Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Joy of Yule

Yule is the most spiritually poignant time of the Year for we Asatruar, and for the ancients, it was equally as meaningful. I love this season; I love the cold; I love the decorations that people put out- holly and colored lights and mistletoe. I love the fact that people actually take the time to let themselves slip into a "holiday cheer" in which they feel more open towards strangers and friends and family.

I know that the ancient roots of this sacred time go back to the dawn of our humanity, and few things bring me more joy than knowing that this holy season was so strong and transformative that even interloping religions like Christianity- who came with the intention to culturally destroy the good and traditional faiths of native Europeans- could not compete with it, and had to integrate it into their yearly observances.

Because of this unbreakable line of power, this thread of Fate, so many of us have grown up hearing the language of Christianity at this season, but feeling the full Heathen force of the time. I am very sorry for those who never had a chance to grow up around Christmas/Yule customs, for many reasons. Nowhere I've ever been, nor any cultural custom I've ever seen, has matched Christmas/Yule for the sheer feeling of joy, serenity, happiness and togetherness. To feast together, drink together, give gifts, share stories and warmth and rest- this is the best time of the year. And it's an amazing cultural legacy. So much for us barbarian westerners!

It seems that being Western is a crime nowadays. Being an American of European descent has been heading towards "criminal" for a long time. The West seems to make a convenient target for people's woes. They can talk about us all they like and harp on the great traumas we've caused the world; all I have to say is 'welcome to life'- where is it written that life was intended to be easy or even fair? And what's "fair"? We all have a right to be here and to fight to maintain our cultural realities- "white man's guilt" is not a thing that I nor any other person of dignity and honor has time for. Strength is not shared equally, and it isn't some standard of utopian "fairness" or "humanity" that is going to solve the problems of "strength abuse" in this world- it is only wisdom that will.

Wisdom I will work for, but I will never apologize nor feel ashamed of my forefathers and mothers who did so much for this world and who were strong and proud. Despite the rumor, I can assure you- the meek will inherit nothing of this world or any other. Trying to drag everyone down to a common denominator of weakness will not solve any problems; what we need is the wisdom to help all people be strong and complete.

I see much wisdom and power in western culture, despite the pervasive habit nowadays to attack the foundations of the West, villainizing Europeans and people of European descent as plunderers and greedy opportunists. The story is far more subtle and layered than the over-simplifications that people try to whine off onto others. I do regret that Christianity had to taint my forefathers and foremothers' way of life, and feed them the idea that they should destroy other cultures with the intent of forcing foreign peoples into a new religion; that is unfortunate and foolish. But beyond that, the drive, the bravery, the energy, and the stamina with which my ancestors cut a swath through this world is unequaled.

As western culture has practically become a global culture, one might say that we are the architects of the modern world- printing presses, light bulbs, penicillin, cars, airplanes, antiseptics, televisions, telephones, radios, microchips and countless other creations that have defined our age come from the creativity of the sons and daughters of the Americas and Europe. They are part of a long human tradition of creativity that is shared by all races.

In the Yuletide, the very best of the past is still with us. The mistakes of the past can easily become an obsession, and not just for those who have a political agenda to push. But in this time of spiritual power, what is good and noble comes to the forefront, precisely because the spirits of our Families, our Ancestors and the powers unseen are coming to the forefront. The "Yule Beings", that most sacred host, are coming near. And now, in the rest of winter's deep, we can take some time to concentrate on what is most sacred and important to us. We can take the time to remind ourselves of the rich cultural traditions that we are all heirs to, no matter how far we may have drifted from them on the tides of revealed religions and their revisionist history, or the tides of absurdly greedy social movements like capitalism that undermine the true foundations of family and society.

For most, this time of the year is associated with "thankfulness", and I admit, this word has some use. But for Heathens, we who believe in Fate, "thankfulness" has a special twist. If I believe that Fate wove all of this around me into the form it is now, and that it had to be this way, why be thankful? While it's true that the Allfather's creativity is what shaped this world, and even shaped the beautiful forms of men and women's bodies into what they are (and for that, I am most certainly thankful) even the great Shaper himself was weaving as Fate inspired him.

Should I be "thankful" to the Gods for the benefits I've reaped after the work I've done? Surely a farmer is thankful that the Old Thunderer gave his land the water it needed to grow his food, but he had to get out there and plant and reap. To be thankful in an appropriate way is important; the Gods don't live our lives for us. Can we be thankful for human nature containing all the nobility and bravery that it does?

Human nature is a manifestation of an underlying mystery- the mystery of MANNAZ- which the Gods did not create. Humans had to manifest in the way they did, even with the creativity of the Gods helping in this process. Who shall I be thankful for now, that I am creative, or kind, or hard working? What about the fruits of my creativity, which have helped me to become financially successful, and able to take care of my family? Am I thankful to myself?

These sorts of questions are easy to resolve. When you see all of reality as a sacred outpouring, and when you understand Fate, you realize that those things you call "yours" aren't just yours; human creativity, and all things "human", belong to the universe every bit as much as they belong to "us". How magnificent is the great world that we are parts of! That it should appear as it does, full of all these amazing things and experiences, up to and including our love for one another as humans, and all our trials and efforts and triumphs! That the Gods should be who they are, interacting with us and the world, and sustaining us in this way! It is all a wondrous vision, a miracle every day.

Some say we lose something from this miraculous vision when we believe that "Fate" had no choice but to see it appear this way. How could things be otherwise? And since it could not be otherwise, why do we feel that it's so astounding?

Just because the universe unfolds according to the great, eternal, and hidden seed-pattern doesn't mean that we humans understand it fully and completely. It took me a long time of studying and living the spiritual life before I became aware of the wonder that this universe manifests. What I am joyful about, what I am in awe of, is that I, a human being, should have been accorded the ability to come to know how amazing this world is, in whatever measure I have been allowed to do so. Anytime a person comes to realize just how amazing and beautiful and sacred the world really is, it is as if the world is re-created at that moment, just for that person. It is as if the entire process of the sacred unfolding of things happens all over again.

And that, I think, is one of the key mysteries to understanding "joy". It is also a mysterious hint about our human purpose- when we become truly aware, does not the universe itself celebrate?

It is fine to say that you are thankful to the Gods- we all should be; I am thankful that the Gods exist and that they uphold the world everyday through their timeless efforts. They are our protectors; they are our kin and our guides to wisdom and happiness. I am thankful for them, but I don't believe that our Heathen thankfulness needs to fall into the mold of Christian thankfulness, which is based on the idea that God created everything of his own free will, just for himself and his own glory, and (to a lesser extent) for humans, so they could celebrate God's glory. To Christians, since "God" had a choice to do all this, then a person should be thankful for whatever good things they have. To Christians, God could have chosen NOT to create humans- an odd idea, to say the least, but this is key to understanding their minds and behavior.

For we Heathens, however, Wyrd or Fate didn't make a "choice"- it weaves as it will, as it must, forever; it IS the weaving of things, the occurrence of things. The decisions of the Gods to create humans, to help us, these are fateful decisions, part of the unfolding of things. We Heathens are thankful that things are as they are- and that things happen to be joyful and full of possibilities of happiness and adventure and growth and peace. We can't be thankful that Fate simply exists and does what it does, because Fate didn't choose to exist and do what it does.

William Bainbridge, one of my favorite modern Heathen writers, once wrote about the idea of Thankfulness and religion. Here is a short excerpt from an essay of his on Ego and Wyrd:

"It is a pet notion of mine that two fundamental perceptions lie at the heart of religion as a human phenomenon. They can be neither proved nor disproved logically, but then, no one ever said that faith does not play a part in religion, and as things go, I am satisfied in placing my faith in them.

The first is that, despite all of the things that appear to us to be messed up in one way or another, the way life is working itself out in the universe is the way it is supposed to be working itself out; that is, life, being, and consciousness are supremely and unquestionably good. And the second is that the appropriate human response to the first perception is gratitude. The most primary expression of religion is to give thanks for the innate rightness of life."

I think this is an awesome quote, and it is very truthful to me. Things are right to be the way they are; all is working out as it should. But what I am thankful for is that I, as a human, have come to understand precisely this, and found such peace in it.

I would like to suggest that perhaps Heathens should focus more on "joyfulness in living" and less on the notion of "thankfulness", as "thankfulness" is (at least in modern times) tied strongly to the Christian notion of gratefulness at God's choice in giving to us.

For us, while we are thankful to the Gods for the many things they do and choose to do, the bottom line is that we are partners to the Gods in the web of Wyrd, partners to them in this world. We aren't stuck under the Gods, groveling and thanking them over and over for our mere existence. It is not because of the Gods that we exist in the ultimate sense; it is because of them that we exist in these human lives, in this human world with our great cultural innovations and our homes and kin about us, but the spirits of us, like the spirits of the Gods, are timeless.

The spirit that Allfather breathed into the first humans wasn't created by him; it was only bestowed, but hey- that is by itself a reason for joy! It is good to be human, to live as we do and be able to discover and love so much.

I feel the Joy of this Yule season, and joy in every other season, because I have come to know my place in things, and come to know the Gods as friends and kindred. Yule is, at heart, a celebration of kindred and friendship, and joy at a year now ended and a new year which is beginning. It is a joyful time!

And being joyful at our mere existence, at the right coming and going of things, is a joy that I think even the Gods must have- they of all beings understand more of the immensity of Wyrd and the design of Fate; they take in more of its mysteries than we humans tend to be able to, and they must experience depths of joy that we can only imagine. The more open we become to the natural rightness of things- in other words, the wiser we become- the more we can appreciate the many treasures and blessings that Fate has woven into our lives, and which the Gods, interacting with us as they do, have also given to us by virtue of our interaction.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fighting for the Land and Water

Yahoo! News just reported a very interesting story about the struggle of conservationists to save Chesapeake Bay. I thought I might give a link to the story here and discuss some of the importance of the efforts of these good men and women. But first, I have to say a few words about the relationship between conservation-based efforts and the mindset of environmentalism/conservationism, and modern day Heathenry or Pagan religions.

There are a few people out there, ostensibly Pagans or Heathens, who fight very hard against the public opinion and perception that most neo-Pagans or modern Heathens will all have to be raging environmental warriors. With a sick sort of amusement, I've seen banners on Pagan and Heathen websites that strongly announce "PAGAN DOES NOT EQUAL EARTH-BASED: Stop religious homogenization".

Like with most things, I can see both sides of the issue. But for people who really don't believe that Paganism has to be "earth-based", I'm forced to wonder: what other planet could we be based on? What other Land besides the Land of this earth could we rely on for the earthy flesh of these bodies, the water in our blood and organs, and the food that we eat every day?

By admitting that we owe our bodies and lives to this Land we all share, are we "homogenizing" religion? No, I don't think so- if anything, we're simply admitting to being human like the rest of the men and women we share this world with, and taking this understanding of our reliance on the Land up to a religious level, as the ancients did.

There's many ways to approach religious understandings and practices based on the belief in nature's sacredness. Nothing stops us from admitting that we all rely on a sacred body of nature for our lives, one we all hold in common, and from celebrating that in countless different ways, each to our own.

People who would fight even the admission that the Land is sacred, in some attempt to avoid some unrealistic threat of "homogenization", and furthermore go out of their way to refuse to include the Land in their own religious life, alienate other Pagans who do believe in the sacredness of the Land, and even try to revise history to make ancient peoples seem unconcerned with the power of the Land, are being very selfish, unnecessarily divisive, and ultimately unwise.

It seems that they are wailing and wanting to differentiate themselves from Pagans who recognize the sacredness of the Land for no other reason but "to be different"- the ultimate juvenile tactic of thoughtless, empty rebellion that most of us have thankfully outgrown.

At any rate, the difference between most modern Heathens and Pagans and mainstream modern religions is that we view the natural world in terms of a degree of sacredness that they cannot and do not match- we have extreme ontological differences regarding who and what the Land is, and what places of moral and spiritual value the powers of nature occupy.

Even those liberal Christians who harp on about our "responsibility" to the Land, citing some verse in the bible wherein their great singular creator "gave man dominion" over the land and its creatures (and therefore, they say, lies an implied responsibility) cannot match the Heathen view of the sacred natural world. We see the natural world as an eternal sacred reality, full of holy powers, packed to the limits with sentient beings (the Landwights) and even some of the souls of our dead, who become "mound folk" after their deaths and dwell in the spiritual dimension of their grave sites.

Beyond all that, the Earth itself is a Giantess- a Goddess from a generation of beings that even pre-dates most of the Gods of our people, and who certainly pre-dates mankind. When you see the earth itself as the body of a huge and living being, and you honor her with sacrifices and blots, and pray to her, you are in a very different relationship and mindset than people who see the world as basically inanimate energy, soul-less "stuff" that a God just made for human beings to have "dominion" over.

The ancient stories of our folk are clear. We know with great certainty how they revered the features of the landscape, used them as ceremonial centers, respected the Land-spirits and wights, and made offerings and sacrifices to them. We know how sacred they believed the natural world was; we know what sort of animistic worldview this entire complex of beliefs descends from. We know the truth about the human relationship with the land- we are not the "dominion holders" over this land or its creatures; we are part of this land, and we are another population of creatures on it. We are not in a vertical relationship of dominion; we are in a horizontal relationship of reciprocity and reliance.

If you can see this clearly, then how can you deny that any form of true and traditional Paganism- particularly these reconstructionist paths that have sprung up in the modern day- are not "Land-based"? "Land based" doesn't mean "ignore everything except the land". It means "realize our dependence on the sacred powers under our feet, and act accordingly." Surely we Asatruar honor the Gods in the Godly Enclosures that are beyond this earth, in other worlds and conditions of being. But we live here, in Midgard or Middle-Earth, and we rely so much on the natural powers who occupy this web of power that we are all intimately woven into.

Defending this natural world is one of our Godly duties. The Gods shaped this Land into much of the form we see it in now, though the elements of it are eternal and uncreated: they are sacred powers that have no beginning or end. To protect the land is not just honoring the Giant Goddess upon whose back we live; it's also protecting our lives, the well-being of our children and all people's children, and it is making an important statement that we recognize sacredness and respect it. It is the same as saying "we recognize the boundless creativity of the Gods and respect it enough to uphold it with our effort."

The Yahoo! news story I saw today about the battle to preserve Chesapeake Bay is very good. Here it is:

Chesapeake Bay Blues

I was quite moved by the resolve of the good and wise men and women to help this sacred place- and I realized how their struggle reflects the greater struggle that we are all a part of. The story above contains the following poignant passages:

"The Chesapeake teemed with oysters and blue crabs when European settlers arrived but is now plagued by algae blooms and fish kills. Oysters are nearly wiped out. Miles-long swaths of the bay are called "dead zones" because summertime oxygen levels are too low to support most life."

It's a simple truth that we have to put aside our pride to accept: our culture is unwise when it comes to how we treat the natural world. This is due largely to how we've been taught to think of ourselves as "dominion holders" over the Land, but it also has to do with the fact that most of us don't think even once a day about the fact that this Land we live on is full of real, living, sentient beings, both seen and unseen, who have as much sacred right to be here and live their lives as we do. We must consider our responsibility to balance our lives with the well-being of our land and its many inhabitants.

The story goes on to say:

"The rate of population growth, the number of people moving into the watershed, it's gotten to the point we can't ignore it anymore," said Jeff Corbin, assistant secretary for Virginia's Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources. "The streets people used to drive down were lined with trees. Now, they're lined with CVS and Starbucks."

The images are terrifying to a radical traditionalist like myself. Even if we must create these technological things to make our lives safer or easier, why can we not remember the need for beauty and aesthetic? What perversity drives us to wipe out the sheer beauty of trees, to create parking lots? One day (probably too late) we will all realize that the features of the natural world actually do more than maintain environmental balance- they soothe our minds and souls and help keep us sane. The more we hack them away to replace them with rows of strip-malls and cars, the further we get from basic sanity. It is enough to make the heart break, if one is aware enough to see the decline of this world, and understand mankind's role in it.

One more important line from this story stands out to me. It says:

"Working to restore the Chesapeake is somewhat like fighting hunger or poverty, Baker said. The aim is noble, and progress can be made, but the job will never be done."

Here we find the heart of Heathen nobility- do not shy away from the endless or hopeless fight, for endeavor and struggle for good ends are by themselves enough. Struggle, and not final victory, is what we are called to- we know how things must end up; the Volva has told the Gods and Mankind how things must end up. Even as the doom of the world draws near, and conditions become worse for all of us, nobility and bravery cannot quit. They fight until the end. Some victories still remain to be had- but effort towards good ends, even if that effort comes to defeat, is still a real sort of victory. Our duty to be noble and struggle against destructive forces in ourselves and in the world will never be done, and that's part of what it means to be a noble human being.

I will tell you who does appreciate the efforts of these conservationists- the spirits of the land and water that dwell in and around Chesapeake Bay. But there's more than that- I appreciate them, and the spirit of every one of my readers appreciates them, because they see in their struggle the Godly urge to preserve and uphold life. These people are warriors fighting for the good of Midgard, and they will be honored for their efforts in the Afterlife. It may be that the Lady of the Vanir takes them to Folkvang, for peace until the end of the age, or that they stand with the Einherjar with Allfather at the end of time. Either way, I'll have a toast for them this Yuletide.