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.




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