Sunday, April 20, 2014

Love is overrated

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

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

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

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

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.