Sunday, July 27, 2014

Theodicy (or coming to terms with the existence of tragedy)

(I had originally started to write this a few weeks ago, but lost my focus. A personal loss has brought this topic screaming back, so if you come across bracketed, bolded text that is more recent.)

Of all the "big questions" which religion is supposed to be able to answer (or at least provide some guidance) second only to "Why am I here?" is "Why do bad things happen to good people?". This is the single question which, perhaps more than any other, allows us to discover the very boundaries of our beliefs, the limit of our faith and the depth with which we trust.

Who do we lose, that it becomes unbearable?
What depth of grief can one person be expected to experience? 
How much tragedy can befall someone before their once unshakable trust in the gods entropy's into nihilism?

Today, this morning to be precise, as I listened to the usual channel on my AM dial as I drove my wife to work, it seemed that the top stories were categorically grim:

A man estranged from his wife, murdering her and another adult, four children and an attempted fifth.

Another man who had in past days, murdered his two small children and then killed himself, finalized by setting the car they had occupied alight.

A reminder that a small child had been neglected to death, by his own grandparents.

As I said, categorically grim.

I though of a friend who had experienced great loss, suddenly, without warning; at a time of unbridled joy and hope for a future that will never be.

(I think of my friend, his life cut tragically short, the grief of his family and my friend who was much closer that I was.)

I thought of all those who walk through the doors of my place of business, all being touched by death and loss and the grief that clings to your very being.
And then I thought of the gods.

As I said before, the question of tragedy and ill fortune, of hardship and suffering is an old one. There are many answers, and some shed a little more light than others.
Cultural/Religious Examples
Job, the paragon, the avatar of the good man wronged by a god, his god. Never having done wrong, never having said a word against his fate, is answered by even greater suffering and loss. When he finally comes face to face (or a tornado) with his god, and asks him why he has allowed such suffering to befall him, he is strong armed into silence and supplication.
The lord works in mysterious ways

Heracles, being the ultimate antitheses of everything Hera represents, is cursed and sent into a mad rage. In his maddened fury he murders his son and daughter (in some versions, so too his wife). He is eventually cured of his madness, but realizing what he has done, flees. As penitence for his crime, he is forced to serve the king Eurystheus (often described as an archrival of Heracles) and performs his Twelve Labours.
Mortals are but the playthings of the gods

Baldur is beloved of all the Aesir, and through the efforts of his mother, Frigga, he is nigh invincible. The gods make great sport of attempting to harm him, but baleful Loki discovers the one way to lay low the shining god of youth. Malice in his heart, he tricks poor, blind Hod into participating in the sport, and armed with a dart crafted from mistletoe, Baldur is felled.
Malice and hatred are bedfellows of tragedy and grief

Kisa Gotami had lost her only son, and grief stricken, begged anyone who would listen for a way to restore her son back to life. Finally she was instructed to speak with the Buddha; and he told her that if she could find mustard seeds from household who had never tasted death, he could revive her son. Filled with hope, she returned to her village and asked at every house, yet soon discovered that all had experiences of death. Despondent she returned to the Buddha, and informed him she had failed.
Suffering and death are inseparable from this (impermanent) life

For death has entered the world through the fault of one man, the first man, Adam. For sin is part of human nature, and the wages of sin is death. Yet the strength of sin is the law, and since all fall short of the glory of the Lord, all men are doomed to die. Yet, for the believer, death is not the end; for the corruptible must put on incorruption and the mortal must put on immortality. The price for sin was paid by one man, the perfect man, Jesus.
This world was corrupted by sin, and from sin flows tragedy, suffering and death

These are well and good, and they may be powerful, even thought provoking ideas and sentiments, but they are necessarily rooted in their own theology and mythology. Their responses, their attitudes and answers all stem from their worldview. So where do we turn?

In this case, as ingrained in western culture as the endurance of Job is, as terrible the murder of Baldur, as transcendent the wisdom of the Buddha or Christ, and as Herculean the struggles of Heracles, the Gaels have 'em beat hands down.

You will be hard pressed to find a collection of myth and legend as infused with tragedy as the corpus of Gaelic lore. Tragic lives and tragic deaths, love triangles, kin slaying  and murderous vengeance, it has it all.
Gaelic Examples
Chief among such tales of woe, are the "Three Sorrows of Storytelling": The exile of the sons of Uisliu, the Fate of the Children of Lir and The Fate of the Sons of Tuireann.
The later comes first chronologically, and while I did mention it not too long ago, a brief summary. Lugh's father, Cian, is murdered by the three sons of Tuireann, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, due to strife between their families. Lugh discovers their crime, and acting as King, demands they undertake a perilous journey to obtain magical artefacts to aid in the war against the Fomorians. The brothers succeed, but through Lugh's thirst for revenge, does not to save them from their mortal wounds, and they die. Their father Tuireann then dies of a broken heart.
The "Fate of the Children of Lir" looks at how the goddess Aoife, tried to kill her step children because of the love that was showered upon them by her husband, Lir. At first she tried to have a servant kill them, but he balked. She then attempted to kill them herself, but lost her courage and instead cursed them into the forms of swans for a period of no less than 900 years.
"The Exile of the sons of Uisliu", follows the tragic heroine Dierdre, her lover Naoise and his two brothers as they evade the wrath of king Conchobar, by settling in Scotland. Difficulty and circumstance drive them back to Ireland, and Conchobar tricks them into returning to Ulster, where they are betrayed to their deaths. Dierdre survives the assault, and is to be given to the man who slew Naoise, but enroute leaps from a chariot and dashes her head against a rock.
Yet these tales are not in the least all the tragedy there is to tell, what follows is a brief list of other tragic circumstances in larger narratives, but not necessarily self contained stories:
  • Rúadán mac Bres, son of Brigid, is killed while spying upon the gods during the events of CMT2, and upon this discovery Brigid wails out the first caoine to be heard in Ireland. 
  • Cúchulain fights and kills his own son, for the honour of the Ulstermen.
  • Cúchulain is forced to fight and kill his best friend (and arguably lover) Ferdia in single combat, due to the machinations of Medb during the Táin Bó Cúlaigne.
  • Emer dies of a broken heart while she is in the process of burying
  • Diarmuid is gored by a boar fated to kill him, and because of a past transgression, Fionn lets him die.
  • Oisín lives in the otheroworld for ages with his wife Niamh, but grows homesick and takes a magical steed back to the mortal realm. He is warned never to dismount, but forgets himself and upon touching down upon the earth, he is instantly aged to blind decrepitude, never to return to Niamh again.
  • Oisín then wanders the countryside, until he is found by St. Patrick, where he is abused until he either dies unrepentant or is baptised.
  • Caílte, in a parallel/alternate narrative to Oisín, is the last of the Fianna, and spends his final days recounting the glorious time of his youth while mourning all that has been lost 
  • Characters in many narrative will die literally die because of the sadness of the situation and the resulting "breaking of their heart".
This is barely even scratching the surface, but it provides at lest some specific instances of tales within the wider lore to contemplate and explore the subjects of grief, tragedy and loss.
So, what are we to do? What does the lore have to say about the problem of theodicy, and why do we suffer as often as we rejoice?
Sources of Suffering
Simply put, there is no single answer as to the "why" of suffering, at least from a GRP perspective. It is not the theological dilemma that afflicts monotheistic religions; after all polytheism in general does not ascribe the classical "omni's" to its deities. We are not trapped by the need to reconcile the existence of suffering with the existence of the gods, because the gods are not all powerful, ever present, all knowing or all loving. We can accept that suffering happens for a number of reasons:
  • The capriciousness of circumstance
  • The wanton cruelty or carelessness of people 
  • The agency of a malefic spirit or deity
  • The passage of time
Circumstance, random chance and ill fortune can account for the champions portion of suffering which we are forced to deal with at any given time. For those of us fortunate enough to live in countries which have stable governments, the fear of war and famine is tertiary. Natural disasters, medical emergencies or illness tend to be the more common forms of suffering we are exposed to, as much as these account for destruction and death.
Wanton cruelty/ Carelessness of those we interact with and are beholden to would be the second most common source of suffering. Whether it be those who wish to do us harm through acts of violence, abuse, economic exploitation, etc. or those who through their callousness or ignorance do so too, much of our suffering can occur at the hands of another.
If we accept that the na trí naomh do have agency, and this agency has some impact upon our lives, then we must also accept that those deities or spirits whose purview is at odds with our own, can have the same impact. I believe that these kinds of occurrences are exceedingly rare, and that other perspectives place far too much emphasis on the power and influence of malefic entities. Yet to discount them all together is to deny a very real aspect of the numinous which is reasonably attested to within folklore and tradition.
Finally, the passage of time, the progression from youth to old age, while related and influenced by the three sources listed above, has elements of its own which merit acknowledgement. As one grows older, the likelihood of those we know dying around us becomes more and more common. Survivor's bare the burden of those who came before them, and those who have been lost along the way; keepers of collective/familial memories become saddled by those experiences and can almost literally be haunted by ghosts from the past.
Responses to Suffering

The courage to go on
Sorrow, unabashed and fully embraced grief, are as natural a response to loss as any other human emotion. Grief needs to be understood on a number of levels, but one thing which many people outside the grief counselling (or related) field, ought to know is that grief is, among other things, a physical reaction to loss. The lump in the back of your throat, the loss of appetite, the headache, shortness of breath, inability to stand and of course crying, are all physical responses we can experience when we are confronted with the reality of loss.

There is no shame in this, it is not weakness, it is not "too much". It is as much a part of life, as dying is, and for too long has it been seen as being weak, emotional and "over the top". Yet ritualized expressions of grief were a regular component of wakes; the practice of keening has gone out of "fashion", but how much this had to do with conceptions of propriety in an anglicised world, and how much it had to do with no longer having any value, is debatable.

So what grief represents is the coming to terms with your situation, and accepting it for what it is. Recognize the loss, accept the loss and understand that things will necessarily be different from this time on. It is only when the reality of the situation is ignored, when emotions are not processed, but rather suppressed, that complications related to grief arise.

I think the idea of literally dying of a broken heart or sorrow is a romantic literary device. The purpose of which is either to show the extent of grief over the death or in the case of musicians playing powerfully sorrowful music, their skill. This does not mean that we ought to do the same, rather it can symbolize that not dealing with your feelings of loss can inexorably alter your life in very negative ways.

A component of accepting the reality of the loss, and finding the strength to go is, is a call to courage in the face of adversity. Life can be horrid, painful and full of sorrow, but this should not prevent us from trying to live as best as we are able to. Our lived will be tinged by sorrow and joy, and not always in equal measure. It may never, truly "get better", but still we are called to stand tall and carry on. 
The gods are not perfect
This is one of those "gotcha" points that many a monotheist likes to harp on about, that they sensibly worship a god which is superlative in all of his capacities. Yet their god, the god of classical monotheism [henceforth GOCM], and these characteristics are the basis of the perennial problem of theodicy. The four characteristics which are touted are the "four o's": omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence.  Yet, with the undeniable existence of suffering, all four characteristics can not be inherent in the same being. The rubric generally follows:
  • If GOCM does not have the power to stop suffering, then omnipotence is lacking
  • If GOCM does not know that suffering is occurring, than omniscience is lacking
  • If GOCM is not present to stop suffering, than omnipresence is lacking
  • If GOCM can prevent suffering, but chooses not to, than omnibenevolence is lacking
Many use this as a logical "proof" that GOCM does not exist, I simply think it shows that a tribal war god who has through centuries of hegemonic monotheist theology and philosophy been ascribed characteristics not inherent in the experience of his worshippers. A lofty ideal which falls apart in the face of reality.
Being a polytheist, I can accept that the gods are not perfect, all powerful beings. That there is none the less great mystery of their being, of the extent of their power, the breadth of their knowledge, their localised character and the limits of their compassion. Our morality may be sourced to the gods, but we are not gods and gods are not us. We euhemerise them in the stories we tell each other about them (or have this done for us by scribes), but we should not mistake these stories as a literal history of the gods.
The myths we have, the lore we pour over and study, are the single best resource we have for trying to understand and relate to the gods, to attempt to know them, but the gods are beyond the literary characters we read about. I can read about the final great battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorii, I can have it retold to me how Rúadán is killed by his Great Uncle Goibnu, and how his mother Brigid let out the first keening ever to be heard. I can read this and puzzle at the idea of gods being killed, but that isn't what the story is really about, intriguing a theological mystery as that may be. No, what the story tells us is that the gods themselves can experience loss and grief, and that we are made that much closer to them by this. That Brigid knows the sting of grief, that a goddess of her stature is overwhelmed by emotion, is a great comfort to those of us asking why, of trying to make sense of it all. I know too, that Brigid in her grief is also full of compassion and understanding, and that she has the power to mend broken hearts and balm shattered spirits.

Both of these ideas, that we have within all of us the courage and the strength to flourish despite the losses and tragedy we must all face and that while the gods are alien and separate from us by their very nature, they understand and relate to our experiences of loss, are how I square the existence of tragedy in my life with my worship and trust of the gods.



Sunday, July 6, 2014

Living in a world without sin

Continuing with my current tend of exploring values in GRP in a rather roundabout way, we find ourselves having to deal with the concept of sin. Or rather, the lack of sin present in the GRP worldview. This does not mean that actions have no consequences, or that we are not capable of offending the na trí náomh, only that the repercussions of such actions tend to be immediate and not tallied in some invisible counter to be used against us when we die. In fact, there is no moral component which determines our fate once we die; virtuous or detestable, we all journey to the House of Donn. More on this later, however, let us examine precisely what constitutes sin, its consequences and the overall impact the concept has had upon the discussion of religion as well as the wider culture in the west.

A sin, according to Abrahamic tradition, is any action (or thought in some traditions) which intentionally violates a rule or law as established by the Abrahamic god (according to such mythologies). In accounts of Temple era Judaism, sins were atoned for by offering an animal sacrifice in the temple, in penance and reconciliation for wrong doing. In later Rabbinical tradition, this atonement and reconciliation for sins would be accomplished through confession (ashamnu) and the avoidance of such sinful actions in the future.

In Christian tradition, Sin and how to atone for them depend greatly on the delineation one belongs to. One of the central rites in Catholic doctrine is the rite of contrition/confession, whereby a parishioner is absolved of sin through the acts of confessing to their wrong doing, acknowledging that they have deliberately perpetrated these actions or thoughts, will make some penance for those thoughts/actions and will strive to avoid such thoughts/acts in the future. This is all accomplished via the priest, who is singly ably to absolve their members of sins through apostolic succession. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the means and way is almost identical to that of Catholics, albeit they tend to be a bit more fluid on who is able to hear and absolve their members of sins (including monks and lay people, etc.); albeit only an ordained Priest may provide absolution for sins.  I will single out Anglicanism, as it is one of the few Protestant denominations which maintains the tradition of a confessional rite, similar to Catholic confession but more general. Finally, the vast majority of Protestant denominations/ churches do not hold that any sort of intermediary is necessary for the absolution of sins, and this is done through the initial act of contrition (as is common among Pentecostal churches, the process of accepting Christ as their personal saviours) or is incorporated into regular worship services (corporate confession). Many Protestants will also include a confession of their daily sins in the evening prayers.
In Islam, sin is again seen as any act or thought which violates the law as established by their god, and seeking forgiveness for sin is known as istighfar, and is one of the integral components of worship for Muslims. A spirit of admission and contrition is necessary in order for the sin to be forgiven, and if the sin is against another person it often requires their forgiveness as well.

In terms of necessity, the existence of sin in the case of Christianity is the core problem of ones existence, and it is only through the sacrifice of Christ (or through the power given to his representatives through apostolic succession/ tradition) that Christians can establish a spiritual position to reconcile themselves with their god. Yet, in general, the act of contrition and repentance alone are clearly not enough on their own, and theologically make the person of Christ the central figure in their world view. This is of course one of the many intrinsic differences between Christianity and Judaism and Islam. Sin, humanities natural state as being sinful, originated with the progenitor of the human race, Adam. So while the concept that Adam's transgression caused sin to become part of human nature, referred to as original sin in Christian tradition, is a component of the Abrahamic understanding and development of the term, the emphasis given to the single act differs amongst the religions considerably. Having said that, we can certainly appreciate the significance of precedent and its symbolic power, albeit appreciation is not the same as recognition.

For us, there is no concept of original sin, there is nothing which intrinsically keeps us separated from the gods. Of course the reason we seek out and worship them  is very, very different from the Abrahamic approach to the divine. Yet, this is not our cosmology, nor our theology at work. We are not a fallen people and our natural state is not one of depravity. We are meant to live in the here and in the now; our lives are spent not seeking some future eternal reward, but rather for a rewarding life in the present. We accept ourselves and our humanity and seek to do right by the Na Tri Naomh, not because we fear some eternal punishment, nor hope for some eternal reward. We choose to do so because it is simply the richest, most beneficial mode of living for us. Now, a caveat is also required, because Judaism's approach to the why of living is quite similar to our own; while there are beliefs about the afterlife, the focus is on living in this world.
Sacrifice is offered not as propitiation or extirpation, as payment for some cosmic crime or slight against the gods; sacrifice is offered as an acknowledged price for the maintenance of the world; quite literally. Or rather, there are very good reasons to understand the act of human (and animal) sacrifices as a means of providing to the gods the raw materials with which to stave off the entropic nature of the cosmos. Bruce Lincoln has made the case that when exploring the nature of sacrificial offerings, and in particular that of livestock or rare cases of human beings, IE cultures did so as a reversal of the divine process of giving shape and form to life:
primordial sacrifice => cosmogony => anthropogny => sacrifice => etc..

Which is not to say that the idea of punishment for crimes against the community lacked any sort of religious connotations. While there is little insular literary evidence of it, if we turn to the continent and explore some of the sources pertaining to the mannerism of the Druids and the communities they served we can make some observations. According to Cesar (not the most reliable of witnesses) one of the most feared punitive measures a Druid could inflict upon a criminal, was the prohibition of their participation in the communal acts of sacrifice. So while the crimes or transgressions are not seen as religious in and of themselves, the consequence of being unable to participate in the communal rites an sacrifices was seen as a very serious penalty. What is important to recognize, however, is that the decision was not oracular, was not some divine missive, but rather a decision rendered and enforced by the Druids themselves; a temporal penalty for a temporal crime.

Now, with this in mind and upon closer examination of many of the contemporary continental accounts from Greek and Roman sources, they certainly believed that the Celts they encountered did in fact offer up sacrifices (animal and especially human) in propitiation of the gods. As payment for victory in some coming battle or for the victory they had already received, they would offer up human sacrifices (usually prisoners of war).
What it all comes down to is the cosmological and theological framework ones point of view is informed by. The Abrahamic's understanding is that humans are a fallen species; either through their mythic progenitor, their own failings, or a combination of the two; their natural state of being is sinful. They also understand their god as being perfect and the origin of the law codes that inform their understanding of morality. Their failings necessarily make them separate from their god, and so acts of repentance and contrition are mandatory to close this distance called sin.
This life chose me; I'm not lost in sin.
This is not to say that we are "perfect", that we have no room for improvement or betterment. We struggle, we hurt, we fail, we die; yet all of these things are part of the deal. We are not perfect, because life is not perfect, and I rather think that setting up an impossible ideal as attainable (if only through divine intervention) is just that; impossible. You can feel bad about your shortcomings, but you can choose to wallow in them or overcome them. While the term (and philosophy behind it) are purely Greek, eudamonia ("the good life") is something which is attainable, and further does not require any impossible ideals of perfection to achieve. Rather, it requires dedication, effort and the realization that it is something which is a reward in and of itself. As virtue ethics is something which is reflected in the medieval literature and is a component of GRP, utilizing the most robust VE system in western philosophy as a means of informing our own approach to ethics is (in my mind) a reasonable adaptation of a pre-existing model.

The middle way is where virtue lives, and it is through living virtuously that we are able to flourish. We relate to and with the gods through mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships. Make no mistake, we can offend the gods, we can offend our ancestors and we most certainly can offend the spirits of place. There are countless examples from folklore especially, so most of the "feedback" relates to prohibitions against certain actions or the use of particular items when coming into contact with spirits of place.
The destruction of a hazel was often avoided as much as possible, the avoidance of fairy mounds during construction projects was common in the 19th century, and the prohibition against the use of cold iron in any capacity when dealing with the fair folk are all examples of the fear with which folk practices reinforce the simplicity by which we could offend. Violations of the laws of hospitality, of bringing dishonour to ones self (and by proxy their family and group), disrespecting or desecrating the graves of the dead are likewise examples of the means by which we may offend our ancestors. The means by which we may offend the gods is a bit trickier, violating the rules of hospitality would be among those which are more obvious, as would be the violation of geasa. Yet none of these acts carry with them the same sort of punitive cost found among those religions which contain dogma relating to sin. Certainly the violation of ones geasa will result in ruination and more often than not death, yet this is once more a temporal (if rather fatal) end. No where do we find evidence of further punishment of payment owed beyond the loss of ones own life or honour; no punishment awaits those who violate their sworn oaths, their geasa or give other offence to the gods once their life ends.
Whether one has lived a fully flourishing life of virtue, or a craven, cowardly life of vice, their ultimate abode is the same. All of us will travel to the live under the care of the Lord of dusk, in his hallowed halls. This is because our behaviour in this life only matters in this life, because for all we know, this is all we get. I believe quite strongly that I will sit with my lord when my time on the mortal coil ends, but I am not certain. I'm repeating myself, but it bears repeating: Never forget that we seek to do right by the na trí naomh, that we uphold dírgas, not because we hope to gain admittance to a paradisiacal hereafter, nor for fear and avoidance of eternal penitence and pain, but because by doing so we are allowed to flourish and be excellent. Our live are meant to be lived as best we can, in the here and now, for the sake of living good lives. We have been given the gift of life, the beauty and the horror, that we may stake out a piece of time and space and say, "We were here, we lived, and this is what we were able to do". If we fear for the future, once we are no longer here to contribute to it, than all we have to fear is leaving behind a legacy of ignominy.
Live freely, fully and fight to win a place for those who come after us, while we honour those who came before us. We are not a degraded, fallen and callow species vainly begging our gods for their forgiveness for not living up to their unobtainable standards. Our gods ask much of us, but never more than we can bear. We are not a repentant lot, asking and receiving the blessings of a sacrifice we have not asked for, nor earned. Our gods accept our sacrifices, but they are ours, we do not ask someone else to pay them for us. All we can do, all that we would ever be expected to do, is live as best we can.
Thank the gods we live in a world unburdened by sin.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gods behaving (badly)

I stared writing this post several months ago, but only now have gotten around to publishing it. Spurred on by the current discussion among some Pagan/Polytheist bloggers relating to the moral character of the gods, it seemed like a good time to put it out there.

Calling them "ethical dilemmas" may be a bit of a stretch, a euphemism on my part. No, perhaps they would more properly be labeled as moral failings. Far be it from me to judge the gods, but if the applicability of ethics is upon a cosmic scale, and the deities are supposed to be held to the same (or similar) standards, then whey they fail, what are we to do? What do we take away from a given moral lapse in a story? It is well understood that the gods are not infallible, but when they are deliberately duplicitous or dodgy in their behaviour, the questioning of the correctness of their actions remains.

I have a few arguments about this, but lets look at an example first. The event which always springs to my mind when I ponder these sorts of dilemmas, is the conception of Angus Og. Angus' mother, Boann, is married to Nechtan, but is desired by An Dagda. An Dagda convinces Nechtan to go off on some task, so he can have a tryst with Boann. In order to hide their deceit and the fact that An Dagda has made Nechtan a cuckold, An Dagda freezes the sun in the sky for nine months, allowing Aengus Og to be conceived, gestate and born in a single day. This is the origin of his epithet "Og" or "the young". In any case, the story is aware that what An Dagda is doing is morally questionable, and certainly that his actions are deceitful. In one version, Aengus tricks An Dagda into giving up his home, but in another it is Eclmar (in that same version, the husband of Boann in place of Nechtan) who is tricked out of his home, with the aid of An Dagda too boot!

One of the first things to consider, upon examining the story, is what its purpose or intent is. There is a tendency to try and understand everything from an immovable ethical standpoint, and this is not unreasonable. Ethics ought to be constant and applicable in any given situation, otherwise they're simply platitudes of convenience and have no real value. On the other hand, it also needs to be understood that not every tale or story is a morality play, and that the point of a story is not always tied to the morality of the characters within it.

One figure of generalized disdain who found in Irish myth (though by no means bound to this regional context) is the cuckold; the husband whose wife (or mistress/concubine) is unfaithful to him. As monogamy has been culturally engrained in our collective consciousness and understanding of social patterns, we moderns may often times feel that the cuckold is a figure not to be mocked but to be pitied; after all he is the wronged party in these sorts of affairs. In a fascinating twist, however, the cuckold in these narratives (the story I shared above, and numerous others) is not to be pitied but mocked, derided and insulted. The precedent established, albeit in a decisively Christianized context, was an episode which occurred during the LGE, where Partholón's wife, Delgnat has a tryst with one of their servants while Partholón is away. Discovering his wife's unfaithfulness, he kills the servant and Delgnat's dog, but is chided by her because it was his fault for leaving her alone. The mythic literature is replete with over and under tones of misogyny, and this argument is essential in later tales where the cuckold is held as responsible for the tryst; if he were a better man, his wife (who like all women are inherently untrustworthy) would not seek out others, or so the logic goes. Rarely is the male agent who participates in the tryst held to be in the wrong.

Now, turning back to an earlier point I had made, it is incumbent upon is to consider what the purpose of a given story is. The tale of the conception of Angus Og is not a treatise on the sanctity of monogamous marriages, rather it is an expositional narrative explaining why Angus became known as the Mac Og. There are other aspects to consider as well: the narrative definitely succeeds in exemplifying the sexual prowess and appetite of An Dagda, especially when it comes to tueletary goddeses. It also showcases his magical power, being able to suspend the very movement of the sun for nine months, to mention nothing of his cunning. Eochaid Ollathair did not earn the epithet of "The Good God" because of his moral virtue, but because of his might and proficiency in all that he did.
Another example, and one which many GRP’s take to heart as having a significant impact on their perception of this god, is the leech Dian Cecht. Of all the gods from the mythic texts, few illicit such vitriol and disdain from such a significant part of the GRP community. This relates to the mythic narrative where Dian Cecht features prominently, CMT2. Nuada having recently lost his hand to the Fir Bolg Sreng, has Dian Cecht make him a replacement, composed of silver. Dian Cecht’s son Miach, however, believed that he could do one better than his father, and literally grew Nuada a new hand. The fury and violence Dian Cecht rained down upon his son for having the audacity to surpass his father eventually resulted in Miach’s death. Airmed, Miach’s sister, buried her brother and from his grave grew all of the plants which were to be used to heal. Dian Cecht, still having not been satisfied with his punishment, mixed up the plants so that their healing properties were confused.
Many GRP’s utterly reject any sort of veneration of Dian Cecht, and refuse to give him the slightest obeisance. They see in his story not the slight of the young against the old, or the origin of healing herbs, but an abusive father exacting his murderous revenge upon his unfortunate son. Some have through UPG also felt terribly negative energies and emotions when they have encountered this god. Now it bears mentioning that within the narrative itself, no punishment is sought out for or exacted upon Dian Cecht by any of the other gods; no one except Airmed sheds any tears for her murdered brother, not even the god who benefited the most from his efforts, Nuada. Give that the killing of one’s own family was one of the more serious crimes, according to Brehon law, it is curious that the narrative remains morally ambivalent in this case. Of course Dian Cecht then goes on to aid the gods in their struggle against the Fomorians, and his influence is strong enough that a medieval tract is attributed to him. So here we are faced with a story which, within its own context is morally neutral, yet to modern sensibilities is abhorrent (at least to some).
The final example I wish to examine is the main drive behind the Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (The fate of the Sons of Tuireann), the revenge of Lugh. I won't go into too much detail, but Lugh's father, Cian and his two brothers were having a dispute with the three sons of Turieann: Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba. Cian is murdered by the three brothers and his death is covered up, but eventually Lugh learns the truth and wishes to have the three put to death. He deliberates and debates with the other gods, eventually agreeing to absolve the brothers if they can recover a number of simple objects; the brothers agree. It is only then that Lugh reveals that the objects are all legendary items obtained only through great hardship and peril. Lugh fully expected the task to claim the three Brothers lives, but feigned to offer them some assistance under the guise of preparing for the coming battle with the Fomorians. None the less, the Brothers keep their vow and set off to fetch the items. What follows is a very entertaining series of adventures, and the Brothers obtain all that they seek. Lugh, his plans for revenge being stymied by the skill of the Brothers, makes them forget  a few of the items they had not yet obtained, so that they return with several items which would have later on helped them. Upon remembering that they had yet to obtain a few things, but realizing that without their previous spoils could only do so at the cost of their lives, do so none the less (fyi, the final "thing" there were to obtain, " to give three shouts upon a hilltop" ;D ). Rather reminiscent of the later tale of Diarmuid and Grianne, Lugh has the power to heal the three Brothers, but refuses to do so, and achieves his vengeance. Their father, Tuireann, dies of a broken heart at the loss of his sons.
The question which remains when all is said and done asks whether Lugh was just, or whether he subverted true justice for the sake of petty revenge? To start with, the tale is considered a "tragedy", one of the "Three Great Sorrows of Storytelling", counted along with the Clann Lir (the children of Lir) and Longes mac n-Uislenn (the exile of the sons of Uisliu). It is a tragedy because we come to like and root for the hard pressed Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, despite their original transgression, and realize that they are doomed by a more cunning and powerful foe, Lugh. If the tasks they are given are supposed to have any sot of redemptive or secondary quality to them (like obtaining powerful items to aid in the struggle against the Fomorians), it is wholly undermined by Lugh's desire for revenge. If on the other hand, the point of the story is to show just how powerful a ruler (and by proxy deity) Lugh is, and that his devotion to his kin surpasses all other concerns, then message received loud and clear. Cian in his final moments foretells that his killers ..."will pay a price heavier than any which came before, and any which would come after." So in this instance there is the voice of the victim to consider as well, and it should also be noted that the three Brother's never really recant their crimes, never show any sign of remorse or wrong doing; only when they realize that it is their own lives which are on the line, do they become forlorn. On the other hand, Lugh as the administer of justice, through the personage of the king, has a duty to meet out just punishment. Clearly Lugh seeks to subvert the terms of the fine he places upon the three Brothers, and so for this perhaps he is acting duplicitously.

So there you have it, three stories which feature gods acting in arguably less than ethical or honourable ways. What then do we, as devout and pious polytheists take from all of this?

For starters, we need to understand that while these stories may have pedigree stretching back into the pre-Christian past, they are not whole cloth transliterations of pre-Christian myths. They are at best recreations; euhemerized and embellished for the audience they were scripted for, with a particular purpose in mind. Such is the difficulty with adhering to a literal interpretation of the mythic texts, such as they are. The figures reflected in the tales are just that, literary reflections of deities and other mythic figures; this is why I have, and will continue to argue that the corpus of mythic texts are not sacred texts. They are the best, most reliable source we have for trying to understand pre-Christian cosmology and mythology, but they are not in and of themselves those myths.

Secondly, we need to try and understand the myths from within their own cultural and chronological context. As such, we need to try our best to understand the perspective of the author/ audience they were made for. Only then can we appreciate the subtleties and nuances contained within the narratives, and best grasp what meaning they seek to impart upon our wider experience.

Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that while we can understand their original context, we are not (nor can we be) restricted to a medieval mindset when it comes to our own, modern, concerns. Myths do tell of specific events and these events have meaning within their own time periods, but this does not mean that they can not have other meanings to us in the present day. It is a very fine line to walk, and we must proceed cautiously lest we fall into the pit of universalism or decontextualization; I understand that in the context of the second story, Dian Cecht is never reprimanded or reproached for his infanticide, but I can still feel terrible that it happened. Understanding something in its original context, does not mean that we have to accept that such a context is still valid.

Finally we ought to take a step back and consider the theological implications and how our understanding of the gods and of our devotion to them relates to our own experiences, and further how this meshes with the stories written about them. Here we move away from literary criticism and dive deep into theology and worldview. Our gods are not infallible, and for many who come from religions which teach that their deities are, this can be a difficult reality to adjust to. Yet adjust to it we must; for the gods are not paragons of virtue, at least not all of the time. The gods do have emotions, can be duplicitous, are given to capriciousness and perhaps even cruelty. Their goals can and may often times be at odds with our own, and bad, terrible things can happen as a result. Yet we continue to be devout, to leave our offerings and make our sacrifices to them; to pray to them and seek their benedictions and favours, their guidance and strength. Do we do so out of fear, of either angering them or seeking out their curses?

Of course not.

The gods may be flawed, but they are far less so than we. We are beings of a social nature, and so to place ourselves within a hermitage for fear of what may come through our bonds, is to deny our very nature. So while their existence is no guarantee of cohesion or safety, social strictures and systems exist to facilitate these interactions. Never forget that while their morality may differ from ours, as those whose sight is long must, the gods are beholden to the same structures which govern the cosmos; even if they are themselves the craftsmen who established, and the stewards who maintain them. Fír is a concept that applies to we mortals, but so to does it apply to the gods; for they are immanent and a part of this world, not apart and withdrawn from it. I have mentioned it before, but the gods do not need our worship or our patronage; they were here before us, they will be here long after our bones have withered. Yet they seek us out as often as we seek them, because they want our devotion, they want to help us, to help us succeeded because they benefit from our mutual achievement. If nothing else, remember always that we are better for having the gods, but so too are they better for having us.

We are not gods, we are human beings. We are not their equal in any capacity, for they are necessarily superlative. Yet they do not seek out our subservience, they do not seek to enslave us nor to oppress us. Certainly for a time we were mutually antagonistic towards one another, but this stymied each community to the detriment of both. Our ancestors had the good sense, and the gods had the compassion to realize that cooperation was better than animosity.

Can the gods be deceitful?
Can they take away as readily as they give?
Can they place their own needs above our own?

The answer is yes, but just because they can, does not mean they will. A question was asked by a blogger if it was wise to trust the gods; unabashedly, unequivocally, I say yes.

I say yes, because trust is something which is earned, and the gods have certainly done that.
I say yes, because trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built.
I say yes, because trust is based upon sound judgement.

I believe that I have developed the faculties and the knowledge to properly entreat with the gods, to understand what would offend them, and to honour them as much in accord with our ancient forbearers as possible. To uphold the oaths I have sworn and to ensure that I make such oaths only with gods who will honour those oaths. I can only speak to my own experiences an with the gods I worship, and so this limits my above arguments to Gaelic deities. Folks coming from other cultural perspectives, YMMV.