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.

Thoughts?

-Gorm

 

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.
 
-Gorm.
 
* For a slightly more in depth examination of this cultural shift, see Kelly and Dryfus, "All Things Shining".

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.
 
Thoughts?
 
- 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.
 
-Gorm.

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.

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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!