Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Demands of Ancestral Religion

I was having a discussion with a gentleman online the other day, and I was deeply impressed with how well he summed up a current problem that I feel the Pagan world is facing. He wrote:

"New Age teachings lead to a kind of "blanket theology" of vagueness through which anyone's spiritual views can escape accountability. The expression, "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual" reflects this desire to have a personal religion cultivated to one's own self, as if it's just another private room in your house you can decorate any way you like, which has no larger social consequences."

These two sentences say so much, and I think I should use them as an invitation to talk about what belonging to an Ancestral religion can and should mean for us in the modern day.

I believe that Heathenry, Asatru, Forn Sed, or whatever you call the Old Ways of the North are first and foremost Ancestral faiths. This does not, in any way whatsoever, mean that I think these religions are limited to people of certain ancestry. I think that it speaks to people more who tend to be of certain ancestries, but I also believe that Wyrd connects all people together, and that the Allfather who shaped the world is the Allfather of all human beings. To accept something as absurd as the idea that Odin only created Germania and Scandanavia, and only created the people who eventually came to live in those areas is not an option.

Every human being has a relationship to the Gods and their Ancestors, no matter how unconscious they may be of it. Not everyone's ancestors trace back immediately to the same place, but all people's ancestors eventually trace back to the "Clan Mothers", the hallowed group of ancient-beyond-ancient historical women from whom all genetic lines- ALL genetic lines- come. They are the true Disir, the Mothers of us all.

As a Heathen, I honor them in similar ways to how my Heathen forefathers and foremothers did- that is, after all, a large part of what it means to be a Heathen: to honor the Gods, spirits, ancestors, and to live in this world according to certain values, all following the example of how our ancestors did it, as best we can in the modern day.

This is not the time or the place to go into the arguments and proofs and details about all of the ramifications of ancestry. I do believe that at a time not so long ago, we were all far more related than most people today are prepared to believe. I can give one small example that may shock you- start by giving yourself a mother and father, which all people have. Let's assume that no one in this example has any brothers or sisters- everyone gets one mother and one father.

Now, there's you and your mother and father. That's three people. Your mom and dad need parents, too, so now, there's you, mom and dad, and their two sets of parents. That's seven people and just three generations. Again, ignoring the reality of brothers and sisters, do you know how many people will be on your chart in just 30 generations?

You would have 1,073,741,824 people. That's over a billion people. Let's say each human generation is about 20-25 years. 30 generations is 600 years. By this logic and this math, (and don't forget we are ignoring the reality of brothers and sisters) in around 1400, you have over a billion people on earth.

The problem here is that in 1400, there weren't that many people alive. There wasn't anywhere NEAR that many people alive in 1400. The world's population- the entire world- was far below a billion before Columbus made his voyage to America in 1492.

So how can that be? How can this paradox be resolved? The answer is simple, though few people ever stop to consider it, and a few people don't want to believe it- the answer is that we all shared (and still share) many relatives and ancestors in common.

So now, you can laugh at all the racists who describe themselves as "folkish" when they spin tales about their "pure" Germanic ancestry. Welcome to the real world! All human beings are far more related than most of us realize. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the reality of cultural ancestral identity- no, in fact, we HAVE to emphasize cultural identity, because in that phenomenon, we see what the people *closest* to us by blood felt was sacred and important.

The idea that our ancestors 1000 or even 2000 years ago believed certain ways is not an invitation to lead us to look down on the ways of others, though many people take it to be that way. I strongly support standing up against negative cultural legacies that some peoples on earth have advanced- the simple fact is that not all cultural legacies are worthwhile, or worthy of respect or preservation. Female circumcision is the best example of a practice that must be stamped out at any cost. That being said, it is true that many people in the modern day- and some Heathens- feel very threatened by the existence of other cultures, and the influences they have. Many people (and many Heathens) feel alienated, feel a lack of deeper identity, which drives them to seize ahold of what they consider is "their" ancestral faith and "their" culture, and defend it like mad dogs.

Sadly for them, what they are defending, aside from being largely a modern construct, is usually more fantasy than reality. I've pointed out many times before that our Germanic ancestors (and our Celtic ancestors, and our Slavic ancestors, and the list continues) didn't seem to have any problem at all marrying women from other cultures, moving away from their homelands and taking up residence in countless other places, absorbing words, concepts and even entire languages from other people which led to changes in their own "native" languages, and absorbing a variety of other cultural influences from people they met- if they found a technology that they didn't think up themselves, but which could aid them, they took it! They used it!

These ideas we have today of "racism" simply didn't exist in ancient times. The cultures who were most known for their great snooty ethnocentrism- the Greeks and the Romans- are usually the people that modern Heathens least identify with, as Rome, with all its Greek influence, conquered all of Germania and most of Celtia, and pretty well brought about an end to the tribal way of life in Celtia, and in much of Germania.

The Romans with their talk of "barbarians" and "outsiders" all their self-assured cultural righteousness did more to hurt the causes of "freedom" and "tribal identity" among the ancient Heathens than most other people. So why are so many Heathens today looking down their noses at other cultures in precisely the same way the Romans did? I guess history doesn't just like repeating itself: it also seems to have a sense of humor.

The Romans were at least wise enough to realize that their Gods were also the same Gods that they found among the "Barbarians", and were happy to pray to the Gods of other people, and to take the Gods of others into their own cities, and to assimilate what good things they found among "barbarians". For all their talk of superiority, the Romans didn't hold all these other cultures they encountered at arm's length; they didn't feel that their own culture was threatened by so-called "outside influences".

I challenge any and all of the modern "folkish" Heathens who claim to be "pure Germanic" to give up MtDNA samples so that science can reveal precisely WHO they are related to. Sure, there'll be English or German or Scandinavian blood in most European-descended people in the United States, Mexico, a lot of Central and South America, and pretty much all of Europe. But what else will be there? Studies have shown some amazing finds in the genetic trees of people who were shocked to discover what was flowing through their veins.

Before I stop belaboring this point, I should say- the idea of "Folksoul" is baseless. The arguments against it- which I will sum up in a later post- are too many and too good; the "pro-folksoul" people have never satisfactorily responded to those arguments. What it boils down to is this: people have a construct that they have created, something that they dearly want to believe in, because they draw "identity" and solidarity from it- a modern construct of the "Germanic Folksoul", and they have their own contrived metaphysics which bestow upon them the power to determine "who is Germanic". Naturally, it's all bunk, but this minority of modern Heathens exerts a noticeable and negative influence on Heathenry as a whole.

Why? Because they aren't practicing religion as much as they are making up what they want to believe, and giving it a status that the True Gods and Ancestors deserve.

And this leads me back to the point of this short letter. Modern Paganism is tainted with powerful strains of "Me-ism"- the idea that you can believe "whatever you like" without needing accountability or justification.

So many people want to reject "religious authority" and "spiritual authority" without ever once considering the value inherent in such things. While it is true that our Ancestors had no such "hard authorities" in their religions of old, there are still many other Pagans who did, and still do- and certainly Christianity always did. What's the value in such things? Religious authorities, so long as they are not corrupt, have a way of preserving a spirit in a religious complex that keeps the people honest- because no matter what you may think, or what you have heard people say, even organic religions, religions without revealed dogma and beliefs, still make demands on the peoples who believe in them.

Demands? Maybe you don't like the word. Maybe you came to Heathenry hoping to get away from all the rules and dogmas and power-trippers you found in other religions. I have two lots of news for you, then: the first is a congratulations, because you will find that healthy, sane modern Heathenry has no genuine "dogmas" and "rules"- it has customs which have more or less grown up in the modern day, customs and traditions that some or all Heathens will tend to share, but that's about it. The second bit of news is not as happy: Heathenry still has power-trippers and it still expects things of you.

What does it expect? It expects that you will put its Nine Noble Virtues first, and your desire to behave however you like second. Any Kindred worth it's name will expect that of its members. It expects that you will put its Gods first in your life, first before any other Gods you may care to worship, if any. Some Kindreds and groups won't let their members worship ANY Gods but the Gods of the Northlands, but I draw the line on that sort of talk- that moves people into dangerous, cultish ground. But Asatru or Heathenry as a whole WILL expect your loyalty to the Gods and Ancestors of the North, before any other spiritual icon or idea.

You will be expected to defend your fellow Heathens. You will be expected to honor the Ancestors. There may be many ways of doing all these things, but when called upon, you will have to do them, will have to say, with assurance and honesty, "Yes, I believe those things. Yes, I will do those things. Yes, I am proud to believe and do those things."

That means that even if you meet a girl or a guy that you get tight with, who happens to belong to a non-Heathen religion, and even if they really badly want you to convert to their faith, you can't. I don't care if it costs you the relationship; you shouldn't be in a relationship like that anyway, if those sorts of strings are attached. Real Love, the last time I checked, didn't limit itself to whether or not you could get your partner converted. I don't care if it costs you getting laid; Heathenry makes demands.

Heathenry is not just a religious way of seeing the world; it is an identity, and it stands for something. It stands for honoring the men and women that we call "Ancestors" and telling their spirits, with our every Blot and Symbel, these words: "We know that you were wise, and that you weren't praying to false Gods. We know your Gods were real and we know those same Gods are with us now. We know that you exist, and that we will be with you one day. We will not ignore your words and we will look to your example, because we honor you and your wisdom."

Heathenry stands for family. It stands for unbreakable bonds of love and loyalty between husbands and wives and children and brothers and sisters and all Kindred members. We watch out for our own, because that's what community does. Commmunity in the best sense of the word is a team of humans banding together to fight and help one another through an often hostile world. I don't care if *your* personal life demands this thing or that; if your Kindred or family really needs you, then your personal life will have to stand aside for a time. That's just part of what Heathenry demands.

Heathenry may not have a bible, but it does have Gods in common, and it does have certain models of belief and theology, and models of cosmology and eschatology born from common surviving sources. These things are excellent models of belief and they provide a good basis for understanding the world in ways that our Ancestors may also have understood it. You can't believe *just anything* and consider yourself a Heathen; a certain amount of familiarity with the surviving lore of old will be required, if you want serious recognition from the "Heathen community" at large. But this goes beyond just recognition- these older models of belief do contain powerful seeds of Truth. You don't just help yourself with respect to others by reading them and accepting them as the basis of your religious life; you also help yourself, on the deepest level.

From top to bottom, true "Heathenry" is not a "believe what you want, do what you want" religion or culture. It is not well suited to the people who want to wander in the vague country of "their own spirituality", which is normally a watered-down version of whatever religion they were raised, with a dash of New-Age spirituality tossed in.

Heathenry is not well suited to the people who want to mix in modern day politics and seek justification for their modern ideas and ideals in the ancient Lore.

Ancient Pagans were not "politically correct"; their societies did not allow for unrestrained, consequence-free sexual behavior between anyone and everyone who got an itch; they didn't just all smilingly accept homosexual behavior without putting bans or restrictions on it, if they allowed it openly at all. (Note: I personally believe homosexuality to be a natural, normal thing on the part of a small minority of human beings, and I think that homosexuals should be accepted and allowed to live their lives in peace. I am merely making another point with this reference about what the past was like.)

Ancient societies didn't sit around encouraging their women to terminate pregnancies, or turning a blind eye to it when they did, either; even infanticide that was done on babies outside of the womb was apparently heavily controlled or restricted in most Germanic societies, though their societies were such that these matters couldn't be controlled or restricted like they can be today.

The point is that they still had laws and rules which restrained infanticide, though "exposing" babies and children still happened in ancient times. It still happens in India and China and Africa and in other places- like right up the street in any American city. There's always some idiot girl who wants to leave her baby in a dumpster. Unless you're the sort of person who thinks that parents should be allowed to throw away their infants, you probably understand why our ancestors tried to curb this practice, and why so many myths from other Indo-European Pagans show the Gods or other beings rescuing exposed children, and harm or misfortune coming onto the parent who did the exposing.

The modern "liberal" neo-Pagans who wish they could "go back to the old days" might find themselves horrified to drop into an ancient Pagan European society- they'd find slavery being an everyday part of life, and they'd find that the local "witch" up the block isn't being treated like a hero by the local population, and they'd find that the "orgies" they imagine Pagans had all the time were in short supply.

I'm not saying we should just "transfer" ourselves back to their times and do things "just like they did"- far from it. I'm pointing out that the justifications that many modern liberal Pagans seek for their beliefs will have to come from the present day, the here and now and not from the past. You can't come to Heathenry expecting it (or its Ancestors) to stand up and accept with open arms your every modern belief, and accord you the right to "believe however you want". That's not what Heathenry is about. If Heathenry is to survive and be worth its salt, it will have to make demands on people, make people question and reconsider what they believe. And it will always demand that people put their own beliefs second to the good of the Kindred or the greater good.

My true and final point is that Heathenry isn't a free-for-all, and it makes demands. Just living by the Nine Noble Virtues- really living them- is not always easy. We often balk against "rules" without even stopping to consider why rules are there. It's true that "rules" are sometimes tools of oppression. But they aren't always.

Rules make us struggle against something, put limits on us, but for our own good, and for the causes of a greater freedom. Sound odd?

A good example to explain this is a piano or a musical instrument. If you just bang on a Piano or blow into a trumpet, you make noise. If you discipline yourself by learning the rules of playing the instrument- which is hard on you- one day, you find that instead of only being able to make noise, you can make beautiful music. It's not "freedom" to just bang on a piano all wild-like; it's just chaos and anarchy. And it doesn't make the best sound. A master player has learned the rules, and by learning the rules, they have, ironically found their way to a greater freedom- the power to make music.

Another good example is language. Babies babble away all day; they are unrestrained in the noises they can or will make. But until they restrict and limit the sounds they make, they can't make words and intelligible phrases. Once we discipline ourselves enough to learn the rules of language, we can express ourselves, and like the piano player, we find a new freedom- the power of sharing our subjective thoughts and experiences with others through words.

People who balk at the idea of rules and restrictions in religious culture and life are people who lack the maturity to understand what I am saying here- they'd rather be spiritual babies babbling than to join the company of spiritually mature adults who can form words, and with those words, form communities and make their lives better and more complete.

I understand that many people have had bad experiences with the demands of other religions, but Heathenry doesn't offer the "free for all" that so many people swing towards in their pendelum-like reaction to their experiences with the dogmatic powers. Everything we do and believe- whether or not we are Heathen- has consequences, and we *will* be held accountable for them. People are free to ignore their responsibility to considering what they believe and why, but they are still going to be held to the debt they owe to life and their fellow man, one way or the other.

It may be more comfortable for the vaguely-defined "spiritual but not religious" people to be what they are, but they will never find the beauty and power that is found in accepting the standards and insights and liberating restrictions of a community and a creed that wasn't invented by them. There is something noble to be said about people who can make the sacrifice of self and put others before themselves, and put the Gods of the North before their other desires, and put the Nine Noble Virtues before their other behaviors. These people show a real wisdom, and in my own experience, they are happy, vibrant people.

Heathenry's virtue-codes and ancient source-lores do put limitations on us, but those limitations make us better people, people who are worthy to be around our loved ones in this world, and who are going to be worthy enough one day to rejoin our ancestors in the Unseen world. In those days, after our Fated time here in the middle-world is done, our Ancestors themselves will praise us for being good people and making them proud, if we held to our oaths and behaved as proper Heathens (and human beings) should. We should consider our Ancestors in everything we do- all of our lives, right this moment, are their gifts to us.

1 comment:

Markus said...

This is an outstanding piece. I say so,of course, because I agree with so much of what you have to say. You are more articulate about this subject than I have been about demands and accountability etc. Again well done.