionism and reactionary baggage and toxic “free spirited” counterculture.

The Gods are all facets of One God, the Goddesses are all facets of One Goddess.  There were no gods, but a universal divinity towards Nature.  Worship was what Christians did.  The Gods are myths and stories and do not exist.  Spells, spells, spells.  These thoughts, and others, were the common zeitgeist of the collective discussion Paganism.  Discussion was on spells and self-realization and either ego/self-centric or nature-centric practice.  If you believed in [Divinity] you were a Wiccan or a Druid, but always in a reductionist way.  Deity reduced to a Duality or Nature.  Or nothing at all.

If you believed in multiple and independent deities, well, you were wrong.  You were corrected.  The gods were all facets of one universal source, not independent entities.  The same people who said that belief didn’t matter, and that Paganism was focused on action, were the first to cast aspersions were you to go beyond the pale of indoctrinated theology and believe – truly believe – in multiple gods.  

And it’s funny because in my twenty years, that really hasn’t changed.

It’s more accepted now, but polytheism in a Western context is still looked at as aberrant.  It is still openly derided and mocked by those who would claim a part of the community, and expect respect and toleration for their blatantly intolerant views.  It’s been beaten into the Western mind that the Gods are fables, myths, stories, demons, or sheer delusions.  They’re tropes, archetypes, figments of personality, or mental projections.

The great writers of the past who earnestly believed in these beings, who took part in their cults, and who lived these lives, are looked at as relics with little religious value.  The words of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations are viewed as an example of “someone who really didn’t believe” in a polytheistic divinity (Secret: He did), and the modern Stoic Revival distances itself from the religious implications of his words.  In exchange, modern Pagan and Wiccan writers that look at the gods as metaphors are excused, accepted, and lauded.

Can we really argue against an anti-polytheist indoctrination within Contemporary Paganism, even if it is unintentional?  I’m not even sure that it truly can be that unintentional.

Contemporary Paganism is full of people with agendas, like any other human institution.  And it’s not a new feature.  Margot Adler had a very specific view of what she felt should be promoted in the Paganism she wrote about in Drawing Down the Moon.  She was not above reporting false information (Claimed Ray Buckland’s Seax-Wica/Saxon Witchcraft tradition was founded as a “joke” and refused to recant).  It is as full with petty drama as any other community, both in the online and in the offline spheres.  Witch wars were, and still are, a thing – often driven by ego.

And that’s not even getting into the politics.  Woo, boy.

Is the growth of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism an effort to enforce an orthodoxy, a correct belief in the multiplicity of the divine?  The sinister attempts of a cabal to enforce a rigidity designed to trample expression and belief?  Of a rising fundamentalism of religion?  There are many who would portray it that way and who believe it to be that way.

Or is it due to forces that have only really taken hold since the early 2000s?  The growth of online communities connecting people in far-flung areas, to discuss their ideas of worth, value, religion, and belief?  And the realization that there are many more than the dominant culture would otherwise have expected?  A burst of new interests, new changes, new developments, and a maturing community?

The pressure against polytheism within the Contemporary Pagan community bears the hallmarks of a majority population feeling threatened by a vocal minority who are agitating for representation within the demographic.  Accusations that any one space are overrun with the perspective and paradigm, false portrayals and misrepresentative accounts of the group in order to discredit the whole.  Accounts are diminished in ways that would rile people up if it was done to the indigenous folk religions of other peoples.

Since 2012-2013, we’ve largely seen some of that representation.  The Wild Hunt now refers to “the polytheism community” (itself a problematic term, but that’s another story).  Initiatives like Polytheist.Com were launched, although apparently now deceased.  Devotional and theological anthologies treating the deities with due reverence, honor, and respect are published frequently, taking advantage of more affordable small-scale publishing and print on demand services (although Neos Alexandria as an organization predates this by several years).  There were talks of the establishment of polytheistic Pagan conventions.  We first had the Polytheist Leadership Conference, from which spun out Many Gods West.  

(Still hoping on a Many Gods East, or comparable meetup.)

The theological beauty of polytheism is that it is inherently pluralistic.  It can coexist with a variety of other theological perspectives because it is a non-exclusivist position.  It makes only one universal claim: that the gods exist and those gods number more than two.  The iterations of them are up to the individual religion and context.

It clashes with the assertion of a transcendent deity.  It has problems when people tell us that there are no deities and that we are backwards people believing in a fiction.  It denies our agency and the claims of our legitimacy of practice, and represents an all-too-ethnocentric viewpoint.  The expectation that we are broken, or that we should meekly kowtow to the popular will of an overly reductionistic society, rankles.  The implication that we are only “new” since the turn of the millennium is simply incorrect.

The belief in immanent spirits and deities is an “anthropological universal”, and is one of those features that is widely regarded as consistent across all human cultures.  It has been since the beginning of humanity, and is thought to be represented in our closest hominid relatives.  Our belief is not “new”, even if our contemporary practice is.

If polytheism has one universal quality that it asserts, it is that the gods and spirits exist.  They simply are.  They don’t need to have their detractors believe in them.  Their worshipers need to not have people try to silence them.