Friday, October 26, 2007

Approaching the Gods Anew: Organic Religious Traditions and the Journey Beyond Mythology

Asatru, like all reconstructionist religions, greatly treasures the myths, sagas, and folktales which are the central written repositories of its Ancestral lore. In the Eddas and Sagas we discover countless valuable examples of how the Ancestors worshiped, handled the hard situations that arise in everyday life, and how they situated themselves in this world. The Eddas and Sagas are especially valuable to us because their source-country, Iceland, not only remained Heathen till the year 1000 CE, but was always proud of its Heathen past. Because of this pride in Ancestry, the wise Icelanders didn't feel the need to adulterate their forefathers' myths and stories by removing things that were "too Pagan", and they didn't feel the need to enmesh Christian values and ideals into these stories. As a result, we have relatively uncut examples of myths and tales that communicate to us the essence of an important stream of the Heathen religious and cultural past.

When we study the mythical themes in the Eddas, we can gain a very vivid image of who and what the Gods were to the men and women of a late period in Heathen history. While the Eddas do not speak to the entirety of the vast sweep of time in which the Germanic people were Pagan, they do present us with a directly descended organic result of countless generations of Heathenry. It is equally important to remember that the Germanic peoples were never "one" people as much as a very large grouping of tribes that were related linguistically and culturally- but variation always existed, and it still exists. This variation extended to religion. It is well known that the many continental Germanic peoples did not originally worship Odhinn as the "highest God", as much as they did Tiwaz or Tyr, and in other places, Thonoraz or Thor. These "sky" Gods, Gods of strength, martial ability, justice, light, and weather were the original "high Gods" of the Indo-European peoples as a whole.

It was a later time that the cult of Odhinn grew to a position of power, at least in northern lands. I understand that Odhinn was not a "newcomer"- his primordial presence can be tracked a good ways into history, but his ascendancy as the God of the ruling class was a relatively new cultural change in some places. Thor and Frey always remained the Gods of the "common man", even in Iceland, the country that gave us the Eddas in the first place. It so happens that the class of rulers and princes in Scandinavia (from whence came the Icelanders) had accepted the kingly cult of Odhinn, as had the intelligentsia embodied by skalds and sorcerers. Odhinn's position as God of War also gave him power in the warrior class, and they etch the politics of any nation with their swords and spears.

I have no doubt that Odhinn's presence has always been among the Germanic peoples, as it was among all peoples, for he is the shaper of the Nine Worlds and the gifter of mankind with beauty, sacredness, and inspiration. But the secret presence of this uncanny shaper does not ensure that he will be recognized and worshiped by all peoples equally- it only makes a large measure of sense that originally, the primordial peoples of the world would look to the most obvious powers- Great Sky and Earth- for their seed-pantheons. It would take many ages for mankind to evolve culturally and mentally enough to understand what qualities are truly the "kingly" qualities- that of cleverness, cunning, wisdom, and creativity. These qualities always trump strength and force, and without them, strength and force are misguided and unreliable. That a certain God should come to the forefront in human communities at some time later, when the realities of human life have changed, is in no manner a mystery or a scandal. It's just the nature of organic, healthy human religion that such a shift is possible.

There are some people out there who are bothered by the notion that human mythologies- such as the Indo European myths- are clearly influenced by human cultural changes and politics. It's humorous that such a thing would be of concern in the modern day, where the "bible", itself a 100% obvious product of human culture and human politics, holds such sway, but these people have a point that should be addressed- did humans just make all these myths up? Are the Eddaic myths just reflections of values and ideas that Scandinavian princes forced into place to honor the Gods that they felt upheld their authority?

I'm going to cover some new and somewhat unsettling ground, but I think it's high time that someone came out and said these things. Many of my fellow Asatruar have already considered what I am about to say, and the wisest of them were not bothered by it at all. Here goes:

The Gods are not confined to what we know about them owing to what mythology has survived to us in the present day. The Gods were never confined to the cultural stories told about them, in any era of history, and they are not so confined today. It may sound scandalous to some, but things with the Gods are never so simple.

I will develop this idea greatly, and cast some light on what sorts of perspectives we are forced to take when we understand what mythology is, and where it came from.

Let me start by saying something else that may bother some people- we don't know who or what the Gods really are. The Gods are certainly real; our ancestors certainly knew them and experienced them in many ways. The myths that our ancestors created to capture something of their experience with the Gods is valuable because it tells us, in many direct and indirect ways, something about the character and personality of the Gods and Goddesses. But however sacred they are, the myths are not the Gods. The myths do not tell us everything about the Gods. The myths that we have- and our collection of myths from the past is far from complete- are only snapshots of moments in human history in which humans told stories and shared them, regarding important mysterious events of Godly and otherworldly contact.

The myths do not tell us everything about the Gods; they don't even tell us most things. They tell us enough to approach the Gods in certain ways, ways that are similar to how our ancestors at one time did, but the myths are not "sacred scripture, exhaustive and complete" in the way that some people think the Bible or the Koran is.

For modern Heathens, as with ancient Heathens, our relationship to the Gods, and our understanding of them, cannot be limited by partial historical records or even by collections of myths from one time period or another. While it is true the myths present the valuable starting point that we need, and they present the context in which we must try to understand the Gods and Ancestral religion, they are not balls and chains of dogma that weight us down. This goes for all myths that all reconstructionists of any stripe may use.

There is a tendency for modern people to try and "type" the Gods. To an extent, this is unavoidable, because the reality is that not all Gods or Goddesses take an active role in all human activities. But there is a tendency to go further, and oversimplify the Gods and Goddesses, forcing them into neat categories of activity that never actually existed in the past. Victorian scholars loved to try this, forcing all pantheons to fit into their chart telling who was the "war god" and who was the "sun god" and so forth. When you really study the myths and lore of Gods and Goddesses, however, you see that such over-simple categorizations are not realistic.

The God Frey, for instance, was a God associated with fertility, but also with the life-giving powers of the sun and weather- but he was also a God of martial prowess and war, as well as peace. He was a king in Alfheim, the land given to him as a "tooth-gift", and lord of the burial mound or the Howe, and the Alfar or Elves in Alfheim- themselves related to the spirits of the dead, or the mound-dead. This God was a bringer of fruitfulness, an Earth-related God with hallowing powers, a God of Kingship and ancestor to the house of the Ynglings, and with his title "The Shining One", even a God of light and the sky. How can you try and pigeonhole Frey? It cannot be done. The same can be said for so many other Gods and Goddesses- things are not simple with them. These great spirits, these mysterious beings, are magnificently and broadly spread throughout the web of Wyrd, influencing many things and capable of being approached and known in many ways.

I would like to turn now to one of my favorite scholars of Heathen History: H.R. Ellis Davidson. In her essential book "Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe", she discusses the Scandinavian and Celtic Gods and the realities of Godly mythology in a very clear and penetrating way. Speaking of the myths of the Gods and organic traditions, she says:

"Gods and Goddesses appear in popular mythologies in a fossilized and static form. From the way in which they behave in various tales, often simplified in their turn, they are assumed to be deities of certain fixed types. As to which these types are, this depends on the prevailing theories about early religion.

However (when approaching the variety of presentations in mythologies) we are dealing here with many different levels of belief, and also with confused traditions, which may have been worked on by earlier antiquarians long before modern scholars began their reconstructions. Tales and poems about the Gods may also have been influenced by outside traditions and suffered considerable changes by the time they came to be recorded.

We cannot hope to get evidence at first hand, and even if we could, it is all too likely that we would find it confused and contradictory. Men are capable of holding concepts about the supernatural world which, from our modern viewpoint, seem to be opposed to one another, but which nevertheless worked reasonably satisfactorily for them. As long as traditions were passed on orally, those which no longer fitted could be given up while those which could develop along with changing ways of life were retained.

Once recorded, however, new confusions were created as it became essential to make a choice between the old and the new. Yet while all this must be borne in mind, it hardly justifies a refusal to search for an overall picture of the Gods of the Celtic and Germanic tradition from such evidence as is available. There is, after all, a considerable amount of information, complex and uneven though it may be...

There is no doubt that ideas about the Gods were constantly fluid and changing. Traditions and customs are remoulded along with changing ways of life, as is abundantly clear from the study of folklore, where recent work has highlighted the difficulties encountered in defining popular beliefs and drawing conclusions about them from oral tradition."

I will give more quotes from Davidson, but at this point, I felt the need to stop and point out the essence of her statement: oral traditions and organic traditions are fluid and dynamic. This is because the nature of the Gods and the Otherworld, in common with the nature of every living being, is fluid and dynamic. Living beings, like living wisdom, partake of a healthy chain of adaptions and adjustments, whenever the demands of Fate and life make their presence known. In this web of Wyrd, ever-changing and interactional, there is little or no room for people who wish to "codify" things, call them "truths", and expect them to remain so.

This is not an invitation to fall into the trap of relativism. The value of human life, the worthiness of the Gods, the nobility of heroism, the need for reciprocal respect between humans and the world they live in, these things (and other things) are unquestionably good and worthwhile, regardless of the many changes and life-situations that humans will find themselves in, or the situations the Gods may find themselves in, or the situations a hero may find him or herself in. It just so happens that a certain flexibility of mind must accompany all of our efforts towards being noble and wise- what is good and noble in these Nine Worlds will remain so, even if the forms and situations through which we know them as good and noble must undergo constant changes and transformations.

Flexibility in thinking and behaving is strength; it is the power to adapt and overcome. Without it, neither wisdom nor victory is possible. Having this sort of flexibility of thinking and behaving is not the same as saying "give up on your ancestral traditions"- it is saying "understand the context in which your traditions are embedded, and don't over-calcify the Ancestors, nor the ways in which they experienced the world and came to know the truths that they discovered."

Truly throwing away all that we know about tradition in the name of flexibility would be a travesty, but ignoring the demands made by the shifting web of Wyrd, ignoring the demands that Nature herself puts on us to adapt in the name of some "set-in-stone" cultural ideal that probably never existed in the past, is equally as bad. A person has to balance their need for certainty (which contains in itself the dangerous seed of dogma) with wisdom's request that we live our lives the best we can, never allowing the blindness of inflexibility to paralyze us mentally or spiritually.

In some way, this is the central conflict faced by reconstructionists today- balancing the need to revive an organic tradition of spirituality from within ourselves, which includes a personal and ongoing experience of the Gods and the Otherworld, with the need to respect what we do know about the Ancestral past and to situate ourselves, as wisely as we can, within the context of the same.

It is obvious to everyone who has ever really practiced a reconstructionist religion that simply reading books is not enough. It is not enough to read a description of a God from some scholar's book, and grab a horn and fill it with ale, and drink to the God.

The spiritual awareness we seek, the experience of the sacred tradition of the Ancestral past, does not begin until a person gets out of books and engages the Gods actively in their lives. There is an "open space" of types, between the life of the modern Heathen and the mystery of the Gods or other spiritual powers- and in that space, which is impossible to pin down, impossible to explain, and hard to imagine, a spiritual meeting takes place, a meeting that can hardly be explained or described to another who didn't experience it.

In that meeting, a person finds a religious identity, and finds a direction which belongs to them alone, but which can be harmoniously blended with others who share in that person's family or religious community in many positive ways. To get into this "space" where the Gods can be met, or the Ancestors can be met, a person has to stop imagining that they know beforehand what they will see or experience. They have to bear in mind what the Ancestors said, but they must also bear in mind that the lore of the Ancestors, so crucial to us today, was not put there to exempt a person from their own experience. Ancestral lore has not exempted any person from the duty to find their own experience of the Gods and of life.

A person has to approach the Gods and the spiritual powers with an open mind, a frame of reference that is flexible and receptive. To give up on so many things that give us certainty and to trust in the Gods and Ancestors is difficult, but it is the only way to really get into the "space" I have been describing. The lore that you have read will always be there for you, to support you, and to supply you with a context and a way of understanding your experiences, but it cannot live your spiritual life for you.

There's no need for worry here- the Gods and Ancestors know their own, and when you make the leap into the "open space", they will be there. They will situate you and you will engage them, and from that point, whenever and wherever it comes, you have the spiritual experience-base that allows Heathens to avoid the trap of "faith in the unprovable" which is so common in monotheistic religions. Heathens don't "believe" in the Gods and Ancestors even though they can't see them; Heathens know their Gods and Ancestors. Heathens experience them in many ways. Heathens who experienced them before left us many sacred tales and wisdom-packed stories; from that, we can know that our search is not unique to us, and many men and women before us have succeeded, to their great joy and satisfaction.

The question of "which Gods?" will doubtlessly come up- which Gods will meet you? Should you want to meet any in particular? Returning now to Davidson, she says, regarding the Gods and the organic traditions of the past:

"The Celtic and Germanic peoples worshiped a number of Gods through the centuries. There were many changes in their way of life, and much movement of peoples over a wide area of Europe, so that their religion could hardly be expected to remain static. Although there were priests and teachers to pass on the old traditions, there were no sacred books to establish a main outline of myths which might be used as a final court of appeal. They had come into contact with many cultures before they finally accepted (or were forced to accept) the teaching of the Christian church and abandoned their early religious practices, and one powerful influence was the sophisticated culture of the Roman Empire which in the end they helped to overthrow.

Much of our knowledge of their Gods comes from altars and inscriptions to native deities which have been identified with Roman Gods, given Roman names, and depicted in anthropomorphic form in accordance with Roman custom and style. While Roman religion in its turn was not static, there was a strong tendency to organize and rationalize supernatural figures, fitting them into an elaborate scheme in which each was responsible for some special department in life.

Our familiarity with this way of viewing the Gods has led to the assumption that Germanic and Celtic deities must be specialized ones also. As Marie Sjoestedt pointed out: "When we are tackling a strange mythology, we seek instinctively an Olympus where the Gods abide, an Erebus, kingdom of the dead, a hierarchy of the Gods, specialized as patrons of war, of the arts, or love. And, seeking them, we do not fail to find them."

She goes on to point out the lack of definite functions to differentiate the Celtic Gods. The most powerful deities were characteristic tribal ones, presiding over many aspects of life, such as fertility, craftsmanship, battle, law, and magic. She felt that it is not possible to find a "common Celtic" period in mythology, with clearly defined central deities: "What we know of the decentralized character of society among the Celts and of the local and anarchical character of their mythology excludes that hypothesis."

This has to be borne in mind when approaching the myths, and no doubt much of the same can be said of the Gods of the Germanic peoples. Odin, Thor, and Freyr were many-sided Gods. Odin may have reigned supreme over the battlefield, but also possessed special skills such as poetry, oratory, divination, and the secret of gaining wealth, while he was an expert in the magical arts and had entry into the Underworld realm of the dead. Thor was the god bearing the thunderbolt, defender of the Aesir and of mankind, yet also had power over the fertility of the earth, while he assisted travelers and protected the homes, laws, and boundaries of men. Freyr was one of the fertility Gods, yet seems to have been regarded as a war God by the Swedes, who placed his symbols on armor and weapons.

No one of these three possessed sole dominion over the sky, the earth, or the underworld. Odin rode through the sky as well as under the earth; Freyr was associated with the sun but also was a power within the burial mound; Thor had dominion over storms and winds, but his hammer could protect worshipers in the grave.

However the character of each God is recognizable, and the choice of one as a divine protector was likely to depend on the kind of life a man led. Kings and warriors turned to Odin; those holding land and responsibility were likely to select Thor as their friend; those who wished for luck in hunting, rearing of beasts, cultivation of land, and the bringing up of healthy children would seek help from the Vanir."

Sjoestedt's quote above, given by Ellis, is powerful- we WILL see what we want to see, when we bring our own assumptions to any mythology that we study. This is important because I've seen too many people butcher the mythologies of the Northern people with their half-baked assumptions about the way the Godly world or the Unseen World works. The Unseen world is primarily a mystery to us, even if it is a perfectly natural aspect of human life and the structure of the world.

Davidson does the best job I've read of reminding us that our Ancestors' Gods were not things sliced up with cookie-cutter shapes and served in some rational, structured way to their followers. The Ancestral approach to the Gods is one of experience and engagement, which takes us beyond our expectations of structure and rationality. In this manner, the Gods can be truly present to each and every moment in time, or person who seeks them; by not fitting into some narrow theory or theology, they are infinitely able to be real to us, and to affect the world.

This brings me to my final point: Ancestral myths. What can we make of those? Some of the myths we read in the Eddas (and I should point out here that "myth", to me, in no manner implies something that is "made up") present a pretty structured view of the Gods and how they created the world. We know that the Eddas come from one time period, late in Iceland, so what should we conclude from this? Davidson writes:

"The Gods as represented in surviving literatures form a group, and there are no indications of an earlier concept of one supreme deity. The Germans and Scandinavians worshiped the Gods as a company at their regular feasts, although a toast might be drunk or a sacrifice offered to one particular deity. Two or three are mentioned together in such oath formulae or curses as have come down to us. In Eddic and Skaldic poetry two or three of the Gods have adventures together, while they are pictured in larger companies feasting together or meeting to decide on judgments at the Thing. Voluspa, admittedly composed somewhat late in the pre-Christian period, gives a confident picture of the Gods as a group at the beginning of time, establishing order, making objects of fine workmanship, and setting up buildings.

As we have been reminded, it would be foolish to reject such testimony out of hand, and the creation of a pantheon in Asgard cannot be due to Snorri, although he may have added a few details to regularize the vague and often confused relationships between various deities, as when he makes Odin the father of Thor. The Gods are also seen as established in families, with sons who play a small but significant part in the myths, and are married to Goddesses who appear to come from the Vanir, and are said to be daughters of giants.

...The idea of a company of Gods is supported by the language of the poems. Regin is used of the Gods, in general, although it may have referred originally to the chief Gods, those in particular who possessed power over the fates of men. A similar Gothic term ragin is used to mean "counsel" or "decision" and the word is found in the German Heliand with the meaning of "divine power". In the Hakonarmal, composed in the tenth century, the dead king Hakon is welcomed to Valhalla by "all the council and the powers" (rad oll ok regin).

...The conception of a divine company of Gods seems to have been well established among the Germans by the time of Tacitus. In his Germania he mentions Mercury and Mars, the "Supreme God" of the Semnones, who may have been Tiwaz, twin Gods known as the Alcis, the divine ancestor Tvisto, and the Goddesses Isis and Nerthus. He refers to the Gods in the plural, reporting that men believed they should not be confined within walls or portrayed in human likeness, and that they could communicate by means of sacred horses and other methods. Similarly, Julius Ceasar insists on a plurality of deities among the Celts in the last century BC."

Many sources tell us that the Gods were many, and they help us to understand who and what the people of their time believed about the Gods, but one thing stands out clearly: as Davidson said in the beginning, these accounts are snapshots, fossilized in time, of a "way of knowing" that was current to those times. We can and should take these things into account, but we can't forget that people in those times "rounded out" their understandings of the Gods in many ways that were relevant to the needs of their people and their lives. Snorri certainly comes to mind here.

Here is the essence of the message I am trying to communicate in this essay: The Gods are real; they are the Gods, long-lived and mighty, forever protectors of the world; but reports of the past, and even sacred myths, are only starting points to discovering who and what they are.

Yes, it is likely that Thor was the chief God of the Germanic peoples in many areas, for many centuries, and it is likewise that Tiwaz or Tyr was the chief God of many others. It is true that people all over the Germanic world didn't always believe that Odhinn was the chief and ruler of Gods- this is a later evolution of Germanic religion, though to see modern Asatru, you'd never guess that.

The reason why this is okay is because the Gods don't care how we understand them, so long as we recognize them and seek their company and friendship. The Gods DO understand how mortal politics, cultural evolution, and the sweep of Fate and history can bring many people to think many things about them, and they do not place those things before the simple truth of their own existence and the need mortals have for them, nor do the Gods (who seem to be more broad-minded than mortals) care whether or not we think this-or-that God is the son of this-or-that God.

They do care about us as mortals, because they protect our world from destructive powers, and they are our kin, for we are all sprung from the massive web of Wyrd, and the myths also present a notion of direct Ancestral connection, as well. The Gods concern themselves with us as family, and again, this sort of bond goes far beyond some insignificant point of shifting cultural theology.

At one time, people may not have believed that Thor was the son of Odin. In another place, that idea was evolved. I have defended this evolution in understanding Odhinn as a natural evolution that had to occur as people came to more awareness of the power of cunning and wisdom, and how such things were the true power behind rulership and thrones.

Either way, people's changing understanding of the Gods and the relationships between them is secondary to the reality of the Gods and the ability of humans to have relationships with them. That's that. We Heathens don't have "bibles" in our Eddas; we have books presenting some sacred understandings of some people who lived some hundreds of years ago- it's good to have their understandings, and we are just as capable now of basing a reconstructed religion off it.

But we go seriously wrong if we think that the Eddas (or any presentation of mythology) are "true, unalterable, and beyond question." A person can have a religious relationship with Odhinn, or Thor, or any God or Goddess fully in isolation from any mythical understanding of them- knowing the God or Goddesses' name, having an experience of them from the inside, engaging them with your heart and mind, toasting them and sacrificing to them will be as sufficient now as it was centuries ago. What the Ancestors had that many of us don't is a community that gave a context to these sacred activities and shared them in unique cultural ways; today, Kindreds and congregations of Asatruar can still experience that, when they worship the Gods and Ancestors together.

I'd like to end this by pointing out that I, personally, do have my own ideas, based on the Eddas and other sources, about how the Godly family of the Aesir and the Vanir are related to one another- a theological family tree, as it were. But I recognize that these understandings of mine, and of the Eddaic writers, are just that- our understandings of the mysteries of the Gods themselves, and that there's a hel of a lot more about the Gods that we don't know. Building such an understanding of the Gods as I have is a way of honoring my Ancestors, primarily; when it comes to straight theological thinking, I'll be the first to admit that the primordial Gods are mysterious and hard to understand, and their relationship with humanity goes so far back, that all of our mythical ideas and understandings of them are reflections of reflections, passed down to us through immense ages of time.

For me, it is far more important that I pray and sacrifice to the Gods than it is that I get my "facts of relationship based on the Eddas" right. I think the Gods must agree, considering the many blessings and great luck that has been poured out into my life. They'll be here for us all as long as we approach them with open minds and hearts, and with full knowledge that they are both real, and the worthy protectors and helpers of mankind.

Are we not simply living and doing what our ancestors always have done? We are born here in our world, we hear tales from the past, learn of the Gods from Ancestral lore, and we take those learnings and we integrate them into our lives as best we can, bearing in mind the needs and realities of our modern day. This is a "theology of everyday life", as opposed to some "theology of the book"- our ancestors were not burdened by scriptures, and neither are we. Getting out of books and into personal engagement with life and the Gods is what we are meant to do.


Erik said...

Well said! (Although I must admit that I had to copy the post into Word in order to get through it all... but it was worth it. Thanks!)

Lee said...

Fantastic as always. Anyone who engages your theological thinking with any depth is encouraged (if not compelled)to maintain the flexibility that you speak of. It is a subtle and crucial distinction that you make here, and I find it very inspiring. There must indeed be a third alternative between the pure invention of some neo-pagans, and the rigidity that can arise in followers of Tradition. Thankyou for the time that you take to bring these ideas to others.

Anonymous said...

Well Happy Holidays has been going around for a while. Apparently this year Walmart is going back to Merry Christmas because they lost too much business calling it the "Holidays" last year. I think you should boycott Walmart based on this article. I already avoid it like the plague of humanity that it is.
As a side note, I think we should call Columbus day - Syphilis Season and Thanksgiving - Shoot an Indian after you steal his food day.

(sorry forgot my isobel_goudie pw)

Ælfred said...

I admit that often I'm too bookish about heathenry. In an attempt to better understand the gods and goddesses I've had a tendancy to oversimplify or reduce them to functions. My relationship with them has suffered because of this.

Thank you for writing this.

Michelle said...

I have been reading through your posts and learning much about Heathenry. You said:

"the Gods and Ancestors know their own, and when you make the leap into the "open space", they will be there. They will situate you and you will engage them, and from that point, whenever and wherever it comes, you have the spiritual experience-base that allows Heathens to avoid the trap of "faith in the unprovable" which is so common in monotheistic religions. Heathens don't "believe" in the Gods and Ancestors even though they can't see them; Heathens know their Gods and Ancestors."

This describes where I am and where I'd like to be. I want very much to "believe"...I feel like Odin has been pulling me toward him over this past year. But I am coming from a place of atheism. How do I meet the gods in order to know them? I truly, deeply want to know them...but I cannot "put my faith in the unprovable".


Brian Damage said...

I have been saying for years "You can no more understand Heathenry from reading the Eddas than you can understand Catholicism from reading the Bible"

The Eddas are an invaluable source for the chatchkies and doodads of our religious experience, but they aren't an instruction manual or holy writ... they're just a couple of stories.

The blueprints of the religion have been drafted, the foundation has been laid, and even parts of the structure are in place. Why not move in to the religion and make it a "home" for the soul?