Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Necromancy" in the Irish Tradition

No, this is not going to be something to do with zombies, liches, weights, mad monks or dread eldritch horrors. This is going to be a concise examination of the ways in which the living can obtain knowledge from the dead, particularly in the Irish literary tradition. I use the term necromancy because it is probably the simplest and most widely known term to describe this particular activity. Derived from the ancient Greek necros, referring to a dead body, and manteia, referring to prophecy or divination, is a kind of magic or rite which when performed allows some means of divination to be derived from communication with the dead. Almost always associated with evil or witchcraft, it has necessarily been a magic of ill repute. This is not, however, at all the case when it comes to necromancy in the Irish tradition. While some of the rites or means of gaining knowledge or portents from the dead are achieved in similar ways (sleeping on graves, contact with a deceased human body) and the results are often the same (conversations with spirits or corpses themselves), there is a distinct lack of evil or darkness attached with it. For a culture which has wide ranging proscriptions in manners of taboo, especially through literary devices like geasa, and also has a revulsion for evil magic; it would appear that necromancy, while considered the "blackest of black arts" just about everywhere else, enjoys a rather lofty reputation, as will be explored in the first example below.

There is a wonderful article I stumbled upon some time ago, written by Grigory Bondarenko, called "Oral Past and Written Present in 'The Finding of the Tain". It is an absolutely fascinating piece which explores the way in which the mythic, and some later historic texts, explain the transmission of tales from orations to written accounts. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, it is definitely worth having a read. What piqued my interest however, was not the actual topic of the article, but one of the accounts of how the "transmission of the Tain" occurred.

According to one of the so called "pre-tales" of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Do Fhallsigud Tana Bo Cuailnge (How the Tain Bo Cuailnge was found again), a fili named Muirgen mac Senchan is said to have found the grave of Fergus Mac Roich and chanted an invocation to him:
'If this your royal rock
were your own self mac Roich
halted here with sages
searching for a roof
Cuailnge we'd recover
plain and perfect Fergus'
A mist arises and Fergus appears to Muirgen, and proceeds to recite to him the entirety of the Tain. With this the Tain is now recovered in its entirety and (presumably) preserved for posterity. There are other versions of the tale, one involving Muirgen's father Senchan "fasting against" the Christian descendants of Fergus. Yet another which involves two filid setting out for mainland Europe who regain the Tain by trading it for the Cuilmen (Bondarenko). While all three do have their own narratives, Bondarenko does point out that listed among the "Triads of Ireland" is the following:
Three wonders concerning 'the Cattle-raid of Culange: that the cuilmen came to Ireland in its stead; the dead relating it to the living,viz. Fergus mac Roig reciting it to Ninnine the poet in the time of Cormac mac Faelain; one year's protection to him to whom it is recited.
It is the second wonder, however, which bears examination; while it is slightly different than the version listed in the fore-tales, Ninnine is the filid in stead of Muirgen, the mode of transmission remains the same. Fergus Mac Roigh is summoned, being deceased some countless generations ago, and recites the Tain in its entirety to the filids. Of all the manner of transmission of tales, certainly being recited by the dead deserves to be recounted as a wonder. Aside from being an interesting tale, in and of itself, we can also observe (at least one perspective anyway) on the nature of the state of the dead.

It is tales like this, and particularly other examples of the dead coming and speaking to the living, which make me personally question the assertions some make in regards to reincarnation. Certainly it would be difficult to have a hero, or the soul of that hero, coming to recite such tales, if they were supposed to have moved onto another incarnation. There are other examples, of course which offer other perspectives, but I think this is a good example of the idea of the soul/spirit of a hero surviving after death. As such it is not unreasonable to posit that that soul/spirit must have dwelt somewhere to be summoned from, and there are examples in the lore of such places, Tech Duinn chief among them. Of course, the other option which could be possible is that the soul/spirit of the dead reside within their grave, and certainly this tale makes this seem as plausible as other options. What is more, the custom of sleeping or fasting upon a grave to gain knowledge is not contained to this tale alone, and will often be remarked upon as one of the ways the filid received inspiration. Further, the practice or notion of communicating with the dead must have had enjoyed a great deal of prestige because in the Christianized texts (both the extant versions of the Tain, as well as the Triads), there is no hint of diabolism or demonic influences or dangers.

There are other tales which continue the idea of speaking to the dead, albeit in a little more overt format. Echtra Nerai or The Adventure of Nera, is yet again a tale which is related to the Ulster cycle. The premise is that Nera, a retainer of Ailill and Medb, is attending a feast on Samhain at Cruachan. Ailill offers a prise to any man with the courage to brave the ominous night, and tie a withe (a willow twig) around the leg of one of the two corpses who hang outside. Nera offers to do so, but fails after the third attempt. Seemingly annoyed, one of the corpses suggests he try using a peg, and succeeds. The corpse, however, informs Nera that he is thirsty, and Nera removes the corpse from the gallows and carries him around a rather long time, until they find water. Eventually they do find water, in a wash pail, and the corpse drinks all but the last sip, which he sprinkles on the sleeping family inside, all of whom are killed by this action. The practical point of this is to explain why one ought not to leave water in a wash pail over night. Nera returns the man to his noose, and returns to Cruachan to find all the inhabitants slain, and a trail of seeming sidhe folk making their way into a nearby cave. He decides to follow after them, but is found out because a living man weighs more than a dead one. It ought to be mentioned here, Mackillop interprets this insinuating that the denizens of the sidhe are not the Aes Sidhe, but rather, are dead men and women. Not an unreasonable assertion, especially considering that it is Samhain, and traditionally the day when the separation between this world and the otherworld is thinnest; or in this case non-existent.

Of course, within the narrative Nera's wife (the custom of the otherworld/sidhe mound, seemingly is providing heroes wives) tells him that the sidhe folk placed an enchantment upon Cruachan to make it appear destroyed, but that it will be destroyed if he does not return the following Samhain to destroy the Sidhe mound. Again there really is a blurry line between the sidhe folk as Aes sidhe, and as the dead. Nera, in turn, leaves the Sidhe (as well as his wife and child) with a promise of taking them, his cattle, and three splendid objects when he returns the following Samhain. He also takes with him, "three fruits of summer" to prove he had been to the Sidhe mound, and upon returning to Cruachan, finds almost no time has passed since he first ventured out. Ailill welcomes him back, hears his tale, (gives him his reward, a sword) and agrees to sack the Sidhe the following year. As an interesting aside, there is also a short narration regarding an alternate account of the cause of the events of the Tain. Ultimately, the Connacht men sack the Sidhe the following Samhain, preventing their own destruction, and Nera ends up remaining in the Sidhe with his wife, son, and cattle, "until doomsday".

So aside from being an interesting tale in and of itself, we once again observe necromancy in action. There is an obvious difference than in the earlier example, Nera talks with an actual corpse, the corpse talks back, makes demands and even performs actions. The time the event takes place is also significant, and considering the lore regarding Samhain and the Sidhe, makes a great deal of sense. What is similar between both stories is that those who communicate with the dead gain special knowledge, which will among other things, help the individual in their given functions. In the former, a filid is given what amounts to perhaps the most important epic in all of Irish story telling; certainly something of great worth to the esteem of a poet. In the later, a retainer is given foreknowledge of how to protect his lord and kinsmen, and is also rewarded with prestige goods both for himself and his kin.

What then can we do with such information? Ought our modern filid's run out to their local cemeteries and start sleeping on the graves of interesting people, in order to learn new tales to expand their repertoires? Should soldiers make a habit of carrying around corpses, in the hope that they can predict and prevent ambush? Well not exactly. Again it comes back to what these stories tell us about the perspectives of the people who wrote about them, and how this reflects on their culture. A few things become clear in these narrations which can be observed in the wider body of tales as well:

The dead are sacred, but so to are their bodies. This is an important thing to realize, because it is at odds with a lot of the contemporary polytheistic cultures, especially the Hellenes and Romans. The Greeks viewed the dead human body as corrupt, as sources of pollution, at least from a theological perspective. Cleansing rites were commonly performed in areas where the death occurred, for relations of the deceased, albeit tailored to the individual, and heroes, kings, etc. generated very little of this pollution (Retief, Cilliers, Greece.) Similarly there were legal proscriptions in Rome which revolved around purification of the pollution which accompanied contact with a dead human body, or things associated with them (such as offerings), (Retief, Cilliers, Rome).

When one looks at the treatment of the dead in Irish literature, and to some degree in later folk custom, the contrast is stark. There may be some bias here, as those whose deaths are most remarked upon are heroes or important characters, and there is a possibility of their status making them special cases; this is, however, something which can be remarked upon to include any such inferences derived from the heroic literature. I do not see any sort of demarcation between the hero and the peasant to attest to such a distinction, and so find it reasonable to draw a wider conclusion from the source material. The touching, hugging, kissing and even drinking of blood (there is a version of the death of Cuchulain where Emer actually drinks some of Cu's blood) of the dead human body is quite telling of a certain level of comfort about it. The lack of any sort of purification rites or ceremonies following a death also reveals that the idea of the dead being spiritually polluting is not something which can be attested to in Irish tradition.

There was, however, also a lack of elaborate burial or funerary rites, at least if the depictions of the tales is to be taken at face value. Typically the dead were left where they fell, with a mound being raised over them and only occasionally were they moved to another location for burial, for example in the case of Cuchulain. The dindsenchas are rife with all manner of these kinds of tales, and of the mounds, hills, stones, rivers, and other natural features being sourced to the resting place of a dead figure from myths and history. Funeral games were often celebrated to commemorate particularly significant deaths; perhaps the most famous were those initiated by Lugh in memory of his foster mother Tailtu, providing the mythic origin of the holiday of La Lunasa/ Lughnasad.

Later folk traditions elaborated, altered and in some cases likely distorted pre-Christian perspectives. While there was still a certain level of comfort being around the deceased, and coming into contact with them, an effort is made to ensure that the ghost of the deceased does not find its way back to ones home; the reasoning behind the practice of taking the longest possible processional route to the cemetery (Evans). Likewise the destruction of the bed on which the deceased died, or was lain out, also became fairly common practice, as did taking snuff or salt in the pocket as a warding agent (Evans). Other traditions, and paradoxically even in more recent folk traditions, would see a great deal of effort put forth to allow the dead to return home, if for a short while, during liminal periods, especially Samhain. Turnip lanterns would be lit, food left out and even a place at the table set for the departed to partake in. Most commentators see in these later customs shades of ancestor worship, and so not surprisingly the idea of the dead existing in a sacred state being carried forward, unintentionally though it may be.

I think it is reasonable to conclude that because there was a noticible lack of belief associated with the dead, both physically and spiritually, causing any sort of pollution that the idea of necromancy not being associated with evil makes a great deal of sense. Perhaps it attests to the centrality of the reverence of ancestors, perhaps it is a reflex of broader Celtic moores concerning a level of comfort (and prestige) with human remains (especially the head). There are examples of similar attitudes in Welsh literature; the epilogue of the second branch of the Mabinogion has the surviving inhabitants of Wales cart around Bran's head, which continues to recount stories and provide a degree of protection even after it is buried. What is more, the idea of the ancestors being privileged in being "out of time", as those who are depicted inhabiting in the otherworld often are, which also allowed them access to secrets not available to those living temporally, appears to offer some logic concerning why seeking out the advice of the dead would be a worthwhile endeavour.

And there you have it. There are other examples and sources which come to mind, and I think it likely that in the future I may explore this idea in greater depth, but for now I think I've provided a decent summary of necromancy in the Irish tradition.




Branwen Daughter of Llyr.,Trans., Gantz, Jeffrey. The Mabinogion. (1976), pp. 66-82.

Echtra Nerai (The Adventures of Nera) (1889), ed. Meyer, Kuno.
Revue celtique 10 (1889), pp. 212-228. PDF

How the Tain Bo Cuailnge was found again.,Trans. Kinsella, Thomas. The Tain. (2002), pp. 1-2.

Tailtu, (2005), Trans., Gwynn, Edward. The Metrical Dindshenchas, Vol 4. Poem 33. LINK

Three Wonders concerning the Tain Bo Cualinge., Trans., Meyer, Kuno., The Triads of Ireland., (2007), Triad 62. LINK


Bondarenko, G., (2009), Oral past and written present in ‘The Finding of the Táin’. Ulidia 2, 2 . pp. 18-24. PDF

Evans, E.E., (2000), Irish Folk Ways. pp. 292-293.

Mackillop, J., (1998), Echtra Nerai: Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. pp. 149-150.

Retief, F.P., Cilliers, L., (2006), Burial customs, the afterlife and pollution of death in ancient Greece. Acta Theologica, vol 26. No 2. pp. 44-61. PDF

Retief, F.P., Cilliers, L., (2006), Burial customs and the pollution of death in ancient Rome, procedures and paradoxes. Acta Theologica, Vol. 26. No 2., pp. 128-146. PDF

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Movie Madness! A friendly reminder of why monotheism > polytheism

I'm not sure how it is in the US, though I imagine given the demographics, it would be similar or even slightly more pronounced than it is in Canada; which ever weekend happens to contain the Easter holidays (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday) will feature television channels jam packed with "The Ten Commandments", and just about every film produced in the middle of the decade that has anything to do with Jesus. It is a fixture of the season, as sure as fake green grass, brightly coloured stuffed animals, and sickeningly sweet confections consisting of chocolate or marshmallow. The most striking thing about them is how utterly similar they are; in cinematography, in costume, in direction, in score and especially in message. Or at least one message: The god of Abraham is the best, any other deity can suck it.

Alright, so this ought to be patently obvious, this is how monotheism works after all. Our god is the best and only god, other people are idiots for worshipping anyone/thing that isn't our god. Alright, and so it makes sense also that the costumes are going to be similar, after all they all take place around the same time... Except for "Ten Commandments", which is supposed to be taking place during the events depicted in Exodus. So they substitute golden helmets for ones with ridiculous plumes, but other than any given actor in TC could walk by a shot in, say "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Barabbas", and you'd never know they were from a time period several thousand years prior. This may seem a little nit picky, but it conveys a sort of unconscious understanding of the continuum which Christians believe exists between Exodus and their own Gospels. A separate issue in and of itself, so lets just focus on the other glaring similarity (and purpose) I mentioned earlier.

So, and again fairly obviously, these films are supposed to provide entertaining reenactments of various Gospel (or OT) narratives. As such they are going to have the bias inherent in the world view of the source material, and of course this would necessitate that the religious or theological perspective come along with it. These stories are familiar, these stories are known, these stories can probably be recited by a not insignificant percentage of the population. However, these films lack the full breadth of someone to both interpret and understand them (i.e. a religious officiant) for the audience, and so must be able to convey their message in as obvious and self evident manner as possible. Also they need to be entertaining, have self contained narratives and be able to fit into an allotted time slot. What this translates to is that they haven't got the entirety of the NT to flesh out perspectives on things, and so tend to be really "on the nose" with portrayals of certain things: Roman religion, Roman society, Roman culture, Romans, Christians, etc.

Which brings me to my first point that is irritating coming from a polytheistic perspective: Whenever a Christian character begins to speak about "their Lord" to non-Christians, everyone becomes utterly transfixed by their words and by their desecration of all other deities. There is usually some sort of half-hearted defense made, which generally amounts to, "what makes your god so great?", which is followed by the Christian answering the question, dashing to pieces said defense. When this is interrupted, it is usually by some Roman official of power/influence who, not offering a theological argument, mentions that Christianity is outlawed and so the Christian has to be punished, usually by capital punishment. The pertinent points which come across in these scenes, and the overall films are as follows:

1. Pagans were monsters.
2. Pagans had no theology.
3. Pagan deities do not exist.
4. Roman religion can be explained as little more than "Worship of the Emperor".

Pagans were  monsters

In these films there are generally four types of Pagan: the master, the plebeian, the slave, and the convert.

The master is fairly self explanatory, they are the characters who have some degree of control over the Christian characters, as well as the plebes and converts. They are the face of the "Roman machine", the one mentioned above who will end the witnessing of the Christian, not through theological points but by the use of their power, generally through force. If they are shown to be religious at all, it is only for personal gain or politics; often secretly shunning the superstitions of the plebeians. As such they are power hungry, amoral and oppressive.

The plebeian is your average Roman citizen whose only interaction, or point in the film, is to stand in a crowd and encourage violence. That's it. If these films were all we had to represent our knowledge of Roman culture, we would think that all Roman citizens did was watch gladiatorial combats and give the "thumbs down" for every single contestant who lost a duel. Where the master will use violence to gain power or maintain order, the plebeian loves violence for entertainments sake. Blood thirsty and ignorant masses.

The slave is any character who is not a master or plebeian, nor Christian (nor Jewish), who will not be converting to Christianity by the end of the picture. They are usually the only voice trying to raise a defence of Paganism, and the same who are utterly silenced the moment the Christian character speaks. Slaves, but on the "wrong side".

The convert is a slave (and very rarely a plebeian) who was a Pagan, but will convert to Christianity at some point. Usually any Pagan character who has any sense of morality, or who may try to help the Christian, will inevitably convert, recognizing the inherent emptiness of the Pagan position. Slaves who see the light.

To synthesize these rough categories into understanding the way the Roman world is portrayed, Pagans were terrible, violent, oppressive and superstitious. Any "good" Pagan will ultimately convert to Christianity, thereby robbing Paganism of any redeeming figures.

Pagans had no theology

At no point, in any film, is Roman religion ever actually discussed (other than point 4). No attempts are made to explain, or explore the deep theology and mythology which underpinned Roman religion. Instead we are treated to a glancing mention of the civic nature of Roman religion, that it was little more than an apparatus of the state to ensure control of the ignorant masses, and the the idea of freedom of religion was unheard of. This theological vacuum is, of course, why everyone on screen (regardless of role) is at least temporarily transfixed when a Christian talks about his deity. Paganism was hollow and so anyone within ear shot will have to listen to the wisdom and truth spoken... until Christian is maimed/murdered.

Pagan deities do not exist

Not that any of the perspectives here come as a surprise, but this is necessarily self evident in the world view being put forward. Monotheism simply does not allow for the possibility of the existence of any deity except the one the adherents worship. Within the films we are almost certainly guaranteed at least one example of some character, usually the master, slave or convert, seeking the aid of a Pagan deity (because again, in a monotheistic context, and Paganisms theological vacuum, the only sort of prayer which exists is petitionary). This is usually in the context of either trying to show up the Christian (whose prayers are always answered) or saving themselves; in every event, and at every attempt, failure is the only result. Of course it is, because those other gods don't exist.

Roman Religion = Emperor is God

What is important here is noting that the idea of the civic virtue of making an offering to the genuis of the emperor is not what is being portrayed. What is portrayed is that the Emperors (who ever they may be) are portrayed as believing themselves to be gods, or are seen by the masters, plebeians and slaves as being a god. It is an allegorical tool, emphasizing the difference between the true, disembodied, Christian god and the crass, all too human, Emperor. Again, not terribly surprising considering how much the symbolic Rome is utilized by the authors of the Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation as being the exemplar of everything which is wrong with "this world" and so in these films, the Emperor becomes the living embodiment of everything which is wrong with Rome, and by proxy Pagans.

That is pretty much my summary of how Pagans are portrayed in such films. I'm not going to be providing a step by step explanation of why every one of the characteristics is either completely wrong, or at the very least an egregious distortion of actual history. If you're interested in rebuttals and the like, and aren't already aware of them, just do a quick goolge search for "roman religion". Or you know watch Gladiator (not a great film, but decent enough in its snippets of ritual, and certainly its ability to portray Pagans as moral) or Agora (although the problem with this is the tit for tat portrayal, which needed to be grossly exagerated to provide "balance").


Saturday, April 7, 2012

A terrible beauty is born...

Not being a Christian, a Heathen, or having children of my own, Easter doesn't really count for much around my household. Family tradition generally holds that we have some sort of dinner, and more than likely I'll be going to my fiances grandmothers tomorrow. So, without much to say about it, here is a lovely poem by W. B. Yates:

Easter 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible brauty is born.

Have a Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I went for a walk today or everyday Animism

[I had originally begun this post on February 23, but did not get around to finishing it until now]

On my way home from work late yesterday afternoon, I decided that instead of waiting to cram myself onto an over loaded bus, that I would walk the six or so blocks home. While I did manage to get to "my stop" before the bus I would have been on, I was also reminded of how much I love walking as an activity. I hadn't actually gone for a 'good walk" in almost three years; which is about as long as I have had my car. I mean I used to walk a lot, and for no other reason than I enjoyed doing it and becoming familiar with my surroundings. Even when I was at university, on the day I had a five hour spare, I would simply pick a direction and start walking. There are just so many fascinating details that you miss when you're speeding along, and haven't got the ability or the time to notice them. So, since today was my first day off in a little over a week, I decided that I should go for one of those "good walks".

There are two major rivers in my city, and one which is very near my house, the Humber. Now I do devotional offerings to the Humber, and maybe one day I'll write about all the nifty little concurrences which lead me to do this, but suffice to say "she" is important to me. So, while I have visited the head waters, and the bay into which the Humber empties, and explored a few choice locations, I've never actually made much use of the system of parks which runs along side her. With a quick google earth + conservatory inquiry, I had my itinerary, and my route. The route was somewhere around 20 km, and followed a meandering system of trails, bridges, street connections and some "rougher" terrain. I managed to walk it in five hours, not bad considering that I made a good number of stops to look around and appreciate the scenery, and that I haven't walked this sort of distance in at least three years.

Where I entered, at Finch Ave. and Islington Ave., I decided to look for a stone from the river, which I would carry with me to deposit at the mouth, and found one in short order. Then something odd happened, I was just about to cross the bridge when I heard a splash, and saw a woman come rather quickly towards me, turn up the path and onto the street; I did notice that she had an empty black canvas bag. When I began crossing the bridge, I looked down and floating down the river where four daikon radishes and a turnip. I'm not sure if this was simply a case of someone dumping refuse (which makes little sense, since organic waste pickup is tomorrow) or something else, it was just odd to have (what appeared to be) perfectly good root vegetables thrown into a river.

Just across the bridge, there was a single large stone, which I joking dubbed Grainne's recliner; I did lay on it though, and it was surprisingly comfortable. Well if infertility is ever an issue, I know where to go. I made my way along the path and in short order came upon another foot bridge, and decided to feed some ducks who were swimming about just below it. Continuing on I encountered a number of fellow "travellers along the way" and did my best to greet all of them as we crossed paths. At this point, most were elderly and a few were walking their dogs. I continued on, came across a woodpecker, and then the sun decided to peek out from behind the clouds for a little while, so naturally I sang the Hymn to the Sun (CG 316):
Hail to thee, thou son of the season, as thou traverst the skies aloft
Thy steps are strong on the wing of the heavens, Thou art the glorious mother of the stars
Thou liest down in the destructive ocean, without impairment and without fear
Thou risest up on the peaceful wave crest, like a queenly maiden in bloom.
I continued on, taking in the warmness the sun now provided; enjoying the unseasonably warm February day and musing on the approaching spring. Already the signs were everywhere; the chlorophyll was returning to the grass, trees were already beginning to bud neihert surprising considering how mild the winter had been, and how noticibly absent snow was. I travelled south, crossing through several different parks and passing by an area where I maintained a sort of make shift shrine, dedicated to the Humber herself. Unfortunately, visiting it would have taken me off my current path, and as I had been there the previous week, felt no need to stop by. I was, after all spending the day with the river. Actually, now that I reflect on it the trail can roughly be split into three different segments, the first and third tended to follow the course of the Humber more closely, the middle ended up meandering away from it for significant chunks.

As I travelled further I noticed a few interesting things. At one point, as the trail skirted around an impressive golf club, I noticed some interesting grafitti which had been scrawled onto the ground near a cement drainage way, "This, the great divide". Perhaps it seemed more poignant at the time, for now it seems nonsensical. Further on I came across a Great Blue Heron, simply standing as they tend to, on one leg, letting everything around them take in how terribly majestic they look; though to be honest the nearby ducks didn't seem to be having any of it.

I made my way, noted that the trail was populated in spurts, with folks more frequently clustered around the parks proper, or between catwalks leading from various neighbourhoods. I am happy to note that everyone returned my greetings, and the creeping smiles were difficult to miss; amazing how much of an effect even the simplest of courtisies can have on someones disposition. Along the trail, especially the second and third sections, the city of Toronto has these small informational stands set up. They are usually shaped in small circles, refered to as "story circles" made of hewn stone and paved with white limestone; they contain infographics and texts explaining the significance of this particular area, or mention the tribe of first nations which had settlements where we now stood. At one such location, I met an elderly couple who were also enjoying the weather, but who lamented that the present stands were dirty, covered in a thin layer of dirt or mud, which obscured the information. Having a bottle of water handy, I did my best to clean them off, while the older gentleman did his part and wiped them dry with leaves. They seemed to be very glad that another person would care as much as they did, and I always love to see civic duty in action. We bid each other a good day, and I continued on my way.

I have to say that the most bizzare, and the most surreal moments of my journey happend very close to one another. The bizzare was that as I walked through one of the more intricate paths, which had been built up with logs and board walks, as opposed to the typical asphalt; I noticed a single log with the website written in thick, black permanent marker. It wasn't as if this was some sign post or permanent fixture, it was just a random log lying at the side of the trail, and someone had taken the time to advertise for the ridiculous conspiracy-theorist website, in the middle of an urban wilderness. The more surreal experience occured shortly after, when I can across a single mound, topped with a tree, which was covered by thick, emerald ivy. The contrast with the surrounding areas was stark, to say the least, as everything else was a muted brown. That a sunbeam managed to pierce through the cloud cover, and illuminate the mound just so, was simply too much to take seriouisly; it was the kind of beautiful image which would be overlain with some sappy quote or mind numbingly insipid poem.

There were other interesting things to make note of, which few of the other people who passed them by seemed to give much heed. There were all manner of memorial benches, stones and especially trees scattered across the numerous parks which made up a good chunk of the trail. Benches dedicated to members of local community groups who had helped in revitalization projects; a monument to a man who had "died while vainly attempting to save two boys from drowning"; a tree which was decorated with christmas ornaments, with a plaque which explained the planting was in memorium of a now deceased boy scout, still maintained by some degree, by his family or troop. There were, in fact, many small decorations or personal touches which accompanied the small plaques, mounted on cross cut cement cylinders, explaining who the tree was dedicated to. Living memorials, physical embodiments of grief and loss; growing in proxy of young lives cut short, or long lives now spent.

I eventually reached my goal, the Humber bay, after walking aong the trail as it crossed through two unique, "remnant" ecological areas. To the left of me was the Humber Marshes and to the right a Black Oak Savanna. The bay, as can be expected of most green areas of the lake shore, was fairly busy. I made my way to the shore of lake Ontario, and sat on the large rocks which had been deposited to prevent the erposion of the shore, and relaxed for a bit in the late afternoon sun. One of the very nifty things about this small parkette are the collection of standing stones which sit on top of a small hill, known as the "Sheldon Lookout" or the "Stones of Sheldon". One of these stones contain two plaques which will align with the summer and winter solstices at dawn on their respective days. I wonder if any of the local Pagans make use of them, and it may bare looking into.

I crossed the large Humber bay bridge, stopping in the middle to say a final prayer and dropping the stone I had been carrying with me all day, into the river. Both of our journiey's complete, I crossed the bridge and began to make my way back home. My souvenirs included a small blister on my right foot, and terrible back pain for the next day, but the experience was more than worth it. Being out in the tame nature we in this great metropolis have maintained, exploring the different environments through which the Humber flows, and really coming to appreciate just how significant this one river is to the city. I may be one of the only people around who would admit to leaving offerings to the River, but if my journey taught me anything, I am far from the only person in this city who still worships her.


 PS. I linked above to a website which seems to be a labour of love, the Toronto Historical Plaques site. This is maintained by Alan L. Brown and for anyone in the GTA or who may be interested in the multitude of plaques placed around the city, there really is no better resource.

Never surrender

When I usually post about religions with which I disagree with basic tenants or core principals, my usual topic is monotheism, and more specifically Christianity. It is only natural, of course, that the dominant religion in my country and western culture should bare more critique from a minority perspective than the dominant religion in other countries or cultures; that is after all how hegemony works. There does arise, however, from time to time notions from other religions which are held to be wondrous pearls of wisdom or highly thought provoking, paradigm shifting realizations which are then foisted by proponents as universally applicable, and how much better would your life be if you only understood this. In this case, I'm going to talk about that darling of "open minded" or "spiritual" people, Buddhism.

Or perhaps, not Buddhism per se, but those bits and pieces which are lifted from it and held to be wonderful, different and oh so enlightened. I realize that such drips and drabs may not be reflective of Buddhism as a whole, but they still reflect some of its core principals, albeit in a watered down way.

The particular drip which made me want to voice an opinion, was a small column in one of the morning daily's, by Natasha Dern, whom I know as the host of a now defunct radio show called "Buddha Lounge". The short piece was about the value of surrender as a virtue. Now she did take the time to elaborate and explain that surrender was not about "giving up", but actually took more strength than continuing to struggle against, well whatever the universe was telling you to stop struggling against. In most cases the thing one is supposed to be surrendering is the assertion of control. Or at the very least the worry which can come with trying to control things one can not possibly control. A good summary of this philosophy, and practical examples of it can be found here: Let Go Of Control. The gist of the philosophy is that by "letting go" of the idea (or more often illusion) of control, you will have to accept reality and what Buddhists refer to as "what is". The concept of "what is" is supposed to be the reality of a given situation, without the blocks of "fear" or "desire" getting in the way. What is stressed in these little lessons is the idea that by giving up the illusion of agency, one is supposed to gain peace and tranquility; "trust that everything will work out and it will".

Poppycock, and paradoxical poppycock at that.

I'll admit that I find many of the Zen koans interesting, and paradox can be thought provoking, but this doesn't fall into that category. This is simply giving up and hoping everything will work out on its own. You will note how much everyone who talks about the strength required in surrendering, states that it is not about inaction or "giving up". It is of course, absolutely, but they'd like to spin it another way. They stress how much strength and character it takes to realize the futility of an action, and that the stronger person will overcome their selfish ego, and trust in... well that's just it, they tend to not identify what is supposed to take over; other than "the universe". I've seen this type of thinking before, and while I've tried my best to not drag Christianity into this post, I can not help but notice this is the precise idea which is found in "Jesus take the wheel" theology. Give up, let go, things will work out.

How is this not a shinning endorsement of inaction? How is relinquishing control anything but giving up the idea that you have agency to effect your life? I understand that this is not supposed to be a rejection of agency in every situation, only in those where you haven't got any. Oh wait, is that circular logic rearing its curvy head? How is one supposed to determine if one has agency in a given situation in the first place? If you try enacting change and things get tough, stress you out, or become difficult, those are the signs to surrender? The second link above uses the idea of paddling against the current in a canoe. The proper response is to relinquish your paddles, and go with the flow, so to speak: "You can do things the hard way, or the easy way."

Well then, by the gods, I'm doing it the hard way.

Now I don't want to get off topic and explore the nature of fate in the tales; I've already had that discussion. There is, however, a definite will on behalf of gods and heroes both to resist, struggle and overcome any and all obstacles which stand in their way; or you know, die trying. Why do this, why struggle so hard when simply surrendering to their present reality would be so much easier? Because to do otherwise would bring dishonour, shame and ruin. Change is not something which occurs because things will work themselves out, change is something that happens through concerted effort and struggle. The Tuatha De Danann could have simply accepted their subjugation under Bres and his Fomorian allies, but they knew that would only bring ruin because dishonour brings dishonour. They knew the effort and the cost of throwing off the shackles of oppression, but they had to move forward because while the cost of action was high, the cost of inaction was unbearable. The Milesians confronted and did battle with the gods themselves, and won their share of the land. Yes, later on they realized the necessity of mutual respect and reciprocity was far more beneficial to all involved, but if they had just sailed away for easier settlements, they would have never gained the respect of the gods in the first place.

I'm not going to fault people for taking the easy way out, but I reject the notion that the easy way is in reality the "harder way". No, the hard way is not the path of least resistance, the hard way can be fraught with difficulty, with peril, with loss and with grief. But confronting and overcoming such difficulties is our duty, is one of the bases of the heroic virtues we strive to embody. Courage is measure against risk. Strength is measured against difficulty. Duty is measured against obligation. We are asked to be courageous, to be strong and to fulfill our duty, no matter the personal cost. It is through such effort that we are called to serve our community, and reject the importance of "the self".

Now, I've relied upon the mythic accounts to exemplify the value of struggle or of caring about outcomes; whereas the articles seek out more mundane and run of the mill experiences. They coalesce their sentiment into 'not sweating the details" which is a reasonable statement. But even in this accepting mediocrity is encouraged. If you've asked someone to do something a million times, and you have built plans around them fulfilling the task, and they fail to do so; don't sweat it, let it go and move on. Except that this establishes that people can make promises, fail to come through on them, and then not be held accountable. Certainly it would be easier to simply not have standards and expectations, but that doesn't make it the better choice. If someone tells you they are going to do something, they have an obligation to uphold it. If they fail to do so, you have an obligation to hold them accountable, and they have an obligation to make restitution. To do otherwise is to invite mediocrity and ultimately dishonour. Certainly stressing out over things which you have no control over is futile. The problem is that the philosophy above supports this, but adds that if things are difficult than you ought to relinquish any control you do have, and essentially hope for the best.

I say make it happen, and never surrender.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Owning Up: The best way forward

It comes up time and time again: in news articles, in interviews, in TV spots, in blog posts, in forum messages, even in tweets. A reasonable enough approach when confronted with depictions or portrayals which reflect negatively on a wider community, is to point out that "so and so's" actions are not supported by the group, and that there is nothing which condones such actions, from within the group. Wait, let me back up a little.

I'm talking about responsibility, or rather about the lack of it in a number of given incidents, typically involving some dishonourable action on part of a member of a given group, and the communities reaction to wider scrutiny as a result. As I said above, the most common tactic is to isolate the dishonourable member as an individual who does not reflect the wider membership, nor any of the teachings, philosophies, or messages of that group. They are labeled as "lone nuts", "fringe", "extremists" or "people who do not really understand X group". The goal, in any case, is to show how the individual(s) acted alone, and that the group does not condone their actions, and is therefore free from any blame or responsibility. The more glib version of this sort of argument, is known as the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. This fallacy establishes that to belong to a given group, one must abstain from doing X, as no one who does X could be considered a member of said group. The logical extension of this sort of reasoning is that groups can isolate their own membership for actions they deem as being dishonorable, sinful, criminal, etc., and by doing so shift any and all responsibility away from their group. The problem is then two fold:
  1.  1.The group effectively narrows who can be considered members by disqualifying any who may make them look bad, thus providing an illusory ideal which does not reflect reality.
  2. As a result of 1, the group will not examine itself and see if there is something internal which could have had causal influence on the actions of those (now) ex-members.
This isn't necessarily about any one group, and can happen with any group at all. I do have a couple of examples in mind though, to illustrate my point.

One of the most common examples of this sort of argument is found among a certain proselytizing type of Christian. When the history of Christianity is being discussed, for example, and is shown in a negative way this sort of Christian will explain away the wrong doing by explaining that "those were not REAL Christians, because no REAL Christian would do something like that." What this is trying to do is to disqualify those Christians who may reflect badly on the religion, even in a historic context, and in doing so show the moral superiority inherent in the religion. An attempt to show fallibility in such a way, will not only result in such evasive rhetoric, but will ultimately cause a deeper commitment to the illusory ideal the individual has for their religion. Any contemplation on possible sources for such negative actions/accounts within their own tradition will simply not occur.

Similar distancing and pretending occur among western Muslims who consider themselves moderates or liberal, when confronted with the reality of religious violence being carried out in the name of their religion. The most common refutation of culpability tends towards mentioning the dangers of Islamophobia, racism, "western" bias, etc. The second is to explain that "these people are extremists, and Islam does not condone X", attempting to remove any culpability on part of Islam as an organized religion. While I have no doubt whatsoever that xenophobia (be it Islamophobia, racism, etc.) can be a motivation for "speaking out against Islam", and trying to represent every adherent as a slavering, suicide bomber is disingenuous (and factually wrong), this does not mean that all criticisms can be explained away as such. The problems arise when reasonable criticism is deflected as being those above, even when it clearly is not. There exists a desire, on part of "moderate Muslims" to simply not address some fundamental issues within the religion: about the content of their religious scripture as justifying certain actions or beliefs, about some Imam's having very anti-western sentiments and encouraging such views among their members, about the crime of apostasy meriting brutal punishments, etc. What this willful ignorance does is engender a victimized mentality, while at the same time preventing any exploration or discussion of serious issues that need to be addressed. Again, by distancing themselves from the negative elements within their own communities, responsibility is shunned.

A slightly more complex issues arises in the case of Paganism, and the Pagan "community". Every now and then a news article will come along involving some heinous crime allegedly committed by a Pagan. Very often these articles will smack of poor writing, media bias, lack of research, sensationalism, etc. Often there will be protestations emanating from the online Pagan "community", and again the argument of "no Pagan would...", or "Wicca teaches that ..." is almost sure to follow. As Pagans tend to be highly self conscious, especially in regard to media portrayals, representatives from larger Pagan organizations may be approached, or will provide commentary on such issues if they can. While I do appreciate the desire to provide accurate portrayals of minority religions in the media as necessary, and that combating the idea of criminal activity being portrayed as normative with the teachings of a given religion, I worry that the same distancing which occurs in large religions, is happening as well.

The issue of complexity I mentioned above, however, is relevant to discussions about portrayal v. ideal v. reality among the Pagan "community". This seems as good a time as any, in case you were wondering, to point out that I've been putting community in brackets when it follows Pagan for a reason. The extent to which one can actually speak about something as wide and varied as Paganism being a community is very limited. If I were talking about a specific tradition, because even specific religion can be too broad a category, I would use the term community. As I am not, the idea of what constitutes a community when it comes to Paganism is nigh impossible to define. There simply is no consensus as to what does and does not qualify someone as a "Pagan", and so the idea of statements like "Pagan's don't..." or "Paganism teaches..." having any merit is at best foolish. This is where the idea of having people speaking for, or on behalf of Paganism becomes difficult; no one could possibly speak for everyone who self identifies as a Pagan, as Wiccan, as Druid, etc. At issue here is an utter lack of standard belief or shared values which is necessary for any sort of community to label itself as such.

Now, I am most certainly not trying to argue for the development of pan-Pagan values or beliefs, that boat sailed before I was even born. Or even within narrower, but still amorphous religions, like Wicca (or more properly neo-Wicca/Wiccanesque). No, what I am addressing is the difficulty in making statements like "Wiccans do not...", or "There is nothing in Wicca which...", and then believing such "facts" have any weight behind them. For such statements to have merit, they would require some means of internal regulation and consensus among those who identify as, in this case, Wiccan. The simple fact is that such internal regulation and consensus does not exist; even recent attempts to establish it have met with wide spread derision and claims of illegitimacy (i.e. "What give you the authority to establish such guidelines or principles?"). I'm not saying that such things need to be done, or that they would necessarily be positive; only that without some sort of authority or community consensus/regulation, discounting or trying to exclude individuals (or even groups) from being considered members of such "communities" is an impossibility. Mind, such attempts at separation within religions which do have centralized or common beliefs is still fallacious; in the case of Paganism (as much as we can speak about it) it is simply nonsensical. So when a representative of some Pagan group speaks to the media, how much authority do they have to even make such claims? If they are speaking for their own membership, of course they have such authority. If, however, they are speaking about Paganism as a whole, their authority is limited to their own definition and the inherent limitations of such a group.

So what does this have to do with anything?

As I said before responsibility and to be more specific, community responsibility. I'm not going to argue that lone nuts or fringe groups are imaginary, they do after all exist and are by their definition not indicative of a larger whole. What I do think is necessary, however, is that where an individual who is a member of a group does something dishonorable, rather than ignore the communities culpability in that individuals actions to first and foremost own it. Accept that someone who is a member of your community has acted in such a manner, rather than try to reverse engineer their membership into non-existence prior to their actions.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with explaining that such dishonorable action is not condoned by the community, or that the member by doing so has even disqualified themselves from their existing membership or will be made to restore their honour before being trusted again (if at all possible). What this does is to allow a community to act with integrity and avoid self deception, and portray itself as honorable in spite of the actions of individual members. It also allows for members to review existing positions, rules, etc. and see if they had any causal influence on the member in questions actions. Of course, for something like this to happen, there actually needs to be a community who has the ability to self regulate. In the case of communities which exist through little more than self identification, more care is needed when qualifying statements about any who fall outside the representative making the claims, authority.