Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A good life is the best defence

A friend of mine, well maybe that's too strong a word at this time, how about an associate of mine, a nice guy I knew in high school who ran in the same social group, is a Christian. Always has been, always will be. So, he is still grouped among "friends" on my Facebook, and often enough he would post typically Christian things: scriptural passages from the Bible, how a particular passage was reflected in his own experience that day, praise and thanks to his god, extolling how great his god is, and every now and then links to blogs or articles by like minded Christian bloggers. Which is how I happened upon a testimonial, a story, by a Preacher, called "Will God Protect My Children?"  ( I won't link to it, I have standards after all, but you can find it easily enough).

The tale is prefaced by briefly recounting a misspent youth of a somewhat debauched nature (or enough so that our stalwart preacher was wallowing, if not participating), with his then atheist comrade. Being a good Christian, his duty to convert his chum was ever present, but was relatively unsuccessful, and flash forward some years. The atheist friend is at a similar point in his life, but something is missing: family, friends, gainful employment and material security are not enough. No, there is a hole in this mans being, and our Preacher knows that it is Christ shaped. Everything is primed for the conversion, to score that big W for Jesus.

Next come the feeble, halfhearted attempts to explain away why this atheist friend dislikes Christianity: Christians are legalistic moralizers. Bang "Grace theology" slays that one. Next, Christians are naive and can't really hold up to intellectual scrutiny (just what sort of atheist is this guy, anyway?). Poof, drop some books which repeat the ontological argument. Finally, the man is ready to relent; the I need something deeper atheist has relented and he's coming down, ready to make Jesus his personal lord and savior. Suddenly and without warning, he is confronted with the grim reality of death. Not death, in and of itself, but loss, grief; our Preacher's sister had died unexpectedly. The tragedy reverberated through the family, touching everyone in the way that only grief can. The liminal Christian is now overcome with doubt with fear; for if the Christian god could take away the sister of such a devout family, what hope was there for his own children? The preacher then goes on to talk of three "typical" Christian responses, but himself makes the case that "His will be done" and you hope for the best. You become a Christian because it is true, not because you get stuff (like divine protection, prosperity or security). Which is a refreshing answer, if rehashed and simply fallen from favour. We never do find out if the liminal Christian took the plunge, though I would suspect he did.

So why do I care?

I care because, despite the message of "I don't know what [the Christian] god's will is", at the end of the day the take away message from this whole piece is still "don't doubt, trust Jesus". Despite the admission of not having all the answers, "Jesus is still THE answer". I accept that this story, and the figures in it are real enough, but they could just as easily sprung from the pen or keystrokes of a preacher. The necessary tropes, the framework for conversion narrative is all here, you can almost feel the thin, neon pink paper of the tract between your fingers. Let's do a quick run through of the conversion narrative flags our "atheist" has activated:

1. Previous life of (youthful) debauchery. Check
2. Seemingly happy life beset by absence. Check
3. Current worldview no longer enough. Check
4. Life altering event (like having children). Check
5. Faithful friend who is among the faithful. Check
6. Religion [our convert it converting too] so much more than he thought it was. Check
7. Conversion. Check

The most significant difference from your typical conversion narrative is that it is not the conversion, in and of itself, which changed the man's life. No, his life from appearance seemed to be pretty good. He was happily married, with children, stable employment and martial security; true our "atheist" is presented as having had a youth of excess, but that seems to be just that, in his past. His life is not in danger and he is not suffering through any sort of physical or financial crisis. No his crisis is existential, one of seeking for some way out of his ennui; seeking the profound with no idea where to begin on his own, but he has this one Christian friend who is also a preacher...

Proselytization, the promotion of ones religion with the goal of winning converts, is and remains an act of disrespect, hostility and depredation. Even a cursory examination of conversion narratives, like the one I outline above, would support this assertion. It is an act of well intentioned arrogance which seeks to find and exploit weakness. Whether it is a weakness of physicality (i.e. substance abuse or addiction), a weakness of character (i.e. criminality) and even a weakness of mind (i.e. existential questioning), it does not change the fact that it is exploitative and opportunistic. As the Preacher stated in his blog:
"He’s thinking about bigger, more profound things. I’m teaching about bigger, more profound things."
Which is not to say that seeking out meaning, asking those questions of profundity, are necessarily bad or necessarily make you vulnerable to people hocking (easy) answers; only that they can leave you vulnerable. If something is missing and you have been culturally conditioned to recognize the spiritual or philosophical authority of a given group of people, and they are also "friends" with you, and they have been making subtle suggestions about what questions to ask, and where to find answers, well if you happen to find yourself being swayed by such arguments, it isn't exactly shocking. Coupled with that the fear, the gnawing fear about the future and what may be, and then won't somebody please think of the children!
Truly, parenthood has produced far more cowards than war ever could.
I do not wish to speak down to, nor minimize the very real anxiety that parents necessarily feel about their children. I hope to be a parent myself one of these days, and expect much fear and anxiety to come. Except that I hope, I believe, that my courage will be sufficient to allay my fears. That my sincerity in my ethics will outweigh my hypocrisy, that I will not abandon everything I believe in because they will be "MY KIDS!!!".

I do wish, however, to bring this discussion full circle and at long last bring in the title of this post. We can observe that the "atheist" (an this seems as good a time as any, but I sincerely doubt just how much of an atheist this fellow could have been, if his mind was so easily swayed by reading a couple of apologetic monographs coupled with gentle pastoral cajoling) appears to have a nice enough life, all things considered. Yet, it is always worth the time to remind ourselves that enjoyment of life is not the same thing as "the good life", because clearly this man believed his life, his worldview was insufficient. There was something missing, and in this case it was profundity and meaning; a spiritual and philosophical void that needed to be filled, and how lucky to have a "friend" who could help him with that.

I propose then, that in the case of missionizing and proselytizing, the single best defense is to already have a good life. Yeah, you will say, and the best defense against poverty is to already be wealthy, and against sickness to be healthy. Thank you Capt. Obvious! You would be right to point out such obvious truisms, but hear me out. What I mean in this idea, is that proselytizers prey upon the perception of weakness, of deficiency. Seeking out any and all means of penetrating their target's defenses and attacking their self. They need to find that hole in your "being", and then they need to convince you to fill it with Jesus.

Proselytizing is the only real tool that such folks have at their disposal in this day and age to gain converts, and they have a formula and the means to carry out their missionizing efforts. The keystone to the whole scheme, however, is that there needs to be a "chink in the armour" which they can exploit. Without it, well they have nothing. How are you going to sell someone on the necessity of Christ who already has a fully developed worldview that does not involve him? How can a weakness be exploited if there isn't one? Enter fear, malaise and doubt.

I've linked above to a much older post of mine where I examine some examples of "Ex-Pagan" conversion narratives and the one thread which links them all together is that in the mind of the converted, their current worldview was lacking in some respect. It failed to deliver, was revealed to be empty or could not offer what the ex-member expected it to. The fault was not in the ex-member, of course, but in the religion (gods, ritual, lack of community, etc.). It could not fill the Jesus shaped hole because... well because what they were trying to fill it with was not Jesus shaped. This is where the juggernaut of cultural force comes into play, and here in North America, Christianity remains the default setting for "religion". Most of the folks who are "ex-Pagans" had previously been Christians or had some manner of Christian up bringing, and so their expectation of how other religions, other gods ought to work, was skewed from the beginning.If the filters and biases of the previous worldview are not replaced by something else, by an internal adoption of the new world view, then the malaise and creeping pessimism will fester until they crawl, walk or run back into the arms of where they used to be.

Superficiality, it turns out, is what the key exploit is in cases of "ex-Pagan" conversion narratives. Even among those who have been immersed in, promoted by, and made a name for themselves as "BNP's", none of this will produce immunity from something which, by its very nature, is insidious. If you have a Jesus shaped hole in your being, ain't nothing other than Jesus gonna fill it. No matter how sure you are in your outward convictions, no matter how often you lie to yourself and state otherwise, if you fail to internalize a non-Christian world view, you will fail at being a non-Christian. I'm not saying that it is an easy thing to do, only that it is necessary.

It is necessary because for those who have no part of the Christian perspective on divinity, afterlife and ethics, no matter how compelling the argument for, there is nothing a proselytizer can offer (except, perhaps, a personal relationship with Jesus). What I am getting at is that if there is no weakness in your worldview to exploit, the arguments and tactics will fail because they are not enough on their own; the proselytizer needs that "in". If you have a meaningful relationship with the gods, if you live a life of honour and morality, if you are aware of your faults and have a means to address and improve upon them, then what could the proselytizer "sell" you that you do not already have? You will be offered theological arguments that are designed to appeal to the default setting, but so what? You reject the most basic of assumptions that will be offered (monotheism, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, ethics, etc), so there is no intellectual, spiritual or emotional argument to compel you when your perspective is held to be sufficient.

Which is not to say, then, that polytheists are necessarily without flaws or weaknesses. The gods know I have many, and I am certain that you all may as well. This isn't about some self aggrandized, self perfection that only we special snowflakes can obtain. This is about having an intrinsic perspective which informs our thoughts and beliefs, and allows us to understand why we believe what we do, and further, how this can then relate to other peoples perspectives. It may be easier for me than it has (or will be) for others because I've never had that Jesus shaped hole. I was never a Christian, nor were my parents, or immediate family (until well after I had begun forming my own opinions about things), and so those creeping doubts and longings never occurred, and in this respect I am lucky.

What we need then is to instill in ourselves, in our communities, a sense that our worldview is worthy of existing, of being maintained and then passed onto our descendents. But saying it, shouting it at the top of our lungs will amount to nothing, if we do not believe it and if we do not act upon it. We need to instill that our gods have a place in our lives, that our ancestors are worthy of reverence and our interactions with the spirits of place are necessary. That such views inform and instruct our actions, that our lives are lived and lived well. For when it comes to standing firm against proselytizers, those who would knowingly exploit the vulnerable, a good life is the best defense.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Only a fool...

Not so long ago I wrote about morality, the gods and their behaviours in the lore. I concluded my examination and analysis of the mythic texts with a rather forceful entreaty that the gods had earned my trust and I had no reason to doubt their fidelity. I like to think myself as someone who is not a fool and so I also provided a caveat. This proviso was that my unequivocal statement was based upon my reading of the lore and personal devotion relating to the gods of Irish myth and culture alone. I stand by that statement, but so too do I stand by my caveat, because when it comes right down to it:

Only a fool would trust Odin
For his plans may be for the best
But what is best may not be for you
If you value a long life
Grímnir is best avoided
Honour and glory are his reward
But they are bought at a heavy price
I say this with the utmost respect and gravity, and my intention here is not to impugn the gods, to cast aspersions upon Their persons or to belittle those who are devoted to them. Rather, it is simply through a desire to understand Their natures and tendencies that theology and herumenics can be developed in a polytheistic context.

Not all gods have YOUR best interest at heart
It is made mention in the short stanza above, but it calls for a nuanced comprehension. Providing that the gods we are talking about are limited to those with which human endeavor coincide (i.e. gods that represent war, justice, agriculture, art, magic, love, law, government, sovereignty, child birth, the dead, etc.), because those with functions or associations outside the realm of human endeavor will more often than not ignore humans (and those gods who are malicious are best entreated with or avoided). Therefore I limit my scope to those whose business relates to our own, and it is in this context that a more nuanced appreciation is needed. For while the gods may seek to aid in our actions where our functions or desires overlap, this does not mean that they always will, or that our need outweighs Theirs.
If you want to be a warrior, par excellence; seeking battle, bloodshed and above all victory, then few gods will be as well suited to your endeavors as would Odin. Odin is a god of many names (over 200) and a considerable number of those epithets relate directly to his function as a god of war and battle. Yet there was always a purpose to war, a reason that he would incite hatred in the hearts of men and urge them to battle:

From "Auda's Art Blog"
More often than not, being one of “Odin’s Chosen” was as much a blessing as a curse; a life of fame and glory bought with blood and untimely death. This motif of glory and honour in exchange for a short life is one of the more common threads among the heroic literature of several Indo-European cultures and can be seen also in Irish and Greek sources. The All-Fathers motivation, however, is considerably different than those heroes desire for honour, he needs an army.

While the exact nature of where and how the concept of Ragnarök came into being, if its conception was wholly pre-Christian or mingled with Christian eschatology is debatable, what is not is that the mythic lore has been framed with this most awesome of inevitabilities. As such, it could certainly be argued that Odin’s entire motivation for causing war and strife is to collect the valorous dead and mold them into a fighting force to stand with him on the last day. In this light, Valhalla is best understood as a temporary reprieve and not as a final, paradisiacal “heaven”. Only death and slaughter await those whom Odin chooses, but by their valour and sacrifice is a future made possible. Often enough Odin would cause weapons to fail, provide disastrous military advice or other such nefarious ploys in order to ensure those he needed died in combat.
So while I believe the All Father is worthy or respect and devotion (even if I do not worship him personally), it behooves us to recognize that beings with a “long view” perspective of things will inevitably have their own agendas and purposes. So too is it worth realizing that even when our desires or needs overlap with Theirs, that we may be supported by those same gods in our efforts, our ends may be the price we pay for that support.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Our" Lady of Sorrows

                This was not the first time she had witnessed this, nor would it be her last; yet something moved within her, profoundly. True, so much time had passed between where she was now, and where she had been, that the pain had become a dull ache, but still she remembered. There had been so much blood that she had at first believed that it could not all have belonged to him, but as the grim reality of the situation donned on her, as she held her son’s pale, still cooling hand, she broke.
 She screamed.
                Everything had stopped and what was going on around her no longer mattered. She did not care that her husband was standing by her side, that her in-laws were but a few feet away or that her friends had gathered around her. There was only the pain, there was only her voice. Her cry split the very air through which it moved; a resonant wail that echoed into the valley floor, spread across the lake and into the sky above. The sound was suffocating, her moan became a roar.
            She screamed.
Her body began to revolt against her, her eyes streamed as though her being had been up to this point, nothing but tears. Her throat burned, as if her lungs had become great furnaces and each piercing wail that escape her lips was a dagger, carving away as they passed. Her legs had long ago given out, and she felt as if she were rooted to the earth upon which her crumpled body had fallen in despair. Her fists had clenched to tightly that her nails had dug deep, torn through the worn flesh and her hands streamed nearly as much as her eyes.
                      She screamed.

                Men, women and children fell dead at the sound, cattle miscarried and many of the horses bolted from their camp in sheer terror at this otherworldy wailing, tumbling into the lake, mad with fear. The skies began to grow dark, the earth seemed to be slowly undulating under foot and the lake seemed to be growing more turbulent, frothing and bubbling in unison with this stricken mother. Those around her, who had been struck dumb by her cry, took notice and realized that if something was not done they would all perish.

                                        She screamed.

                He would never again speak to her, never again laugh or cry, never again be held in her embrace. Her tall, handsome and strong son had been laid low, felled in the prime of his youth; stolen from her. Stolen from her by whom she knew not. Stolen from her for no reason she could then understand. Stolen so recently that she could still hear his laughter echoing in her ears. Now, her once proud son, her most precious possession, was gone.
                                                   She screamed.

                They looked around at one another, still paralyzed by the sheer force of her wail. The sky had gone from a deep black to a burning red. The sun appeared a sickly, misshapen disc and its warmth now seemed a mere memory. Her tears and her blood had begun to mingle with the rising waters of the lake, which was steadily approaching in small waves. They realized that if something were not done, if this uncanny shrieking was not stopped, they would all of them be no better off than her poor son. The fear of their impending doom spurred a fire in all of them, and the fetters which had frozen them in place shattered.
                                                                    She screamed.

                The pain was there, and her head was swimming from her strain, but it was staring to fade. Her voice began to crack, her lungs that had burned like a need fire was now burning out. Her body ached and her bosom heaved, the pain was being dowsed with the loss of sensation; numbness began to creep along her limbs. But she would not be stymied, and as her own guilt for failing to protect him welled within her chest, the pain redoubled and the flames roared back to life.
                                                                                 She screamed.

                They sprang upon her, shook her, struck her, cried out to her, only to be drowned out by her lamentations. Nothing they did was of any avail; no shouts could quiet her, no arms could hold her, not twenty of their strongest could move her. Her grief was weighing her down, as if she shared the same roots as the mountains. Realizing that no force could stop her, that no reason would reach her, they broke and fled for their lives.
                                                                                               She screamed.

Alone she was left, with no company but her poor, dead son, his head resting on her lap. The streams that had issued forth from her eyes had washed away the ichor that had caked his clothing, discoloured his gleaming hands and obscured his shining face. His wound, that had streamed with the same fury as his mothers tears, was so small it was hard to believe that it such a thing had killed her hale, boastful, splendid son. But he was still, he was quiet as no boy should be, and with her son in her arms, she finally relented.
                                                                                                                    She screamed.

Then all went dark, all sensation ceased and all that came after was quiet and silence. Her body was spent, her very soul a hairs breadth away from joining with that of her son, she collapsed. She dreamed of him then; of her bright, happy, joyous boy. She watched him leaping through the air as he dashed through the fields, climbing over hill and rock, and diving into the deepest of pools, a bundle of lightning in boys’ clothes. Then he stopped, he aged suddenly into a fine, handsome young man and he turned to look at her; he said something her ears did not hear and with a final wave of his hand, stepped through a sudden mist, and was gone.

After that, she remembered very little until long after he had been laid to rest. The pain she felt on that first, terrible day had eventually subsided. The pain became numbness, numbness became sadness, sadness became a deep grief, grief that gripped her heart as she had gripped the earth. Yet, little by little, the grip loosened on her heart. Light slowly flittered its way back into her life and while she would not, could not ever truly be whole again, she discovered that joy had stealthily creeped back into her life.

This was all so long ago, ages it seemed now. Much had happened before, and much had happened still after. Yet her she was again, surrounded by those with whom she shared a terrible kinship, for they like her, had also known the pain of death and loss. Yet, in the end, this made her stronger; strong enough even that she could now be a source of strength for those who needed her. For those to whom it seems as if time has stopped and life itself had come to an end, who ask how this could have happened and how do I go on?

For all of us who mourn, for all of us who grieve, for all who question why; she is there. She offers no easy answers, no platitudes, no quick fix. She cannot turn back the capricious nature of fortune, nor take away the pain of loss; she had no power over those claimed by death. Yet tall she stands, strong she remains, and a balm for the soul is her gift. She, above all others, understands the sorrow, knows full well the feeling and remembers the hurt.

In her compassion, may we find consolation.
In her wisdom, may we find meaning.
In her courage, may we find our own.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Theodicy (or coming to terms with the existence of tragedy)

(I had originally started to write this a few weeks ago, but lost my focus. A personal loss has brought this topic screaming back, so if you come across bracketed, bolded text that is more recent.)

Of all the "big questions" which religion is supposed to be able to answer (or at least provide some guidance) second only to "Why am I here?" is "Why do bad things happen to good people?". This is the single question which, perhaps more than any other, allows us to discover the very boundaries of our beliefs, the limit of our faith and the depth with which we trust.

Who do we lose, that it becomes unbearable?
What depth of grief can one person be expected to experience? 
How much tragedy can befall someone before their once unshakable trust in the gods entropy's into nihilism?

Today, this morning to be precise, as I listened to the usual channel on my AM dial as I drove my wife to work, it seemed that the top stories were categorically grim:

A man estranged from his wife, murdering her and another adult, four children and an attempted fifth.

Another man who had in past days, murdered his two small children and then killed himself, finalized by setting the car they had occupied alight.

A reminder that a small child had been neglected to death, by his own grandparents.

As I said, categorically grim.

I though of a friend who had experienced great loss, suddenly, without warning; at a time of unbridled joy and hope for a future that will never be.

(I think of my friend, his life cut tragically short, the grief of his family and my friend who was much closer that I was.)

I thought of all those who walk through the doors of my place of business, all being touched by death and loss and the grief that clings to your very being.
And then I thought of the gods.

As I said before, the question of tragedy and ill fortune, of hardship and suffering is an old one. There are many answers, and some shed a little more light than others.
Cultural/Religious Examples
Job, the paragon, the avatar of the good man wronged by a god, his god. Never having done wrong, never having said a word against his fate, is answered by even greater suffering and loss. When he finally comes face to face (or a tornado) with his god, and asks him why he has allowed such suffering to befall him, he is strong armed into silence and supplication.
The lord works in mysterious ways

Heracles, being the ultimate antitheses of everything Hera represents, is cursed and sent into a mad rage. In his maddened fury he murders his son and daughter (in some versions, so too his wife). He is eventually cured of his madness, but realizing what he has done, flees. As penitence for his crime, he is forced to serve the king Eurystheus (often described as an archrival of Heracles) and performs his Twelve Labours.
Mortals are but the playthings of the gods

Baldur is beloved of all the Aesir, and through the efforts of his mother, Frigga, he is nigh invincible. The gods make great sport of attempting to harm him, but baleful Loki discovers the one way to lay low the shining god of youth. Malice in his heart, he tricks poor, blind Hod into participating in the sport, and armed with a dart crafted from mistletoe, Baldur is felled.
Malice and hatred are bedfellows of tragedy and grief

Kisa Gotami had lost her only son, and grief stricken, begged anyone who would listen for a way to restore her son back to life. Finally she was instructed to speak with the Buddha; and he told her that if she could find mustard seeds from household who had never tasted death, he could revive her son. Filled with hope, she returned to her village and asked at every house, yet soon discovered that all had experiences of death. Despondent she returned to the Buddha, and informed him she had failed.
Suffering and death are inseparable from this (impermanent) life

For death has entered the world through the fault of one man, the first man, Adam. For sin is part of human nature, and the wages of sin is death. Yet the strength of sin is the law, and since all fall short of the glory of the Lord, all men are doomed to die. Yet, for the believer, death is not the end; for the corruptible must put on incorruption and the mortal must put on immortality. The price for sin was paid by one man, the perfect man, Jesus.
This world was corrupted by sin, and from sin flows tragedy, suffering and death

These are well and good, and they may be powerful, even thought provoking ideas and sentiments, but they are necessarily rooted in their own theology and mythology. Their responses, their attitudes and answers all stem from their worldview. So where do we turn?

In this case, as ingrained in western culture as the endurance of Job is, as terrible the murder of Baldur, as transcendent the wisdom of the Buddha or Christ, and as Herculean the struggles of Heracles, the Gaels have 'em beat hands down.

You will be hard pressed to find a collection of myth and legend as infused with tragedy as the corpus of Gaelic lore. Tragic lives and tragic deaths, love triangles, kin slaying  and murderous vengeance, it has it all.
Gaelic Examples
Chief among such tales of woe, are the "Three Sorrows of Storytelling": The exile of the sons of Uisliu, the Fate of the Children of Lir and The Fate of the Sons of Tuireann.
The later comes first chronologically, and while I did mention it not too long ago, a brief summary. Lugh's father, Cian, is murdered by the three sons of Tuireann, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, due to strife between their families. Lugh discovers their crime, and acting as King, demands they undertake a perilous journey to obtain magical artefacts to aid in the war against the Fomorians. The brothers succeed, but through Lugh's thirst for revenge, does not to save them from their mortal wounds, and they die. Their father Tuireann then dies of a broken heart.
The "Fate of the Children of Lir" looks at how the goddess Aoife, tried to kill her step children because of the love that was showered upon them by her husband, Lir. At first she tried to have a servant kill them, but he balked. She then attempted to kill them herself, but lost her courage and instead cursed them into the forms of swans for a period of no less than 900 years.
"The Exile of the sons of Uisliu", follows the tragic heroine Dierdre, her lover Naoise and his two brothers as they evade the wrath of king Conchobar, by settling in Scotland. Difficulty and circumstance drive them back to Ireland, and Conchobar tricks them into returning to Ulster, where they are betrayed to their deaths. Dierdre survives the assault, and is to be given to the man who slew Naoise, but enroute leaps from a chariot and dashes her head against a rock.
Yet these tales are not in the least all the tragedy there is to tell, what follows is a brief list of other tragic circumstances in larger narratives, but not necessarily self contained stories:
  • Rúadán mac Bres, son of Brigid, is killed while spying upon the gods during the events of CMT2, and upon this discovery Brigid wails out the first caoine to be heard in Ireland. 
  • Cúchulain fights and kills his own son, for the honour of the Ulstermen.
  • Cúchulain is forced to fight and kill his best friend (and arguably lover) Ferdia in single combat, due to the machinations of Medb during the Táin Bó Cúlaigne.
  • Emer dies of a broken heart while she is in the process of burying
  • Diarmuid is gored by a boar fated to kill him, and because of a past transgression, Fionn lets him die.
  • Oisín lives in the otheroworld for ages with his wife Niamh, but grows homesick and takes a magical steed back to the mortal realm. He is warned never to dismount, but forgets himself and upon touching down upon the earth, he is instantly aged to blind decrepitude, never to return to Niamh again.
  • Oisín then wanders the countryside, until he is found by St. Patrick, where he is abused until he either dies unrepentant or is baptised.
  • Caílte, in a parallel/alternate narrative to Oisín, is the last of the Fianna, and spends his final days recounting the glorious time of his youth while mourning all that has been lost 
  • Characters in many narrative will die literally die because of the sadness of the situation and the resulting "breaking of their heart".
This is barely even scratching the surface, but it provides at lest some specific instances of tales within the wider lore to contemplate and explore the subjects of grief, tragedy and loss.
So, what are we to do? What does the lore have to say about the problem of theodicy, and why do we suffer as often as we rejoice?
Sources of Suffering
Simply put, there is no single answer as to the "why" of suffering, at least from a GRP perspective. It is not the theological dilemma that afflicts monotheistic religions; after all polytheism in general does not ascribe the classical "omni's" to its deities. We are not trapped by the need to reconcile the existence of suffering with the existence of the gods, because the gods are not all powerful, ever present, all knowing or all loving. We can accept that suffering happens for a number of reasons:
  • The capriciousness of circumstance
  • The wanton cruelty or carelessness of people 
  • The agency of a malefic spirit or deity
  • The passage of time
Circumstance, random chance and ill fortune can account for the champions portion of suffering which we are forced to deal with at any given time. For those of us fortunate enough to live in countries which have stable governments, the fear of war and famine is tertiary. Natural disasters, medical emergencies or illness tend to be the more common forms of suffering we are exposed to, as much as these account for destruction and death.
Wanton cruelty/ Carelessness of those we interact with and are beholden to would be the second most common source of suffering. Whether it be those who wish to do us harm through acts of violence, abuse, economic exploitation, etc. or those who through their callousness or ignorance do so too, much of our suffering can occur at the hands of another.
If we accept that the na trí naomh do have agency, and this agency has some impact upon our lives, then we must also accept that those deities or spirits whose purview is at odds with our own, can have the same impact. I believe that these kinds of occurrences are exceedingly rare, and that other perspectives place far too much emphasis on the power and influence of malefic entities. Yet to discount them all together is to deny a very real aspect of the numinous which is reasonably attested to within folklore and tradition.
Finally, the passage of time, the progression from youth to old age, while related and influenced by the three sources listed above, has elements of its own which merit acknowledgement. As one grows older, the likelihood of those we know dying around us becomes more and more common. Survivor's bare the burden of those who came before them, and those who have been lost along the way; keepers of collective/familial memories become saddled by those experiences and can almost literally be haunted by ghosts from the past.
Responses to Suffering

The courage to go on
Sorrow, unabashed and fully embraced grief, are as natural a response to loss as any other human emotion. Grief needs to be understood on a number of levels, but one thing which many people outside the grief counselling (or related) field, ought to know is that grief is, among other things, a physical reaction to loss. The lump in the back of your throat, the loss of appetite, the headache, shortness of breath, inability to stand and of course crying, are all physical responses we can experience when we are confronted with the reality of loss.

There is no shame in this, it is not weakness, it is not "too much". It is as much a part of life, as dying is, and for too long has it been seen as being weak, emotional and "over the top". Yet ritualized expressions of grief were a regular component of wakes; the practice of keening has gone out of "fashion", but how much this had to do with conceptions of propriety in an anglicised world, and how much it had to do with no longer having any value, is debatable.

So what grief represents is the coming to terms with your situation, and accepting it for what it is. Recognize the loss, accept the loss and understand that things will necessarily be different from this time on. It is only when the reality of the situation is ignored, when emotions are not processed, but rather suppressed, that complications related to grief arise.

I think the idea of literally dying of a broken heart or sorrow is a romantic literary device. The purpose of which is either to show the extent of grief over the death or in the case of musicians playing powerfully sorrowful music, their skill. This does not mean that we ought to do the same, rather it can symbolize that not dealing with your feelings of loss can inexorably alter your life in very negative ways.

A component of accepting the reality of the loss, and finding the strength to go is, is a call to courage in the face of adversity. Life can be horrid, painful and full of sorrow, but this should not prevent us from trying to live as best as we are able to. Our lived will be tinged by sorrow and joy, and not always in equal measure. It may never, truly "get better", but still we are called to stand tall and carry on. 
The gods are not perfect
This is one of those "gotcha" points that many a monotheist likes to harp on about, that they sensibly worship a god which is superlative in all of his capacities. Yet their god, the god of classical monotheism [henceforth GOCM], and these characteristics are the basis of the perennial problem of theodicy. The four characteristics which are touted are the "four o's": omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence.  Yet, with the undeniable existence of suffering, all four characteristics can not be inherent in the same being. The rubric generally follows:
  • If GOCM does not have the power to stop suffering, then omnipotence is lacking
  • If GOCM does not know that suffering is occurring, than omniscience is lacking
  • If GOCM is not present to stop suffering, than omnipresence is lacking
  • If GOCM can prevent suffering, but chooses not to, than omnibenevolence is lacking
Many use this as a logical "proof" that GOCM does not exist, I simply think it shows that a tribal war god who has through centuries of hegemonic monotheist theology and philosophy been ascribed characteristics not inherent in the experience of his worshippers. A lofty ideal which falls apart in the face of reality.
Being a polytheist, I can accept that the gods are not perfect, all powerful beings. That there is none the less great mystery of their being, of the extent of their power, the breadth of their knowledge, their localised character and the limits of their compassion. Our morality may be sourced to the gods, but we are not gods and gods are not us. We euhemerise them in the stories we tell each other about them (or have this done for us by scribes), but we should not mistake these stories as a literal history of the gods.
The myths we have, the lore we pour over and study, are the single best resource we have for trying to understand and relate to the gods, to attempt to know them, but the gods are beyond the literary characters we read about. I can read about the final great battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorii, I can have it retold to me how Rúadán is killed by his Great Uncle Goibnu, and how his mother Brigid let out the first keening ever to be heard. I can read this and puzzle at the idea of gods being killed, but that isn't what the story is really about, intriguing a theological mystery as that may be. No, what the story tells us is that the gods themselves can experience loss and grief, and that we are made that much closer to them by this. That Brigid knows the sting of grief, that a goddess of her stature is overwhelmed by emotion, is a great comfort to those of us asking why, of trying to make sense of it all. I know too, that Brigid in her grief is also full of compassion and understanding, and that she has the power to mend broken hearts and balm shattered spirits.

Both of these ideas, that we have within all of us the courage and the strength to flourish despite the losses and tragedy we must all face and that while the gods are alien and separate from us by their very nature, they understand and relate to our experiences of loss, are how I square the existence of tragedy in my life with my worship and trust of the gods.



Sunday, July 6, 2014

Living in a world without sin

Continuing with my current tend of exploring values in GRP in a rather roundabout way, we find ourselves having to deal with the concept of sin. Or rather, the lack of sin present in the GRP worldview. This does not mean that actions have no consequences, or that we are not capable of offending the na trí náomh, only that the repercussions of such actions tend to be immediate and not tallied in some invisible counter to be used against us when we die. In fact, there is no moral component which determines our fate once we die; virtuous or detestable, we all journey to the House of Donn. More on this later, however, let us examine precisely what constitutes sin, its consequences and the overall impact the concept has had upon the discussion of religion as well as the wider culture in the west.

A sin, according to Abrahamic tradition, is any action (or thought in some traditions) which intentionally violates a rule or law as established by the Abrahamic god (according to such mythologies). In accounts of Temple era Judaism, sins were atoned for by offering an animal sacrifice in the temple, in penance and reconciliation for wrong doing. In later Rabbinical tradition, this atonement and reconciliation for sins would be accomplished through confession (ashamnu) and the avoidance of such sinful actions in the future.

In Christian tradition, Sin and how to atone for them depend greatly on the delineation one belongs to. One of the central rites in Catholic doctrine is the rite of contrition/confession, whereby a parishioner is absolved of sin through the acts of confessing to their wrong doing, acknowledging that they have deliberately perpetrated these actions or thoughts, will make some penance for those thoughts/actions and will strive to avoid such thoughts/acts in the future. This is all accomplished via the priest, who is singly ably to absolve their members of sins through apostolic succession. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the means and way is almost identical to that of Catholics, albeit they tend to be a bit more fluid on who is able to hear and absolve their members of sins (including monks and lay people, etc.); albeit only an ordained Priest may provide absolution for sins.  I will single out Anglicanism, as it is one of the few Protestant denominations which maintains the tradition of a confessional rite, similar to Catholic confession but more general. Finally, the vast majority of Protestant denominations/ churches do not hold that any sort of intermediary is necessary for the absolution of sins, and this is done through the initial act of contrition (as is common among Pentecostal churches, the process of accepting Christ as their personal saviours) or is incorporated into regular worship services (corporate confession). Many Protestants will also include a confession of their daily sins in the evening prayers.
In Islam, sin is again seen as any act or thought which violates the law as established by their god, and seeking forgiveness for sin is known as istighfar, and is one of the integral components of worship for Muslims. A spirit of admission and contrition is necessary in order for the sin to be forgiven, and if the sin is against another person it often requires their forgiveness as well.

In terms of necessity, the existence of sin in the case of Christianity is the core problem of ones existence, and it is only through the sacrifice of Christ (or through the power given to his representatives through apostolic succession/ tradition) that Christians can establish a spiritual position to reconcile themselves with their god. Yet, in general, the act of contrition and repentance alone are clearly not enough on their own, and theologically make the person of Christ the central figure in their world view. This is of course one of the many intrinsic differences between Christianity and Judaism and Islam. Sin, humanities natural state as being sinful, originated with the progenitor of the human race, Adam. So while the concept that Adam's transgression caused sin to become part of human nature, referred to as original sin in Christian tradition, is a component of the Abrahamic understanding and development of the term, the emphasis given to the single act differs amongst the religions considerably. Having said that, we can certainly appreciate the significance of precedent and its symbolic power, albeit appreciation is not the same as recognition.

For us, there is no concept of original sin, there is nothing which intrinsically keeps us separated from the gods. Of course the reason we seek out and worship them  is very, very different from the Abrahamic approach to the divine. Yet, this is not our cosmology, nor our theology at work. We are not a fallen people and our natural state is not one of depravity. We are meant to live in the here and in the now; our lives are spent not seeking some future eternal reward, but rather for a rewarding life in the present. We accept ourselves and our humanity and seek to do right by the Na Tri Naomh, not because we fear some eternal punishment, nor hope for some eternal reward. We choose to do so because it is simply the richest, most beneficial mode of living for us. Now, a caveat is also required, because Judaism's approach to the why of living is quite similar to our own; while there are beliefs about the afterlife, the focus is on living in this world.
Sacrifice is offered not as propitiation or extirpation, as payment for some cosmic crime or slight against the gods; sacrifice is offered as an acknowledged price for the maintenance of the world; quite literally. Or rather, there are very good reasons to understand the act of human (and animal) sacrifices as a means of providing to the gods the raw materials with which to stave off the entropic nature of the cosmos. Bruce Lincoln has made the case that when exploring the nature of sacrificial offerings, and in particular that of livestock or rare cases of human beings, IE cultures did so as a reversal of the divine process of giving shape and form to life:
primordial sacrifice => cosmogony => anthropogny => sacrifice => etc..

Which is not to say that the idea of punishment for crimes against the community lacked any sort of religious connotations. While there is little insular literary evidence of it, if we turn to the continent and explore some of the sources pertaining to the mannerism of the Druids and the communities they served we can make some observations. According to Cesar (not the most reliable of witnesses) one of the most feared punitive measures a Druid could inflict upon a criminal, was the prohibition of their participation in the communal acts of sacrifice. So while the crimes or transgressions are not seen as religious in and of themselves, the consequence of being unable to participate in the communal rites an sacrifices was seen as a very serious penalty. What is important to recognize, however, is that the decision was not oracular, was not some divine missive, but rather a decision rendered and enforced by the Druids themselves; a temporal penalty for a temporal crime.

Now, with this in mind and upon closer examination of many of the contemporary continental accounts from Greek and Roman sources, they certainly believed that the Celts they encountered did in fact offer up sacrifices (animal and especially human) in propitiation of the gods. As payment for victory in some coming battle or for the victory they had already received, they would offer up human sacrifices (usually prisoners of war).
What it all comes down to is the cosmological and theological framework ones point of view is informed by. The Abrahamic's understanding is that humans are a fallen species; either through their mythic progenitor, their own failings, or a combination of the two; their natural state of being is sinful. They also understand their god as being perfect and the origin of the law codes that inform their understanding of morality. Their failings necessarily make them separate from their god, and so acts of repentance and contrition are mandatory to close this distance called sin.
This life chose me; I'm not lost in sin.
This is not to say that we are "perfect", that we have no room for improvement or betterment. We struggle, we hurt, we fail, we die; yet all of these things are part of the deal. We are not perfect, because life is not perfect, and I rather think that setting up an impossible ideal as attainable (if only through divine intervention) is just that; impossible. You can feel bad about your shortcomings, but you can choose to wallow in them or overcome them. While the term (and philosophy behind it) are purely Greek, eudamonia ("the good life") is something which is attainable, and further does not require any impossible ideals of perfection to achieve. Rather, it requires dedication, effort and the realization that it is something which is a reward in and of itself. As virtue ethics is something which is reflected in the medieval literature and is a component of GRP, utilizing the most robust VE system in western philosophy as a means of informing our own approach to ethics is (in my mind) a reasonable adaptation of a pre-existing model.

The middle way is where virtue lives, and it is through living virtuously that we are able to flourish. We relate to and with the gods through mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships. Make no mistake, we can offend the gods, we can offend our ancestors and we most certainly can offend the spirits of place. There are countless examples from folklore especially, so most of the "feedback" relates to prohibitions against certain actions or the use of particular items when coming into contact with spirits of place.
The destruction of a hazel was often avoided as much as possible, the avoidance of fairy mounds during construction projects was common in the 19th century, and the prohibition against the use of cold iron in any capacity when dealing with the fair folk are all examples of the fear with which folk practices reinforce the simplicity by which we could offend. Violations of the laws of hospitality, of bringing dishonour to ones self (and by proxy their family and group), disrespecting or desecrating the graves of the dead are likewise examples of the means by which we may offend our ancestors. The means by which we may offend the gods is a bit trickier, violating the rules of hospitality would be among those which are more obvious, as would be the violation of geasa. Yet none of these acts carry with them the same sort of punitive cost found among those religions which contain dogma relating to sin. Certainly the violation of ones geasa will result in ruination and more often than not death, yet this is once more a temporal (if rather fatal) end. No where do we find evidence of further punishment of payment owed beyond the loss of ones own life or honour; no punishment awaits those who violate their sworn oaths, their geasa or give other offence to the gods once their life ends.
Whether one has lived a fully flourishing life of virtue, or a craven, cowardly life of vice, their ultimate abode is the same. All of us will travel to the live under the care of the Lord of dusk, in his hallowed halls. This is because our behaviour in this life only matters in this life, because for all we know, this is all we get. I believe quite strongly that I will sit with my lord when my time on the mortal coil ends, but I am not certain. I'm repeating myself, but it bears repeating: Never forget that we seek to do right by the na trí naomh, that we uphold dírgas, not because we hope to gain admittance to a paradisiacal hereafter, nor for fear and avoidance of eternal penitence and pain, but because by doing so we are allowed to flourish and be excellent. Our live are meant to be lived as best we can, in the here and now, for the sake of living good lives. We have been given the gift of life, the beauty and the horror, that we may stake out a piece of time and space and say, "We were here, we lived, and this is what we were able to do". If we fear for the future, once we are no longer here to contribute to it, than all we have to fear is leaving behind a legacy of ignominy.
Live freely, fully and fight to win a place for those who come after us, while we honour those who came before us. We are not a degraded, fallen and callow species vainly begging our gods for their forgiveness for not living up to their unobtainable standards. Our gods ask much of us, but never more than we can bear. We are not a repentant lot, asking and receiving the blessings of a sacrifice we have not asked for, nor earned. Our gods accept our sacrifices, but they are ours, we do not ask someone else to pay them for us. All we can do, all that we would ever be expected to do, is live as best we can.
Thank the gods we live in a world unburdened by sin.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gods behaving (badly)

I stared writing this post several months ago, but only now have gotten around to publishing it. Spurred on by the current discussion among some Pagan/Polytheist bloggers relating to the moral character of the gods, it seemed like a good time to put it out there.

Calling them "ethical dilemmas" may be a bit of a stretch, a euphemism on my part. No, perhaps they would more properly be labeled as moral failings. Far be it from me to judge the gods, but if the applicability of ethics is upon a cosmic scale, and the deities are supposed to be held to the same (or similar) standards, then whey they fail, what are we to do? What do we take away from a given moral lapse in a story? It is well understood that the gods are not infallible, but when they are deliberately duplicitous or dodgy in their behaviour, the questioning of the correctness of their actions remains.

I have a few arguments about this, but lets look at an example first. The event which always springs to my mind when I ponder these sorts of dilemmas, is the conception of Angus Og. Angus' mother, Boann, is married to Nechtan, but is desired by An Dagda. An Dagda convinces Nechtan to go off on some task, so he can have a tryst with Boann. In order to hide their deceit and the fact that An Dagda has made Nechtan a cuckold, An Dagda freezes the sun in the sky for nine months, allowing Aengus Og to be conceived, gestate and born in a single day. This is the origin of his epithet "Og" or "the young". In any case, the story is aware that what An Dagda is doing is morally questionable, and certainly that his actions are deceitful. In one version, Aengus tricks An Dagda into giving up his home, but in another it is Eclmar (in that same version, the husband of Boann in place of Nechtan) who is tricked out of his home, with the aid of An Dagda too boot!

One of the first things to consider, upon examining the story, is what its purpose or intent is. There is a tendency to try and understand everything from an immovable ethical standpoint, and this is not unreasonable. Ethics ought to be constant and applicable in any given situation, otherwise they're simply platitudes of convenience and have no real value. On the other hand, it also needs to be understood that not every tale or story is a morality play, and that the point of a story is not always tied to the morality of the characters within it.

One figure of generalized disdain who found in Irish myth (though by no means bound to this regional context) is the cuckold; the husband whose wife (or mistress/concubine) is unfaithful to him. As monogamy has been culturally engrained in our collective consciousness and understanding of social patterns, we moderns may often times feel that the cuckold is a figure not to be mocked but to be pitied; after all he is the wronged party in these sorts of affairs. In a fascinating twist, however, the cuckold in these narratives (the story I shared above, and numerous others) is not to be pitied but mocked, derided and insulted. The precedent established, albeit in a decisively Christianized context, was an episode which occurred during the LGE, where Partholón's wife, Delgnat has a tryst with one of their servants while Partholón is away. Discovering his wife's unfaithfulness, he kills the servant and Delgnat's dog, but is chided by her because it was his fault for leaving her alone. The mythic literature is replete with over and under tones of misogyny, and this argument is essential in later tales where the cuckold is held as responsible for the tryst; if he were a better man, his wife (who like all women are inherently untrustworthy) would not seek out others, or so the logic goes. Rarely is the male agent who participates in the tryst held to be in the wrong.

Now, turning back to an earlier point I had made, it is incumbent upon is to consider what the purpose of a given story is. The tale of the conception of Angus Og is not a treatise on the sanctity of monogamous marriages, rather it is an expositional narrative explaining why Angus became known as the Mac Og. There are other aspects to consider as well: the narrative definitely succeeds in exemplifying the sexual prowess and appetite of An Dagda, especially when it comes to tueletary goddeses. It also showcases his magical power, being able to suspend the very movement of the sun for nine months, to mention nothing of his cunning. Eochaid Ollathair did not earn the epithet of "The Good God" because of his moral virtue, but because of his might and proficiency in all that he did.
Another example, and one which many GRP’s take to heart as having a significant impact on their perception of this god, is the leech Dian Cecht. Of all the gods from the mythic texts, few illicit such vitriol and disdain from such a significant part of the GRP community. This relates to the mythic narrative where Dian Cecht features prominently, CMT2. Nuada having recently lost his hand to the Fir Bolg Sreng, has Dian Cecht make him a replacement, composed of silver. Dian Cecht’s son Miach, however, believed that he could do one better than his father, and literally grew Nuada a new hand. The fury and violence Dian Cecht rained down upon his son for having the audacity to surpass his father eventually resulted in Miach’s death. Airmed, Miach’s sister, buried her brother and from his grave grew all of the plants which were to be used to heal. Dian Cecht, still having not been satisfied with his punishment, mixed up the plants so that their healing properties were confused.
Many GRP’s utterly reject any sort of veneration of Dian Cecht, and refuse to give him the slightest obeisance. They see in his story not the slight of the young against the old, or the origin of healing herbs, but an abusive father exacting his murderous revenge upon his unfortunate son. Some have through UPG also felt terribly negative energies and emotions when they have encountered this god. Now it bears mentioning that within the narrative itself, no punishment is sought out for or exacted upon Dian Cecht by any of the other gods; no one except Airmed sheds any tears for her murdered brother, not even the god who benefited the most from his efforts, Nuada. Give that the killing of one’s own family was one of the more serious crimes, according to Brehon law, it is curious that the narrative remains morally ambivalent in this case. Of course Dian Cecht then goes on to aid the gods in their struggle against the Fomorians, and his influence is strong enough that a medieval tract is attributed to him. So here we are faced with a story which, within its own context is morally neutral, yet to modern sensibilities is abhorrent (at least to some).
The final example I wish to examine is the main drive behind the Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (The fate of the Sons of Tuireann), the revenge of Lugh. I won't go into too much detail, but Lugh's father, Cian and his two brothers were having a dispute with the three sons of Turieann: Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba. Cian is murdered by the three brothers and his death is covered up, but eventually Lugh learns the truth and wishes to have the three put to death. He deliberates and debates with the other gods, eventually agreeing to absolve the brothers if they can recover a number of simple objects; the brothers agree. It is only then that Lugh reveals that the objects are all legendary items obtained only through great hardship and peril. Lugh fully expected the task to claim the three Brothers lives, but feigned to offer them some assistance under the guise of preparing for the coming battle with the Fomorians. None the less, the Brothers keep their vow and set off to fetch the items. What follows is a very entertaining series of adventures, and the Brothers obtain all that they seek. Lugh, his plans for revenge being stymied by the skill of the Brothers, makes them forget  a few of the items they had not yet obtained, so that they return with several items which would have later on helped them. Upon remembering that they had yet to obtain a few things, but realizing that without their previous spoils could only do so at the cost of their lives, do so none the less (fyi, the final "thing" there were to obtain, " to give three shouts upon a hilltop" ;D ). Rather reminiscent of the later tale of Diarmuid and Grianne, Lugh has the power to heal the three Brothers, but refuses to do so, and achieves his vengeance. Their father, Tuireann, dies of a broken heart at the loss of his sons.
The question which remains when all is said and done asks whether Lugh was just, or whether he subverted true justice for the sake of petty revenge? To start with, the tale is considered a "tragedy", one of the "Three Great Sorrows of Storytelling", counted along with the Clann Lir (the children of Lir) and Longes mac n-Uislenn (the exile of the sons of Uisliu). It is a tragedy because we come to like and root for the hard pressed Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, despite their original transgression, and realize that they are doomed by a more cunning and powerful foe, Lugh. If the tasks they are given are supposed to have any sot of redemptive or secondary quality to them (like obtaining powerful items to aid in the struggle against the Fomorians), it is wholly undermined by Lugh's desire for revenge. If on the other hand, the point of the story is to show just how powerful a ruler (and by proxy deity) Lugh is, and that his devotion to his kin surpasses all other concerns, then message received loud and clear. Cian in his final moments foretells that his killers ..."will pay a price heavier than any which came before, and any which would come after." So in this instance there is the voice of the victim to consider as well, and it should also be noted that the three Brother's never really recant their crimes, never show any sign of remorse or wrong doing; only when they realize that it is their own lives which are on the line, do they become forlorn. On the other hand, Lugh as the administer of justice, through the personage of the king, has a duty to meet out just punishment. Clearly Lugh seeks to subvert the terms of the fine he places upon the three Brothers, and so for this perhaps he is acting duplicitously.

So there you have it, three stories which feature gods acting in arguably less than ethical or honourable ways. What then do we, as devout and pious polytheists take from all of this?

For starters, we need to understand that while these stories may have pedigree stretching back into the pre-Christian past, they are not whole cloth transliterations of pre-Christian myths. They are at best recreations; euhemerized and embellished for the audience they were scripted for, with a particular purpose in mind. Such is the difficulty with adhering to a literal interpretation of the mythic texts, such as they are. The figures reflected in the tales are just that, literary reflections of deities and other mythic figures; this is why I have, and will continue to argue that the corpus of mythic texts are not sacred texts. They are the best, most reliable source we have for trying to understand pre-Christian cosmology and mythology, but they are not in and of themselves those myths.

Secondly, we need to try and understand the myths from within their own cultural and chronological context. As such, we need to try our best to understand the perspective of the author/ audience they were made for. Only then can we appreciate the subtleties and nuances contained within the narratives, and best grasp what meaning they seek to impart upon our wider experience.

Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that while we can understand their original context, we are not (nor can we be) restricted to a medieval mindset when it comes to our own, modern, concerns. Myths do tell of specific events and these events have meaning within their own time periods, but this does not mean that they can not have other meanings to us in the present day. It is a very fine line to walk, and we must proceed cautiously lest we fall into the pit of universalism or decontextualization; I understand that in the context of the second story, Dian Cecht is never reprimanded or reproached for his infanticide, but I can still feel terrible that it happened. Understanding something in its original context, does not mean that we have to accept that such a context is still valid.

Finally we ought to take a step back and consider the theological implications and how our understanding of the gods and of our devotion to them relates to our own experiences, and further how this meshes with the stories written about them. Here we move away from literary criticism and dive deep into theology and worldview. Our gods are not infallible, and for many who come from religions which teach that their deities are, this can be a difficult reality to adjust to. Yet adjust to it we must; for the gods are not paragons of virtue, at least not all of the time. The gods do have emotions, can be duplicitous, are given to capriciousness and perhaps even cruelty. Their goals can and may often times be at odds with our own, and bad, terrible things can happen as a result. Yet we continue to be devout, to leave our offerings and make our sacrifices to them; to pray to them and seek their benedictions and favours, their guidance and strength. Do we do so out of fear, of either angering them or seeking out their curses?

Of course not.

The gods may be flawed, but they are far less so than we. We are beings of a social nature, and so to place ourselves within a hermitage for fear of what may come through our bonds, is to deny our very nature. So while their existence is no guarantee of cohesion or safety, social strictures and systems exist to facilitate these interactions. Never forget that while their morality may differ from ours, as those whose sight is long must, the gods are beholden to the same structures which govern the cosmos; even if they are themselves the craftsmen who established, and the stewards who maintain them. Fír is a concept that applies to we mortals, but so to does it apply to the gods; for they are immanent and a part of this world, not apart and withdrawn from it. I have mentioned it before, but the gods do not need our worship or our patronage; they were here before us, they will be here long after our bones have withered. Yet they seek us out as often as we seek them, because they want our devotion, they want to help us, to help us succeeded because they benefit from our mutual achievement. If nothing else, remember always that we are better for having the gods, but so too are they better for having us.

We are not gods, we are human beings. We are not their equal in any capacity, for they are necessarily superlative. Yet they do not seek out our subservience, they do not seek to enslave us nor to oppress us. Certainly for a time we were mutually antagonistic towards one another, but this stymied each community to the detriment of both. Our ancestors had the good sense, and the gods had the compassion to realize that cooperation was better than animosity.

Can the gods be deceitful?
Can they take away as readily as they give?
Can they place their own needs above our own?

The answer is yes, but just because they can, does not mean they will. A question was asked by a blogger if it was wise to trust the gods; unabashedly, unequivocally, I say yes.

I say yes, because trust is something which is earned, and the gods have certainly done that.
I say yes, because trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built.
I say yes, because trust is based upon sound judgement.

I believe that I have developed the faculties and the knowledge to properly entreat with the gods, to understand what would offend them, and to honour them as much in accord with our ancient forbearers as possible. To uphold the oaths I have sworn and to ensure that I make such oaths only with gods who will honour those oaths. I can only speak to my own experiences an with the gods I worship, and so this limits my above arguments to Gaelic deities. Folks coming from other cultural perspectives, YMMV.




Sunday, April 20, 2014

Love is overrated

Makes for a nice poster, but no, no it isn't.
Love is not the be all and end all of everything, but you could be forgiven for mistaking the concept as a panacea for the universe. From literature to film, television to song, religion to philosophy and everything in between, "love" is popularly represented as the ultimate value' surpassing even life itself. In fact, to be without love is held to be one of the greatest tragedies one can have occur during the course of ones life, and to some extent I agree with such a sentiment. Yet the hyperbole and fervor with which western culture has come to understand and laud "love" is so excessive that other values and pursuits utterly pale in comparison. Honour, Justice, Valour or Wisdom? Fuck all of that shit, all the world needs is love. Well, I beg to differ, but as always a caveat, lest you think me curmudgeonly.
I am in love, have been in love and will likely continue to be in love until I die. I am happily married, and in my wedding vows expressed the depths of my commitment and love for my wife. This is not a polemic against the idea of romantic love, or love in general. Rather, my goal is to explore the culture which has been built up around the centrality of love as the singular goal worth striving for in ones life, and argue that for GRP's this model is untenable and other values are just as, if not more important than love. Remember that love is important, just over rated.
Popular fiction is the flagship for so many of a societies' values, of its aspirations and dreams, that it is difficult to find a more staunch proponent of love as the be all and end all of human endeavour. I realize, as a matter of course, that outliers in both forms of media exist, but they remain outliers; exceptions to the rule remain just that, exceptions. While it is encouraging to see satirical and critical examinations of this cultural obsession with love, they have remained ineffectual in shifting any paradigms beyond sub genre and subculture (even the disparate counter cultures that have arisen have accepted love as a central value, if slightly redefined to buck the mainstream).
Fiction and music, on the whole, emphasize love and in the broadest sense this is meant as eros, or romantic love. It is remarkable enough if a film or story does not contain some element in which the male and female leads become romantically involved. Or, to put it another way, while the quest element of a film may not be romance in and of itself, said romance often enough supplants the quest, to become the real point of the story. Let's look at one of my favourite of the current Marvel Studio's films, 'Thor", to showcase this perspective. "Thor" is a very basic story at it's roots, it is a component of the "hero's quest" where as a consequence of the hero's vanity or hubris, conflict emerges, the hero is removed from his lofty position and forced to redeem himself through trial and tribulation. Yes, the film cuts out the element of the origin story involving the crippled doctor, which was essentially retconed away in the later comics anyway, substituting pathos for slapstick, but I digress. Thor, in his very brief jaunt on earth, also falls in love, and while it is a subplot to the greater narrative of the film, by the time the credits begin to roll, the love between Jane Foster and Thor frames everything which is to follow (and indeed does in the sequel.) Thor, then has redeemed himself in the eyes of his father and community, yet he remains distraught because he was forced to (temporarily) sacrifice the aforementioned love. So here is the first really solid point; even when there is no "happy ending" (where the couple is together at the end of the film), the act of sacrificing that relationship has untold power and value. So much so that this romantic love supplants the value of compassion and leadership; a lesson is learned, but the cost is great (too great it seems). What is the point of all this new found wisdom, if Thor can't be with the woman he loves?
Now, this is but one example of the multitude of film, and I could go on and on about romance supplanting the original values sought, but I'm fairly certain that as far as film and romance goes, it is self evident. So I turn now to other variations of love in other films: Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
The LOTR films cover an enormous swath of geography and characters, if a short period of time (in the main narrative anyway). The upshot is that that while the romantic elements were heavily expanded upon in the films (particularly the Aragorn, Arwen, Éowyn love triangle) it never manages to eclipse everything else that happens. So while Jackson did his best to shoehorn in romance (after all, audiences crave it) the kind of love that was the focus of the film was philia and agape (or friendship and selfless devotion). I think the films did an admirable job of translating this component of the novels, if only to be utterly misunderstood by audiences and relentlessly mocked. Modern movie going folk were so utterly ignorant of concepts like philia and agape (outside of a very famous, yet specific context) that they themselves invented their own romantic subplot, homoerotic as it may have been. Of particular note is the relationship between Sam and Frodo, an exemplar of agape love if there ever was one. Sam is utterly devoted to Frodo, is willing to travel the breadth of the world they inhabit, to the very source of the evil they seek to destroy, to the extent of being willing to sacrifice his life should the need arise. Such devotion is admirable, especially since it is reciprocated by Frodo. Yet the framework for such a relationship, the means of understanding and explaining such selfless devotion between two people who were not blood relatives, was for the vast majority of people, eros. Or more accurately, since no physical expression of this love occurs, the subtext was held to have been extremely homoerotic. So while it is a subtext, and such is usually the source of humour, the point remains that agape love was the linchpin of the entire story; "Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam."

Turning now to Harry Potter, the power of love, particularly storge (or familial love), is hammered home again, and again, and again. An old and powerful magic, a mother putting herself between harm and her child; powerful enough to destroy the most powerful dark wizard of all time. Throughout the novels, this protection remains until it transforms into something different. It is at this point that we can move away from looking at fiction to sourcing the centrality of love to something else. In the last film Harry sacrifices himself to save his friends, the order of the Phoenix and everyone else at Hogwarts. He purposefully seeks out his own death in payment for the protection of those he loves. Note, however, that it is not simply Ginny Weasley he seeks to protect, but everyone. What is not presented in the film, however, is the result that his sacrifice has (other than destroying the penultimate Horcrux). In the novels, his sacrifice literally protects everyone from Voldemort's magic, which is rendered utterly ineffectual. Is it any wonder than that there exist books like "Jesus Potter Harry Christ"?, because the only way the parallel could have been stronger is if Harry had of been crucified (well he was crucio'd...). The day is saved by love, agape love, and this is precisely the sort of love which is exemplified in the central figure in the Christian religion, Jesus Christ.

Here we come face to face with that "very famous, specific" example of love understood outside the confines of romance or kinship. The love of Christ, the love for which his apostles forswore all else to seek after him, and which he ultimately sacrificed himself for, was one of utter devotion. An utter devotion so intense that it spread to the whole of humanity, for all of time. So while the precise term agape may be relatively underutilized in common parlance; the value and significance of what it represents has been one of the singular forces shaping western culture for the past two millennia. Christians are theologically conditioned to recognize that sacrifice as the most important single act in human history, and western culture certainly follows suit. There are few acts held to be as noble or inspiring as the willingness of someone to give up their own life, for that of another. So while sacrifice is by no means unique to Christianity, as far as cultural underpinnings go, it is difficult to escape the impact this model of sacrifice has had upon western culture in general. So to by proxy the value of love as expressed through the teachings of Christ ( "But now faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love" Corinthians 13:13, "...thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" Mark 12:31) have also had a profound impact upon the culture.* This is the "love" so often sung about, so often expressed across religious bounds, which has over time mingled, very gradually, with the idea of romantic love.

Having established how love is represented and why it is held among moderns to be the ultimate pursuit, let us turn our attention to sources from Gaelic myth which touch upon and explore the importance of love (in its various forms). The two tales I would like to focus on are: ""Longes mac n-Uislenn " and "Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne ".
Longes mac n-Uislenn, or "The exile of the sons of Uisliu" is often grouped among the remscéla (or fore-tales) of the "Táin Bó Cúaligne". The purpose of the story, as it relates to the Táin, is that it explains why Fergus and other Ulster heroes are fighting for the Connachtmen during said story. The basic plot revolves around Deirdre, a maiden betrothed to Conchobar, falling in love with Noisiu, their elopement, trials in exile, eventual return, betrayal and violent deaths. I certainly do not do it justice here, but the reason the tale is relevant to this discussion is the action/decision upon which the bulk of the narrative hangs; Deirdre's and Noisiu's elopement. The "young lady intended for an old man, falls for young man, and they run off" trope is of a rather ancient pedigree, and this tale is a shining example of that trope. Deirdre is raised, almost to the extent of being cloistered, for the sole purpose of becoming a wife of Conchobar. She by chance happens to see Noisiu, and his beauty overwhelms her, and despite his initial protestations he too falls for her beauty. They elope, and flee Ireland to settle in Scotland, and the tale goes on. Conchobar is understandably furious, and being a schemer, arranges for their return that he may have his revenge. Noisiu and his brothers are eventually killed, and as punishment for her crimes Deirdre is made to marry Eogan mac Duthacht (the man who killed Noisiu), upon which she kills herself by leaping from a chariot and smashing her head against a rock. The tale is rightly so grouped among the "three most sorrowful tales of Irish literature", and we as readers cannot help but feel bad for Deidre and Noisiu, and hate Conchobar. Except Conchobar is in the right.
That's right, Conchobar is totally justified in his anger at this betrayal, by his own nephew even, and that his intended bride ran off with another man. His later actions are abhorrent, his eventual betrayal of Fergus unforgivable, and his final treatment of Deirdre terrible, but he is initially right. Deirdre and Noisiu both knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway regardless of the very dire consequences sure to happen. Noisiu's brothers both try to convince him that his actions are folly, that death and disaster would pursue them, but being unable to convince him, go along with him. Conchobar's honour is impugned, and the honour price is steep. This entire calamity could have been avoided if only two young lovers had resisted their passion, and acted according to their duty. I realize this is anathema to modern sensibilities, but there in lies the rub. Romantic love trumps duty and obligation now, but that shit did not fly in Iron Age Ireland. So, lets move on to the next tale. 
The second tale to examine is Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne , or "The pursuit of Diarmuid and Grianne", which is part of the Fenian cycle. One of the more widely known Fenian tales, and great favourite of folklore (considering how many stones are recounted as "beds of Diarmuid and Grianne" which dot the Irish countryside). The motif is the same as the tale above, but the consequences play out slightly different. Grianne is yet another Irish beauty of legend, and is also intended to Fionn mac Cumhaill (again in this narrative considerably older than Grianne). The other figure of note in this tale is Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of Fionn's retainers and core member of the Fianna under Fionn's leadership. Grianne, being disappointed with the prospect of becoming the aged Fionn's wife, places a sleeping draught in the cups of the Fianna, and leaves only a handful of them awake. She asks each of the still conscious men to elope with her, but they all refuse. She then places a geis upon Diarmuid, that forces him to run off with her. Diarmuid is reluctant but has little recourse, and they flee. Fionn awakes and in righteous anger pursues the couple across the whole of Ireland, with many interesting events occurring, including the continued aid of Aengus Og, Diarmuid's foster father. Eventually Fionn pardons the couple, and they marry and have several children. The addendum to the tale involves the culmination of this and another tale, where Diarmuid is gored to death after slaying a giant boar. Fionn has the chance to heal Diarmuid, three times even, but each time declines to do so, and Diarmuid dies.
So the end result is tragic, but not nearly as tragic as the tale with Deirdre and Noisiu, as Diarmuid and Grainne do wind up together and have children. Fionn is represented as the primary antagonist throughout the narrative, and is made fool of on many occasions. Yet, the entire affair began because of the decision of Grianne to abandon her sworn oath to marry Fionn, because of her love for Diarmuid, and their fate was sealed the moment she placed a geis upon Diarmuid to elope with her. As much as the reader is meant to root for the young lovers against the aged rival, that Fionn's anger and pursuit of the pair who wronged him is never in question. Fionn is utterly humiliated and disgraced by those whom he trusted, Diarmuid breaks his own vows of loyalty to his leader, and disharmony abounds. As light hearted as the narrative is, and despite the initial positive result for the lovers, Diarmuid's death is a direct result of this tragedy. Both men are good and just, fair and honourable, yet because love is allowed to supersede duty and obligation, tragedy (eventually) comes to pass. 
The singular point which leaps off the page, one of the central "morals" of the tales, is that when romantic love is placed before duty, grave consequences follow. This is again not to under value love, as the motif of "wasting" or "love" sickness is common enough; the power of love is undeniable. Only that from the perspective of the culture, when romance is placed above all else, disaster and tragedy are the consequences. As difficult as it may be for modern sensibilities about the role that romance and individual choice play in marriage, such was not the case during the period in question. I have long argued that the values, the core ethical framework which bound pre-Christian Gaelic society together (and for a considerable time after the conversion to Christianity) were communal in nature; the good of the group came well before the good of the individual. While it would be foolish to seek after a return to wholly communal values (individualism is far too ingrained in us now), as GRP's we ought to be doing our best to restore and live by the ethics which are the legacy of our forebear's. Indeed if any form of love I have discussed above was held to be important, it would have been storge, or kinship. The loyalty to ones family, the family's loyalty to the clan, the clans loyalty to the tuatha; was the microcosmic supporting the macrocosmic. Considering how great a crime like kin-slaying was, this comes as no surprise. Romantic love, also, has its place and is the focus of many tales, but you will note that in such tales where it is treated as noble and worth striving for, it is never at the cost of honour or society in general.
There needs to be a balance between ones passion and ones duty, and we see time and time again in the tales the consequences of passion gone too far. Ruination follows in its wake, primarily because it stands against tradition and the right order of things. We may root for the lovers, sympathetic as they may be, but their transgressions threaten not only themselves, but their communities as well. Here then is the dissonance between modern sensibilities inherent in the over culture, and our adopted values as GRP's. In the sort of generalized ethical modes, or categories present in CR, of the values espoused by the texts, love is notably absent. Wisdom, Justice, Honour, Loyalty, Courage are however all present, and certainly love can have a place within such concepts (particularly loyalty and courage), but it ought not to supersede them. Honour, for example, is one of the most romanticized virtues and values, yet it is so misunderstood that it is rejected out of hand. Honour necessarily exists only where the is community to render an individual as honourable. It is a virtue that can not exist alongside rugged individualism, because honour is inexorably linked to reputation. How often in films or fiction does ones reputation count for nothing, how easily is it abandoned for the sake of love? Remarkably simple really; reputation counts for nothing when it stands in the way of love, and so to must honour.
If we are to openly and fully live as GRP's, then there will be times where we are at odds with our families, friends, cohorts and society at large; at least when it comes to ethics and behaviours. Many of our values overlap, but often enough they are at odds with positions so taken for granted, they are the default. The first step is to recognize that these differences exist and that the default cultural conditioning needs to be overwritten. As I mentioned in my previous post, given that we have already bucked the trend of a monotheistic approach to deity; that other conceptual changes need to occur should be obvious, but not terribly difficult to accomplish. This may cause some friction with other people in our lives, yet if we really do seek to fully embrace GRP then it has to extend beyond our devotions to the na trí naomh. It needs to encompass our very way of seeing and being in the world and this extends to how we comport ourselves, the values we embody and which we need to transmit to future generations.
We can not turn back the clock, and there is a multitude of reasons that even if we could, we would not want to. It is important to recognize that we do not live in the Iron Age, just as it is important to recognize that reconstruction in not re-enactment. Not every scrap and every practice is valuable to a 21st century worldview, but this does not preclude that the values of our ancestors which may have been placed on the cultural back burner should also be forgotten. There is so much value in restoring, well, more antiquated values and these values naturally flow from our more overtly religious devotion and the tales which inform that devotion. So enjoy romance, celebrate friendship, reinforce ties of kinship, and devote yourself to those who are worthy of your devotion. Just be mindful that love isn't the only thing worth living for: live with honour, speak with truth, act with valour, judge with wisdom and enjoy with hospitality.
* For a slightly more in depth examination of this cultural shift, see Kelly and Dryfus, "All Things Shining".