Monday, January 12, 2015

"Our" Values (GRP Focused): The gods and "knowing our place"

I have in the past, distant though it may be, discussed issues relating to the concept of agency; how much freedom do we have to enact our will upon the cosmos? Today, I would like to come at the idea of agency from a different angle, and explore how our agency affects and is affected by that of the tri na naomah. How much control do we have when we interact with the gods, ancestors and spirits of place? How much control do the gods, ancestors and spirits of place have upon us? When we have this figured out, or as much as we can figure it out, what do we do with this information, and where do we go from here?

Many polytheist bloggers, tumblrs, and assorted others, have put forward the idea that humans are at the mercy of the gods, in all things. Concepts like morality are relegated solely to human affairs, for the gods have no time for puny human "feels"; so expecting or advocating for things like "consent" are right out. The gods make you dance as their divine marionettes. and maybe if you're lucky, you'll learn something from the experience. Oh, and if this isn't your experience, you're probably doing it wrong; best run back to "safe", empty religions, lest the "reality of the gods" destroy your fragile mind.

This is, by the way, bullshit. At least when it comes to all the evidence we have about how the Gaels coexisted and worshiped their gods. So if you're more interested in being a divine whipping boy, maybe you should just ignore the rest of what I have to say; Go read other folks who have deemed thralldom as their raison d'etre, who have abandoned their own wills, to be subsumed by what they (earnestly believe) is the will of the god(s) they serve. Frankly when one goes down that path, the reading becomes really creepy and moves off into self flagellating delusion more at home with groups like the Stylites than  pre-Christians, but seek at your own peril. Honestly, it goes from fan squeeing to cult vibe at breakneck speed. Tl:dr, google "god slave" and "god spouse", though you'll probably regret it. I sure did!

No, our ancestors had a rather different approach when it came to establishing how we "dealt" with the gods, we fought them. We fought them long and we fought them hard, for every inch of land we came to occupy. We entreated with other gods, powerful goddesses the gods themselves were also beholden to. We took the power of the gods and made it our own, turned it to our own devices and used it to win our place in the world. We had to fight the gods themselves to legitimize our own existence, and we won. If that isn't a crystal clear precedent for the concept of human agency when it comes to the gods, then nothing is.

Now, with that said, we ought to take some other things into consideration, and primarily I want to discuss the issue of enhumeraziation. Enhumerization is a literary trope where something that is great and powerful, is reduced in greatness and power. In the case of the medieval (and later) Irish literature, this is most obviously observed when we examine the Mythic, Ulster and Fenian Cycles, but is present too when we examine folktale and tradition that relates to the aes sidhe. The argument being that the gods which the pre-Christian's worshiped, were not actually gods (because those didn't actually exist, being monotheists and all) and were instead a successive series of semi-divine races who sought for the rulership of Ireland, culminating with the ascent and victory of mortal man. This is important to keep in mind, because the point can be made (and laboured) that the preceding paragraph about "our" ancestors is far more reflective of a Christianized world view, and actually has very little to do with a pre-Christian perspective.

Such is the perilous nature of trying to reverse engineer mythic texts compiled by Christian scribes to get a peek at earlier views, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and defend this particular bit. The reason it is not so far fetched to understand humans as being able to go toe to toe with the gods, mythically speaking, is because of patterns. Throughout the Mythological Cycle, Ireland is settled in a series of "waves" or "invasions", hence why one of the greatest collections of this cycle is referred to as "The Book of Invasions". Things don't really get interesting until (IMO) until the Tuatha De Dannan show up, and we see the first real example of divine inversion occur. I don't want to get too deep into the text, but one of the key elements of the TDD strategy for the overthrow of the Fomorians during the "Second Battle of Moytura" is to seek out the aid of sovereignty goddesses as well as subsuming the very power and fury of the Fomorians themselves (as Lugh is able to do). Through these means are the TDD able to secure victory and win the rulership of Ireland.

The subsequent "Invasion" of the Mileseans, while not a mirror image of the previous epoch, involves very similar concepts. The favour of the goddess of sovereignty are secured, the land itself is invoked, and there is even the utilization of a poem with likely cosmogenic overtones, all to secure a toehold and then victory over the Tuatha De Dannan. Of course, it doesn't go exactly as the Mileseans want, and they eventually have to entreat with the gods to once again secure the fecundity of the land itself with them. So does this mean that the ancestors of the Gaels saw themselves as equal to or even more powerful than the gods they worshipped? Unlikely, but I suppose a literal reading of the myths could produce such a conclusion.

Here then is where parsing out which bits are enhumerized and which are not becomes very important to our understanding and ability to draw conclusions about pre-Christian world view. I do not, for example, hold to the idea that the gods can be killed (or that the ancients believed other than their gods were remarkably powerful and immortal), at least not in any sort of meaningful way. Understanding the purpose of a given mythic narrative and the lessons contained within are crucial, but taking them as being reflective of the real nature of the gods (at least in relation to mortality) is to buy into the enhumerization of the mythic pre-Gaelic peoples as being semi-divine or simply magically gifted mortals. Likewise, to hold that not only could the gods be killed, but that humans were capable of doing so, would surely undercut the potency of any such beings being held as, well gods, in any meaningful way. We need to examine what the purpose of a given story is, and not just what the story in and of itself is narrating.

When, for example, I read about Lugh being killed by Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, I do not take it to then mean that the worship of Lugh is pointless because he is dead. Nor do I take it to mean that the story where he dies is pointless and without purpose. Nor do I take this as an example of apotheosis, where a historic personage named Lugh was freed from his mortal body and became deified by a later historic cultus. I accept, first and foremost that this is a story told from a specific narrative tradition, serving a purpose intend by the author for their audience. I accept that this also explains why Lugh doesn't show up during the Milesian invasion to stand against the Gaelic invaders. I accept that this does not explain how Lugh later goes on to father Cuchulain. I accept that Lugh is still very much "alive" in whatever manner it is that gods exist. I accept all of this because I understand that Myth is not History and that a literal reading of the mythic texts is incredibly stupid. 

The myths teach us, they instruct us, they inspire us and intrigue us. They are the best window we have into an earlier time, and while they are not opaque they are more translucent than clear. The light comes trough, but it is muddied, distorted and befuddled by layers of filtering installed by those standing between then and now. We ourselves necessarily come with our own perceptual filters and so we need to recognize our own biases as readily as we do of the sources we glean information from. Which brings me back to the point of this rambling post, Our present conceptions of how the past, how older and more ancient worldviews worked are necessarily affected by our perception of modern world views. Something is not good or valuable simple because it is held to be ancient; conversely something is not bad or worthless simply because it is held to be modern. There are many, many things that are worth our while to restore and revive as best we can; but there are many, many things which have been relegated to the rubbish pit of history, and there it ought to stay. 

This conversation is happening, and we who find ourselves doing our best as reconstructionists, as polytheists (devotional, ritual, or otherwise) need to decide which elements belong where. Not everything is worth saving or reviving, and this is certainly something which consciously needs to be addressed. It is sometimes said (and always critically), of reconstructionists, that we are slightly more academic members of groups like the SCA, that we seek to return society and culture to a pre-Christian ideal (and this implied idealism is also held as a critique) reminiscent of the Iron Age. Which is of course nonsense. No GRP I know of is actively seeking to abandon technology or modernity; considering how central the internet has been to its growth this seems remarkably hypocritical, and so it would be. If anyone were calling for it, that is. What I am getting at is that GRP (and like minded reconstructionist methodologies and lifeways) are fully aware that we are moderns, that we do not live in the Iron Age and what is more, we do not want to live in the Iron Age. We seek the gods of our ancestral forebearers, we seek to honour and worship them in culturally appropriate ways and we see the mythological tradition we have as one of the more accessible, if deceptively so, means of coming to such an understanding. This does not mean that the misogyny, the brutality or the utter disregard for life (to name but a few highly problematic elements) present in the texts are something we ought to be embodying or transposing in our lives today, simply because they are there and so are more "raw and real" than some idyllic, sanitized and modern version.

Which, again, is not to say that we ignore or do not address these problematic aspects; studying the period tends to rip away any illusions of some bygone golden age we are so desperately trying to restore. It means that we recognize what has come before, and that it wasn't all love and light, but this too can be taken to unhealthy extremes. By advocating for the return of something because the advocate perceives it at being "anti-modern" or "an affront to modernity", does not mean that such advocacy is right. If something was practiced in the ancient world, but is "an affront to modern sensibilities", then we ought to consider its centrality in the ancient world, how relevant it was and how necessary its restoration would be to aid in modern reconstructionist efforts. Not everything needs to be rejected or accepted out of hand, such a dichotomy would be patently false, yet some things ought to be left behind because they are so at odds with "modern sensibilities" that they are justifiably treated thus.

This categorical "refuse heap" is not limited to outdated social, political or economic practices, but to theological and spiritual concepts too. What is more, and to the point of this piece, what may seem like a rejection based on "modern or sanitized" sensibilities is actually a projection of some imagined "way it was, and way it should still be" onto the past. 

The gods are beyond us in so many ways; their power, wisdom and grasp of reality exponentially greater than ours. Yet despite all of this, anecdotally speaking, they appear to seek us out as often as we seek them. The gods want our worship and devotion. The gods want our client-ship for their patronage. The gods have judged us, have and continue to challenge us. and they have found us worthy. If the myths speak to one theme, one melody of theological and philosophical import, throughout, it is that humans can stand up..

We have stared out into the harshness of our world, in all its ugliness and horror, stared into the faces of the gods themselves, full of wrath and ruin, and we have stood firm.

We have struggled bitterly and savagely fought for our place in the world, for our right to exist. We have done so without the gods, in the face of the gods, with the gods throwing everything they had at us, and we are still here. This was when things were done the hard way, when we failed to see the value of cooperation and hospitality, forsook harmony and sough out out enmity with our divine predecessors. We struggled, and earned our place, but it was tangential, ephemeral and fragile; we lived, but we did not flourish. It was through mutual understanding, cooperation and respect that we came to worship the gods, as was their due. The wise realized that while we had the resolve to stand firm, that there was as yet something greater to be had. By accepting the reality of firenne, how to properly and respectfully come to know and honour the gods, were our lives made better. At times these bonds were tried and tested, bent yet never broken (at least not until the coming of the men of the bells, but this is another story and another matter for another time).

We are not, nor were we ever, slaves to our gods and we would bring unimaginable dishonour and shame upon ourselves, to say nothing of the ancestors, to relinquish the very agency that allowed us to earn the respect and favour of the gods we worship and devote our lives to. In closing, I leave you with one of my most repeated, yet all time favourite quotes:
"If you approach the Celtic gods with the attitude of 'I'm not worthy', they're going to respond, 'Well, come back when you are."

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