Thursday, September 06, 2007

Abortion, the Ancients, and Revisionist History

"To limit the number of children or to destroy any of their subsequent offspring is accounted infamous, and good habits are here (in Germania) more effectual than good laws elsewhere."

-Tacitus, Germania

Let me say before I get started that this article is going to spark controversy. I don't want to labor the point of this article, because I think I might lose some of the power behind it if I do. But it has to be written, and I have to make it clear. This article is about historical attitudes towards infanticide and abortion, and how modern Heathens understand and sometimes manipulate what we know about the past to justify their beliefs about abortion here in the present day.

This is a "red button" issue. It's an issue that everyone has a strong opinion about, usually to one extreme or the other. My own beliefs on this matter are no secret; I believe in the absolute value and sacredness of cycle of life, from conception to death and even into the afterlife. If I didn't, I couldn't be a Wyrd-Worker nor a Speaker for the Gods in my own Kindred. People forget that the life cycle is more than just being born, living and dying. It is also about what happens in the unseen realms, whether that be the unseen depths of Hel or the Underworld, and in the unseen depths of the womb.

Heathens in the past believed this, too. If not, why all the beliefs regarding the passing down of Hamingja or holy luck-force through bloodlines, as well as other ancestral characteristics, from ancestors to their descendants? Why the naming of children after their ancestors, because of the belief that children continued carrying on parts of their forefathers and foremothers? Why the idea- directly stated in the lore- that it was once believed that people who died in the past could return to this world as a human being, and live another life? Why all the countless other beliefs regarding the many Goddesses and wights that influenced all aspects of the womb-time and birth?

Finally, If not, why honor the spirits of the dead and the ancestors? They (as it was believed, then and now) exist after death- and we can see that in a worldview of Wyrd, these ancestral spirits were not "created" magically at the moment of conception or birth. What we call "human life"- in common with all life- is one brief event in the center of a massive web of sacred and living power, called Wyrd.

A man and a woman having sexual intercourse does not spontaneously conjure up out of nowhere some immortal spirit, capable of surviving into the afterlife, every time they conceive together. Each human life is not limited to a single life-time, but is a manifestation of a deeper sacred reality, and this is both explicit and implicit in the lore. The human life, every life, has an existence that is not locked down to a single body in a single life. Thus, how we handle our duties with regard to understanding and interacting with the life-cycles all around us, is a moral question of deep import.

Now, there are some people who will disagree with me on this. They will disagree, and I know why they will- because for them, the need to believe however they desire, or to believe in accordance with modern liberal social dogmas, overpowers the duty we have to take into careful consideration what the ancestors believed. I will discuss this more in a moment, but breathe easy- I do not now suggest (nor have I ever suggested) that we do everything "just like it was done" in times now seemingly distant. This is not a matter of what we do. This is a matter of what we believe.

I do not think that certain religious beliefs- such as the belief in Fate, or the existence of the Gods, or the sacredness of the natural world- that were held by the ancients, ever become "outdated". There are certain aspects of organic religious tradition that simply reflect natural truth, and natural truth doesn't change just because centuries pass, or because we invent computers, microwaves, or cars. Natural truths are there within us, just as they were in the ancestors, and the words of the ancestors are meant to unlock in us a passage to them.

By now, you are imagining that I am against abortion. Many people by now have become upset, assuming that I am moving to suggest that abortion rights be struck down, across the map. Notice that I have not said anything of the kind. I have made a simple statement of worldview: the life cycle is a sacred thing. That is all. It is this belief of mine that leads me to further decide how to think and how to act, with respect to issues like abortion.

Let me get this out again, just for the record. I believe the life-cycle, at all stages, is sacred, and I think that all stages of the life-cycle are accompanied by the presence of Hamingja, luck-force, ancestral and sacred power, and with it, the presence of the Fylgja or the Guarding Spirit. I do not believe that it is ever "okay" or "a value-free matter of personal choice" to destroy a life cycle for selfish reasons. "Selfish reasons" include reasons of personal finance, personal life-convenience, and the like.

People in our society today may be free to decide, for instance, to abort a child out of mere convenience- it is legal- but an act being legal does not automatically mean the act is morally justifiable, in the same manner that some acts being illegal doesn't make them morally improper. Legality isn't the issue here. I'm speaking of morality, and our responsibility to the sacredness of life, which we are all inseparably involved in.

A woman may choose to legally terminate a life within her because she "doesn't want children right now", but she will have to face the inner consequences of that act, both in this life and in the afterlife, as will the people who actually carried out the deed. If she acted to spare her own life, or if it was decidedly in her best medical interests, abortions in my opinion are justifiable, though they are always deplorable and sad, even when necessary. And just because it may have been necessary to sometimes take life, this never interrupts the sacredness of life. I do not believe that a woman who has an abortion in justifiable circumstances (or the medical professionals who do actually do it) offends the Gods or the Ancestors; I believe she/they are clean of the moral taint of unjustified killing. I do not believe they owe a Shild or a debt to life.

Now, bear in mind that this represents my personal considered opinion. A person who truly believes in the sacredness of life cannot find a way to justify needless disrupting of life-cycles, or the selfish disruption of the same. Life does not belong to us; the spirit bestowed on the first Ancestors by Odin and his brothers was not "given" to them or their children as some form of personal property. We aren't "in possession" of that spirit; we ARE that spirit, that life, and there is no true and ultimate "ownership" in the web of Wyrd.

All things arise and exist in Wyrd, just as you see them now. Ownership is a social construct, a legal or financial term- it is not a mysterious "power" we have over what we identify as "ourselves". We can't say "I have the right to take another life" because "rights" over things like property derive from a very different place than the timeless spirit.

The natives of the American continent understood this concept in relation to the natural world- how odd it seemed to them that white people thought they could "own" land. How do you "own" a tree? What, because someone recognizes your claim, or gives you a piece of paper saying it's yours? In the natural world, nothing is "ours", ultimately. The land upon which our ancestors lived was experienced by them in terms of reciprocal sacred ecology- the "Earth Mothers" had names, had religious rites, the wights of the land were honored and sacrificed to. The idea of "tribal land" is not an idea of ownership; it's an idea of relationship. We cannot be separated from the Land beneath our feet, no matter where we go. Our ancestors had to learn this when they were forced to migrate across the earth during the Volkerwanderung.

Because we do not understand the notion of relationship as the ancients did, we assume so much and use modern terms like "ownership". To say "this is my land" in the truest sense is to say that you relate to the powers of that place, and perhaps your ancestors have lived there for centuries. The bones of your people are in the land. It is where you have created the powerful experience of Frith or belonging. You do not literally "own" the land, however. You can certainly protect the land you live on, if others seem intent on coming onto it and killing you and your family, or disrupting your connection to it, or forcing you to leave. I don't see how a person could do otherwise.

At any rate, like trees or earth or water, the spirit- itself a natural and sacred phenomenon- cannot be "owned". You don't own your life; you ARE your life. A mother does not "own" the life of her child, even though, at times, societies past and present have given parents the right to expose their children or kill them. The focus of this article is not these forms of infanticide; suffice it to say, these things were not done for flippant reasons. The custom of child-exposure or infanticide derives from a time when hardship ruled and small tribal groups could not support another child, without risking the lives of others.

As societies grew to higher complexity, these sorts of ancient customs tended to hang on, and we see (as in Rome) that the right of fathers over the lives of their children becomes entangled with a protective mechanism assuring paternity- a father could kill a child that wasn't his own, as a way of weeding out the competing genetics of other men, who might have slept with his wife. Clearly, we can't use this outdated practice as a justification for abortion in the modern day; no rational person thinks that men today should force their wives to abort or kill infants that they discover are not their own.

It is perfectly clear to any reasonable person that if ancient societies had not been sunk in danger and hardship, if they had abundant resources available to them, and safety, they would not have exposed their infants to die. They were driven to do it by no other reason by grim necessity. No sane person wants to kill their children, either now or then.

We in the modern day do not suffer those conditions; in the developed world, at any rate, there is always a place to leave an unwanted child, always a way to have it taken care of. We simply don't have to kill unwanted children anymore, and if we believe in the sacredness of the life-cycle, we should not. Can we justify our belief in the passing down of Hamingja, in the sacredness of birth, in the belief that aspects of our sacred ancestors' lives actually come to live again in every new generation, and yet, sit here and say "abortion is okay under any circumstance?" No, we really can't.

This conclusion seems simple to me, but many (again) will argue against it. They will defend, to bloody nubs, the "right" of women to have abortions, for any reason they choose. When those people are Heathens, they will also revise history to justify their position. This angers me, and I feel the need to address it, as I have seen it done recently, and sadly, I have seen it done by a group of writers who represent a small but well-known Heathen organization: The Troth.

Now, I mentioned the Earth Mother and her rites a few paragraphs back. I have read a Hel of a lot of books about Heathenry and the Heathen past, including archaeological books, anthropological, historical, religious, mystical, and one thing is the same in all those books. Not a single writer doubts that a cult of the Earth Mother existed in ancient Germania. Why? Aside from parallel beliefs existing among cousin people all over Europe, we have a first-hand written account recording the existence of Nerthus, the Earth Mother among the Germanic peoples, and her rituals, including a ritual procession in a cart, and the killing of two slaves who see her secret image at the end of her ritual procession.

They've even found carved wooden statues which are believed to have been the actual statues that were carted around, preserved in bogs and in peat soil. Motifs of the wagon and the images or presences of Gods and Goddesses being driven around pop up in many arms of the literature and history. No one doubts any of this.

Tacitus' "Germania" is considered by most to be an invaluable resource about historical continental Germanic Heathenry, around the time of Rome's greatest power. Tacitus tells us about Nerthus and her procession in her cart. He tells us about the tribes in Germania, and we learn a lot from him.

Here is where the revisionist history starts. Some people in the modern day- and some modern Heathens- want very much to believe in totally unrestricted abortion. To be a "pagan" of any kind in the modern day is believed by many to mean that you must be totally socially liberal, although this is certainly not the reality. Many Heathens and Asatruar are not "pro-choice" as most Wiccans are. Sadly, there are some well-known figures in the Asatru world who, while preaching the wonderful sacredness of nature, life, fertility, the ancestors, and all the rest of these truthful things, also want to preach women's "right" to unrestricted abortions.

I'd love to tell you that these fine people jump through big hoops to overcome the contradiction in their beliefs, but I can't, because to be honest, I don't think many of them see the contradiction. People who want to believe what they want to believe almost never do. The difference between me and these people is this: I don't want to believe one way or another. I have examined the history, examined my own life and this sacred present moment, examined the spiritual reality and the observable reality that is present to me, and I have seen a sacredness that then compels me to believe as I must. This isn't about "choice", as much as truth and duty.

These "good heathens" want to claim that the lore does not guide us into understanding what the ancients believed about abortion. This is not true. A man who was among the ancient Germanic ancestors clearly states what they thought about abortion- they considered it criminal for a couple to limit the number of their children or to put later-born children to death. When Tacitus says "limit the number of children", some claim that he meant contraception only. Killing a conceived child in the womb would also rather obviously limit the number of children born to a couple, and thus, it would be absurd to conclude that these people of ancient Germania thought contraception was "infamous" or "criminal", but abortion was somehow "okay".

So, when the revisionists and the ideologues stop playing word games to try and obscure him, Tacitus' writing makes it clear what these ancient Germans believed. He's not evasive. So how do people who want to claim the lore doesn't give us guidance on these matters react to this? Simple. They claim that Tacitus was making it up.

Of course, these same people don't quite understand what they are really saying, when they say that. If Tacitus was lying about that, then why do they trust him so much when he talks about the cult of the Earth mother, the war-customs of the ancient peoples of Germania, or any of those other things he mentions in his work? We have seen that practically every scholar and every Heathen worth the name believes that a being- an Earth mother- named Nerthus was worshiped among the Germanic peoples of the north with her cart-drawn ceremony, and the like. They believe this because Tacitus says it.

But when it comes to something they don't want to believe, suddenly, Tacitus was "making it up".

Why do they say he was "making it up"? Simple again. They claim that Tacitus was trying to present the Germanic peoples as "noble savages", to make the "decadent" people of Rome ashamed of themselves, and he was doing this as a ploy, a way of criticizing his fellows back home.

That seems like a wonderful reason, but it has an issue, an issue that renders it untenable. Tacitus clearly states that the ancient Germanic people were doing human sacrifices in religious rites, something that Caesar had used to drum up the support of the Roman people in his farcical war against the Gauls. The Roman people were apparently horrified by the notion of human sacrifice; it is believed that Caesar invented much of the content of his stories of the Druids sacrificing human beings, in an attempt to horrify the Romans at the abject barbarity of the Gauls.

So why would Tacitus add the detail of the sacrifice-murder of the slaves in the cult of Nerthus, if he were trying to make the people of Germania look so noble? The answer is this: he wouldn't. He didn't make it up. He either saw it or heard it from sources in Germania, and the same goes with what he said about their laws against limiting births and infanticide. It wasn't "made up" merely to criticize his fellow decadent Romans; it was the way of things in Germania. Most of the "infanticide" customs we hear about are found in Scandinavian literature, but even there, many conditions applied to save the life of the child (for instance, the child could not be killed if it had ever tasted milk or food, a fact used by a heroic nursemaid in the lore to save a newborn's life). And infanticide was (as always) seen as regrettable.

And it doesn't end there- ancient legal codes that grew out of the Visigothic cultures in Spain forbid abortion, and a number of Germanic laws penalize anyone who causes a woman to miscarry involuntarily. While that stops short of saying "abortion", it says just as loudly that the child in the womb was accorded value in the eyes of the law, and the people. It wasn't just a lump of flesh in the woman's womb that had no bearing on legality.

Organizations like "The Troth" are well known for the extreme liberal content of their writings and the extreme liberal leanings of many of their notable members. What is sad to me is that they betray the foundations of authentic Heathenry in the name of their modernistic notions of "free, unrestricted choice"- several times in their work "Our Troth, Volume II", they discuss the in's and out's of the abortion issue, always defaulting to the notion that it comes down to someone's "choice". But the sacredness of life and our duty to it is not a "choice" in that way. No matter how unfashionable it may seem, sometimes, we have to give up on the notion that we can "choose" to believe and act however we like.

The real "choice" is whether or not we will put aside our own selfish desires in the name of preserving life when we can, or if we will let life fall by the wayside because of modern dogmas that preach free and valueless "choice" with respect to important moral issues like abortion. Abortion is an issue that demands deep introspection and insight. It is an issue that demands we merge it with our beliefs on the sacredness of life. This issue won't go away. Regardless of what you think personally about abortion, it deserves consideration from a religious perspective. When we deal with life and life-cycles in such a way, it is impossible to avoid a religious verdict, if you are a person who believes in spirits and in the Gods.

The real choice is whether or not we will consider the ancestors when we make our decisions, or think up convenient reasons to ignore or re-word what they believed, to suit our modern political agendas. It seems that many love to accept the great wisdom of the ancestors when it suits them, but apologize for their ancient ignorance or look the other way when it doesn't suit them.

So many people think that modern Paganism and Heathenry is first and foremost about "freedom of choice", on any level- they think that being a modern Pagan or Heathen is about believing whatever you want, acting however you want, thinking however you want. I strongly disagree with this notion. I think that authentic Paganism or Heathenry derives from tradition and history as much as from our experience of today's life-realities. When we look to tradition and history, and work to integrate it into our thinking today, and into our spiritual realities today, it necessarily restricts us, forces us to think along lines that we ourselves didn't come up with all alone. This "restriction" brings us, with some difficulty, towards the same truths that our ancestors knew and reacted to. That is the point.

This is not a call to "try and live just like they did"- no, we do have to take into account the variables of living in the modern day. But living in the modern day doesn't automatically change the value of the human life-cycle. The human being- all of us, all the way back to the first Ancestors- are blessed by the Gods with spirit, beauty, wit, and health. The most sacred of utterances from the All-seeing Volva tell us so, just as she told our ancestors. If you wish to discard what she said, then you have simply discarded the entire basis for Heathen theology born from ancient lore. Some may do this as a matter of course; I cannot with good honor do it myself, nor associate spiritually with those who do.

The cycle of lives is sacred, and no amount of "free choice" or "let's believe what we want to believe" ideology will change that. I understand that not everyone can provide a happy home for an unexpected child; but adoption is always an option. There are many loving couples out in the world who greatly desire to have a child, but cannot for many reasons. I understand that it can be very difficult to take care of an unexpected child, but then, where is it written that life is easy? The Nine Noble Virtues espoused by nearly all Heathens remind us that true people must endure many hardships, and endure them with great fortitude. Can we imagine that the ancients would have been blithely in support of "convenience abortion", considering how short life was in their times, and how every precious new member of a clan or tribe represented the survival of the same?

The sort of honor, discipline, and humility it takes to modify our desires to fit into a worldview that has evolved since ancient times, and which makes demands on us and on how we act, is what makes us justified to call ourselves "Heathens".

Regrettably, there are a lot of "Heathens" out there who want to consider themselves Heathen, talk and make Blots like other Heathens, but who don't want to risk shedding either their support for, or their "seeming of support" for the liberal agenda that was and is so prominent in modern Neo-Paganism, and has always been since Neo-Paganism's rebirth in the last century. To that, I say, Asatru is not just another "Neo-Pagan" path. It is something more than that, something based on more serious and mature patterns of tradition and principle. If we look "out of style" or "too conservative" to the Neo-people, so be it. I put the truth and responsibility before other people's perceptions of me or acceptance of me, and I think the Gods would want it that way.


Stephanie said...

The custom of child-exposure or infanticide derives from a time when hardship ruled and small tribal groups could not support another child, without risking the lives of others.

Just as firm as your beliefs about the matter of abortion is my belief, aside from any and all other concerns about the topic of abortion, that there is a natural, grim necessity that we limit our numbers as a species.

I am not a misanthropist in any way. I do not believe people are bad or a taint upon the planet or anything like that. It's just that the practical reality of there being so many of us is that it's slowly destroying our planet and creating bad living conditions for human beings, because of how many resources we consume and the impact of our lifestyles as a species.

Maybe if and when we ever figure out how to populate other planets, or convert trash to pure pollution-free energy, or so on, or when the human population stops increasing and increasing (which just might happen first, if we can spread more and more wealth around), it might be another matter. But for now, for moral reasons, I cannot see justifying bringing children into this world that the mother does not want to bring to term or raise just for the sake of an ideal about the pre-born. Because human life is so precious, we need to be clear about how our ideals and values impact real-world situations in a concrete way.

I'm not even going to go into the argument that it's selfish and morally tainted for a woman to make a decision about the proper time to have a child, other than to say I find it chauvinistic and misguided. We've been round and round on that topic before. And it's not that I don't understand and respect your ideology and where you're coming from. I just, again, think it's idealistic and unrealistic in its application to real-world situations, out of accord with the realities of wild Nature as well as with the modern world.

sara star said...

What do you think about the edict not to limit the number of children in modern days?

Also, you writing about this in relation to German culture: does it extend to all ancient pagan cultures?

Alfarrin said...

I will reply to both of your statements and questions, Stephanie and Sara, and I thank you for your good insights and comments.


I understand your concern for the "carrying capacity" of this Earth, and human populations. I do not favor over-populating the Earth; it must be said that I favor responsible sexual behavior for the limiting of pregnancies. That includes birth control and other things. I do believe that many of us have far too cavalier attitudes regarding sexuality and the heavy responsibilities that can come from sexual behavior. As far as the Earth itself is concerned, I worry not at all- even a far-too-large human population cannot ruin this planet; the most we can do is ruin ourselves. Nature will modify us, if we refuse to modify ourselves; she will protect herself. We cannot destroy Nature; we can despoil it to an extreme degree, but in the end, we will be gone, and she will regenerate. What caught me the most about your post was the fact that you placed population control in a place of value over "the ideal of the pre-born". For we Heathens, such "ideals" are important realities that we cannot so easily ignore for some utilitarian purpose. We have to modify our thinking to take the idea of the sacredness of life into account- and that means dealing with the situations that arise from it despite the burdens it may cause us, or how difficult it makes our strategies. This is the burden of religious thinking, and it is a burden that religious people agree to bear, because that burden, and our successful dealing with it, says everything about us as people.


I think that we should limit the number of children we have today. However, I do not agree with "hard" limitation- in other words, it is a good ideal for couples to plan to have only one or two children, because that way, there is no population growth. Populations only grow when a couple produces three or more children. If a couple SHOULD happen to have more, so be it, but planning to have one or two is a good strategy, for the health of this planet and other human beings. People seem to think that having even one child is adding to the burden of life, but it isn't; only three or more children causes positive population growth. What I am talking about here is "soft" strategy; "hard" limitations are things like the Chinese government does, forcing women to have abortions if they accidentally have more than one child. That is a crime against life itself, in my opinion.

I think the tribal times of ancient Germania demanded a positive population growth; I also think that abortion falls under the category of "limiting" the amount of children, which is why I brought it up. There's no crime, moral or otherwise, in simply saying "we plan to have one or two children". If Fate intervenes and sends you more than that, well, unless there's a good solid medical reason why you should not have more, I think the child should be welcomed back to the community of life, and cared for in some way, even if it is cared for by others. If you have this attitude, you aren't technically pledging to limit the number of children; you are planning for one or two, and preparing for the possibility that more may come.

As far as your other question, about the relationship of these ideas to other Pagan cultures, I really can't say; I can say that all Indo-European Pagans were cousin people, all related, but the circumstances of their various lives and civilizations in various parts of the world were different, so their social customs regarding children and the limiting of children were likely also different. I specialize in Northern European cultures more than others, though I know that women in Ancient Rome, for instance, were not technically supposed to abort children without their husband's leave. Abortion (which they achieved normally through herbal means) was not all that safe, despite what some have claimed, and it wasn't totally accepted legally and culturally, at least not on the surface. What a woman did before she was "showing" was up to her; but I get the idea that even aborting then was something that was kept a bit "under the table" as it were.

Ancient societies had stricter "roles" for men and women than we do now- women were, across the map, pretty much expected to have children; it was seen as their natural and necessary function. Such thinking still holds true to an extent today, but with our generously large population, the necessity isn't as "hard" as it was before.


Anonymous said...

Firstly, I'm not going to debate the substance of your essay. In the end, I think this topic is highly nuanced and that "evidence" for either side is open to interpretation. Being tired and having homework awaiting me, it's a discussion that's better left to others to hammer out. :-)

However, I do have a bit of friendly advice. Since you cite Tacitus, your essay would be strengthened if you addressed some of problems with using Tacitus as a source. For starters, recent scholarship suggests that his 'Germania' was partly factual, partially a romanticization of the "noble savage" and partly a commentary on Roman society's need to return to the "good old days." Acknowledging that there is a debate and making a case for your reading of Germania could help your argument.

You might want to check out Holly Haynes' article (Classical Quarterly 23/1 Apr. 2004) and W. Bere's article (Greece and Rome Vol 11, no. 1. March 1964). It's an important topic and preemptively countering attacks from Wiccatru Plagans is probably a good idea. If you can't access the articles and want me to email them in .pdf, let me know. (Waelmaer at earthlink dot net)

Anonymous said...

I know this is an oldish post now but since i'm relatively new to your writings i thought i'd comment. I agree with pretty much all you've had to say here. I've long felt abortion for other than medical reasons was kinslaying, no matter what many modern Heathens say about a child's life only being "viable" at a certain point. I'm a great believer in responsible sexual behaviour nowadays and would never have sex with a man whom i wouldn't also consider having a family with, and who felt the same way about me. Abortion for me, therefor, is basically not an option except under the most extreme medical circumstances. I saw your comment about the lady who forewent cancer treatment so that her unborn child might live - i absolutely agree that she was Idis material and deserved the highest honour.

When i was a student nurse in a general hospital back in the late 80's i worked on a minor gynae unit where many vacuum suction terminations were performed. It not only brought home to me the fragility of human life in general but also the fact that we have become an overly-liberal society wherein unwise behaviours have seemingly little consequence. I think the effects of this can be seen throughout our modern culture here in Britain with people doing all sorts of stupid and unholy things because it's "no big deal" - if you screw up it's easily sorted out and nobody is supposed to make a judgement on you for having done it. I think this attitude is just as poisonous as an overly-rigid and draconian one.

Svartwulf said...

I have no idea if this site is even still 'alive' but I have to say I like it.

As for the issue here, I agree with what you say. The only things I would add is that on the issue of "choice" once one gives a person the right to choose the existence of another: say because that life is dependent on the mother, one opens the door that anyone can have control over a life dependent on them. The second thing, and this comes from a rather warrior mentality is this: all life is sacred, but that doesn't mean it can't be killed.

You're right, we have to choose which we stand for and accept the price the Gods demand for it.