Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Polytheism is on the fringes. Really, Apparently we don't actually exist...

Ah the convenience (and fun) of "Google news searches". The things you learn from it can be, if nothing else, rather amusing. Like the folks who seem to talk about "polytheism" more than anyone else are Muslims. Or that there is a baseball player named "Angel Pagan"? Sometimes though, you get some decent hits back, and this is one example.

"Texas faith Blog: "Do you think monotheism a superior form of religious belief? If so, why? If not, why not?""
It was preceded by the following blurb:

"The three Abrahamic faiths are known for being monotheistic religions. They worship one Deity, even though they may leave room for several concepts of the Divine. For example, Christians believe in the Trinity.

But other faiths aren't monotheistic. They allow for more than one god. As Texas Faith panelist Amy Martin wrote in an email:
"If you ask a Hindu if they are monotheistic, they will acknowledge the all-encompassing nature of the Brahma and say that all theisr gods and goddesses are simply aspects of that godhead. Even pagans say the same thing. The spiritual-not-religious, like Buddhists, posit an all-is-one divine energy, but do not define it as God."

Over time, these concepts have shaped traditions, cultures and even nations. So, for this week I'd like to hear your answer to this question"
The question posted above was asked by William Mackenzie for the religion blog on the Dallas Morning News web site, to a large number of priests, religious scholars, writers and representatives from around Texas. I say large number, because calling them assorted would be untrue. The respondents are overwhelmingly Christian, then monotheist, then pantheist, then monist. Even the token alt-spirituality panelist is at best a pantheist. Was it so difficult to find an actual polytheist? Are we so few in number that we can not be reached for comment? Well, there may be something to that last question actually. However, I'll touch on that a bit later.

The responses are precisely what I expected they would be. "Yes, monotheism is superior, though we don't like the word "superior", how about this, monotheism is true. Period. Oh, okay, here is every rehashed apologetic argument for the existence of a single, all powerful deity..." I'm not surprised, just disappointed really.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, lamenting the fact that polytheism in theological discussions never gets a fair shake, is marginalized and when spoken about is relegated to a passing curiosity of some primitive people.But when it happens over, and over and over again, and when one's focus is on polytheistic issues, this si what I've got to work with.

So, the arguments. They range from the typical, "revealed through scriptures", "revealed through reason", "the unity in nature" to the really odd: "I'm not a theist... but there is a supreme... energy", "polytheists were monotheists in practical engagement" and my personal favourite, "Paganism, Shintoism, Native Americans and other indigenous faiths, and many more paths often described as polytheistic, have at their core an acknowledgement of the one God." I'll address each in measure.

"Revealed through scripture": This is probably the most common argument I've come across when discussing theological matters with monotheists of all stripes. The simple fact of the matter is that different sources say different things, and the only significance of any given source is whether you afford it a special position in comparison to other texts. For those who do not afford a given text that special place, it is just another book. This isn't going to convince someone who doesn't already agree with you. It also depends largely on the hermeneutics one applies to the understanding of a given text. The reconciliation between the OT and NT, for example, is one which is still not really resolved. Instead, it relies largely on what amounts to a Christian retcon (that is, for those not familiar with the geek aphorism, retroactive continuity), where established aspects of a given narrative are displaced, reinterpreted, or removed in order to fit in with a new continuity.

"Revealed through reason": This is a little more theological and philosophical in its scope, and arguments have raged for the reason based belief in a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent (and very often omnibenevolent) deity, for centuries. Of course, this flies in the face of theological issues which have yet to be adequately addressed, the problem of evil chief among them. There are other problematic aspects of this as well, which ties into the "unified whole" that would be impossible under the behest of competing forces. Which flies in the face of human history when one thinks about it. Humans have been in conflict for as long as there have been humans (and perhaps even longer), yet the world none the less exists, human civilizations rise, flourish and fall, and yet different interests continue to exist, humanity continues to exist despite this "chaos", and so to does the universe continue to run along, despite the fact that there are any number of different "forces" at work. Such issues, and others are adequately addressed in Greer's "World Full of gods" which argues rather convincingly that such arguments are based less on reason than worldview. I could rehash those arguments here, but for now I'd rather not.

"Polytheists were monotheists in practice": This was at first an odd, and then ridiculous claim. It is far more telling of the ignorance of the commenter on the nature of polytheism, than it is about the superiority of monotheism. The essential argument is that even, so called, polytheists were in fact really monotheists. Has this guy ever read anything about the ancient religions of most of the world? His point about "practical monotheism" states that when a given polytheist would invoke a deity, they chose one based on the area of influence. In such a case, the polytheists were invoking only a single god or goddess, which meant that in practice, one dealt with gods on an one to one basis, practical monotheism. It is baffling, to say the least and hilarious when one thinks of the logical end of such a view. So polyamorists are really monogamous, because they have sex with one person at a time, regardless of the fact that they have multiple partners? I'd chock it up to simple ignorance of what the differences between polytheism and monotheism are. Aside from the contradiction in terms, there is also the issue of invoking "the gods", or invoking multiple deities simultaneously.

I'll be spending a little more time on the last comment, because it really gets my dander up. I can not comment on whether or not Martin is a self identified Pagan. Her website is in essence a new age/ pluralistic one, but specific aspects of theology are lacking, at least without access to the news archives. Though she is guilty of the "Paganism" states X fallacy which so many fall into when speaking to non-Pagans about Pagan beliefs. Judging from her statements, though, I would wager she falls into the pantheistic/monist camp. To be fair, there are a vocal (if not large) number of self described Pagans who do believe in the concept of a unified godhead, or the "one diamond, many facets" theology. Unfortunately, not all who identify as Pagan do. You'd never know that though, which is why the aforementioned statement falls into the aforementioned fallacy. A little tweaking could have placed the comment in context, instead of a sweeping proclamation of belief. However, this strikes me of someone who isn't just generalizing, but wholly glosses over the very idea that there are actually polytheists out there. Towards the beginning of the article, there is a quote from Martin:

"Paganism, Shintoism, Native Americans and other indigenous faiths, and many more paths often described as polytheistic, have at their core an acknowledgement of the one God. Hinduism, the most polytheistic of faith paths with phantasmagorical gods and goddesses, exalts Brahmin, the one God who is vast and beyond capability of the human mind to understand.
In these allegedly poly paths, the myriad aspects of the one God are articulated in the forms of gods and goddesses, who are like us but not like us. Giving these aspects of God unique identities, with songs and stories and temples attached, enables people to have personal relationship with the divine."
What the quote does is reinforce the idea that even those kooky Pagans (who since Martin is the only one who mentions them, becomes the representative of) don't actually believe in polytheism. So the real question ought to have been "How many monotheists does it take to tear down a straw-man?" There isn't a single argument for polytheism in the whole bunch, where polytheism is mentioned it is either treated as a throwback to primitive superstition or something which doesn't actually exist among theists today. So even those Pagans, the folks who identify themselves by a term derived from a pejorative label for those who continued to practice pre-Christian, POLYTHEISTIC beliefs, even they have moved on from that silly polytheism. I can not remember the last time I felt such rage at being marginalized, and I'm an outspoken polytheist who works for a Catholic funeral home.


So then, this whole exercise begs the question, where are all the polytheists at? Are we so numerically insignificant, or so illusive, that we cannot even be found for a comment for which we may actually have something to say? Are there just no polytheists in the Dallas/Austin area? Perhaps there are no established groups of polytheists who were available for comment? Maybe local polytheists don't read the Dallas Morning News religious blog?

I mentioned it before, but this whole exercise begs the question, why was this question actually asked in the first place? If there were no polytheists for comment, it makes sense that a polytheist wasn't there to ask the question to begin with. So what would be the motivation for Mackenzie to even ask such a question? The knowledge that some people said that other people may worship more than a single god, even if that god is actually a facet of the "One True God"?

What this does illustrate, however, is why I get so excited when I find books like "God Against the Gods". Not only do such works actually look at polytheism, they place it as a legitimate way to understand divinity; at least as reasonable as other such theological perspectives as the more familiar monotheism, atheism and pantheism. It also illustrates that just because polytheism may actually be discussed in an article, it doesn't mean that anyone who participates knows diddly squat about it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: God against the gods

I picked this book up about two weeks ago and just finished it last night. It is not a terribly long book, I just happen to read when I have a moment as opposed to slogging through a book in one go. Interestingly enough, I had previously been going through an old text book of mine, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, and had just gotten past the end of Julians reign when I stumbled upon this particular text. It is written by Jonathan Kirsch, and as I own a copy of an earlier work of his, "The history of the end of the world", I knew at the very least it would be a good read. It was.

The book covers in very broad, sweeping terms the development of monotheism as a religious idea tracing the concept from an Egyptian Pharaoh, to an assumed historic Moses, to Josiah and then to Christianity as it was between the first and fourth centuries. Parallel to this, Kirsch does a decent job of providing a glimpse into the polytheism which pervaded the ancient world, especially the variety of Roman polytheism around the third and fourth centuries CE. He also examines two influential historic figures, the emperors Constantine and Julian, as well as the culture, society and politics both developed in. The bulk of the last half of the book actually focuses on each Emperor and how they in essence, shaped the course of Western religious history. His basic theory of the development of monotheism traces the political aspirations of a given monarch and then parallels that with a desire to institute the worship of the "One True God"; in essence if there is a single all powerful deity, than there ought to be a single all powerful ruler. Another strain of thought running throughout the book, and perhaps its actual thesis, is that contrasting the inherent tolerance of polytheism, with the inherent intolerance of monotheism.

He also does a decent job of putting the so called Christian persecutions, in their historic and cultural context. While he does not downplay the significance or immorality of the mass murder of people who held different beliefs, he does explain the reasoning behind them. On top of that he is also critical (as are most modern historians) of many of the accounts of Christian martyrs, and examines the hyperbole in a number of martyrologies.  Further, he also points out that the number of Christians killed by the Pagan Romans over the "10 persecutions" pales in comparison to the number of Christians killed by the Christian Romans in the subsequent centuries. Mind you, any decent text of the period ultimately does the same, historic facts and all that. Though I could understand why many more literalist Christians may find offense with the text, and probably argue that Kirsch is trying to downplay the persecutions. As I said, the facts speak for themselves.

Now for the criticisms. This is by no means a perfect work, and I hinted at its tendencies to gloss over a lot of the details and probably oversimplify any number of issues. My own knowledge of the period and culture is significantly less than my expertise in other areas, so I can not comment greatly on the portrayal of the Religio Romana, and I do question his assertion that traditional polytheistic religion was being replaced with so called "Pagan monotheism", this tends to be a problematic perspective a good number of religious historians suffers from. Though I do think his assertion that mystery cults were gaining in popularity and mass appeal has significantly more merit. My biggest criticism is his portrayal (albeit brief) of the Celts. He mentions them, almost in passing, as an example of the more "barbarous" forms of polytheism:
"...or the Celts of Britain, who enclosed their human offerings in wicker baskets fashioned in the image of a god and then lowered the basket into a bonfire. Such pagan luminaries as Pliny and Cicero condemned these practices, and the Roman generals who conquered the barbarians and occupied their tribal lands expended much effort in suppressing the practice of human sacrifice"

It is unfortunate in that a well researched and adequately footnoted book, such an ignorant and uncritical statement is used to shore up the image of Roman polytheism. I understand that his focus was on the Roman sources, but considering how critically he tends to read the sources, especially when they mention other religions or cultures in a negative light, I was caught off guard by this paragraph. It really was, for me, a blight on an otherwise well reasoned text.

He also tends, unfortunately, to rely on a number of antiquated and outdated texts when examining interpretations of many of the myths and commonalities of the myriad polytheistic religions. He seems to enjoy works by Campbell and Graves a little too much, and a little too uncritically.

Overall I would recommend this text to anyone who is interested in the subject matter. I will also admit that there are better books on the relationship between polytheism and Christianity within the context of the Roman Empire. I will admit, however, that what I enjoyed most about this text is Kirsch's willingness, and perhaps even earnestness, in showing polytheism in such a positive light. Books on polytheism in general are few and far between, and books which show the merits of a polytheistic world view are even fewer. I mentioned before, but even those well written and argued historic texts which examine in greater detail the religion of the Romans (or other polytheists) treat it as something which was inevitably doomed to fail, in the face of the "One True God". Kirsch, at least, illustrates how history could have so easily gone another direction.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The problem of Tethra

The wikipedia article on Tethra reads as follows:
In Irish mythology, Tethra of the Fomorians ruled Mag Mell after dying in the Second Battle of Mag Tuiredh.
There is a second section on a possible etymology of the name, which is actually longer than the entry above. Alright, aside from this wiki stub needing a citation and an expansion, what is the point? Well that is sort of the gist of it, and perhaps a wider issue in researching and perhaps understanding Irish myth; so much of what we have is just stubs. Extensive lists of Names mentioned here and there but no narratives really dealing with those characters. Of course there are many examples of just the opposite, characters who have grand, sweeping narrative who play central roles in the mythology, who wouldn't you know it tend to have the larger modern cults. I can't really fault people for being able to relate to characters we can know something about, as opposed to those who we know little, but it makes me realize just how much we do not have.

I titled this post "the problem of Tethra" because I believe he encapsulates many of the questions which, I believe, can seriously inform or impact how one understands pre-Christian Irish myth and the theology derived from it. The first place I ever came across the name Tethra, was in the LGE where Amergin makes mention of his name:
"Who calleth the cattle from the House of Tethys?
On whom do the cattle of Tethys smile?"
Every interpretation I have read about this line of poetry (which in most versions has "Tethys" as "Tethra") explains that the "cattle of Tethra" refer to fish, which I find difficult to disagree with.  So the logical conclusion drawn from this is that Tethra has some connection with the sea, or at least some environ where fish would live. One could postulate a river, but tradition represents rivers as distinctly feminine, and this in turn tends towards a gender division being observed; the ocean/sea is the realm of gods (Tethra, Lir, Manannan) and rivers that of goddesses (Boand, Sinann, etc.). So the idea that Tethra was (is) some sort of god who is associated with the Sea is a common one. There are other references to Tethra which mentions his "cattle". In "The wooing of Emer", when Cuchulain first speaks to Emer, she asks him where he has slept, to which he replies, "‘We slept,’ he said, ‘in the house of the man who tends the cattle of the plain of Tethra.’" A few lines down, he also makes mention of "Tethra, king of the Fomori." This second association is the one in which we actually learn that Tethra is not only a member of the Fomorians, but also a king.

So, next up are the references we've got to Tethra where he is identified as a Fomorian and a king, which come during the narrative of CMT. While the author expounds on the harsh conditions the TDD were forced to endure under the rule of Bres, we learn who among the Fomorians the tribute is being given:
"Now when Bres had assumed the kingship, Fomorians, even Indech son of De Domnann and Elatha son of Delbaeth, and Tethra, three Fomorian kings, bound their tribute upon Ireland, so that there was not a smoke from a roof in Ireland that was not under tribute to them." (Source, pg. 63-65)
Other than this Tethra is one of the Fomorian combatants who goes up against the TDD. Even in this, though, we get very little information about him.
"In that fight, then, Ogma the champion found Orna the sword of Tethra, a king of the Fomorians. Ogma unsheathed the sword and cleansed it. Then the sword related whatsoever had been done by it; for it was the custom of swords at that time, when unsheathed, to set forth the deeds that had been done by them."
So there is nothing else mentioned about Tethra in CMT, in fact his name only comes up twice in the entire narrative. He is a Fomorian king, and he has a magical sword named Orna. His fate in the battle is never mentioned; the only sure thing is that he looses his sword, Orna. Ogma ends up finding and claiming the sword Orna, which when unsheathed tells him of the deeds it has done, as was the style at the time. Outside of this, there isn't anything which speaks to his fate or his character. On the other hand, Tethra is invoked in some very conspicuous places. Both Amergain and CuChulain make mention of his name, as it pertains to his "cattle". However, in both cycles, the Fomorians had long been subdued by the TDD, and one would assume that deities associated with the TDD, such as Lir or Manannan would be the prime candidates for such invocations. The question then is why was that not the case?

 Again, we dive right into speculation, though some a little more grounded than some idea's I made mention of above. I do think that the notion that some of the names of the Fomorians, and their respective functions are holdovers from older cults, which would be later replaced with "newer" figures has some merit. What other explanation could be offered for the term "Tethra's cattle" or "the plain of Tethra", when much more robust and influential divine figures have more overt associations with the sea? Now, I would not go as far as say the Ree's brothers, and postulate that the Fomorians are representative of indigenous (or pre-Celtic) peoples, or even culture. I would say, however, that I do tend towards a view that the Fomorians are reflexes of more primordial deities, in the same vein as the Jotun or Titans, if not so overtly. I would ague that Tethra is a very good example of a mythic holdover, and while his practical functions were overshadowed or subsumed by Manannan (as we know as little, if not less, about Lir), the poetic or fictive functions survived into the literary tradition. Interestingly enough, the wiki article mentions that Tethra became the ruler of Mag Mell after being killed in CMT (of which there is no actual account). According to MacKillop (pg. 293), however, the three rulers of Mag Mell are: Labraid Luathlam ar Claideb, Goll mac Doilb and Boadach (who it turns out is Manannan in disguise). Again we observe the overlap of association, however tenuous, between Tethra and Manannan as deities associated with the sea. I also find it difficult to believe that a figure like Tethra is solely an invention of the literary tradition, for the same reasons.

Well, it is difficult to be certain about such interpretations. The difficulty lies with trying to determine how best to interpret CMT. Outside the pre-Christian v. post-Christian content (which arguably, is a significant obstacle), there are some strains of thought: does the narrative represent the forces of order (or beneficent deities) overcoming the forces of chaos (or malefic deities), a reflex of a common Indo-European trope? There are some threads within the text which seem to indicate that the Fomorians may have knowledge or influence about or over certain natural phenomena, which the TDD do not. Towards the end of the tale, Lugh corners Bres and asks him while he should not take his life. Bres replies: " 'The cows of Ireland will always be in milk' said Bres, ‘if I am spared.’" Lugh, then takes this information to Máeltne Mórbrethach and asks him what to make of it. Máeltne replies that "He has no power over their age or their calving, even if he controls their milk as long as they are alive." and such a guarantee isn't worth his life. Lugh returns to Bres and basically says "no dice", so Bres replies with another offer, and this is repeated three times before Bres finally tells Lugh how and when to plow. Satisfied, Lugh spares him (although in other narratives Lugh does eventually kill Bres, with a poisoned cow no less). We see then, that the Fomorians have ties to natural cycles or phenomena and that with proper bargaining, the knowledge can be gleaned from them. Thus is later reflected in the LGE, when the Milesians are forced to develop a reciprocal, as opposed to the original antagonistic, relationship with the TDD to properly grow crops and survive in Ireland. The argument could be made in the former tale, of the IE reflex of more beneficent deities overcoming the malefic ones, to the benefit of humans; then again this could be reading into things too much. But what does this have to do with Tethra? A lot, incidentally.

The "problem of Tethra", then, is really a problem indicative of the wider body of myth. Just how much of what we know is actually applicable to pre-Christian myth and belief? Most folks have decided one way or another how to understand the TDD, but the Fomorians are still a large source of mystery and even confusion. Some have opted to see them as near, if not outright, demonic; others have chosen to fall back to comparative myth and understand them as a Celtic (or at least Irish) version of the Titans or Jotun. As I mentioned before and for the reasons stated above, I tend to agree with the latter, though recognize that such comparisons can only go so far in offering an explanation of how they ought to be understood. However, there are clearly ritualized or poetic functions associated with some of the Fomorians, and so trying our best to understand their place within the broader context of Irish myth will help us in developing a more robust approach to mythic figures outside the purview of the figures who are generally accepted as deities.