Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Hard Choice

It would be wrong to say that I am a fan of eschatology, but it does fascinate me to some extent. I think that the way a culture believes the end of time will occur says as much about it as its cosmogenic narratives do. Unfortunately, for those of use with a proclivity for Celtic cultures, we lack both; or what we have are tiny fragments with tantalizing hints of a much broader set of complimentary myths. Of all the eschatological narratives our there, being discussed and bandied about, my personal favourite is that of Ragnarok, or the twilight of the Aesir. It has everything that makes a story both memorable and enjoyable: prophecies fulfilled, old scores being settled, single combats to the death and the last, great stand of those who would defend the cosmos from oblivion; those willing to sacrifice all they are to purchase a future for those who may come next. I used to balk at the fatalistic tendencies inherent in the tales of the Aesir, and ponder why none of the gods would reject a future that had been written, but not yet come to pass. I questioned the tales and the perception of impotent gods, unable to do anything to change their fate. It took me a while, and some deep discussions with some very wise and eloquent Asatruars to realize that in my dedication of the rejection of fatalism, I missed the point. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this would be to use one of the very episodes in question, a precursor to the main event, so to speak. It is a story involving Tyr, and how he came to lose his hand.

Tyr, a member of the Aesir, god of single combat (among other things) along with the other gods, had grown concerned of the growth of the wolf Fenrir, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboða, and so resolved to chain the great beast, for they had foreknowledge of the doom which would occur as a result of him. They tried three times to bound the wolf, and three times he broke the fetters they laid about him. Finally, Odin resolved to have the dwarves forge a special ribbon, Gleipnir, which would finally restrain Fenrir. The wolf, sensing that some trick was being performed upon him, would only allow himself to be retrained if one of the gods laced their hand in his mouth. Were he unable to break free, he would bite off the hand of the god. The Aesir balked at this, except Tyr, who placed his hand in the gaping maw of the wolf, who was then bound. Unable to break free of Gleipnir, and having realized the cunning of the Aesir, bit down and severed Tyr's hand from his arm. The wolf was thus bound but at a high price.

Looking at it from a fatalistic standpoint, there was no prophecy that Fenrir would devour Tyr's hand, but there were prophecies of the ill which would befall the world, because of Fenrir. Tyr had the ability to say no, to balk as the other Gods did, knowing full well what would happen once the wolf became wise to the Aesir's deceit. But had he balked, he would have not been Tyr, the embodiment of the warrior, god of single combat and heroic glory. Tyr understood exactly what would happen, knew the outcome, yet willingly bought the entrapment of Fenrir with his own hand. This speaks to one of the most important themes running through the Icelandic sagas, the hard choice.

The hard choice is never pleasant and only marginally better than the alternative, but that sliver of distinction is how honour abides. It is easy to have lofty ideals when it is convenient, but true virtue is tested when things go wrong. If you suddenly find yourself staring at the hard choice, and your resolve fails, what then of morality? What then of honour? Lofty ideals to be abandoned when they become a burden, will forever remain just that; esoteric and highfalutin sound bites. Those willing to make the hard choice, willing to embody the ideals they espouse, can justify their virtue and be held as honorable. This is one of the morals of the story of Tyr that I think has immense value, and it is a lesson that is sorely needed.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Polytheistic family fun!

I've been piecing this post little by little for a couple of months now, though it was originally inspired by Galina Krasskova's "Top 10 Pagan/Heathen Movies". I've complied a list of films, books and television series which I find provide excellent stories and useful lessons for kids. While quite modern, and not necessarily Gaelic, still have some value as widely available media to instill virtues and concepts which are pertinent to GRP's (and perhaps polytheism in general).

A quick side note: Krasskova's overviews of both "Princess Mononoke" (Mononoke Hime) and "The Lion King" are excellent and I need not repeat them here. They are, however, some of my favourite animated films and can not recommend them highly enough.

I will however, mention Hayo Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). The story is simple enough, that children will thoroughly enjoy it, but the issues are complex enough that adults will find much to contemplate. The premise is the synthesis of modernity coming to terms with the past/ environment which is a hallmark of Miyasaki's style. In this instance, the main character, Chihiro, finds herself having to survive in an other world inhabited by the Kami of Shinto lore, with nothing but her will and the support of a few sympathetic Kami who aid her. It has very clear environmentalist overtones, but it is also tries to impart the importance of folk tradition in a world where so many are utterly disconnected from it. There is actually an excellent essay, "Forest Spirits, Giant Insects and World Trees:  the Nature Vision of Hiyao Miyazaki” by Lucy Wright, which I came across (thanks to Finnchuill's Mast) which explores the way Miyazaki utilizes elements of Shinto in his films.

A novel series I discovered last year, is the Warrior's series of books. The books follow several clans of anthropomorphic cats, and chronicles the political and social turmoil between the clans. The great thing about these books are the various virtues they impart, in a way that children can understand and, perhaps, emulate: honour, courage, loyalty, living in harmony with local geography and reverence of ones ancestors. The warrior aspect is very apparent (it is after all the title of the series), but the inclusion of ancestor worship, as well as the "mystic experience" was something which is absent in a lot of similar series. The ancestors are referred to as "Starclan", and this is the closest thing to a religion which exists in the Warriors world. While not Celtic or Gaelic by any stretch of the imagination, it none the less is a way for children to develop a sense of the significance of ancestor reverence and virtues like honour and courage, while being accessible and enjoyable.

A cartoon series I would heartily recommend is "Avatar: The Last Air Bender" (and not the insipid live action film version). I will try to keep the fan boy gushing aside, but this is simply one of the best animated series I have watched. Period. There are some aspects to the show I do not like as much as others; the heavily pantheist leanings chief among them, and the emphasis on detachment from the world. There is, however, much which can be taken from the show. The interaction with the "spirit world" and local land spirits is a decent representation of more traditional forms of animism, fairly reminiscent of Shinto. While often side stories to the main plot, "trips to the spirit world" are always of benefit to the progression of the plot and the character development of Aang, the aforementioned Avatar. The way the spirits are portrayed cover a broad spectrum; some are beneficial, some are indifferent (unless crossed) and others are malicious. I like this aspect because it is more reflective of the way GRP's understand interactions with the fair folk or spirits of place, and avoids the sunshine and sprinkles approach which is fairly prevalent.

There are some other aspects of the series I also think admirable. The way that issues of morality are explored are multifaceted and complex enough to avoid the sort of dichotomous kinds of morality so often found in works of fiction. A good example of the later is found in the Redwall series, which I love dearly, but it operates on a very simple moral framework. There are competing perspectives in the Avatar world, and it seems like the writers went out of their way to not, necessarily, have one tack superior to another. Aang, the chief protagonist was raised by Monks and so has a considerably different approach to morality than another character, Katara. The best example I can think of has to do with the idea of forgiveness. There are some spoilers ahead, so if you haven't yet seen the series or are in the process, skip ahead.

[Spoiler warning]

In the episode, Katara learns that Zuko (a former enemy turned ally, who she is currently having some trust issue with) can help her find the man who murdered her mother. As they prepare to set off, Aang tries to talk her out of it, extolling the virtues of forgiveness and how seeking vengeance will only hurt Katara in the long run. She ignores him and long story short, confronts the man who murdered her mother. Seeing how pitiable his life is, she can not bring herself to kill him, and returns. Aang, overjoyed that Katara has forgiven the man, is corrected by Katara and is informed that she will never forgive him, but can forgive Zuko.

[Spoiler warning ends]

The approach to the issue of forgiveness is one I can really appreciate, because the idea of automatic forgiveness is something I strongly disagree with. Restitution needs to be earned by those who have transgressed, and it is unreasonable (bordering on unethical) to expect someone who has been seriously wronged, to forgive those who have wronged them automatically. I understand the general cultural significance of forgiveness, and its basis is a different religious perspective, but that doesn't mean I need to agree with it. And therein lies the beauty of the series approach to morality, characters can be ethical without believing the same things or having the same foundational basis for moral action. Whats more it manages to deal with issues like morality and ethics without being pedantic or clumsy, which is something which can not be said about a lot of other children's shows.

I'll probably post some more suggestions at a later date as I either remember them or actually add new ones to the list.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reconstructionism, again...

This has been going on for a little while now, but once again it is sort of at the fore of some discussions on the methodology behind Reconstructionism; specifically how it relates to UPG. For myself it was sparked by a discussion on one of the forums I frequent, and linked to a blog by another Reconstructionist. I'll not hash out the whole thing here, but the crux was that some of the recons who frequented this forum disagreed with the use of Reconstructionist as it was defined by the blog. There was an interesting discussion which resulted, and in the end, I guess we agreed to disagree.

Recently, however, this issue, the role of UPG in Recon, has come up again. My only issue at this point is the way that the discussion is being couched, and the canard which is being bandied about, namely "lore is law". I can only speak from my own experiences with the Recons I know, but I've yet to meet any that would agree that the lore is all one goes by, and UPG or mystic experiences have no place in Reconstructionism. The issue that I have then, is that there is a vast difference between scholarly diligence and placing what is known (or probable based on inference) ahead of personal gnosis, than simply quoting the lore as some infallible text, as is wont in monotheistic circles. The problem is that the later is precisely how those who favour scholarship over UPG are being represented, as if they were some sort of mythic literalist's. I'd like to believe that people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt, and that any Reconstructionist worth their salt would be aware of the limitations of the mythic texts, doubly so for those which are known to have been recorded/written by Christian scribes. But this isn't happening, no apparently there is a vociferous contingent of Recons who think that, for example, the LGE is holy writ and wholly pre-Christian (despite it starting with a short summary of the events of Genesis) and that any who diverge from the myths as laid down are heretical and need be cast out! That isn't even the real issue here, what is the issue is the, I believe deliberate, attempt to equate a reliance on scholarship with a literalistic approach to the lore. The lore is but one, ONE, part of a much larger whole comprising a body of knowledge pertaining to a cultural group, upon which one builds the foundation for reconstruction. My experience is limited, and certainly I've not met anyone who would use the Recon label, but I've never come across any of these literalists, because frankly we know better.

I've come to expect this sort of argument, that Recons are all stodgy academics who study their religion, rather than live it, from some Pagan circles, but from within the Recon community itself? I'll repeat it here for the umpteenth time, UPG matters. UPG is crucial. UPG is an intrinsic component of Reconstructionism. UPG has a role, as does study. I believe that UPG is informed by, and understood through the study of whatever culture it is one is reconstructing from. UPG can be used to fill in gaps where we have no information, or through inference and probability where we do have some idea. If you've gotten the notion that Ogma receives offerings of oatmeal cookies favourably, I've got no issue with that. Despite there not being any references to oatmeal cookies in the lore (or other texts) it seems like the offering of baked goods was probable, so go for it. If you've had a powerful dream where an amorphous goddess tells you all deities are one, well that's not reflected at all in any of the info we've got, and if you choose to base your perspective from that point, you've stopped reconstructing. I realize these are two fairly cut and dried examples, but I'm firmly in the camp that mystic experiences need be understood through whatever cultural framework one is working from, and that this is the basis of Reconstructionism as a methodology. If it comes down to a personal experience vs scholarship, I favour scholarship. Would a conflict between UPG and scholarship necessarily manifest in such a dichotomous manner, not likely. Was there any indication of the dismissal of the importance of mystic experiences in that? Hmm.... nope.

It can be pointed out that scholarship itself has room for improvement: it is by no means monolithic, nor static and there are many perspectives and approaches to the material to consider. There is definitely a great deal of "wiggle room" when it comes to trying to understand an ancient culture, its mythic framework, and then adapting it to be something which is still relevant in a modern context. This is especially true when the sources we have are fragmentary and glossed over with a differing religious perspective, and approaching them with a critical eye is simply a necessity, because in those cases we just haven't got fully preserved pre-Christian myths. This is one of the reasons I balk at the idea that anyone who would call themselves a Recon would not be cognizant of the limitations of the mythic texts (at least in the CR camp), and why the suggestion of mythic literalism as an active force in Reconstructionism seems very unlikely. Though I could see how in the cases where more complete myths exist it being a possibility, I also think that the contemporary texts which explore the relationships between the myths and the deities they represent would be crucial reading for Recons.