Sunday, March 18, 2007

O God of Earth and Altar

"O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry:
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die.
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide;
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride."

-Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936)
* * *

This hymn/prayer/poem is by a very gifted man, who happens to be one of the few Christians from history that I respect. I've always been partial to this particular poem, especially this verse from it, because I've always felt that it expressed a very universal longing and message.

This prayer could be prayed by Heathens, if you look at it from another angle- who is the "God of Earth and Altar"? Chesterton meant his God, the God of christianity. But Heathens also had "Gods of Earth and Altar"- and how interesting that the God in this prayer is asked not to take his "thunder" from mankind. Thunder? Perhaps Chesterton meant "thunder" in the sense of just sheer power and blessing, but it goes without saying that the Thunderer, the Thunder-God of the Heathens, was also asked for the same sorts of blessings- blessings of rain for crops, protection from destructive and evil powers, and for the protection of families and tribes. The thunder that was heard rumbling in the sky by Heathens was associated with just those things- fertility, protection, and sheer power.

The Thunder God *THONORAZ (Donar, Thunor, Thor, Taranis, etc) was always captured in what myths we have today as the strongest of the Gods, and he was very much a celestial figure, a dweller in the Gard or Enclosure-World of the Gods above. The equal-armed cross, the fire-cross, the swastika, and other similar symbols were symbols of that God's power, the perpetual order of the turning power of the sky, and these symbols are found carved on the oldest of monuments from the Stone Age. The Thunder God is inescapably tied to the earth because of his "marriage" with it, his life-giving rain, and fertilizing lightning.

You can even see how the "cross" has never left the human consciousness as a symbol of power and holiness, even as lately as hollywood- vampires and evil creatures are so often repelled by crosses, in much the same way wicked giants and wights were dispersed by Thonoraz's great hammer and the burning equal-armed solar and sky-crosses associated with him.

This prayer has other dimensions that speak to universal themes in mankind's experience: the desire for a just world, for good rulers and social justice. The God of this prayer is told "our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die." Even though Christian rulers certainly faltered, the fact of injustice and careless leaders isn't unique to christianity. We can certainly see our earthly rulers faltering today, everyday in the news. We have seen the needless loss of life in many countries, including our own.

To turn to the Gods with our fears and hopes and desires is an activity as old as mankind, and there is a beauty in it. A Fateful and natural bond exists between humans and the Holy Kindreds of the many worlds, and if the Gods are kin to us- which the Lore certainly tells us they are- then we are well within our rights to ask them for help, to discuss our hopes and fears and dreams with them, as we would a cousin, a father, a mother, an uncle, or our friends.

There is, of course, a danger that some people will abuse the bond that exists between mankind and the Gods- that they will look to the Gods only when they have a need. Christians are certainly not exempt from this tendency. We would abuse the Gods in the same way that we would abuse kin or friends if we only spoke to them, sacrificed to them, or approached them when we needed something. Part of the religious life in the Heathen sense of the word is an ongoing relationship with the Holy Kindreds which is similar in almost every respect to the ongoing relationship you have with your human family and friends.

Because "kinship" and "family" is what this is all about. It's also one of the defining factors of humanity, a source of our greatest strength. We are kin to one another, and to the Gods, and all of our kin deserve our company and friendship outside of any idea of what they may or may not do for us.

It's just joyful and peaceful to lift up your eyes and prayers to the Gods, and to look all around and below to see and feel the Godly powers that exist in those places, too. Pure religious bliss isn't hard to come by- it's as easy as walking in the woods and fields and letting yourself be open to the powers all around you.

"The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide..." What a powerful line! We may not have literal walls of gold in our houses, but most of us aren't doing poorly- we have all that we need, and sometimes, that can be a tomb. It traps us in a false sense of security that leads us to neglect the awareness we need to have of our dependance on other people and on the Gods.

But this goes even further- walls of gold- or should I say money- are the prison in which the moral life of our world currently languishes. The war in Iraq is about money; those of us who have lost loved ones to that war are sentenced to a prison of grief that is built out of money.

And the swords of scorn- yes, they divide us all. From the forces that divide families and friends, to the forces that divide societies, we all have the capacity to allow our anger, grief, and scorn to divide us from our fellow man. But the Gods intend for human society to work together for a common good, and scorn for our fellows is not just dangerous, it's ungodly. Those who allow that scorn to run wild or who allow selfish, unreasoning scorn to dominate their thinking are doing the work of the giantish forces, the eternal enemies of the Gods, who exist to break down the order of the world.

Chesterton ends this verse with the answer to the problem: he feels that pride- NOT pride in the positive sense, like pride for your loved ones or ancestors or accomplishments, but pride as the power that refuses to allow us to admit our mistakes and refuses to allow us to compromise with others- is the villain.

This sort of pride is based on selfishness, which is the single worst trait that a man or woman can have, from the perspective of a tribe or a society, and it's the worst trait that a man or woman can have from the perspective of Wyrd; we are all part of the web of power that is life and reality. What we do affects the entire web, and we are affected by it. To think only of the good of the self, or to ignore the necessity of reciprocal compromise, is a path to ruin.

Can a God take away the pride of mankind? Chesterton, a christian, may have said "yes". Of course he would; in his belief, there's nothing his "God" can't do. But the truth of these matters is different for a Heathen. The Gods can't take away our pride; they can't be moral people for us, or force us to be good people. They can only set an example for us, which they certainly do with their tireless efforts on behalf of the good of the world-order. Our duty to live up as best we can to that example is what we have.

Despite the failures of people to live up to our duties at times, the Gods aren't going anywhere. There's just nowhere else to go; reality doesn't have "exit" doors. We are parts of reality- this reality, the only one there is- and so are they.

We are all parts of the Web of Wyrd, and there's no leaving that web, through life or death. The Thunderer won't take his blessings from people; despite the fact that our societies in the west once had kings who betrayed their ancestors and broke Troth with the Gods, and who passed laws which forbade the worship of the Gods, leading to a modern world in which most people now are unware of the Gods, the Gods are still with us. We are their kin, and I've always believed that the Gods understand Wyrd or Fate better than we- they understand the dark situations that have befallen us, and even if most of us never worship them again, they will continue their work on our behalf, and will protect us until the end.

Any modern Heathen who has stood in a holy stead and offered a right blot or sacrifice, or drank in a rightful and powerful Symbel, already knows that the Gods are still there. Their many blessings still pour through the body of nature for us and for all living beings. Humans may (through dark turns of events and because of dark powers) get far from the truth about the Gods and the truth about themselves, but the truth will- like the Gods- never abandon us.