Monday, April 14, 2014

A blog of a most boastful nature

Let's talk about boasting.
An odd topic, to be sure, yet one which is worth having a discussion about. Boasting, and to be specific and framing this post in its proper context, ritualized boasting is something which has almost universally fallen by the wayside. Few people enjoy braggarts and those supercilious types whose favourite topic of discussion fails to extend past their own nose. It wasn't always like this though, and given the right context, such arrogance and unabashed self promotion are considered the norm. I need to place a caveat, however, before going any further.
For those of you who frequent this blog or are acquainted with me via other media, who do not already know, I hail from Canada. Born and raised, immersed in whatever it is that constitutes Canadian culture and by proxy our reputation often proceeds us. The idea of being boastful (outside of our jocular Hockey culture) as a national ethic is very much universally anathema to the image we have of ourselves, and others have of us. Self deprecation is built into our collective psyches, and is a national characteristic. We joke well and often, yet generally at our own expense as much as at others. So the idea of boasting in general is slightly problematic, and I have found through the musing and typing out this post, a varying degree of discomfort in, well practical applications. So now that this sentiment is out there, we can proceed. 
Within the tales, and more often than not singularly contained within the Ulster Cycle, we find countless examples of the heroes of Ulster and Connacht gathered around a table, talking shit to one another. While tales like Fled Bricrenn (The Feast of Bricriu) certainly contain boasts, they also contain actual challenges so I would argue that the seminal example of this genre tale is Scél Mucci Mic Dathó (The Story of Mac Dathó's Pig). Cú is notably absent, and so it falls to Conall Cernach to save the honour of the Ulstermen from the besmirchment  of the Connaughtmen. Found within the tale (and mind you there is a distinct possibility that the tale is largely satirical or parody in nature) are some of the best examples of ritualized boasting, utilized as a means of establishing the proper division of a roast boar for the various hero's gathered under one roof. Historically there is evidence that the ritualized element of the boasting was a way to keep hostile guests from shedding blood while under the banner of hospitality, while still allowing them to maintain their honour in the presence of their enemies. Given that this particular tale ends in a bloody rout of the Connachtmen, the idea that it is satirical holds perhaps some more weight than it may otherwise have. Given that there is considerable reason to hold many of the Ulster tales may have a satirical edge to them, drawing too deep a conclusion based upon them is unwise. Regardless, there is clearly evidence in other examples of tales where boasting is utilized to establish and maintain propriety, so misgivings aside, holding that there was some ritualized element to it is reasonable.
This is all well and good for a medieval set of tales depicting a mythological iron age, hero-elite society, but like so much else concerning GRP, where does it leave us? Boastfulness is generally considered bad form, base and boorish behaviour among polite company, and save from a few accepted situations (i.e. "trash talking" in the build up to a sporting event, "diss tracks" among hip-hop or rap artists, and commercial advertising in general) is a vice if there ever was one.
So, occasionally I utilize Google to locate images to post to supplement the blog, break up the blocks of text and try to avoid tl:dr. The interesting thing is that doing a Google image search using the word "boasting" returned several hundred images, most of them were of an anti-boasting pedigree. As I had suspected, there is a great deal of Christian influence pertaining to this particular sentiment, or rather once more the cultural legacy of Christian morality remains ever present. At a fundamental level, and across varying delineations of Christianity, humility is lauded as a central virtue. Catholics, of course, hold humility as the holy benediction inverse to the deadly sin of pride; The Orthodox church has the commentaries of St. Chrysostom, such as homily III: " 8. Let us beware therefore of saying anything about ourselves, for this renders us both odious with men and abominable to God. For this reason, the greater the good works we do, the less let us say of ourselves; this being the way to reap the greatest glory both with men and with God." Evangelicals also hold that "everything is to be given up to god" and to be "boastful in Christ", that is they are not responsible for their own fortunes or good works, but that Christ alone is to be given the glory. As far as something can be held to be uniform among Christendom, the fundamental rejection of pride in favour of humility is quite clear.
So, this is where the culture shock comes, and given my caveat above, it strikes with abundant force. If almost every notion of modern propriety enforces that boasting is problematic, vainglorious and rude, then is it something worth trying to reclaim and reinvigorate? Among the more general neoPagan community, humility is still held as superior to pride, non-judgement to judgement, and one has to look no further than any number of Pagan blogs to see, to say nothing of the more pluralistic and "open" religions and spiritualities floating about. Confounding things among a wide, diverse conglomeration who often enough reject things on the basis of their being held to be Christian (or being a problematic element of a given Christian dogma), is that the rejection of judgement (which through hyperbole metamorphs to be cognate with self-righteousness) inherently accepts the very Christian rejection of pride. Through the deliberate rejection of a virtue held to be Christian, a virtue which runs through most ancient polytheism's is likewise rejected. The baby has indeed been tossed out with the bath water.
Complicating the picture, for me at least, are some other texts which (unlike the Bible or scriptural commentaries) I actually ascribe to, which caution against boastfulness. In one of the most commonly utilized wisdom texts, "The Instructions of King Cormac", Cormac extolls that when he was a lad "he was not boastful" and warns against being "too conceited". It merits pointing out that this text was clearly written with significant Christian morals being extolled, yet is not necessarily a summary rejection of pride, nor of boasting. The earlier lesson pertained to Cormac's behaviour while in his youth, and that boastfulness was unbecoming to a future king. Given that in the heroic literature we have, none of the figures portrayed as kings (or queens) participated in the boasting contests. |Such acts of bravado, then, were left to the warrior class. Likewise, the caveat to warn against being excessively self congratulatory in no way prohibits the maintenance of recognizing ones own accomplishments and prowess in a self congratulatory manner. It is clear then that our more ancient forbearers were not shy about self promotion and hyperbole concerning their own exploits. The question then becomes, ought we do the same? 
 As reconstructionists, we rely on historic, mythic and folkloric evidence to develop a framework for honouring the na trí naomh, which in turn fosters the way in which we perceive the world around us and interact with it. Yet we also recognize that we are not ancient Gaels, and that this is not the Iron Age; we are decidedly modern and so need to live and flourish in a modern context. While historic, practices such as human sacrifice, head hunting and cattle raiding are anathema to modern ethical systems and law codes. But these are easy enough to replace or abandon; with symbolic rites or recognizing that cattle raiding in an economy that is not based on livestock is pointless. Other components of given cultural practices are decidedly messier to carve away while still leaving enough in tact to build from.
So moving forward, what is to be done? I would make the case that boasting, or at the very least ritualized boasting, is a practice which is worth restoring and adopting to our ways. Not because boasting is an intrinsic component of any proper model of GRP; given that GRP has gotten this far without it, such ought to be a given. Not because I (or GRP's) in general are a conceited, arrogant lot (the Canadian within me again cringes). No, I stand up for boasting because boldness is necessary in order for many of us to overcome and supplant our existing cultural/societal inclinations. I have long contended that GRP is most accurately a lifeway, and not just a religious or spiritual component of ones life. This compartmentalization, the idea that one is religious on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 12 and 6 pm, that ones honour only matters when participating in an online discussion, or that you switch off your inclination to mystic experiences because they're kind of inconvenient at work, results in a fractured, broken experience which is simply untenable in the long run.
Internalization is the key, and the first step to the adoption of a considerably different worldview from the one many of us were raised with, is becoming divorced from it. This is not a call for the abandonment of modernity or the wholesale rejection of modern western culture (or whatever regional/national variant thereof one exists in). Rather, it is a call to replace some of the existing cultural and social norms, the perspectives taken for granted, with those which foster GRP. Already we are outliers from the vast majority of our families, friends and cohorts; owing to our adherence to polytheism, animism and ancestor worship. So while the na trí naomh are the core objects of our religious devotion and activity, they are but a piece of a greater whole. Developing ethics, behavioural standards which allow for the celebration and maintenance of our ancestral values, is necessary and deciding which characteristics encourage human flourishing (in a GRP context), and which stymie it requires examination and reflection. That many of the virtues lauded as such are at loggerheads with existing ethical frameworks or societal values is to be expected, and this can (and will) make for some uncomfortable moments. It may very well be something with which to struggle for as long as it takes to supplant our preconditioning with conscious adoption, but this to is necessary.
So we now return to the place and value of boasting among GRP's. Boasting, to speak fervently and with occasional exaggeration of ones accomplishments and abilities, without descending into arrogance, is only possible when one holds their own accomplishments and abilities worthwhile. Combining eloquence, good judgement and self confidence in such a way as to impress upon others that you are worthy of respect and are honourable. So, when it comes right down to it, boasting naturally reinforces other virtues as well, such as pride and honour. Pride is something I have mentioned many times (here and elsewhere) and is one of the virtues which has been inverted and held to be a vice, held to be a grave sin by some. I'll not go into why this is the case, and only mention that here is yet another example of a perspective which finds itself at odds with the dominant paradigm. Yet pride in measure is a rather laudable value to have, as it fosters self worth and that we should be striving always for excellence, while shunning mediocrity. Honour is yet another virtue that is held to be worth having, if it remains misunderstood in modern parlance. Honour only really makes sense as a communal recognition of the value an individual has within that community. This is accomplished by ones behaviour and actions within that community, and it is by our community that one is held to be honourable or dishonourable. I'm hoping that the intertwining threads of honour, pride and boasting are evident by this point; yet this is by one component of a much larger tapestry. (I'll stop with the textile metaphor now).
The next step, then, is implementation and incorporation; how best to do this? One source we can look to for, inspiration if nothing else, is the Heathen community. Symbel will, depending on the gravitas attached to it during the occasion, often times include a component where boasts are made. This will most frequently occur during the period where past oaths are recounted, and new oaths are sworn in front of the assembly, and given the necessary link between action and honour, such boasting is appropriate and comfortable. If we take a step back from the adversarial tone the medieval literature provides in such cases (considering then that there may have been a satirical edge in such accounts), and instead reflect that such moments have a component of the sacral to them, community feasts or celebrations are the most appropriate venues for one to boast. If the goal is to self aggrandize while simultaneously representing the community as composed of strong, capable and proud people, then such boasting can only have a positive effect. Helping to foster a spirit of excellence and community and instilling honour as a central virtue, I honestly believe that we can make it work.
- Gorm

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pagans, Polytheists and St. Patrick's Day

Just a quick update, I have a short article recently published on the Gaol Naofa site, which ties into an earlier piece on Oisin, Cailte and Patrick, and explores the tumultuous relationship between we as modern polytheists and the reality of a heavily Christian past. There are also two short videos which explore some of the broader points of St. Patrick's day, stereotypes, problems and so forth. If you've some time, have a gander.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

So (explitive) Pious

Some recent Troll activity on my blog has got me to thinking, so thank you anonymous Troll, you've actually helped me to generate content. One term which came up, time and time again in this childish tantrum that was supposed to come off as "comments", was piousness; specifically my own. It was used in an effort to deride, and I find this rather confusing: when did piety make the transition from virtue to vice?

The context tended towards the adjective "fucking" with the coordinating conjunction "so". I believe the fault may lie with the Troll, who just tacked on pious as some abutment to the real insult, sanctimony. Generally for piety to be insulting or used to damage ones honour, it requires a proper noun to imply a more problematic state: "pious fraud" or "pious hypocrite". Both of those phrases are certainly equivalent to the state of sanctimony, so using them together is rather redundant. Certainly this followed, as the word sanctimonious did pop up in one or two of the diatribes, but again it beguiles one as to why piety would itself be considered problematic?
Pious (from the Latin pīus, derived from the pIE-*pey) is the quality of piety [reverence or devotion to something (generally a deity)] one has. It has been a hallmark of the character of an individual or group as it relates to being in good standing with the gods (or later God), and so has generally been an uncontested virtue, as far as virtues go. Pietas, (i.e. piety) in the Roman world was often contrasted with superstitio (the root of the English "superstition", but different in meaning) which was a slavish devotion borne out of fear of the gods anger. The former is virtuous because it encourages behaviours which foster the proper relationship one ought to have with the gods; whereas the later is a vice because while it too engenders devotion, it is a devotion rooted in a dysfunctional relationship with the gods. How then have we gotten to a point where piety is something which is in itself problematic?
Well, by arriving at a cultural view where everything and everyone are inherently corrupt or flawed to some degree, and so thus rendering piety as sanctimony. This is interesting, because the two terms are related, and so this is a visible descent within the context of language. There was a period when sanctimonious (from the Latin sanctimonia, holy/sacred action) was cognate with pious; at some point, however, the term became synonymous with false piety. The idea that an individual or group was putting on airs to appear pious, but that their actions were not at all reflective of such a state of being. Perhaps this new found disdain for piety itself is simply a continuation of this descent. Though, and this is where things start to branch off, piety is not the only term which (may) be one so loaded with cultural baggage that for many coming from minority theological positions, that it isn't worth "saving".
This touches on a much wider theological discussion (one which is to some degree or another ongoing among polytheistic and Pagan bloggers), but a conclusion which many seem to reach is this: having these discussions is, while not difficult, complicated by the predominant theological framework our language (in this case English, but it could be extended to any Western one, Gaelic [broadly] being no exception) and culture are beholden to monotheism and especially Christianity. Piety, Worship, Prayer, Theology, Holy, and so forth, are all terms that in popular parlance are loaded with preconceptions rooted in Christian tradition.
Herein our troubles begin, because this cultural view is pervasive and dominant, and even those smug Atheists (not all Atheists. NOT ALL ATHEISTS. Just the smug ones (like the troll I mentioned above) who find it necessary to belittle theism and theists of any and all stripes) find themselves couching terms and arguing from presuppositions. To the extent that being held to be pious from such a perspective is but a breath away from being labeled "holier-than-thou". The phrase betrays a theological (and widely cultural) perspective that makes many assumptions, and holds them to be more true than not. The expression refers to an attitude or belief (as reflected in thought and deed) that one holds oneself as being morally superior to another; this sentiment is almost always attached to feigning said morality. This sentiment has descended to a state where morality can not be measurable and so necessarily, to hold that oneself as being more moral than someone else, is being sanctimonious. Except this argument is bunk, hokum and falderal; logically there are people who are demonstrably more moral than others. This stance on behaviour and superiority/failing ties back to a much earlier post I wrote about why the faculty of judgement is good, and that such a perspective can trace its origins to Christian theology. What follows is a bit of a digression, but is nonetheless pertinent to the topic at hand, so please bear with me.
In the past (recently no less) I would have made an argument about Christians holding people to be worthless, because of sin, and in that state of worthlessness, all are equal and none have the right (or ability) to judge anyone else. In fact this issue sort of came to a head in a discussion I was involved in relating to the use of the term "worship" (which I will touch on below). Someone called me out on my statement (being seen as just another "attack" on Christianity). Having myself to have taken a step back, because it occurred to me during the discussion that I had grossly generalized a much more complex state of affairs. Christianity may be monolithic, but the religions(et. denominations) that make up the whole of Christendom are hardly unified. Protestantism itself seems to be as highly fractious as Paganism (and some may argue that this fractiousness among Paganism is in fact a holdover from this religious perspective, but perhaps more on this some other time). With this in mind, the understanding of concepts like "sin" and "atonement" vary wildly among Christians, and so trying to form a cohesive pronouncement on the entire group is fraught with peril. I think my perspective has been greatly coloured by my time spent on interfaith web forums, where the natural state of affairs is that Evangelicals tend to dominate the Christian communities, and given their influence (or visibility) in media, this can most definitely create theological tunnel vision, where this is Christianity. So when asked to provide an example of a religion where people were undervalued (or held to be worthless) my immediate response was 'Christianity".

This needed to be qualified, and my visceral reaction was grossly unqualified. It appears at first blush to be more accurate, a core belief even, than not so. Given the idea of human agency having little actual impact in a good number of Protestant religions (particularly those who accept "free grace" theology), when it comes to positive moral action, even to the extent of being able to accept Christianity (or specifically their salvic figure) without some divine mandate, it stands to reason that humans as fallen, generally miserable creatures, are not presented, nor held with much esteem. It is easy to then turn and say, "Well if people are held to be intrinsically terrible, it stands to reason that they haven't got much worth. This is why the idea of 'Grace' is so appealing, because even though humanity is not worthy enough to be saved, the Christian god is merciful enough to give it none the less." This was my general stance towards Christianity in general then, and to be fair I think many among us would reasonably reach this conclusion if this was the message that the Christians we knew personally, discussed religion with regularly, or were exposed to via multi media constantly were presenting to us. Then again, simply because one perspective is the most noticeable, it is by no means the largest, let alone only one available.
The truth of the matter is that "Free Grace" is something which is a core doctrine of only some Protestant churches, not all, and this does not then account for Catholicism nor the Orthodox church. The idea of personal atonement, penance and restitution through the actions of both the laity and the clergy, as well as the acknowledgement that humans have moral agency, stands in stark contrast with the assertion I made in the context of the conversation I mentioned above. Religions are no so simple, and theology and doctrine are complex enough to stymie easy answers and gross generalizations.
Having said all of that, there is no doubt in my mind that the attitudes among many folks presently with regards to attitudes like "don't judge me", "being holier-than-thou" and "so (expletive) pious" can trace their origins to some of the cultural baggage of Christian theology/doctrines like sin, guilt and religious hypocrites. The gospel authors have seen to it that the Pharisees have been one of the most maligned historic figures, well ever. The term itself is synonymous with sanctimony, but the cultural impact of the idea extended far beyond the first century CE. As my troll illustrates and as a generalized sentiment I have experienced time and time again, there is a deep mistrust of people who are seen to be "too moral", almost to the extent of it manifesting as misanthropic glee. A holdover from anti-clericalism perhaps, or a natural result stemming from a never ending cycle of clerical betrayal. In such a context, it is fairly understandable; a sacred trust which is continually betrayed is hardly any sort of trust and certainly not sacred. Reverence and deference to moral authorities have been superseded by a deep seated cynicism to the extent that for many anyone who appears to be moral for the sake of morality (or devout for the sake of the gods) is automatically red flagged. Even if that person is not in a position of authority, the general sentiment remains. It is a very regrettable state of affairs.
It is regrettable because the simple state of virtuous living can be looked at askance and made to seem wrong. It is my opinion that this position is based largely on an individuals insecurities being projected onto those they deem as making them feel insecure in the first place. People are also often fully justified in their cynicism, and it is remarkably easy to just abandon standards and expectations (either of oneself or others) and just "get on with it".
And yet ease is not necessarily the most effective measure of quality. I think that striving for a better state of affairs, again personally or collectively, is a worthy endeavour and living a virtuous life is an important part of that endeavour. Human flourishing will always be worth the effort one invests to attain it, and for me (and others like me) piety is one of the virtues which encompasses a good life. I am unabashed in my devotion to the dé ochus andé, and I would think that such a position is patently obvious to anyone who reads this blog. Having and fostering standards of ethical behaviour is not, and will never be problematic. I suppose that, given everything I've said that I am, in fact, so (expletive) pious.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Gentle, Fair-Cheeked Brigid.

Brigid the merciful; Brigid an trócaireach
Brigid of the broken heart; Brigid an croí briste
Brigid of the hearth; Brigid an tinteán

It is difficult to express in words the overwhelming outpouring of emotion and profound joy at the simple thought of Brigid. I suppose this is what Pentecostal Christians must feel like when they are "in the spirit", but I want nothing more than to sing of her praises to all who will hear, whether they listen or no.

La Fheilhe Brigid is still over a month away, yet I feel her presence so much now it is almost smothering. Every day and night, when I stand before her flame upon my hearth, I feel a deep joy kindled within my very being.

Her beauty and her wonder, the visceral reaction I would have to those who would slight her name, her grace, her compassion. A child's simple wish to protect the sanctity of their mother.


Her flame. golden radiant warm and kind, a fire of comfort on this frigid winters eve.

Hail our goddess of inspiration and awe, so beloved even the monks continued to sing her praises!
May we shout her name from the hill tops, and sing her praises sweetly.
We, the sons and daughters of fire!

Hail our goddess of family and friendship, around whom we gather in fellowship and love! 
May we fill our hearts with her love, and kindle a candle of kindness. 
We, the sons and daughters of fire!

Hail our goddess of grief and sorrow; mother of a broken heart which we all must some day bear!
May we bear our burden with grace and compassion, fondness and memory. 
We, the sons and daughters of fire!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Happy Celtmas 2013

Frankly, I'd rather be under the mistletoe...

I'm actually at a loss as to what I ought to write about this festive season. I've commented previously on a sort of seasonal ennui about not having a particular "holiday" to actually celebrate while many others do, and then one learns about tings like Grianstad an Gheimhridh, and suddenly there is a cultural "reason for the season", beyond ones familial traditions. The so called "War on Christmas" continues to be a non-issue, and Christmas is in no danger of being cancelled this year. There has been a bit of a dust up with some Atheistic/Humanistic groups utilizing pre-Christian symbols and figures in an attempt to get a fair shake when it comes to public displays of, well non-faith. They've every right to, and while it does get tiring that deities many of us worship are used especially because they are seen as being "dead" or "forgotten" gods, demographics have never really been kind to the modern polytheistic community. We need to get out more, and so the upshot of these sorts of things (like that "god graveyard" back in October) is that since we tend to be a raucous bunch, certainly more Atheists are aware that some still hold to some older ways.*

I suppose it also relates to my current situation and that while this is the first time I will actually be home on the 25th in three years, it is going to be a relatively low key affair.

Still, there will be feasting, there will be gift giving, there will be merry making. The little things do make all the difference; the smallest of lights in the midst of so much darkness**.

*I didn't realty write anything about the "god graveyard" thing, seemed rather pointless considering all the coverage it was getting. Still it has resulted in one of the single greatest and most powerful responses one could do, in the face of ignorance. My heartfelt thanks and admiration goes out to whomever left that offering on the "grave" of Freya. You make your ancestors proud.

**Not that I actually have anything against the Dark, per se.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Pagan" Literacy Project

I often make assumptions, though my experience has been that I am usually proven correct, this is not always the case. With that in mind, anecdotally anyway I have begun to find, well not a growing problem, but one which is becoming more evident.

Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box that is marked with his name.
Unlock it. Open the lid. Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli.
 Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

 "Pagans" as a group are a diverse and disparate lot, and who does and does not fall under what seems to be an ever growing umbrella is often a matter of great contention. One aspect, which I would make the case for, which more often than not is a shared aspect of the "Pagan" identity, is some degree of enmity with  Christianity. To be sure this would be best seen as a gradient of enmity; ranging from outright hate to basic theological differences, and everything in between. As such, there tends to be a reasonable degree of familiarity with the Christian Bible and some other aspects of their theology among "Pagans" in general. I know I'm not the first nor the last to make light of the fact that I know more about the Christian holy book than many of the Christians, whom I know and discuss things religious with, do.

I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile,
who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy
to the shores of Lavinium...

Each of us, or those of us who find ourselves in "the west" will necessarily have some familiarity with Christianity and its mythology. It is engrained in our societal customs, calendar, holidays, literature and language. It is simply inescapable. This is not, necessarily, bad. For example, while the Authorized King James Bible is one of the poorest translations available, it is none the less one of the single greatest works of literature ever written in the English language. I own a copy (the Oxford edition), have read it, and enjoyed much of it. As someone who enjoys literature, the work has great value, as in individual work as well as its influence on the development of writing in the English language.

'What wonder' Fiacha mac Fir Febe said,
'that the one who did this in his seventh year should triumph
 against odds and beat his match today,
when he is fully seventeen years old!'

So whether you've read it for enjoyment or to pick apart some contradictory theological argument you'll be having with aunt Pauline at Thanksgiving dinner, the fact is you've read some of it, read a book which makes allusions or references to it, seen a film which depicts an episode from it, or have had it quoted at you, you will have some experience of it.

But what do you know about the "Epic of Gilgamesh"? What was the point of the Illiad? Where was Odysseus trying to get back to in the Odyssey? What is the Aeneid all about? Why was a second battle fought at Moytura? What was the Cattle raid of Cooley? How did Thor end up in a wedding dress? Why did Sigurd fight a dragon? Why would Sita sing the Blues? Why did Son-Goku journey to the West? Why should anyone care about the Tale of Genji? The list of questions goes on, but the point is this: How literate are you when it comes to the works of pre-Christian cultures (and in many cases Christianized versions of those cultures tales) and your familiarity with them?

I do not doubt for a second that recons will have a very good grasp on the materials which informs their worldviews, both the primary materials as well as secondary texts and commentaries. How much then, would those same folks be cognizant of when it comes to the tales from other cultures? How would that knowledge then stand up against their familiarity with the Bible? What of "Pagans" who are not as interested in mythology as others?

My point is this; I think there is a need to educate ourselves about a rather large body of myth that ought to have a greater impact than it currently does. Is it not worth considering that many of us are far more familiar with the Christian mythos than that of the Hellenes, Romans, Celts, Germanics, Kemetics, etc? Would it not be worth developing a better working knowledge of the mythology which informs the worldviews of fellow polytheists and "Pagans"? Certainly there is a treasure trove of mythic literature available, and while I know I've already got a lot of reading and study on my plate, it behooves me to make just a little time to broaden my horizons and read some myth which isn't Gaelic in nature.

As such, I'd like to make a modest proposal and I'm calling it the ""Pagan" literacy project". It can be as narrow or as broad as you'd like to make it, but the goal is to read a work of myth or legend which does not have a direct connection to your own cultural tradition, or perhaps for those who are not Reconstructionists or more culturally minded polytheists, a deeper examination of the foundational mythology of the cultures you draw inspiration from. Even just one work will go a long way to broaden your understanding and perhaps appreciation of the mythology of your fellow polytheists.



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tinker Bell Theology... or if you just believe.

I've not come across any sort of formal use of the term, though most folks seem to understand what I'm nattering on about when I make use of the expression. The "Tinker Bell Doctrine" or "Tinker Bell Theology" or "Tinkerbell effect" is a term I utilize when I encounter a peculiar, if pervasive, perspective when it comes to the nature of the gods. The origin of the term denotes the character Tinkerbell, originating in the works of J.M Barrie and most popularly, the 1953 Disney animated film, "Peter Pan", and in particular that the more an individual (or group) believes in something, the more potent it becomes. This is a concept which, while not necessarily a major strain in theological thought, is none the less pervasive, especially in fictionalized representations of mythic beings.

There are a number of fictional works where this approach to deities can be observed, ranging from stories by Douglas Adams, to Neil Gaiman, to the show "Supernatural". Jason, at the Wildhunt blog, has already explored some of the problematic aspects of the practical application to gods some of us actually still worship (in the case of the later); it is one reason why I dislike the show and despite the protestations of my wife and others, will not "give a chance". I'll touch on this in a little more detail later on.

I wanted to touch on and explore in a little more depth the approach Gaiman in particular takes. I really, really like the fiction of Neil Gaiman. I am at a loss to name any other recent author who so thoroughly "gets" what many refer to as "mythical thinking". The love the man has for mythology, in and of itself, permeates all of his works. Coupled with the understanding that myth is a framework, a lens through which to understand our experiences, to provide meaning to those experiences, is a thoroughly refreshing approach, normally only found haunting academic approaches to the subject itself.

Having gotten my fanboy gushing out of the way, Gaiman does make substantial use of "Tinker Bell Theology", smatteringly throughout his "Sandman" graphic novel series, but centrally in his novel "American Gods". In particular, his framing of the origins and extent of deities in particular (sometimes conflated with genius loci, sometimes not) fully adopts this perspective. The basic framework outlining the "life" of a god or goddess is as follows.

1. Humans have something they begin to believe in strongly.
2. This belief manifests itself in a physical form.
3. This form will follow the humans who believe in it, or another localized form will do the same.
4. The level of offerings/sacrifices/ influence directly correlates to the potency of the god/ goddess.
5. As the level of devotion wanes, so too does the god.

In conclusion, the mitigating factor in the existence of a deity is the extent in which Humans actively/inactively believe in them. The more people who believe, the stronger the deity is.

While this creates an interesting framing of the origins and nature of gods, and certainly works as a plot device in a number of fictional universes, it is at its core, incompatible with a truly polytheistic approach to theology. Pantheistic, Panentheistic, Monistic, even perhaps so called "soft polytheism", but not polytheism in and of itself.

I personally think such a theological approach to the gods is an almost textbook definition of self-importance and solipsism. That we create the gods, that they are beholden to us, that they need our worship to sustain them speaks far more to the ascendency and dominance of monotheistic thinking, than to the actual nature of the gods, from a polytheistic world view.

If the gods are little more than thought projections, delusions of a fevered mind or mass imagining, then what value do they have, really? How can these mere mental (and later physical) constructs, or idols, hope to compete with the supreme being, with the "author of creation"? In a word, they can not; they are literally straw(god)men, built up specifically so they can be torn down by the obvious truth which can only be found through the worship of the "One true God". Monotheists, while trying to explain away the historic context of the struggle monotheistic systems had in dealing with contemporary polytheism, will argue that references to "gods" do not refer to deities aside from their own, but the metaphorical idols of the human condition: money, greed, power, lust, etc. In the same breath, the gods of our ancestors are explained away as at best base superstition and at worst demon worship. The gods of polytheism necessarily have to be imaginary friends or hallucinatory monsters, because they do not fit anywhere else.

While I can appreciate the more sympathetic approaches in some of the other theistic frameworks I listed above, they all tend to have one thing in common; they reduce the existence, the nature of the gods, as being sourced to the human mind. The gods become archetypes of human endeavour, they become names of power, they become explanations of natural phenomena to a primitive people, they are relegated to a bygone era, they are shelved in storybooks, and they are proclaimed to be dead (especially when compared to the "living" god of monotheism). Is it any wonder, then, that people will often look askance at those of us who mention that we not only "believe" in these gods, but that we actively worship them?

This turns back to one of my major criticisms with the show "Supernatural", and also why I balk at it, but give Gaiman a pass. The narrative framing of the series is from a monotheistic theological perspective; gods when they do show up, are little more than glorified monsters and readily dispatched by the recurring heroes/villains. Living in a culture steeped and saturated with the superiority of monotheism, I'd rather spend my time in fictional universes more sympathetic to my own view of theology. While Gaiman does us similar framing, and is just as guilty of utilizing 'Tinker Bell theology", he applies it equally across the board. For those of you who like me have the 10th anniversary edition of "American Gods" and have read the Apocrypha, you'll understand what I'm getting at. For those who have not, suffice to say that Jesus is "stretched", just a little bit, not unlike an aged Bilbo Baggins. Gaiman gets a pass for having a good grasp of the myths his characters are sourced from, and not just using them as magical (and recognizable) names, to be disposed of at will for plot convenience. In addition, his sympathies lie with mythic thinking, and not mythic name dropping.

I am firmly of the perspective that the gods are both real and external to us. They do not require our worship, nor do they require our belief in order to exist. At least not anymore than I require your belief to exist. Subjectivity is fine and good, and context is always relevant, but one needs to have a grounding in what is, so as to not fall into the trap of solipsism. Why then worship the gods, if they do not need our worship to sustain themselves?

Because it is better to live in harmony with the gods than to be in opposition to them.
Because they enrich our lives and provide us with models and guidance to follow.
Because they offer to us a connection to something far greater than ourselves.
Because their worship establishes a connection with those who came before us.
Because they, and their stories, provide us with meaning and purpose.

I believe in the gods, because they believe in me.