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.