Monday, August 30, 2010

The "illumination" of Fír?

Fír is one of the central concepts of the Fálachus tradition, approximately it relates to way in which one best lives their life according to the natural order of the cosmos. It is derived from the fír flaithemon, that is "rulers truth", as mentioned in the wisdom text, Audacht Morainn. It is a concept which posits that a king needs to behave in such a way, that upholds the function of his position, and by doing so maintains the proper ordering of the cosmos, enabling him to rule justly. The fír of an individual then is going to differ from person to person. I have read, and participated in, conversations where fír has been compared to possible cognates of other cultures; I have seen it compared to dharma, wyrd/ørlǫg, and fate. The modern Irish word for fate/destiny is cinniúint, but I have not come across much on the subject of cinniúint among GRP's (if anyone would care to enlighten me...) There is however a tendency to try and "square peg" culturally specific ideas into general molds, and while there may be benefit to cross cultural comparison, trying to understand the concept from within is better.

How then does one come to know their own fír? For myself it has become evident through a number of recent decisions as to where my life was going vs the direction I expected it to go in. The strangest, and definitely most UPG based, aspect of this has been akin to a literal emotion occurring before/during/after choices were made. It has often happened spontaneously, a thought comes into my head accompanied by a specific feeling (to try and describe it, semi euphoric and warm) and an intense urge to act on that thought; the resulting action results in a change, which upon further reflection or speaking with others, was oddly (almost frighteningly) a seeming inevitability.

I'll give you an example which occurred to me today actually: I am returning to school in a weeks time, to pursue a career in Funeral Directing, but needing to pay off my current debt, decided to leave my job as a clerk in a book store and landscape for the summer, as the pay is much better (though the work much harder). I had originally planned to work until the 3rd of September, but then a few things came up which I needed to sort out before I went back to school on the 7th, so I informed my boss that September 1st would be my last day; I did this last week. Today, however I suddenly "got it in my head" that today should be my last day on the job; I was not sure why exactly, only that the urge to no longer work for the company (which was a good company, and a decent enough job) was overwhelming. I made up my mind, called my boss and informed him of my choice. We had an amicable exchange and he sort of chuckled. I asked why he was laughing, to which he replied, "Well it's weird, I was actually going to call you this evening and ask if this could have been your last day." This threw me for a bit of a loop, not that I couldn't understand why he would have asked that (aside from myself, another fellow returning to school next week was also working, though he was working until the 3rd, and my boss had recently hired two new employees, so it did not make a lot of sense to pay an extra guy to work for two more days when he  was notl really needed), but that it so perfectly coincided with my inexplicable (and sudden) urge to quit.

Recently, these "sudden urges" have been occurring more frequently, and with similar coincides, to the point where I have begun to suspect that they are no longer mere coincidence. I find it a very odd state of affairs, as I have been a considerably skeptical person all my life, and have brushed off other people's experiences as coincidence or "selective seeing"; but then again I also used to be an atheist, and until I experienced the presence of a deity for the first time, such a notion was laughable to my mind. Once again however, I find myself faced with an experience my skeptical mind is unable to simply explain away. I have looked over a number of terms and concepts, and so far, fír seems to be the best choice. If anyone else has had similar experiences or can think of a better concept to understand my upg, I would be most grateful to learn of it.


Friday, August 27, 2010

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

I picked this up some time last year, while I still worked at the book store, it was a bargain book and I got my discount so it worked out to three dollars or thereabouts. After having read it, I must say I'm glad I paid so little for it.

I'm familiar with some of Armstrong's other works: "A History of God" and "The Great Transformation". I also realize she writes for a general audience so I was not expecting the discussion to be particularly scholarly, but I was expecting more than I got.

Now, it may bear mentioning that prior to Armstrong's turn to religious books, she was a Catholic Nun. I bring this up because her interpretation of everything which follows is clearly coloured by a tendency among western authors of religion to speak of religion in monotheistic terms. I've come to terms with the fact that YHWH gets top billing in such discussions, but when one considered the scope of the book, it becomes rather disappointing and problematic to her overall narrative. She almost entirely skips polytheism (arguably it could be counted among her discussion of neolithic animism, and in a brief discussion of different Canaanite deities), to the point of when speaking about the religions of ancient Greece, she mentions the proto-monotheism of Plato and Aristotle and little else. Considering the profound significance of polytheism in ancient religion, it is a huge gap to cross, and presents a major flaw in her work.

Secondly her idea of what a myth is, "...myth is make believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking 'what if?' is not only terribly unhelpful, but I think considerably pejorative. When I think of myth, I think of a narrative structure, a framework for understanding the world, and giving it meaning; but I also think of it as true, if not always in an objective sense and here I find myself at variance with Armstrong, in the first two chapters she continually posits that "myth is make believe", that early humans knew that there really were no gods, but liked to pretend there were, to comfort themselves about their "terrible lot". Here again we see the Catholic worldview coming out in her observations; the world is a really awful, terrible place and humans will do anything they can to escape it, even concoct invisible friends to provide catharsis to the harsh realities of this wretched planet. Life is tough, life is a constant struggle, but for all that I think the world is a decent place and I have no desire to escape it. In a book whose central thesis rests on the merit and worth that myth offers to human cultures, Armstrong does as much to point out myth is nothing more than fantasy, but because it helps people, is still worth holding onto. I don't know, perhaps I'm just a theist set in my ways, but I happen to believe that the gods have an objective existence and are as real as you or I. Again, my bias I suppose.

Her framework for interpreting myth falls square into the Jungian/Campbell mold; all depiction of deity or hero is allegorical, and meant to be understood only in an allegorical sense. She establishes early on a dichotomy between allegory and literalism when it comes to understanding myths, and it is clear she believes it to be an either-or question. I prefer a more nuanced perspective (of course since I disagree with her definition of myth, I would); myth is not literal, because it is not history; myth is a narrative from which we impart meaning into the world and our actions within it, but this does not mean that all myth is allegorical either, because the myths are not necessarily describing anything other than themselves. Armstrong is also under the impression that myth is "dead" for all intents and purposes, and that it does not inform the modern, secular world view at all. This has more to do with how she defines myth (yet again showing her definition to be problematic), but the idea that myth is not still a way modern people in developed countries understand the world is at best naive and at worst symptomatic of Armstrong's own bias towards rationalism. One does not need to look far to see myth at work in any number of given subjects. J.M. Greer in his seminal "A World Full of Gods", provides an excellent example of this fallacy by speaking about the "myth of progress". One can see all sorts of other examples; the myth of America (aka manifest destiny) or the myth of linear time (as opposed to circular), each is a way in which people understand their world, but both are also mythic.

My other major problem with the book is that she seems to make a lot of conjecture and passes it off as fact. Most of the sources she cites in her chapters on the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods are considerably dated, and she makes rather sweeping generalizations. She also largely focuses on middle eastern cultures (with a few references to Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and some Greek), and wholly ignores any sort of Indo-European or P-I-E mention; to the point that when she speaks of early Greek myth, her interpretive framework comes from a middle eastern view point, which is simply untenable, knowing what we do of P-I-E mythology and how it informed the development of Hellenic religion and myth. To ignore such an important (especially to the western world) aspect of the developmental history of myth, in a book on the subject, shows the sort of tunnel vision Armstrong has.

Well those are the bad bits, how about some of the good? I do appreciate that Armstrong thinks myth has value, and is something which can have a positive impact on peoples lives. She adamantly refutes the idea of scriptural literalism and does a fair job of arguing some of the pitfalls of rationalism. I can certainly relate to her notion that myth can be used a a means of conveying important truths, especially when it comes to behaviour and ethics:
"The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation."

Overall I'd say that the book isn't worth a read, for the small bits of useful or insightful information there is a lot of other opinion which provides little useful insight into the development of myth. Frankly there are far better books on the subject out there.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A man [and woman] can stand up

 "If you approach the Celtic gods with the attitude of 'I'm not worthy', they're going to respond, 'Well come back when you are.'"

I came across this a few days ago on one of the pagan forums I frequent. The context of the thread was a discussion of "Worshiping without shame, and some members who had come from a Christian theological perspective who were not used to idea of doing anything but grovelling to a god. This notion is actually a core belief of many of the Christians I know, especially those of an Evangelical Protestant persuasion. I do on occasion listen to the local Christian radio station (perhaps more on that in a future post) and the message that humans are not deserving of salvation, and are by their very nature horrible is something which is repeated ad nauseum. I simply can not fathom why anyone with even a shred of self respect would buy into such a nonsensical message.

Comparing this approach to worship with that of Gaelic Polytheism shows just how different GP's act towards their deities. I'm of the view that the basis for that relationship is one of patron-client; deity and worshiper. There is of course an implied hierarchy, and this is fine because after all we are not gods, and they are bastions of knowledge and power we simply do not have. That the gods are greater than we are does not, however, mean that we are to prostrate ourselves before them, it means that we are the "junior partners" in the relationship. The texts are replete with examples of humans in conflict with the déithe, however this more often than not leads to disharmony and suffering. There are even examples of mortals overpowering otherworldly figures, Cúchulain's quarrel with An Morrigan, Fionn's defeat of Aillen, and the victory of the Mileseans over the Tuatha Dé Danaan (A Christian gloss, but an example none the less). What this shows is that in some rare cases humans are capable of even overcoming the gods themselves, though the last time I checked, there wasn't one equal to Cúchulain or Fionn nowadays (plus each had semi-divine parentage to boot.) What is clear however is that even after the Milesans gained the favour of the goddess of sovereignty of Ireland, they then suffered at the hands of the gods, because without their blessing, their crops would not grow, their cows would not produce milk, and things were in a really sorry state. As such, efforts were made to placate the déithe , and the crops flourished, milk flowed freely and things began to look up. The long and short of it then, is that it is far better to be in harmony with the gods, than not.

Our relationships with the gods then, are based on our willingness to provide hospitality (among other things) to them, and they to provide wisdom (among other things) to us. However, nowhere in this relationship is there a call for groveling, cow-towing, or thinking ourselves less than worthy. The gods do not crave our worship (the way some other deities seem to), they do not want clients who think themselves worthless, after all what use would we be to them? It is not a difficult concept to grasp; considering the importance that honour and courage were afforded in early Irish society, one can not grovel and maintain their honour, one can not be courageous when they are bowing and scraping. This is not to say that we ought to be rude or think ourselves equal to the gods, because the first violates hospitality and the second is hubris. Rather we are to stand before our gods and we are to act with honour and courage both before our gods and in our day to day lives. We can do this, not because the gods allow us to, but because they know that we are worthy of being their clients.

Our gods do not expect us to bow, they expect us to stand.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Gorm reads the Gospels I

The Gospel according to St. Matthew

Overview:  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Deities: Coming as I do from a Polytheistic perspective, I'm listing the major deities as depicted in the texts.

Jesus: aka. Emmanuel, son of David, son of Man, Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. A child of prophecy who has come to decry the corruption and hypocrisy he has seen in the established synagogues of the Pharisees and scribes. He spends a lot of time admonishing "this generation" and predicting his own death and resurrection (which he does a lot). Miracles performed: raising of the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons, making the blind see, letting the dumb speak, feeding multitudes of people with little food, walking on water, letting Peter walk on water, calming a storm, prophecy, the mere touch of his clothing also has miraculous powers. He is also capable of summoning "twelve legions of angels", but he does not. Following his "death", an earthquake occurs and the dead (saints) rise and walk the earth. Christ also resurrects himself.

YHWH: aka.God, the father. He shows up twice in the account, the first time after Christ's baptism (to Christ alone) and claims him as his son. The second occurs on a hill top to Christ and three of the Apostles (Peter, James and John), and once again YHWH claims Jesus as his son (though as a "voice from the clouds". Other than these instances he communicates through dreams, Angels and Jesus. Christ speaks of "the father" most of the time when he is referencing YHWH, and depicts him through parables concerned with the lord-servant roles (though these often allude to Christ himself as well.) Jesus states one of the major attributes recognized by most monotheists, that being omniscience in Matthew 6:8.

Satan: aka. The Devil, Mammon. He shows up early on, and tempts Christ three times while he wanders the dessert. Interestingly enough, in Matthew 4:10, Christ tells Satan that he works for "the father". I find this worthy of mention because it reflects the Judaic depiction of Satan as an accuser of men before YHWH, but acting on orders from YHWH. In most of the other depictions he is referenced as "the Devil".

Other divine agents:

Angels: Coming primarily in the form of dreams, but in some instances as visible beings (such as at the sepulcher of Christ).

Devils/demons: Christ and many of the disciples spend much of their missionary work "casting out demons". The Pharisees constantly accuse Christ of using demonic influence to perform his miracles.

Otherworldly Locals:

Heaven: Spoken of in rather abstract terms, usually as "life everlasting" or "the next life", the reward of the faithful for their suffering, to the extent of being rewarded "hundredfold (Matthew 19:20).

Hell: Again mostly in absract, there is an interesting allusion to the "burning of wheat", and `the casting off into a lake of fire" in Mathew 13:33-43; hell then is equated with burning in a fire.


Seeing as this is the main source of verses used in proselytizing, and most often quoted in most of the interfaith debates I've participated in they bear mention. The first thing I noticed was how often Jesus repeats himself, he does this, a lot. He will be quoted in one chapter, and in another will repeat the exact same thing he said. At first I figured this was because he was traveling a great deal and speaking to new "multitudes", however in almost all cases he is speaking to the Apostles, so yes according to Matthew, Jesus repeated himself. Secondly he was under the distinct impression that even the Apostles were "faithless", he says "ye of little faith" at least a dozen times, and explains that their unbelief is stopping them from performing the caliber of miracles he does. Jesus says many things which seem to contradict other statements he has made; in Matthew 13 he claims he " has not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." This to me implies that there are people who are righteous and therefore do not need to repent, yet he also says to a rich man (who is not a sinner) that he needs to follow him (and give up all his possessions), and when the man decides to not do that, he is condemned.

Minutia: Jesus claims that unless a woman has divorced her husband for adultery, she and any man she marries is guilty of adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

Chapters 23, 27 and 28 are pretty good example of the kind of scripture which would create (and propagate) much of the antisemitism which has plagued the Jews for centuries.

Chapter 24-25 is Christ's foretelling of the end of the world, and an excellent example of Christian eschatology.

Closing thoughts:

In terms of the virtues I personally see Jesus embody in this text, his compassion and willingness to heal the sick, as well as his determination are admirable qualities. I find his pettiness in some cases (the episode with the fig tree) problematic, and the "do as I say not as I do attitude, since he is exempt from the Laws (Matthew 12:1-9). Again because of the seemingly contradictory views he expresses, his "teachings" are not as clear as they could be. Also the issue of his willingness to be a sacrifice to save all of mankind is not expressed overtly here, rather he goes to his death (and does not resist) to ensure prophecy is fulfilled. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm going to guess that this aspect which is so central to Christian belief is going to be emphasized in the other Gospels.

Join me next Saturday for part two of "Gorm reads the Gospels."


Friday, August 20, 2010

Sacred Saturdays

Over the next little while it is my goal to survey a number of the sacred texts of various religions and cultures and give my opinion on them from a polytheistic perspective. After a randomized selection process (utilizing a d20) the first installment is going to be the Christian New Testament (monotheism keeps cropping up here, but we'll get to a polytheistic topic soon enough ;p). A bit of background then; I wasn't raised in a religious home so most of my experience with Christian scriptures have been on the receiving end of proselytizers, religious tracts, advertisements, attending religious services of friends (and my fiances family) and through general exposure to Western culture. So I've never done anything more than look up a specific verse, and have never actually read the NT through, the one exception being Revelations (but that`ll be covered in the blog on that book.) I have decided to use the King James Version, because while I understand that as far as translations go it is riddled with errors, it is one of the more literary versions and arguably a classic of the English language. It may also bear mentioning that I will not be reviewing the Christian OT, preferring to use English translations of the Jewish texts (a personal choice on my part).

So this week begins "Gorm reads the Gospels."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Park51/Cordoba House

You may find it odd, even ironic that the first topic I've ever blogged about on a blog with a subtitle like "polytheism without apologies" involves the controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic cultural center. But stay with me, it all ties in.

It has been little over three weeks since the issue of the construction of Cordoba House in lower Manhattan became national (and in my case international) news. A firestorm of opposition has erupted across the American political and religious landscape, ranging from questioning the "wisdom" of building so close to Ground Zero to claiming the construction (and its supporters) were "spitting in the face of Americans". A central theme which has permeated the entire discussion is the questions of religious freedom, or rather it should have. Frankly the kind of rhetoric which is being bandied about by those in opposition to the construction seems to be little more than xenophobia, disguised as "concern" for the victims. The usual suspects of course have voiced their concerns, conservative luminaries like the ACLJ, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and John McCain. All have couched their opposition to the planned construction as being "sensitive to victims and their families". Claiming that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero is akin to constructing a "Japaneses cultural center at Pearl Harbor" or "a Museum to Bach outside Auschwitz".

There is however a problem with such analogies, they are patently false. I'll be the first to admit that I did not lose anyone in 9/11, nor even knew anyone who was killed. Not being an American, I've been considerably removed from the emotional impact of the entire situation. It is wholly reasonable that people emotions still run high, and the pain and anger continues to linger almost a decade after. However it is far from reasonable, disgusting in fact, that politicians have managed to turn a non-event into something so divisive. Lets look at the essential facts.

1. The property is privately owned. This by itself ought to be enough to show the hypocrisy coming from commentators on the right. In any other case they would be out trumpeting the private property rights of an individual and decrying any attempt by the "government" to curtail these rights. It is endlessly amusing to see such a stark about face, with many attempting to use the vary governmental apparatuses they have unequivocally campaigned against.

2. People have a right to freely exercise their religion. Enshrined in the American Constitution (and in just about every other constitution or charter in democratically elected nations) is the freedom of religious expression. Muslims have every right to construct their mosques, on their own property, if they want to. This gets to the crux of the issue, because if this were a group planning to build a Church, Synagogue or Buddhist Temple, no one would have batted an eye. No One. Zero. Zilch. Nada. However because the group is Muslim, and because the terrorists who brought down the towers were also Muslim, it is supposed to be very clear that this is a case of Muslims being insensitive or even "rubbing it" in victims faces.

To expand on the last bit of the second point, many opponents claim that this is not an issue of either private property rights or religious freedom, and that it is about sensitivity to victims families. I think this is bull pocky and a clear example of cognitive dissonance. Of course this is about property rights and freedom of religious expression, because if this were a Christian church being built in Wisconsin, no one would care. However because the proposed building is two blocks from Ground Zero, and is going to be an Islamic cultural center, it suddenly becomes a huge problem. The center has so far fought off any legal attempts to prevent its construction, but it has stirred up really problematic sentiments across the US, Islamophobic sentiments.

I suppose this is as good a place as any other to say something about my personal feelings about Islam. Being a polytheist, I'm about as enamoured with Islam as I am with Christianity, which is to say not much. I disagree with several of the core principles of the religion and especially those regarding Shirk (polytheism) and how to treat those who have committed Shirk. Having said that, I believe in the freedom of religion and people are entitled to worship a Middle Eastern deity as readily as a Gaelic one.

Freedom of religion means freedom of religion all the time, not only when it is convenient or the majority favours it. Frankly this debate has me considerably questioning how dedicated the average American is to protecting the religious freedom of those outside their own religion; and since Christianity is the closet thing to a majority religion, it becomes a Christian vs. Other issue. An article I read after I began writing this blog is rather telling; most New Yorkers do not support the building of the center, but recognize that the builders are protected by the constitution, which is why all attempts to stop the construction have failed thus far. However the issue seems to have been blown up enough to become an election issue in November. We will get to see firsthand the impact of xenophobia in what is supposed to be one of the "home states of liberalism" in the US. My guess is that the sort of people who would oppose the center were already voting for a right leaning candidate anyway, but time as always will tell.

I see this entire episode as nothing more than an excuse to erode the rights of religious minorities, or failing that, remind people that religious minority A hates America. The end result is that just a little more fear and a smidge more of mistrust seeps into the mind of the average American when it comes to the dread other, and the lunatic on Youtube or CNN screeching about the Islamization of America or Terror babies moves that much closer to becoming normalized as reasonable viewpoints, instead of the madness which they are.