Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Yule Season Arrives!

Fain we come to the Yuletime,
Hap we sing on every holt and howe!
Let the wights of this winter
And all the holy sib join with us
Let all baleful things wend away!

Great Yule-father, Jolnir you are hight
Wanderer under welkin wide and on the wold:
Might and main spread on the gathered folk!
The alfs come in your following,
And toasts are given for all!

Let the Disir consecrate our garth,
Let them protect the newly born and those fey!
For Allfather and these our norns,
To them we sing a holy galdralag
As the Ancestors in times erstwhile.

* * *

The deep night of solstice is upon us,
We have adorned our halls green and red,
Alight we have made the midwinter flames
And tonight feast with our family's dead.

Would that you could be here with us,
Sharing mirth and tales of times before;
The joy of the hidden folk in the long dark,
The fear of the ancients on Selena Moor.

In the ageless cycle of these seasons,
Amid this dark and timeless turning,
You have our gratitude and our blessings
And beloved memory when we set the Yule-fires burning.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Heart of the Old Religions

Most people who leave Christianity and become Pagan (or try to do so) often carry with them the "God-centered" ideal of Christianity and try to build a Pagan practice that places the Gods as the central focus.

However, there is an issue with this that must be addressed- it may be that Paganism in the past was not centered around the Gods. When you look at it broadly and deeply, you can see that ancient Heathens of any stripe viewed human interactions as the primary "focus" of their lives- I'd say their "religious" lives, but it's not coherent to say that Pre-Christian people necessarily divided their experiences up in that way.

In Pagan times, "secular" and "religious" were not really meaningful categories, because even "secular" events were blessed and presided over by Gods. This is nowhere more evident than in ancient Rome, in which every event of government, sports, war, theatre, and even construction and the workings of their sewer system were not carried out without invoking the Gods of that occasion or event.

All of Indo-European Paganism shows this pattern; childbirth was every bit as sacred (and presided over by spiritual powers) as a "general" sacrifice for the people on any occasion. War was always seen as a sacred affair, as was business- Lugus and Odhinn were the Gods of merchants and trade, as was Hermes in Greece and Rome. Lugus and Odhinn were also Gods prayed to in times of war.

The central vision of the Pagans was one of interaction- between people, whether in family settings, war, commerce, travel, exploration, or what have you. These interactions necessarily included the attentions of the Gods, who were part of the great system of interactions, which spread from this world to all of the unseen worlds. But the Gods were not "more important" than the tasks that humans had to carry out. In a horizontally-related and circular system of causality like Wyrd, things can often be seen in terms of equal importance- for instance, it's just as important to be a good soldier and fight well, as it is to invoke the God of War before you go to battle. All aspects of living and interaction are important and charged with numinous force. This is why so many Heathen and Pagan religious rites were carried out in the home, and on streets, and in market squares, and in open groves and fields- because the sacred was a part of everyday life.

So interaction- human activities, the activities of families, clans, or societies- can rightly be understood as the true "focus" of the Old Religions. Interactions between humans and Gods was another focus, though implicit in the term "interaction" in the broadest sense. All of these interactions are tied together by Wyrd, or the sacred system of interconnectedness and causality. This is why more than one sharp-minded scholar has realized that Wyrd was the central mystery of the Heathen religion: interaction is the true nature of our lives, and of the Gods.

Living your life, being among friends and family, going through life's various tests and trials, this is the focus of the Heathen "religions", then and now. Instead of saying "religion", it is better to say "the Heathen life-way", because for our wise Ancestors, what we now call "religion" was fully integrated into everyday life. It wasn't something you "did" on certain days of the week, or only off in a temple. You really can't ultimately separate "religious things" from "non-religious" things. Like Wyrd, all is tied together, overlapping, and recursive.

There's no doubt that the Gods of old were seen as very important in the lives of the people- they prayed, made sacrifices, offerings, all to a huge extent. But they probably didn't go through their lives thinking about the Gods in the same way that Christians are expected to go through life putting "God first" in everything, and worrying about what God thinks about their thoughts and actions.

Heathens of old had a way of behaving that dealt with their interactions with their fellow man, and to another extent, with the natural world, which was the heart of their ideas of honor- keeping their oaths, being hospitable, being brave, respecting the Ancestors and putting ancestral traditions in an important place, and putting the good of their people first.

If a person lives in this way, they need not worry about what the Gods "think" about them. They can live their lives assured that the Gods support them, and in that sense, Heathens were more free than most modern Christians who carry their God around like a lead weight, or like an eternal one-man "oversight committee" of omniscient judgmentalism.

The motivation for true moral behavior can never be fear of judgment or punishment, and for the Heathens of the past, the reward for being a good human is not expected in some afterlife, or even in this one necessarily. A person of honor did what was expected of them and was a good person for no reason except that it was right to do so. Such a noble way of life may seem unbelievable or impractical in our cursed times, times where we have been reduced to the "whip" as the basis for "good" behavior in matters of both public life and moral or religious life, but the fact that it was not always so speaks highly of our Ancestors, and highly of those who set their minds to this way of thinking today- it is a magnitude of personal quality that is rare, indeed.

It also speaks highly of that mysterious thing we call "human nature", by showing us that our nature is capable of far more good and nobility than most modern religionists give it credit for.

Heathens didn't live in fear that the Gods were keeping tabs on their every word and deed- the Gods didn't fill the roles of big supervisors or celestial disciplinarians for the ancients. They don't fill those roles today; what they bring to human interactions is far more mature and sublime. It's true that some of the Gods- like Allfather- had sorcerous ways of knowing all things that occurred on the earth and in the other worlds, but this wasn't a disciplinarian's chart-keeping; it was the tidings of interaction and event which he was aware of, through the power of his sorcerously expanded consciousness. He took in such knowledge as part of his quest for wisdom and understanding. It's one of the things that made him so cunning and wise.

Whatever punishment or glory a person found in this world or the afterlife was between that person, their deeds, and Fate- the Gods were only a part of that system of destiny insofar as Wyrd required them to be; they were not the authors of the system of Wyrd. Always we see that each man and woman has to look to themselves and their own honor, and how they affect the larger system of kinship and life, when it came to their own moral and ethical behavior. Consequences are not written by the Gods; they are natural reactions to how we think and act.

The Gods are certainly important, but not the center of Heathenry and the old religions: being a good human being, interacting well and honorably with other humans and other parts of the sacred and natural world is the center. Seeing one's self as part of a greater web of interactive power is the focus for the wise of any era. The fact that you are human, and that mankind is itself a sacred manifestation of a Mystery, is a powerful but crucial aspect of the Heathen worldview.

The fact that you are human means that living as a human is by itself a sacred act, and one that requires all your time and attention. The Gods take care of their Godly business- humans have their own business to attend to. At times- many times, in fact- Heathens invoked the Gods for extra help and blessings, but then they had to go on living as humans, and doing well. Being human, with all that entails, is the focus of a true Pagan ethic of living.