(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.
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.
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 Cú
- 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.