Monday, January 30, 2012

Celtic Statuary for sale... but please leave your brain behind the front counter

Chas Clifton in a recent post made mention of an online web merchant called "Sacred Source", and posted some interesting ratios of god:goddess statuary which was featured by the site, further subdividing it into cultural or traditional focuses (Celtic, Norse, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Etc.). Interestingly enough, but surprising no one who reads this blog, I was drawn to the breakdown of Celtic statuary. The ratio of goddess to god statues was almost 4:1. The goddess featured are Brigid, Danu, An Morrigan, Arianrhod, C(K)erridwen and also Medb, and the Sheela-Na-Gig. The gods featured are Lugh, C(K)errunos (and an odd three headed one which is supposed to represent Goibnu-Luchta-Credne, but with antlers?), a "wild wisdom god", and the "Green-man of Death/Rebirth".

Oh boy.

I'll start with what I like, there is an absolutely gorgeous statue/candle holder of Brigid, accompanied by a fancy triskelle and items associated with her areas of typical influence. There is also an interesting Lugh statue which I have seen some folks actually make use of on their shrines or altars. But that's it.

So the bad, and trying to pick somewhere to start is tricky, because there is just so much that is utterly wrong and utterly ignorant of even the basics of "Celtic" myth. Okay so there is an overly "sexified" statue of just about every one of the goddesses (except, perhaps, for Medb and of course the Sheela-Na-Gig). But "sexy" Brigid is a tad unsettling for my taste.

There is the issue of why some of these statues are included at all; certainly the Sheela-Na-Gig is debatable as a pre-Christian figure, let alone a deity. Mebd is included, and while there is good reason to associate her with a possible goddess of the same name, well the folks writing the descriptions just aren't that bright. So, yes, lets look at the "wild wisdom god" and "green-man of Death/Rebirth". So the later really galls me, because as a devotee of the actual Gaelic god of the dead, it pisses me off that some nuage/neopagan fantasy is being credited with the job. It is the Wiccan "Greenman" who is equated with Pan and Silenus, so what this has to do with anything even remotely "Celtic" is an absolute mystery. I find it odd that they left out deities which could easily fit the kind of "god roles" these twits promote, and would be known by people on "Celtic" paths; gods like An Dagda or Angus Og.

At first they got my dander up, but after reading the fifth or so, tragedy had become comedy. They betray such an abundant amount of ignorance about all things "Celtic", but especially the mythology, that one can't help but chuckle at them. My favourite by far is one for an now out of stock An Morrigan statue:

Morrigan is the Celtic Goddess of Destruction/Creation. This image depicts the Irish triple goddess: Ana, the fertility maiden; Badb ("brave"), the boiling mother cauldron, producer of life; and Macha, the death-crone symbolized by the carrion-devouring raven.

Oral tradition says the Celtic dying god Cu Chulainn was met by the beautiful chariot-mounted goddess with red eyes and cloak. She cursed him to death that his blood might fertilize the earth, then transformed herself into Badb Catha, the Raven of Battle who induces panic in warriors. Morrigan evolved into Morgana Le Fay, sorceress of Arthurian legend.

[Derived from an Epona plaque.]
First and foremost, why is Ana (did they mean Anu) included as an epithet for An Morrigan? Were the available goddess who were already associated too much of a stretch to put into a "fertility role"? Which then makes no sense whatsoever, because they associate the mother figure with fertility too; except that the mother figure is Babd. BABD, the skald-crow, is not the "death crone", cause that would actually make some kind of sense, mythologically. Nope, Macha, a mythological figure who is known for giving birth after running a race, while pregnant, is the bloody "death crone". But it gets worse.

CUCHULAIN IS A DYING GOD!?! I realise he dies, and he does so spectacularly, but equating him with being a "dying god" is almost as bad as having him be a god of peace. Apparently though, his awe-inspiring final moments are wholly ignored, and instead he is "cursed to death" as some sort of fertility ritual? This is just sheer laziness, the Ulster cycle is probably the most well known and easiest to find material in Irish myth, and they couldn't even do that right.

The other product descriptions are just as misinformed/ plain fantasy, and they reek of the worst sort of neopagan veneer; but then again those are just the kind of misinformed individuals who would frequent such a website. What blows me away, however, is that the product descriptions statues/images from other cultures, are actually well informed. Almost all of the descriptions for the "Norse" goods, are adequate (if again overly laden with fertility symbolism), and even good when compared to the "Celtic" stuff. Is this perhaps indicative of a more discerning customer base for Norse goods, or maybe a better read description writer? I'd probably say neither, but that Norse myths are a little more cut and dry, and available, than the Celtic. Also the northern folk do not seem to get lumped in with the MMC/fertility god motif anywhere near the extent that Celtic mythical figures do. I suppose that considering how influential the VVictorian view of the Celts were on both Wicca and Wicca derived neoPaganism, this isn`t surprising. Irritating, laughable, but not surprising.

I mentioned earlier that two of the statues are decent enough, but I think as much as I am enamored with the Brigid statue, I could not in good conscience actually buy something from such cretins.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bad Omens

So just under two weeks ago [now well over a month] I had just finished cleaning my offering bowl when it slipped from my hands and broke upon the floor. This wouldn't have been terribly surprising, a dropped ceramic or glass dish is bound to shatter when it hits a ceramic floor; the thing is that my bowl is (was) made of wood. It wasn't even a clean break, it did not split along the grain of the wood; rather, a large chunk of it simply came away in one jagged piece. I had had this particular bowl for over three years, and here it was, useless. Suddenly a wave of foreboding swept over me, and the day which followed was, indeed, a terrible one. Nothing seemed to go right from that point on, and while I did prevail in whatever tasks were required, the effort was far greater than it should have been, and the results less than stellar.

This got me to thinking about the nature of omens, particularly of the negative variety. Now, before I go any further, perhaps a bit of a side note about the nature of omens, "believing in them", and psychosomaticism. While I tend to be rather skeptical of many forms of divination, I at least acknowledge that in the given world view I have adopted, "reading the signs" is well attested to in various sources, especially when it comes to methods like augury. With that said, I do tend to pay closer attention to specific instances of avian activity which seem rather odd or happenstance. Or, in the case above, when something I am doing in a ritual format results in something out of the ordinary (like dropping and ruining a vessel used for offerings). These sorts of things tend to make me step back and consider whether or not these are omens, or just random events. Though I suppose it bears mentioning that meaning is something one imparts onto an experience and so if a given event is understood to have a given significance, then it does so, at least on a personal level. I do believe that people can "psych" themselves out, unconsciously sabotaging themselves or reading too much into something and then seeing the results of the bad omen everywhere they look. There is, I believe, a line between self inflicted grief and external grief, the avoidance of which is not in a given individuals powers to have agency over.

I suppose that despite my ingrained skepticism, I have been making an effort to be more "open" to such experiences, and not just brushing them off as coincidence or happenstance. It would seem that I am not alone about being cautious and not jumping to conclusions, but also to be discerning and not merely dismissive, when it comes to interpreting such things.

As always, I do like going back to the sources, especially the tales, as they can provide some much needed perspective. Clearly omens and the reading of signs was considerably important, and for a very significant part of the litterature, the narrative will actuall revolve around some kind of prophecy, omen reading, or reaction to. This raises a good number of other questions and concerns, which are beyond the scope of this post anyway, but clearly the importance of correctly understanding the "signs" was something which was stressed.

So what to make of it all, there is the distinct possibility that my bowl just broke because it was dropped, and reading anymore into it is silly. The subsequent rotten day would have been so, regardless of wether or not I had dropped and broken my bowl in the first place. Of course, it would then merit pointing out that the later events were not actually caused by the breaking of the bowl, only that it foreshadowed what was to come. This, I think, is an important distinction to make because omens are not, necessarily, prophecy and "reading the signs" is not, necessarily, divining the future. The latter implies a chain of events or single event which will ultimaely lead to something. The former foreshadows that something may occur, and based on understanding what the omen means, wether it bodes ill or good. I suppose in either case there is a certain lack of agency, which can be disquieting, but then again sometimes, and despite your best efforts, things do not always go as you want them to.

But it helps to have a little warning.


PS: Since we are on the subject of coincidence, I had actually written a good chunk of this post almost a month ago, but then got fussy about where to go with it. Then Seren goes and publishes a related, but slightly different post only a day or so ago which provided some perspective, and got me thinking about this whole business again.

Is that weird, or what?

The subtext of "funny" prayer in school demotivationals/editorial cartoons

Two images, one a little older and one more recent, have been making the rounds in the never ending "prayer in schools" debate (primarily in the context of the US, but there are some here in Canada who would make the same sort of arguments). The first is a "demotivational", which started making the rounds a few years ago:

Oddly enough, the image is for a Halloween costume
The second is a little more recent, based on the comments of one of the current nominees for the Republican party:
This is funny, right?

So each of these is supposed to be humourous because they involve juxtaposition or the "left turn", both are elements of comedy. Neither image is what a "normal" person would picture as being representative of what they imagine reinstating school led prayer, would look like. Further, it illustrates the tacit special privilege that is present in the debate, that the kind of prayer would be that of those seeking to reintroduce it; Evangelical Christians. Thus, additional humour is to be found at the idea of poetic justice towards those who seek so strongly to reinstate school mandated prayer. I think both of these visual commentaries are effective in invoking such thoughts, but at the same time I understand the subtext which is present in both of these (and similar visual commentaries) which results in ridiculing the outlier.

The juxtaposition of both images is supposed to be in stark contrast to what one would normally associate prayer in schools to look like, namely:

This could be a scene from "Pleasantville".

The issue I have comes with the inherent "otherness" that is invoked to show how ridiculous (or dangerous even) the idea of school mandated prayer is supposed to be in so diverse a society. By what basis is a teacher, a school principal or school board supposed to decide what form the prayer is supposed to take? How could one possibly accommodate the myriad religions out there? Well one of those "clever" editorial cartoons posits:
Couldn't add even one "Celtic" deity, eh?
 Again, it invokes the sheer complexity, and thus functional absurdity, of school mandated prayer. Except that this and the above commentaries are funny precisely because they denigrate other forms of prayer, or that they recognize that there are folks who do not belong to the overt object of fun, Christianity. In essence it is using a number of significant aspects of non-mainstream religions, or theistic perspectives to ridicule the idea of prayer in schools. Of course, it then tacitly ridicules these outlying forms of religious expression. Dancing in a circle as a form of worship? Positing polytheism as a functional religious perspective? Utter absurdity! And there in lies the tacit fear mongering, invoking the "other". Look Christians who want state mandated prayer (but who are usually adamant about the state staying out of everything else), you want to put prayer back in schools. This is fine, but then your kid could be offering a prayer to Odin, as not every child is a Christian and therefore other religious perspectives (regardless of their merit) will be reflected. The best way to hammer this point home? Drag out the freaks and weirdo's to scare the panicky members of the RR into seeing the unintentional consequences of their desires. So it becomes a binary issue: either allow all forms of prayer in schools, or let none and maintain the default secular nature of the school system.

Of course, these commentaries also operate on the basis that the sort of folks who want prayer reinstated, who are overtly campaigning for the privilege to be given exclusively to Christians (and as always, to a lesser extent members of the Jewish religion; but not, of course, Muslims), are then going to allow pluralism. It is precisely pluralism that they are railing against, so they would never accept this as a legitimate reason not to pursue state mandated prayer, because only the Christians will be given the special privilege to do so. As such, the intedned object of ridicule, the religious right, are actually outside of the picture; they know what they mean, what kind of prayer they want, and what deity they're praying to. Which leaves us with the problematic depiction of the outlier, and the bitter irony that those who try to pass themselves of as "progressives", do so in a way which betrays their own prejudice.

What strikes me as the most baffling of all is the use of such imagery, by the very outlying religious minorities which they tacitly ridicule. So many seem to think that the "joke" is on the RR, but fail to see that they too, or more specifically their non-mainstream religious practices/perspectives, are the real objects of ridicule and derision.