Sunday, May 19, 2013

Give it up already!...Why (apparently) Reconstructionism is doomed

I have written about this topic a few times before, but people taking issue with Reconstructionism never really seems to go away. Truly the label is one which seems to breed criticism based on binary positions: if we aren't being "stodgy academics", we're being "closed minded bullies"; if we aren't "trapped by the past", then we "have too little to go on"; we're "too dismissive", or we aren't "dismissive enough"; the list goes on.

Just what is it that makes Reconstructionism, and to be clear I am referring primarily to Celtic Reconstructionism, elicit such vitriol and dismissivness? I have comes across several criticisms, and like I have in the past, will address them.

1. CR has a methodology which is too restrictive too allow it to be a living tradition.
2. A)There is not enough material to even meet the criteria needed for reconstruction to take place.
    B) Therefore, CR's are as prone to imagination/idealization as any other "Celtic Flavoured" tradition.

1. The second link explores one component of this criteria, namely that UPG "supposedly" has not place in CR methodology, which is patent nonsense. I'll not rehash it here, suffice to say that UPG is as important as good scholarship. Continuing on this line of thought, and we come across the criticism that the methodology is too restrictive to allow for any living, and especially public, form of CR. Funny, all of the GRP's I know seem to think they are members of a living religion, and certainly their daily prayers and rites seem to corroborate this fact. Even those in the broader CR camp seem to have no problem with engaging in prayer, ceremony, rites, festivals and other celebrations which are part and parcel of the world view. The organization I belong to (An Chomairle Ghaol Naofa) identifies its core ideology as Ár nDóigh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach " (our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway). This means that it informs and shapes our theological worldview, as well as every aspect of our lives. There isn't a partition between "religious life" and "profane life", there is no "turning it off", so to speak, because it is part of who were are, both as a community but also as individuals. So when I am told matter of factly that what I do on a daily basis is not possible, I'm going to be a tad irritated at the folks who are talking out of their asses.

Now, having said all that, it is anecdotal. Maybe there are those fabled CR's who are sitting somewhere, in a library no doubt, who are simply too busy reconstructing to actually go out and do it. I've yet to come across them, or have yet to meet anyone else who has, (and perhaps this is because they are so very busy being studious), but others claim they exist and since they are always trotted out as the "typical" example, they must exist somewhere.

Or, you know, maybe it is a case of people creating straw dollies out of season and making pronouncements from their posteriors.

2. A) This is a variation on the "it's too hard" argument, but one which refuses to go away; and not surprisingly this arguments tend to come from the same types. "We can't really know", "Just speculation", "Not enough material", are all trotted out as criticisms, and the responses (by folks like me) are then trotted out again to refute them. Every GRP (and CR) who has been able to get beyond scratching the surface, would be able to rebut these claims. We are eminently aware of the state, quality and caveats which accompany the entire corpus of mythic text. We are aware that nothing pertaining to the myths, can trace their writing to the pre-Christian period. We are aware that other Reconstructionist communities have it better in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. We are aware that it isn't "easy", but I tend to think that few things which are worthwhile are. This is where a fundamental skill, something which is necessary to understanding, comes into play; the faculty of critical thinking. Critical thinking allows an individual to look at a source, understand the authors/redactors biases, perspectives, translators preferences, and based on their knowledge, make an informed decision about the relative merits of a given source, and how much use said source is in reconstructing. This does not pertain just to medieval manuscripts, but to accounts of folklore from more recent times, secondary texts which explore these mythic writings and have their own perspectives upon them, and so on. All things considered, there is a wealth of information available, and enough of a scholarly consensus to merit the so thorough examination it receives.

2. B) This, of all the criticisms I have come across with regards to CR, is the one which is the most valid; in that it is, in fact, a valid criticism. There are those CR's and GRP's out there who do romanticize and sanitize their image of the Celts, and the Iron Age Gaels. This is due, in  no small part, to the romanticised image of "The Celts" which developed during the "Celtomania" of the late Victorian period. The issue stems from utilizing sources which were sanitized and tidied to appeal to Victorian sensibilities, and so for some of those GRP's (especially folks just starting down this path) out there, they may not be aware of this fact. This criticism does tie into 2.A) to some extent, because for a number of reasons, there are GRP's who tend to take a far less critical eye to the texts then may be necessary.

In fact a troubling, I'll not call it a trend, but perhaps a tendency of observation has developed wherein textual literalism is not only lauded, but championed, by some. My experience of this tendency of observation has led me to a couple of conclusions in regards to why this is happening at all, and why this is the wrong approach to take.
  • GRP's, despite the stodgy academic stereotype, are in reality very passionate people. This passion and enthusiasm can, unfortunately, be channeled into well meaning, but flawed endeavours. The mythic literature is important, and an understanding of it is a core component of even being a GRP. The misstep is in holding the mythic texts to be sacred, and yes you read that correctly. THE CORPUS OF MYTHIC TEXTS ARE NOT SACRED. How could they be? Their authorship is far later than periods which they are describing, and were recorded, redacted, written, exaggerated, altered and invented by scribes who were not polytheists. They were Christians, and while the texts themselves are evidence enough that they had nostalgia for elements of their mythic history and tradition, they were theologically hostile to varying degrees to the old gods. The texts themselves have been translated, retold, rewritten and a host of other literary issues, and so it is simply foolish to hold them as being sacred. The figures behind the stories, the framework and worldview gleaned from a proper understanding of the stories, are where the value of the texts lie. To hold them as being sacred, though, is to romanticize and fabricate a state of affairs that simply cannot be.

  • The above argument also underlies why the idea of textual literalism, from a GRP standpoint, is not only stupid, but (properly) impossible. I say properly, because it is possible in the same way that those who interpret the Christian Bible literally are able to do so, by cherry picking and cognitive dissonance. Literalism would require one to first accept all of the Christian framing present, and by default this enhumerizes the depiction of any figure who is representative of a deity. One could then step up on a ladder and begin harvesting the bits they like, but then they need to be able to determine what elements are actually pre-Christian, and which have been added in, requiring a critical examination, rendering literalism null and void. This is not to say that believing in the existence of the gods is wrong, far from it. I believe the gods exist as much as I myself, my wife, my family, friends or you reading this do. It is simply that the very nature of the mythic texts precludes any sort of functional literalist interpretation.

  • Some GRP's are still beholden to a foreign (i.e. not Gaelic) approach to understanding the place and function of religion. The enthusiasm is channeled in the same way that, say, Born Again Christians channel their energy following the conversion experience. The problem is that not all religions function in the same way, and so trying to use the same sort of behavioural models will not work. Literalism, as I explained above, can not work. Proselytizing in the endeavour to convert others, will not work. Fundamentalism as a practical expression of belief, will not work. None of these things will work because GRP is not based on believing the "right things" or having exclusive access to "the truth". It is based on the fostering and maintenance of proper relationships: with the de ochus ande, with our families, with our community, with society, with the cosmos.

Reconstructionism itself is often accused of being the "fundamentalist" branch of paganism, precisely because we maintain a degree of criticism when it comes to our understanding of the gods. The goal of doing our best to understand the worldview of our ancestors, is difficult, especially when the  information we have to go on is flawed. To pretend otherwise is to do precisely what our critics accuse of doing, and on top of that, ignoring a basic principle of Celtic Reconstructionism altogether: a rejection of the romanticism that has plagued the image of the Celts since the 19th century. But we are not beholden to an erroneous belief that the texts we work with are perfect, are infallible. We know (or ought to know) better.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Down by the river

As today was the only day off I am going to get in a two week span, and seeing as the weather has decided to become May again, as opposed to the two day hit of January (complete with snow) we had in my area earlier in the week, it seemed like as good a time as any to head over to the Humber river and spend a little time there. I am fortunate enough to live in a city that while heavily urbanized, maintains a significant amount of green space, thanks in large part to the three large rivers which run down to the lake; the Rouge, The Don and the Humber.

I've always had a fascination, an inexplicable attraction even, to streams, creeks, rivers, pond, lakes and other bodies of water. Be it exploring the banks, fishing, swimming, canoeing, boating or a host of other activities, water and its surrounding geography holds a special, if nostalgic, place in my heart. Not surprisingly then I find that, beyond the altar found upon the hearth of my dwelling, rivers and their environs are the locus of my ritualistic activity. I have developed a mannerism that when ever crossing over a bridge, provided there is a river/stream beneath it, I give a short prayer. I have also written about my relationship with The Humber River before, and find that it is the first locale that springs to mind when I make offerings or prayers to the spirits of place.

The symbolic and ritualistic associations of water, again usually embodied by rivers, lakes and streams, found in Gaelic tradition is well attested to. This sacrality is based, in large part, by the liminal nature of the boundary between earth and sea, the shore (or bank). We find in the mythic literature that many of the interactions between the denizens of the sidhe and mortal folk occur on or near shorelines, beaches and river banks. Forming natural borders and in many cases barriers, rivers and fords also feature prominently in the narrative of the Tain bo Cuilagne, as the setting for the single combats upon which the story focuses. Archeological evidence also showcase waterways and their sacral nature as many ritual deposits (of coins, swords, jewelry, etc.) were found in these areas (both on the continent and some locations in Ireland).

Symbolically and metaphorically, rivers are most often associated with female deities, spirits or personages. Many of the dindshenchas which speak about the naming of rivers or lakes revolve around the activities of mythic women, such as Boann and Sionann, after whom the rivers Boyne and Shannon are held to be named. Rivers and streams have also traditionally been one of the locations of female labour, and many are familiar with the folklore surrounding the "washer woman at the ford" or bean nighe.

So I went to my usual ritual spot, just under a footbridge which cross over the river, and said a prayer followed by an offering of nine hazel nuts. Maybe I even got a little shade of imbas from the experience. While certainly not poetry by any means, it did inspire me to write this post.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Doing better, now with more GRP content!

I recall with some regret, that my first crack at blogging was a dismal failure, owing to the fact that I never really updated the one I had. Sure, I had some decent enough posts which I transferred over to here when I started up TSOAHT, but I got to the point where my drafts would almost all start with "I really ought to be writing more", and decided that being an absentee blogger was pointless. Blogs, after all, enable us to communicate to people with like minded interests in a more focused/personal capacity than say a given religion/interfaith forum would. It doesn't make a lot of sense to maintain a blog if you don't actually blog on a somewhat regular basis. Certainly, if the issue is that other projects/personal life gets in the way, and keeps you from posting, well that's a reasonable enough excuse. If on the other hand, it is a matter of running out of things to blog about, or a complete loss of interest sharing your ideas/opinions, than it might be time to "hang it up". Of course, the Internet being what it is, inactivity does not necessarily result in erasure or disappearance of material in its archived format, nor of people losing interest entirely. I haven't published a post since January, but I still get a decent enough amount of page hits on a daily basis, considering how insignificant my blog is, so in that respect I'm comfortable with not being as active as I ought to be.

Having said that, I ought to endeavour to be more present with my own blog and post more often. Certainly some of my original ideas/intended schedule did not at all pan out. Really, who the feck cares if some snide polytheist has some commentary on the canonical Christian gospels? I have found that with one or two exceptions, most of the traffic and certainly the vast majority of comments come from posts, articles and opinions relating to, surprise surprise, Gaelic Polytheism. So first and foremost, I should bloody well redouble my efforts to post content pertaining to the original purpose of this blog, to write about my perspective and experiences when it comes to being a GRP.

So, in the first of what I hope is a semi-frequent posting schedule, some observations I have had, gleaned largely from participating on an interfaith forum I joined a little over a month ago, as well as experiences beyond the Internet.

Being really, really enthusiastic about mythology no one knows anything about, is frustrating

While not the most reliable, scientific or quantifiable method of gathering data; several informal surveys posted inquiring people to "name a Celtic mythological figure" returned dismal results. Among numerous people who were quite willing to respond and discuss issues pertaining to deities and mythology, the only response in the positive was a mention of "King Arthur", and in many ways that has a lot more to do with Zimmer Bradley than earlier Welsh material. On the same forum, a fellow polytheist could name Lugh and Cerrunos, but that was about it. A vague notion that some of the Arthurian material was Celtic in origin, and two gods, was the best anyone could do. Comparatively, when asked if they could then name mythic figures from Greek, Roman, Norse or Egyptian lore, the responses were overwhelmingly in the affirmative. So why is this the case?

A definitive answer would be far beyond the ability of myself, or of my simple survey to conclusively arrive at, but I have a few basic explanations:

1. Hellenic and Roman civilizations form the bedrock of much of Western culture, and so their influences are lasting and much more permanent than a relatively peripheral culture that was essentially conquered by the later, and subsumed into the fold of that own cultures inheritors. To put it succinctly, Celtic culture did not have even an iota of the impact upon the "western world" that Greece or Rome did. As such, when it comes to basic historic education, if the Celts are mentioned at all, the Druids are the focus, because everyone loves odd fellows in robes.

2. Iron-age/Early Medieval Scandinavian culture is presently overt in popular media. A lot of this is owed to the efforts of Marvel Studios to push their film franchises, and so Thor (for all of its liberties) pushed into the public consciousness a slew of mythological figures. Sure, being able to name a god from Icelandic mythology hardly constitutes a deep, personal connection with either the material, culture or divine figures; but it does signify a much broader knowledge of those things. It has relevance (as geeky or pop-y as that knowledge may be) to a modern audience and so illustrates cultural significance. In addition, films like "Valhalla Rising", "Pathfinder", "Beowulf" (yes, not technically Scandinavian, but popular attributions/associations count in this context) and television series like the less mainstream "The Almighty Johnsons", and more mainstream fare like "Vikings", Icelandic myth is reaching a far greater audience than at almost any period in the past. With the up coming release of HBO's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", this interest is only going to get larger. Certainly this has, for good or ill, resulted in some people taking an interest in the material behind the modern versions, and perhaps even a questioning as to why not worship Odin?

3. Celtic materials already saw their populist heyday. Celtomania is something that can be discussed, analyzed and dissected, because it is something that has already happened. Victorian audiences couldn't get enough, and the raft of English translations of old and middle Irish texts spawned versions of the tales that are still read today.

4. Attempts at more modern popular representation have been non-starters, or small scale. Disney's "Brave", which could have helped, if but a little, was not the film everyone had been hoping for. It did very well at the box office, but the critical and popular consensus was "good, not great". Added to this is that the "Celtic" elements were set pieces more than anything to do with the story, and a mythological component so generic it could have been just about any country that had bears in it certainly didn't have anyone rushing out to read up on mythic figures. I loved "The Secret of Kells", but most of the folks who saw it (and talked about it) were animation fans more than fans of Irish history/folklore. Other than this, a bunch of relatively low budget films focused on single elements of Irish/Scottish folklore round out  content for the last decade. Okay, so "Centurion" ought to be there as well, but it hardly counts, owing to the Roman angle. Face it, when people think of "Celtic" warriors they think of "Braveheart" first and Cuchulain and Fionn second (if at all).

A few reasons to none the less be hopeful that more people will be exposed to Celtic myth

1. Breakthru Films will, eventually, release "Hound", their retelling of the Ulster Cycle, focused of course around Cuchulain. It has been sidelined for a few years now, but hopefully it will not sit on the shelf for too much longer and they'll try to capitalize on the "Viking" stuff, as well as the resurgence in "Fantasy" genre materials.

2. HBO's "American Gods" which is set for a number of seasons, is going to have to develop original material for the later seasons (as they have a single, and not multiple novels to work from regarding source material). Plus, there are two characters who are present enough in the text to merit expanded roles in the show, maybe. Mad Sweeny will likely be as present in the show as he was in the book, but my hopes are pinned on An Morrigan (who does show up in the book towards the later third) getting an expanded role in potential later seasons.

3. Will Sliney's forthcoming "Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cuchulain", while indie press, will see a North American release. Could wind up being carried by book sellers to reach an audience outside of its likely demographic.

4. There could be a Hollywood adaptation of Cuchulain's exploits in the works, though details about the development is murky at best.

Why ought a devotee of the gods care if some of the material is bastardized, mass marketed and generates an interest in the source material and culture?

I can not answer this one for anyone but myself, but it ties back into what is held to be important and relevant. Whether more people know about Jupiter over An Dagda, has no bearing on my continuing devotion to An Dagda himself. The road of popular representations is one fraught with peril and the likelihood for wholly inaccurate and terrible misrepresentations of the source material is all but certain. "Thor" is not at all a good representation of the Eddas, the film especially (the comics depend on the era/ writer, and only get close to the spirit of the source). None the less, "Thor" instills a sense of significance, permanence and immanence of a character who is, despite the CGI and gaudy costume, the representation of a deity. A deity who seems more realistic because of the surreal fantasy world he inhabits. A deity who is given a degree of empathy and pathos because he is depicted through a popular medium like film.

 Further, popular enjoyment and appeal will often lead to expanded interest in perhaps more specialized ways. I doubt we would be seeing a stellar show like "Vikings", were it not for the interest in material derived from Icelandic myths being popularly represented. Considering all the sex and violence which permeates the mythic texts, all the political intrigue and beautiful set pieces just waiting to be filmed, there is no reason to doubt that a similar period piece could easily be made, focused on the Irish, Scottish or Gaulish cultures.

Again, my expectations are low and I do not expect swarms, drove, or even many people to see a commercialized, sanitized and fictionalized representation of our mythic figures and suddenly want to make daily offerings to the de ochus ande. What it may accomplish, however, is the re-emergence of the idea that these figures are being popularly represented because they are valuable; their stories are ones that can and should be told and remembered. The people who valued them thousands of years ago, and those of us who value them today, had good reason to, and here is a little slice of the "why".

I know how I feel about it, how about you?