Sunday, December 3, 2023

Christmas Is Mary's Season, Too

Image from the film The Christ Child: A Nativity Story.

December has arrived, and with it the beginning of another Advent season. 

I wasn't sure I was going to observe Advent this year, but we have an established family tradition of loading up an Advent calendar with goodies for my daughter, and I wasn't about to deprive her of the fun and anticipation of opening up a new present every morning. Then I saw the Advent wreath in the basement that my wife made for me a few years ago, along with the new Advent candles I'd bought. 

So I thought, why not? 

As I discussed in my 50,000-word blog series, while my spiritual mindset leans toward pagan thought these days, and specifically in Anglo-Saxon mythology, there's no reason I can't incorporate other traditions into my practice if I want to. One driving tenet of my Middangeardweg is that if J.RR. Tolkien, the architect of my favorite fictional universe, found inspiration and meaning in something, then there's no reason I can't as well. I see Tolkien as a tree-hugging, mythology-loving Catholic with a pagan heart, and I'm really not too far removed from that way of seeing things, which is a big part of the reason I take so much inspiration from him. I might even eventually find myself going to a Latin Mass sometime, the same Mass that Tolkien loved, to immerse myself in the peace and beauty and tradition and familiarity, even if not at all for the theology. The pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty is, after all, Platonic just as much as it is Catholic. And Plato was, of course, a pagan. Thus, when evangelicals complain that Catholicism is too pagan, the only thing I quibble with is the "too" part. The saints are like the localized and specialized demigods of old, the transubstantiation of the bread and wine ranks up there with the highest of magic, and Mary is a goddess figure to all who can see past the church's limiting dogma. She literally stood in for the goddesses that were displaced as Christianity spread into pagan strongholds.

Which brings me to my point. 

As I've said many times here, Mary is my spiritual mother. She has been ever since I was a little kid. As far away as I've ever gotten from my Catholic roots, she's always been there, the sole constant on a lifelong spiritual path that has taken me around the world and then some. To me, she is the human face of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, which Christians tend to call the Holy Spirit. She is that every bit as much as Jesus is considered the human face of the Father. They are a spiritual yin and yang. One shows us how to live an ethical life marked with love and compassion, such that we might find that the Kingdom of God is within us; and the other shows us the power of grace and humility as a tool for finding a connection to divine wisdom, much as Tolkien reminds us that the power to undo the greatest of evils sometimes comes from the smallest and humblest, from the unlikeliest and most counterintuitive of people and places. The upside-down appeal of the Christian story is that everyone expected a high and mighty king who would set the world right through force and power, and instead this king came into the world as the lowest of the low, a child born anonymously in a smelly stable to a Jewish girl of no special importance to anybody but her immediate friends and family. 

Christmas is the one time of year when even the most evangelical of Christians are forced to acknowledge Mary's existence. Even so, to many of them, she was just a flowerpot, a vessel chosen at random to do the necessary work of birthing the child who was the Main Event. Mary, in their minds, was simply a means to an end. She did her job, and with that done, she fades into the background, no longer needed, irrelevant.

But what if that attitude is just centuries of patriarchal religion talking? What if Mary actually meant far more to the Christmas story -- and the Christian story? I recently saw on an online forum someone referencing a book that asked a pointed question: 

What if the central story of Christianity was not a man dying on a cross but a woman giving birth? 

That changes everything, doesn't it? It means Mary is no longer peripheral to the story but absolutely essential to it. Just as the Great Mother Tao gives birth to all that exists, so all women reflect its life-giving power in birthing us all into the world. Without women, human life would cease. Likewise, without Mary, there is no Jesus. That ought to count for something. 

And for those who see the connections between Mary, Sophia, and Spirit, it does. This is the secret of the Christian story hiding in plain sight. The early church fathers tell us that Jesus refers in the lost Gospel of the Hebrews to "my mother the Holy Spirit." Early Christian groups, notably those in the Syriac tradition, thought of the Holy Spirit as a feminine power and presence. Marian feast days on the Catholic liturgical calendar use passages from the Old Testament that point to Sophia, drawing parallels between the two figures. Sophia, the one who tells us she was by the Father's side during the Creation, was also once regarded in early Christian circles as the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, the great martyred saint Maximilian Kolbe referred to Mary as a "quasi-incarnation of the Holy Spirit," and the pre-Vatican II church was often criticized for handing over the role of the Spirit to Mary. As I always say, there was a good reason for that, and not something the church should have so cavalierly abandoned. For when it did, it severed an important connection to the Sacred Feminine and reinforced a view of an all-male Trinity that left no place for the nurturing and life-giving feminine, save for subordination. That has had real-world consequences for women, and it has deprived men and women alike of something our world desperately needs. 

It needs a loving and caring Mother. A Comforter, as Jesus notably calls the Holy Spirit that he tells the apostles will be sent from on high after he departs. 

Catholic and Orthodox Christians have been reporting miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary on Earth for 2,000 years now. She almost always comes bearing a message of peace and reassurance and the importance of perseverance and faith. It's almost as if she's filling the role of... a comforter

As I say, the truth of the matter is hiding in plain sight for everyone to see.

Whether you take this literally or metaphorically, the same basic truth remains: Mary is here with us and has never left. And the story of Christianity began with her. 

Christmas is Mary's season, too. And that, as Gandalf would say, is an encouraging thought.

May we bear that perspective in mind as the Advent season unfolds.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Connection Overload

Public domain.

So it turns out that I'm related to 42 of the 45 men who have been President of the United States, and I'm indirectly related to the other three through blood connections to their descendants. I'm also related to most of the First Ladies. 

Apparently, this is not terribly unusual for people who can trace their ancestors back to the days of the first New England settlers -- which I can, as it turns out. In fact, I'm also a direct descendant of Myles Standish; he's my 12th great-grandfather. So I guess my people were the Mayflower people. I appear to be related to at least a dozen of the passengers. 

I found all this out because my foray into Anglo-Saxon lore got me thinking about my roots, which led me to open my old FamilySearch account and comb through the branches of my family tree. Most of all, I just wanted to know: Where did I come from? I have a troubled relationship with most of my existing family, and that often leaves me feeling alienated. And I knew next to nothing about my dad's side of the family, because I never had much contact with any of them, having been raised by my maternal grandparents. Yet I wouldn't be here if not for all of my ancestors, both the good ones and the bad ones. So I decided to try to at least get familiar with some of the names of the people who made my existence possible. 

And that got me to thinking about the lives they might have lived. Many of those who came before me probably had hard lives and had to make lots of personal sacrifices for their loved ones. Some were no doubt very brave, like those who sailed across the sea to make a new life in an unknown and untamed land. Others were just ordinary folks just trying to get by. But the sum total of all their lives led to me, this weird guy from the American Midwest who also wants the best for his family but has to struggle daily against his own body to keep going for another day. Will somebody see my name on an ancestry list hundreds of years from now and wonder what my life was like, much as I've done with the names I've encountered? Like good old Hezekiah Rush, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, christened in 1685 in jolly old England, or Keziah Wetherbee, my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who possesses one of the greatest names I've ever heard? 

I should state that I'm well aware of the limitations of FamilySearch. It's a free site, and you get what you pay for. The ancestral connections are probably not vetted as well as they might be on other sites with premium plans. But if you just want to get a good general sense of your family background, FamilySearch isn't such a bad place to start. The Mormons have done an exemplary job in creating a wonderfully collaborative site and helping people preserve family histories and discover new connections. But before I run off and apply for membership in The Mayflower Society, I'm probably going to dig a little deeper so I can verify the links that other people have created on FamilySearch. I'm a trust-but-verify kind of guy that way. 

In any event, I trust that most of the information on FamilySearch is generally right. There might be an ancestor attached to the wrong person on a family tree here or there, or someone for whom very little documentation even exists. But I think the site probably gets the general pattern of things right. In my case, if I were related to one or two U.S. presidents, I'd probably take the connections with a grain of salt and wonder if somebody got something wrong. But when I end up related to 42 of them? Well, they can't all be wrong, and the pattern suggests that there must be something fairly reliable about all these ancestral connections that keep pointing to the same places. In my case, the vast majority of my presidential connections come through a couple of lineages on my dad's side -- which is also the side that takes me all the way back to Myles Standish and the Mayflower crew. So yeah, it just seems that I've tapped into a rich ancestral vein over there. 

For fun, I'm going to list my presidential links here, as well as those to the First Ladies where they exist. Some of these were hard to sort out, because FamilySearch will give you two different points of relationship reference if one person who's a distant cousin happens to have married one of your other distant cousins -- which, as it turns out, happens quite a lot. That's not as skeevy as it sounds when you think about just how genetically distant you are even from, say, a third cousin. Heck, you might not even have been aware you were related at all, until you start looking through family trees or you do one of those spit tests to analyze your DNA. And then you'd find that you share only 3.125% of your DNA with that third cousin. 

Also keep in mind that in the Old Days, most people never traveled more than a few miles from where they were born and raised. Which means they grew up around a lot of cousins. Which means that cousins got married to cousins. It happened. Same for the old royal bloodlines, where there's a lot of interfamilial inbreeding by choice, to keep the lines pure and unsullied.

Anyway, on with the presidential list. Hail to the chief, and all that.

1. George Washington: my fifth cousin nine times removed, on my dad's side.

Martha Washington: my third cousin 10 times removed, on my mom's side.

2. John Adams: my sixth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

Abigail Adams: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

3. Thomas Jefferson: my seventh cousin 10 times removed, on my dad's side.

Martha Jefferson: my third cousin nine times removed on my dad's side.

4. James Madison: my sixth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

Dolley Madison: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my mom's side.

5. James Monroe: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my mom's side.

Elizabeth Monroe: my sixth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

6. John Quincy Adams: my fifth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side.

No apparent relation to Louisa Adams.

7. Andrew Jackson: my first cousin (!) eight times removed, on my dad's side.

No apparent relation to Rachel Jackson.

8. Martin Van Buren: No apparent relation to him or his wife, Hannah Van Buren. But -- and this is where things get interesting -- three of his children married my cousins, thus making Martin Van Buren's grandchildren my blood relatives. Specifically, his grandkids from these three of his children are my ninth cousins four times removed, seventh cousins six times removed, and 10th cousins four times removed. 

9. William Henry Harrison: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

Anna Harrison: my seventh cousin seven times removed on my dad's side.

10. John Tyler: my fourth cousin seven times removed, on my mom's side.

Letitia Tyler: my fifth cousin eight times removed, on my mom's side.

Julia Tyler, his second wife, is my eighth cousin five times removed, on my mom's side.

11. James K. Polk: my fifth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

No apparent relation to Sarah Polk, although some of her siblings did marry my cousins.

12. Zachary Taylor: my fourth cousin nine times removed, on my dad's side.

Margaret Taylor: my fifth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

13. Millard Fillmore: my sixth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Abigail Fillmore: my sixth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side.

14. Franklin Pierce: my seventh cousin six times removed, on my mom's side.

Jane Pierce: my fifth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side.

15. James Buchanan: no apparent relation, and since he was a bachelor, there's no way to connect him through a spouse. However, three of his sisters married my cousins (two on my dad's side and one on my mom's), making James Buchanan's nieces and nephews through these lines my blood relatives. They are my fifth cousins eight times removed, eighth cousins four times removed, and seventh cousins six times removed.

16. Abraham Lincoln: my seventh cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

Mary Todd Lincoln: my ninth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

17. Andrew Johnson: my ninth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Eliza Johnson: my eighth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

18. Ulysses Grant: my sixth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side. 

Julia Grant: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

19. Rutherford Hayes: my eighth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Lucy Hayes: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

20. James Garfield: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Lucretia Garfield: my sixth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side. 

21. Chester Arthur, for whom my maternal great-grandfather was named: my eighth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side (not my mom's, alas).

Ellen Arthur: technically never a First Lady, as she died before President Arthur assumed office. Still, she is my sixth cousin five times removed, on my mom's side. 

22 (and technically 24, but let's not count the same person twice): Grover Cleveland: my 11th cousin on my dad's side.

Frances Cleveland: my sixth cousin four times removed, on my dad's side.

23. Benjamin Harrison: my sixth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

Mary Harrison: my sixth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

24. William McKinley: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my mom's side.

Ida McKinley: my 10th cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

25. Teddy Roosevelt: my eighth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Alice Roosevelt: my seventh cousin four times removed, on my dad's side.

26. William Howard Taft: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Nellie Taft: my 11th cousin once removed, on my dad's side.

27. Woodrow Wilson: my eighth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Edith Wilson: my seventh cousin four times removed, on my mom's side.

28. Warren Harding: my seventh cousin four times removed, on my mom's side.

Florence Harding: my 11th cousin once removed, on my dad's side.

29. Calvin Coolidge: my seventh cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

Grace Anna Coolidge: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

30. Herbert Hoover: my 10th cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

Lou Henry Hoover: my ninth cousin twice removed, on my dad's side. 

31. Franklin Roosevelt: my sixth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

Eleanor Roosevelt: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my mom's side.

32. Harry Truman: my eighth cousin four times removed, on my mom's side.

Bess Truman: my 10th cousin once removed on my dad's side.

33. Dwight Eisenhower: my sixth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Mamie Eisenhower: my 10th cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

34. John Kennedy: my ninth cousin four times removed, on my dad's side.

Jackie Kennedy: my 11th cousin three times removed, on my mom's side.

35.  Lyndon Johnson: my seventh cousin twice removed, on my mom's side.

Lady Bird Johnson: my seventh cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

36. Richard Nixon: my seventh cousin three times removed, on my mom's side.

No apparent relation to Pat Nixon, but her brother did marry my eighth cousin three times removed on my dad's side.

37. Gerald Ford: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

Betty Ford: my 11th cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

38. Jimmy Carter: my 12th cousin, on my dad's side. It's harder to piece together connections for people still living, because they're generally not publicly listed on the genealogy sites for privacy reasons. However, their deceased relatives are listed, and in this case I was able to see that Jimmy Carter's father, James Sr., was my 11th cousin once removed, and James Sr.'s mother, Nina Carter, was my 10th cousin twice removed. From there it's a simple matter of doing the generational math. 

Rosalynn Carter: my 10th cousin once removed, on my dad's side.

39. Ronald Reagan: my 10th cousin twice removed, on my mom's side.

Nancy Reagan: my 10th cousin once removed, on my dad's side. That makes Patti Davis and Ron Reagan either my 11th cousins or my 11th cousins once removed, depending on whether you count through Ronald or Nancy.

Although she was never a First Lady, Jane Wyman was my eighth cousin three times removed on my dad's side.

40. George Bush: my ninth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

Barbara Bush: my ninth cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

41. Bill Clinton: my seventh cousin five times removed on my dad's side, counting from Bill Clinton's dad, but also my 10th cousin once removed on my dad's side, counting from Bill Clinton's mom. Both of his parents were my cousins.

Hillary Clinton: my 14th cousin, on my dad's side, based on available information for her mother and grandmother. 

42. George W. Bush: my 10th cousin on my dad's side, twice removed through GWB's dad and once removed through GWB's mom, since they're also both my cousins.

Laura Bush: my eighth cousin twice removed, on my mom's side, based on available information for her father and grandfather. 

43. Barack Obama: my ninth cousin once removed on my dad's side. His mom, Stanley Ann Dunham, is my ninth cousin. Her mom is my eighth cousin once removed, and her mom is my seventh cousin twice removed. So I just calculated forward. 

No apparent relation to Michelle Obama.

44. Donald Trump: only the third president to whom I couldn't trace a direct lineage. But his brother, Fred Trump Jr., did marry my 10th cousin twice removed on my dad's side, Linda Lea Clapp. Her dad is listed as my ninth cousin three times removed. That means Mary Trump and Fred Trump III, The Donald's niece and nephew, are my 11th cousins once removed. 

Likewise, Marla Maples, Trump's second wife, is my seventh cousin once removed on my dad's side, based on her dad's listed relationship to me as my sixth cousin twice removed. That means Tiffany Ariana Trump, Marla Maples' daughter with DJT, is my eighth cousin.

I couldn't find any connection to Ivana or Melania Trump.

45. Joe Biden: my 11th cousin three times removed on my dad's side, based on what I could find about his parents and grandparents. 

Jill Biden: my 12th cousin once removed on my dad's side, based on what I could find about her mother's family tree.

And there you have it. It ultimately counts for nothing besides bragging rights, but it's kind of fun to see the connections and look back through the family trees. Most of the ancestors I have in common with these historical figures go back into the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and I guess I just ended up with a lucky roll of the genealogical dice that my ancestors were early settlers in New England. There's some Scottish and English nobility mixed in there as well if I dig further back, and that's also a bonus because it means better recordkeeping and preservation, as opposed to whatever spotty information may have survived, or was even written down in the first place, for children of the common folk. 

I spent a couple of nights clicking through links and taking notes to collect all the presidential information. I could go even deeper, and I probably will when I have the time. But at the outset, all I wanted to do was satisfy my curiosity once I began to see some links between me and the earliest Americans. 

It actually all started when I was trying to see if I could discover a link between me and Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. My last name is Rush, by way of being adopted by my maternal grandparents of that name, and my Great-Grandpa Rush often told us that we were related to the famous Pennsylvania physician. Well, my younger cousin (my niece by way of my adoption -- terms get weird when you're adopted within the family) did some family-tree research a few years ago and found out that our particular line of Rushes came not from England, as Dr. Benjamin Rush's did, but from Germany, where our last name was spelled Rusch. That meant a link to the doctor was unlikely. And sure enough, I've been unable to establish one.

What I did find, though, was that Dr. Rush's wife, Julia Stockton, is related to me. She's my 13th cousin -- on my dad's side, as in the not-Rush side. Well, how about that? Even funnier is that the only English Rushes I've found in my family tree -- the aforementioned Hezekiah Rush among them -- are also on my dad's not-Rush side. Crazy. 

But even though I can't claim Dr. Rush as an ancestor, my blood connection to his wife means that his children are my relatives -- my 13th cousins once removed. And that counts for something. 

And in any event, I got some decent consolation prizes for not being related to old Doctor Ben. There were many more great men at the Continental Congress in that summer of 1776 to whom I can claim a connection. In total, and if the data is accurate, I'm related to 34 of the 56 signers -- just, ironically, not the guy who shares my last name. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are, of course, two of the signers I'm related to. Then there's John Hancock, my fifth cousin eight times removed on my dad's side. And the icing on the cake for me is that I get to claim a blood connection to one of the greatest Americans of them all, Benjamin Franklin. He's my third cousin 11 times removed, also on my dad's side. His great-great-grandfather, Thomas Franklin, is my 13th great-grandfather. Learning about that connection really made my day.

As you can imagine, I kind of got obsessed with wanting to see what other connections I could make. If all these famous people were tied to me by blood, who else was? FamilySearch offered some suggestions for names I could investigate, and others I tried out on my own. And no matter which path I went down, it seemed as if every almost every person whose name I entered -- not every single one, in fairness, but definitely the vast majority -- ended up being some kind of distant relation. 

Henry David Thoreau? Yep. Fifth cousin seven times removed on my dad's side.

Walt Whitman? Eleventh cousin, dad's side.

Lewis Carroll? Eighth cousin six times removed, dad's side.

Edgar Allan Poe? Sixth cousin six times removed, mom's side.

Mark Twain? Seventh cousin five times removed, dad's side.

Herman Melville? Fifth cousin seven times removed, dad's side.

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Tenth cousin twice removed, dad's side.

You can see where my interests lie. The more literary connections I can make, the happier I am.

I dipped my toe into the music scene:

Janis Joplin: Ninth cousin once removed, dad's side.

Gordon Lightfoot: Thirteenth cousin once removed, dad's side.

How about some of my personal heroes? Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy, the dynamic duo of Catholic Worker fame, perhaps?

Dorothy Day: Eighth cousin four times removed, dad's side.

Ammon Hennacy: Tenth cousin four times removed, mom's side. 

But it didn't end there. These were some of FamilySearch's suggestions: 

Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon: Tenth cousin four times removed, mom's side.

Babe Ruth: Seventh cousin five times removed, mom's side.

Gordie Howe: Ninth cousin three times removed, dad's side. (My Red Wings fan of a wife will love this one.)

Samuel F.B. Morse: ... . ...- . -. - .... / -.-. --- ..- ... .. -. / ..-. --- ..- .-. / - .. -- . ... / .-. . -- --- ...- . -.. --..-- / -.. .- -.. .----. ... / ... .. -.. . .-.-.-

George Harrison: Tenth cousin twice removed, dad's side. A Beatle relative!

Lucille Ball: Eighth cousin three times removed, dad's side.

Elvis (are you kidding me?): Eighth cousin twice removed, dad's side.

Princess Diana: Eleventh cousin once removed, mom's side.

It went on and on. George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Johnny Cash, Norman Rockwell, Oliver Cromwell, Amelia Earhart, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Susan B. Anthony, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and many more.

And then came the absolute jaw-dropper, for me, anyway: 

Marilyn Monroe. 

Eighth cousin three times removed, dad's side.

I'll never look at her the same way again. 

At this point, I was getting seriously creeped out to so suddenly learn that I'm apparently related to all these well-known people. With some trepidation, I shifted to people who've touched my life personally. The same thing happened.

The husband and wife who built the stately 19th-century house that I grew up in on the Michigan prairie -- guess what? I'm related to both of them. Levi Beckwith Jr. is my fifth cousin seven times removed on my mom's side, and his wife, Lucy Markham, is my seventh cousin four times removed on my dad's side. Their families settled in colonial America and migrated westward, leaving a connection to me along the way. And my family eventually moved into their house, completing the circle.

And then, finally, there's the name that I entered just for fun, not really expecting to get a hit. Surely, if my best childhood friend and I were related, I would have known. You could have knocked me over with a feather when his grandma showed up on my family tree. She was our next-door neighbor when I was a kid. And yet somehow, neither one of us ever had any idea when we were growing up together that we were actually eighth cousins. I'm related to my first best friend in life through my mom's side.

At that point, I had to stop plugging in names and step away. It was all getting to be too much. Everything I thought I knew was being turned upside-down. 

I haven't talked in depth to anyone who does genealogical research, so I don't have a good sense for how common it is to find that you're related to pretty much everybody you can think of. Maybe it's my colonial ancestry that gives me such an abundance of connections. But even going back before that time, into the mists of history, I was unearthing royal lineages in places as far-flung as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Supposedly, I even descend from the Merovingian line, through King Clovis I himself. But I definitely need to do far more in-depth research before I'll believe that. Even the smallest error that could creep in after 1,500 years of recordkeeping could derail the entire connection. 

Still, the point remains that finding all these significant connections felt overwhelming to me. I don't really know what to do with the information. 

Granted, the further you travel back in time, the greater chance you have of discovering even a tenuous connection to somebody. Go back far enough, and we're all related. I recently read with interest an article making the case that within a given ethnic group, everybody is likely to be no more distant than a 15th cousin, and that the majority of humans are at most 50th cousins to each other. So if I don't appear to be related to Dr. Benjamin Rush, it's probably only because FamilySearch stops calculating lineages for you at the 15th generation. If I dug in and researched the old-fashioned way -- by tracking down physical documents in obscure dusty archives and the like -- chances are I'd eventually find some kind of connection. 

When you look at it that way, all these "famous" connections start to feel a lot less special. The relationships are ultimately inevitable. It just becomes a question of tracking down the missing puzzle pieces and then finding where they fit. 

Still, it is kind of neat, in a bragging-rights kind of way, to find a connection to you that is, in a big-picture sense, still pretty intimate and fairly unlikely. Marilyn Monroe and I, as eighth cousins, share a common grandparent out of a pool of just 512 human beings. That's not a whole lot in the grand scheme. 

On the other hand, I only make a big deal out of my connection to her because I've always found Marilyn to be one of the most beautiful creatures to ever walk the face of the earth. Gerald Ford is also my eighth cousin three times removed, just like Marilyn, and while that's interesting to me, I have to admit that I don't really care that I'm related to a clumsy guy with a receding hairline who only became president because his boss and the guy he replaced were crooks.

Then there's Joanne Emerson. Born in 1923, and at some point in her life lived in Nebraska. That's all I know about her, and it's probably all I ever will know. Chances are she was never known outside of the same circle of close friends and relatives that we all have as we journey through life. I just happened to find her by following a random branch on my FamilySearch tree. She's also my eighth cousin three times removed. I could have followed a different branch and found a completely different person to make the same point. 

And the point is that Marilyn Monroe, Gerald Ford, and Joanne Emerson from Nebraska are all my eighth cousins three times removed. They're all people of equal relation to me. So why don't I assign equal importance to them in my personal headspace? Because in the end, it's all subjective. It just boils down to what things you choose to care about and give your attention to. And besides, it's not like having famous relatives is something you chose. You just happen to have some people on your family tree that did stuff that people outside of your family tree know about. That's it. Sure, it's kind of fun to go around saying, "Hey, I'm related to so-and-so," but being proud of your blood connections, as if it somehow makes you a better person, is kind of like being proud of your ethnicity. It's something you have no control over. You never had any say in the matter. It's just the way things shook out.   

I guess if I take something constructive away from all these fascinating discoveries, it's that it really is a small world when you get down to it. When two people in medieval England decided to have a baby, it may not have seemed significant at the time to anyone but them and their immediate family. But the web of Wyrd (remember we talked about that?) reminds us that the smallest ripple in one place affects everything else in the web, even if we can barely perceive it at the moment. Every action we take, every choice we make, sends the web in a new direction, until even more cumulative effects send it vibrating toward yet another destination. And when that English couple had a baby 500 years ago, they set a ripple in motion that resulted in me. If any of their descendants in between them and me had made a different life choice, I wouldn't be here writing this. 

That's extremely humbling to me, and it fills me with gratitude -- because even though my life is pretty hard some days, I'm still grateful that I'm here and I get to experience life for a brief flash of 60 or 70 or 80 years on this planet, before I have to say goodbye and leave my name behind for some future genealogically minded descendant to discover.  

I can only hope that person will look at my name with as much wonder and curiosity as I did when I found Keziah Wetherbee and wondered what she was like. Hopefully we can leave behind good stories that our descendants can attach to those names. 

That's our true legacy. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Conclusion: The Road Goes Ever On

Photo by Tobias Stonjeck on Unsplash.

And so we come to the end of this 50,000-word experiment. I've spent the past couple of weeks talking about my interest in paganism, and why Anglo-Saxon paganism in particular holds an appeal for me. Today I'd like to wrap up with my observations and where I see this path going for me.

Anyone who's ever read this blog knows that religion and spirituality are a never-ending source of fascination for me. But I'm not in it for the dogma, or for some carrot-and-stick system of rewards and punishments. I'm in it because I think religious belief reveals a lot about who we are as a species. Because we're aware of our own mortality, we're forced to think about our place in the cosmos and what, if anything, happens to us when we die. And because we're aware of the fact that we can't just live by instinct like the animals, our societal groupings have had to forge agreed-upon codes for ethical and moral behavior. Those codes have, throughout human history, often taken the form of some kind of religious edict. That's not to say that people without religion can't be moral and ethical, only that the idea of a deity who hands down commandments has often gone hand in hand with human behavior. 

What religion should do is humble you, smooth out your rough edges, make you kinder and more patient and more tolerant. Far too often it's used as a bludgeon against people who disagree with another people's religious system. That's not as it ought to be, and that's the kind of religion I hope we can move beyond one of these days. 

Because I like the way religion helps shape my philosophical ideas about life, the universe, and everything, and because I think belief has helped me persevere through some difficult times, I choose to stick with a spiritual practice. But for most of my adult life, I've been bouncing around from idea to idea to try to find a home. There are things I can't shake about the Catholicism I was born into, yet there are lots of things I admire about Taoism and Buddhism too. And that's not to mention my abiding interest in the Sacred Feminine and my focus on the needs of both the planet and the people who inhabit it. It's that latter part, my need for a spiritual here-and-now immanence, that has had me leaning toward nature-based traditions in recent years. Christianity has its head in the clouds; it's so obsessed with sin and death and the afterlife that it ignores what needs to be done here on Earth from moment to moment. The Sermon on the Mount would have us focus on doing good to help those in need, and that's why I find those three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew to be pretty much all I need from the teachings of the New Testament. The rest of it is just commentary, some of it not so great. (Hello, Paul.)

And the more I got thinking about what I wanted my individual path to look like, the more I thought that maybe I needed to look into something that upholds the immediacy and practicality of paganism but feels somehow more relevant to me than I've been able to find so far. My meditation area is a mishmash of traditional religious symbols and pagan imagery, but I've always had a hard time thinking of any of it as my own. 

That's where pagan reconstructionism comes into play. Not only can I explore a path that's somewhat relevant to me, a guy with at least some Anglo-Saxon ancestry, but I can also put my love of studying and analyzing things to work -- because this is, as I've said, a religion with homework, There's no sacred text to fall back on. We mostly have to figure things out on our own, because all we have are best guesses about how our ancestors worshiped, along with some bits and pieces that have survived to the present day. We actually know more about the everyday values that were important to them, and in turn we can make educated suppositions about how those values would have informed their religion. 

One very important thing we know is that the Anglo-Saxon gods weren't soft and light. This isn't "fluffy bunny" paganism by any stretch. These are the gods of Vikings, of rough people who believed in fate and whose driving goals in life were to protect the community from both animal and human invaders, to see to the needs of friends and family, and to make sure everything possible was done to ensure that the tribe could survive the long, harsh winters. And if Wyrd did have your number, at least you could go down fighting, knowing you did all you could to protect your loved ones and maybe leaving an inspiring legend behind for others to aspire to when times get tough and they might feel like giving in. 

As I write this, I'm running on virtually no sleep. Some nights I can get a little light dozing in, but other nights my brain just never shuts off. This is in addition to all my other health woes, from blurry vision and dizziness to digestive troubles, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes. My body has taken a beating and continues to do so. I take care of myself the best I can as I get older, but for someone who's always been overly anxious and has pretty much no emotional support outside of my wife and kid, it's a struggle some days. To top it off, I'm the only provider for my family, and because I contract for a living, there's never any guarantee that I'm going to be able to fill out a 40-hour week. There's a lot of pressure on my shoulders. There'd be a lot even if I felt well. But I have no choice but to grit my teeth and push forward. I may not be a warrior in the Viking sense, but I feel like I've had to become a warrior to fight against my own body and push through for another day. 

And that's why I think I relate so much to the ancient Northern European tribes for whom life was quite often a day-to-day struggle. I don't necessarily want to honor deities who take joy in kicking my ass like a drill sergeant, but I do want ones who understand the value of perseverance and battle, whether that battle is with weapons or an internal struggle. And for that, I need deities who live here with us on the Earth, who can relate to our struggles, who will even help us push through those struggles. The last thing I need is some distant cosmic dictator who never shows up yet demands I do everything his way or else he's going to barbecue me for all eternity. Sorry, but there's no good news in that story, and certainly no divine love.  

And yet the story behind that God, the God of the ancient Hebrews, is an inextricable part of who I am. I still do enjoy the rituals and traditions of Latin Catholicism, even if the dogma means nothing to me. And I admire the church's centuries-long pursuit of the Platonic ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty as concepts to shape our personal and spiritual lives around. So what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, as I was writing these posts and doing my research, I kept bumping into the works of Tolkien. Granted, as one of my favorite authors, he's never far from my mind, and to top it off, our family's annual Thanksgiving weekend Lord of the Rings movie-watching tradition is just around the corner. But when you throw yourself into the study of Anglo-Saxon culture and mythology, you quickly find how deeply intertwined it all is with Tolkien's vision. Here was a devout Catholic with a pagan spirit, someone who invented both talking trees and a Mary figure in Galadriel, who insisted that the Lord of the Rings series was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" yet didn't put a whiff of Christian preachiness into his stories. He created timeless tales that speak to those fundamental values of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, but he frames them within a world that reaches back to the days of pagan myths, when the world was enchanted with elves and dwarves and magic, and where people struggle and fight like the Anglo-Saxons of old, even when all hope seems lost. All those things make me love his stories. 

And considering that Tolkien lamented the lack of a mythology for England, and that his life's work essentially created just that, I don't think it's inappropriate to create for myself a spiritual-philosophical system that integrates the myths (or at least what we can know of them) of the Anglo-Saxon peoples with Tolkien's mythological universe that essentially helps us fill in the blanks and flesh out what it means to live a life inspired by his stories within an Anglo-Saxon framework. 

That's not to say I intend to take any of his works as literal religious revelations. I simply think they provide enough material for anyone to take inspiration from and shape their values around. As far as I'm concerned, this is no different from what religious texts do anyway. People may claim that the Bible and the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita contain "real" truths about the world, but are they really any different from The Silmarillion, with its origin stories and world-building and great tales of heroism? To me, they all serve the same purpose, using the power of myth to point us toward deeper truths. And since they function the same, and since I love Tolkien, I'll go with The Silmarillion when I need spiritual inspiration, thank you very much.

The actual "worship" part of my system will still focus on the Anglo-Saxon gods; the Tolkienish stuff will just be there to frame those gods in an appropriate context. 

So, which gods? There are quite a few to pick from, and I listed a bunch of them a while back. I'm inspired by Woden's unquenchable thirst for wisdom, but not so much for his reputation as a reckless warrior who'll just as quickly betray you as conscript you to fight in his spiritual battles. So I think he's out. I have enough on my plate anyway.

But then there's Sunne, the sun goddess. I've always been drawn to the feminine, and a lot of the world's pagan traditions give the sun a masculine deity. I love that the Germanic paths reverse that idea and put the life-giving feminine in the position of providing warmth and vitality. So she's up there near the top of my list, along with Eorðe, Mother Earth, her Gaea-like companion who gives us a home.

Frige would seem to play a small part in Anglo-Saxon myth, aside from giving us the name for Friday, but the fact that she's also associated with spinning and fate means that she's closely associated with the Wyrde sisters who were a large part of the attraction for me to the Anglo-Saxon path in the first place. Living your life from the perspective that you're largely at the mercy of three mysterious women who spin, measure out, and cut the thread of your existence is a pretty humbling way to frame things, but for me it also reminds me that I need to not try to control things that are beyond my ability to fix in the first place. When your number's up, it's up, so you'd better make the most of whatever time you've been allotted. 

Then there's the one that might seem like a peculiar choice: Seaxneat, the national god of the Saxon people. I have a few reasons for selecting him. First is that he's a deity unique to Anglo-Saxon mythology. Most of the others have counterparts in the Eddas of Norse myth -- and if those are the only ones you follow, you might as well make life easier on yourself and just orient your pagan life around the Scandinavian legends for which we have far more source material to work with. If you're going to go the Anglo-Saxon path, it makes sense to me to make one of its exclusive deities a part of your practice. In fairness, there has been some speculation over the years that Seaxneat could be either Tiw, Ing, or Freyr under another name, but I'm going to choose to see him as a different deity from those.

Second is that I felt I needed a male counterbalance to the female deities I was feeling drawn to. I'm always attracted to the goddesses in my pagan studies and end up focusing on them to the exclusion of any male deities. But that's not good for one's yin-yang balance.

Third is that I think he holds an underappreciated place in the mix of Anglo-Saxon deities. Where six of the seven ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms placed Woden at the top of their pantheon, for the kingdom of Sussex it was Seaxneat. We don't know why one of the kingdoms chose differently, but we can assume it's because they found him crucial to their way of life. And what was it that made him so supremely important? His name might give us a clue, as "Seaxneat" probably means "sword-companion." This was a god who inspired warriors to take up arms to protect their way of life. He wasn't messing around. 

Tied to that idea is my fourth point, which is that I find inspiration in the symbolism of the sword. When I was studying Shingon Buddhism, I was always attracted to Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful deity whom I likened to a Buddhist gargoyle. Sitting in front of a roaring flame and wearing a fearsome expression, he held a rope in one hand and a sword in the other, the former to bind our violent emotions and the latter to cut through our ignorant delusions. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was some kind of demon. But it was just the opposite: He was doing the work of the Buddha by frightening away the very things that would hinder us on the path to enlightenment. 

Likewise, I think of the sword of Seaxneat not as the tool of a warrior, even though that's obviously one way to look at it, but as a symbol of cutting through the obstacles in our life so we can bravely keep pushing forward toward victory. For me, that means doing battle against my failing body, pressing on when I feel like giving up, and pushing through the dark places for the sake of those who count on me. Somehow, I don't think Seaxneat would object to such an interpretation. Whether you're doing physical or mental battle, you still need a warrior's mentality to keep going.

Reverence for the ancestors becomes important on this path as well, and I know that's something that's going to push and challenge me, because I have a complicated relationship with my immediate family. Most of them won't talk to me, and most of the rest I have no interest in talking to. And I know I'm not the only one who struggles with difficult family dynamics. One thing I've already done to try to find some peace with things, and at least try to thank the people who gave me life, is to print out their pictures and put them on my still-coming-together Anglo-Saxon pagan altar. It's a small gesture that doesn't cost me anything and may loosen some of those hard feelings I've been holding on to. Another thing that's helped is delving into my family genealogy and imagining what life might have been like for the people I've been discovering far back on the family tree. No doubt some were brave and mighty, while others struggled to do the right thing, and yet others just wanted to push through the day-to-day the best they could. If the website I'm working with can be trusted, I apparently have some Danish, Norwegian, and French royalty in my past -- and that in itself kind of makes me feel good about my heritage. It also inspires me to want to do my best so that if they were here today, they'd think me a worthy descendant. Whatever it takes to motivate us, right? 
Now, what to call this Tolkien-meets-Anglo-Saxon-paganism system of mine? I didn't just want to take on somebody else's ready-made name for similar ways of doing spirituality, like Fyrnsidu or Aldsisu or Asatru, because I don't want to feel like I'm imitating someone else. I want this to be my own thing that I can lean into and make my own rules as I see fit. 

After doing some research, I discovered that the -sidu ending on the Old English words Fyrnsidu and Aldsidu signifies a custom or a habit, a cultural aspect of a given society. But then there's also the word weg, which generally refers to a physical road or path but can also be used in a more metaphorical sense, kind of like how the word "Tao" literally means "path" or "way" but refers as much to how the universe works as it does to taking a pathway through life that emulates its natural, effortless flow. I imagined that if Taoism had been known to the Anglo-Saxons, they probably would have called it Weg, or The Way. And I think that the metaphorical weg gets at what I want to do more than the -sidu that to me suggests going beyond the spiritual practices and into re-enactment, which for me gets a little bit off track from where I want to place my focus.

Thus... Middangeardweg.

Looks like a mouthful, right? Well, we've already discussed the meaning of weg. The rest, middangeard, is the Old English term that ignited Tolkien's imagination when he encountered it. Literally translated, it means "middle yard," and it's sort of spoken that way: MID-an-(g)yard, with just a slight pronunciation of the "g." It refers to the place of humans in the mythological space of the nine worlds of Norse myth: We are in Midgard, surrounded by the realms of the gods, elves, dwarves, and the underworld. We inhabit the centerpoint of these worlds, the middle. Thus, in a deeper sense, middangeard really means the Earth in the middle of it all, or... Middle-earth. To Tolkien, this was more than mythology. It was for him the perfect description of the real world that would be the canvas for the world in his fertile mind.

So Middangeard is "the way(s) of Middle-earth," both spiritual and mythological. It's something that looks to fantasy to help us build an Earth-centric spiritual philosophy, one in which we can be inspired by the brave exploits of Tolkienesque and pagan lore alike. And for someone like me, with a religious background similar to Tolkien's, if I choose to read Catholic values into the stories or to pursue those timeless transcendentals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty in search of a better world, well, I'm not going to stress about it. In some ways, I see Tolkien's world as a place where the old pagan ways and the Christian ways that supplanted them found a way to live in harmony with each other. A place where you can sit in front of your pagan altar and make offerings to Seaxneat, but if you get an itch to go to the Latin Mass that Tolkien loved so dearly, well, you should go right ahead and do that.

Middangeardweg. A place where the old gods are welcomed, where elves can roam freely and trees can talk to us, and we can be inspired by timeless values that don't limit themselves to one particular path. 

I mentioned earlier on in this series that I'd probably be burned out on this whole idea by the end. I'm not, and I take that as a good sign. I encourage everyone to find a path that suits them, whether it's a path that anyone else follows or not. Do what works best for you. I think this may just work best for me.

At least I'm excited to find out.

[WC: 3,393 / TWC: 52,654]

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 14: Smaller and Simpler

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

A few days ago, as I was in the midst of working my way through this 50,000-word series, I came across a compelling article from Bari Weiss. If you're unfamiliar, Weiss was a writer for The New York Times who made a splash when she made public her resignation letter from the newspaper. In it, she cited the growing groupthink within the newsroom and what she said amounted to bullying of people like her who did what a journalist was actually supposed to do -- push back against narratives and question everything. That this most basic job of a journalist is now frowned upon in one of the biggest newspapers in the world would be a frightening development, were it not for the fact that it's par for the course these days in America -- and really, in the Western world overall. 

Weiss' recent article, which she wrote for her Substack newsletter service called, appropriately, The Free Press, detailed how she was writing about this emerging ideology back when she was in college 20 years ago. She saw the dangers posed by its rigidity and its hostility toward rational thought and free expression, but others assured her that colleges are always incubators for radical ideas and that the things she saw weren't likely to move off campus and into the real world.

I'm 13 years Weiss' senior, and I witnessed the very early stages of what she observed back when I was in college in the 1990s. Back then, people called it "political correctness." It mostly took the form of campus speech codes, along with reminders to "watch what you say." Some people laughed it off and insisted it was innocuous, but I didn't. I was the kid who read 1984 and Brave New World and Animal Farm when I was in high school. I knew where this kind of thinking led. 

Here in the 2020s, we're all living with the results of what people suggested that Weiss and I ignore. It metastasized and crept off campus and wormed its way into every major institution. Quoting Weiss:

What I saw was a worldview that replaced basic ideas of good and evil with a new rubric: the powerless (good) and the powerful (bad). It replaced lots of things. Color blindness with race obsession. Ideas with identity. Debate with denunciation. Persuasion with public shaming. The rule of law with the fury of the mob.  

People were to be given authority in this new order not in recognition of their gifts, hard work, accomplishments, or contributions to society, but in inverse proportion to the disadvantages their group had suffered, as defined by radical ideologues. 


Over the past two decades I saw this inverted worldview swallow all of the crucial sense-making institutions of American life. It started with the universities. Then it moved on to cultural institutions — including some I knew well, like The New York Times — as well as every major museumphilanthropy, and media company. Then on to our medical schools and our law schools. It’s taken root at nearly every major corporation. It’s inside our high schools and even our elementary schools. The takeover is so comprehensive that it’s now almost hard to notice it — because it is everywhere. 

Many of us call it wokeness, which is kind of a goofy term, but I stick with it in part because it seems to deeply irritate the very people it's aimed at, which tells you a lot about them and their motivations. Call them "woke," and they'll immediately do one of two things: They'll insist that "woke" just means standing up for the oppressed, or they'll say you can't even define what "wokeness" is. Both responses are gaslighting tools meant to get you to stop seeing right through their charade. They hide behind seemingly innocent slogans like "Be Kind" and use minority groups for cover, such that any criticism of what they try to push on society -- and you -- must surely be the uninformed rantings of a privileged right-wing heteronormative white supremacist.

So, you know, if you see people dividing humanity up by immutable characteristics and giving certain groups advantages based on those characteristics, hurtling us right back to the pre-Civil Rights days of racial discrimination, only now flipped on its head so that straight white males need to sit at the back of the bus, and you dare to call out what a bad idea this is, that the way to address past wrongs is not to repeat them in reverse, you're the one who's called a regressive knuckle-dragging bigot.

And perish the thought if you point out that people can't change their sex, that "woman" is not a costume, that pronouns are not a fashion statement, and that we shouldn't be letting men colonize women's spaces and winning their awards -- not to mention that it's downright criminal to encourage children to undergo life-alterting surgeries and treatments when they're far too young to understand the ramifications of their choices. If we believe that kids are too young to drive, vote, smoke, drink, or enter into legally binding contracts, then what on God's green earth would make anyone think they have the maturity of mind to permanently change their bodies? 

Weiss' objection to wokeness comes from her perspective as a Jewish woman. Now, I'm no fan of the Israeli government and never have been, but anti-Zionist doesn't automatically mean anti-Jewish, and given how the denunciations of Israel's leaders are spilling over into hostility toward the Jewish people themselves, I can appreciate her concern. As Weiss has discovered, just being a member of a minority group doesn't automatically give you Woke Points. Ask any Asian American, a group that's discriminated against almost as much as white people are because of their consistent academic and professional success. The woke high priests turn to them and implicitly ask, as Weiss puts it, "Who did you steal that success from?" As if one group's success had to come at the expense of another in some kind of zero-sum game. And the solution wokeness offers to the problem is not to try to lift everyone up so that more can succeed, but to dumb everyone down so that no one has to even try to do better. In Weiss' words, wokeness "claims to promote 'equity,' but its answer to the challenge of teaching math or reading to disadvantaged children is to eliminate math and reading tests. It demonizes hard work, merit, family, and the dignity of the individual."

She's not wrong. That's exactly what's happening. 

And you can't even raise an objection to all of this, because if you want to advance in your career, at some point you're probably going to be required to kneel to the dogma of "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion," which is essentially just a cover for divisive, irrational, institutionalized discrimination that silences anyone who disagrees with the agenda a little too loudly. I prefer to call it DIE over DEI, because it's no exaggeration to say that this kind of thinking could very well kill off Western civilization, and the actual pluralistic values it's built on.

It's impossible not to see that wokeness is essentially a religion, one that's filling the vacuum left behind by the decline in traditional religion. It gives people in-groups and out-groups, It sees the world in simplistic black and white caricatures of saints and devils. It appeals to irrationalism and emotionalism. It has its sacred slogans ("black lives matter"; "transwomen are women") and its holy symbols (the pride flag). It even has its own original sin, which is being born white. Whites are born racists, every single one, but it's impossible for minority groups to be racist against whites. That's the dogma, and it can't be questioned. As Weiss puts it, this is "an ideological movement bent on recategorizing every American not as an individual, but as an avatar of an identity group, his or her behavior prejudged accordingly."
Western civilization simply can't survive if this kind of ideology is allowed to control the conversation and set the terms. And right now, wokeness holds all the cards. 

For a long time, I was of the mind that one way to fight back against the madness would be to ally with religious traditionalists -- in my case, traditionalist Catholics -- who understood the core values of our civilization, inasmuch as the history of Christianity and the history of Western civilization go hand in hand. 

But I'm not so sure anymore, in large part because I can't help seeing that wokeness and Christianity are just two pernicious mind viruses fighting against each other. The impulse that gave rise to one gave rise to the other. And it has to be said that part of the reason wokeness exists in the first place is that Christian society has failed so many times throughout history to live up to its own challenge to love our neighbors, turn the other cheek, and do unto others. Maybe human nature made those failures inevitable. After all, there's a reason so many evangelicals say that Jesus never meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. According to them, he knew he was asking too much of fallible human beings, so the whole point of the Sermon was that we needed him to save us because we couldn't possibly live up to its impossible standards on our own. Seems like a massive copout, but history suggests that maybe the evangelicals were right, at least to the extent that we as a species seem incapable of rising above our primitive tribal instincts and hating each other. 

Now, with that said, I am all for the Catholic philosophy of distributism, which argues in favor of small, locally based communities and strong antitrust legislation, as opposed to large nation-states dictating policy from the top down across massive swaths of geography, where the only thing really uniting people is often a flag and a shared mythology. People in rural Idaho have nothing in common with politicians in a federal district that lies more than 2,000 miles away. Why shouldn't the people on the ground take care of things at a more local level? They know better than some distant politicians what people need in so-called flyover country. And of course, all of this applies just as much to massive multinational corporations that control our lives and often carry out policy on behalf of that distant, remote government. 

Globalism won't fix what ails us, because globalism, like wokeism, sees us as all the same, with the same needs and the same problems. But the same can be said for large nation-states. Maybe it's just time for the way we do things to come to an end. Maybe Western civilization isn't worth saving. Maybe it's OK to just let it burn down, so we can start over and try something new. Wokeness has so deeply infiltrated every institution of power that I'm not so sure we could even fix things if we tried. After all, even Western civilization has its Wyrd. All things must pass. Perhaps this is simply its time.

And by "trying something new," I suggest we look to our past. A distant past, where families, friends, neighborhoods, and local and regional communities rallied around each other, looked after each other, made sure everyone's needs were met. Maybe we need the localism that the distributists envision for us. 

But it doesn't need to be done in an explicitly Catholic way. If a distributist society can be built that way, then fine. The end result is what matters. But perhaps it wouldn't hurt us to look back into our distant past, before Rome institutionalized Christianity and turned it into a dominating, crusading, controlling tool of power. A time before the kind of nationalism we know today, where people who often have little in common and thrown together and given a name based on some artificial political border. 

A time, perhaps, like the age of the pagan tribes. 

If Germanic paganism teaches us anything, it's the power of living by values that uphold families and towns and all things local -- living in a way that teaches people that things like honor, bravery, hospitality, and perseverance are worth shaping your life around, with all that entails for looking after your local community and promoting what's best for them and for your own family. 

But what's the significance of the pagan part? Well, one thing Christianity has done is detached us from an intimate connection to the world we live in. Its God is distant, aloof, not here with his own creation, and the most important thing to so many believers is to go off and live with him in some distant heavenly realm -- ignoring the needs of this world in the process. In contrast, the pagan ways -- at least the reconstructionist paths in general, and the Germanic ones in particular -- don't spend so much time speculating on what may or may not lie beyond this existence. Our ancestors had to tend to their immediate needs to survive. They were a pragmatic people. And that shows in the way they thought of their gods. The deities were here, living on Earth with us, and as such people looked to them as intimate partners and fellow travelers who understood what it was like to live in this world, with all its daily trials and tribulations. With the help of the gods who understood, our ancestors would grit their teeth. push thought their challenges, and get things done. 

Just think about our pressing environmental concerns as one example. If you're so focused on going to heaven and you think everything's going to end in Armageddon anyway, why would you care about the fate of the planet? Likewise, how are global solutions ever going to fix problems at a local or regional level? You can't fix every problem with the same tool, especially if your tool is the heavy hand of external control. But if you create communities where people rely on the good health of the local air, water, and soil to feed their families and see their friends and neighbors thrive, you can create positive change from the bottom up -- all the more so if these local communities believe that to care for the earth is to care for the gods, including Mother Earth herself. 

There's a reason the hippies encouraged us all to think globally act locally. It all starts at the local level. That's the solution, not globalist control over everyone's lives, with 15-minute cities and all the rest. Those are ideas that come from people more interested in power over your life than they are with saving the planet. They'll demand we give up our way of life but most assuredly won't do the same. 

No. The solution is local, with all that entails -- including the ability to see divinity in the ground under our feet. If we're destined to be a tribal species, then we might as well do something practical and useful with that impulse. What better way than to lift up local neighborhoods and communities, with your gods and goddesses by your side, honoring our Mother Earth by honoring those who gave it to us and want us to protect it?

Bring back nature. Bring back family and community and sustainable values. 

Bring back the pagans.  

Next time, my final thoughts.

[WC: 2,577 / TWC: 49,261]

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 13: Let's Get Wyrd

Ludwig Pietsch, Nornir, 1865. Public domain.

Today I'm finally going to get to the heart of the matter. Although I find Anglo-Saxon paganism interesting for all the reasons I've outlined in this 50,000-word series, this is the thing that really grabbed my attention. And I think it did so because it cultivates an outlook on life that might better equip me to deal with the ongoing challenges of how I feel physically from day to day. 

First, a word about Shakespeare. 

What does Shakespeare have to do with Anglo-Saxon paganism? Well, he connects us to those ancient times through his use of the three sisters in Macbeth. As you might recall from your high school literature class, the sisters were three witches, portending doom for the play's title character and eventually leading him to his demise. You might also remember that they're often referred to collectively as the Weird Sisters. 

Now that doesn't just mean that they were kind of eerie or odd or mysterious, which is what we associate with the word "weird" today. But the word didn't always mean that. "Weirding," as the present participle of "weird," is a term you don't hear a lot, but it's generally associated with the magical acts of witches from times past. Sci-fi fans may be familiar with "The Weirding Way" in Frank Herbert's Dune, in reference to the witchy Bene Gesserit who exercised and taught an extreme disciplinary technique that allowed someone to move in ways that seemed to defied reality. The bottom line is that the term "weird" was once a word that suggested a kind of supernatural power. 

If we reach back even further into the history of the English language, we find that "weird" pointed more to the supernatural than it did to our modern meaning of something that's merely unusual. And what the word held in common with Shakespeare's usage involving the Three Sisters was that the older meaning with its supernatural overtones still pointed toward the power of three mysterious women. Other cultures called these women the Fates. In Norse mythology, they were the Norns. In Anglo-Saxon myth, they were the Wyrdæ, or the Wyrde. (Spellings weren't standardized back then.) And they were so named because it was their job to spin the web of Wyrd. 

So what the heck is Wyrd? Well, it's not an exaggeration to say that it's probably the most fundamental concept to all of Anglo-Saxon paganism, because it gives us a central insight into how the Anglo-Saxon people viewed the world and their place in it. Everything else flows out from their understanding of this concept.

Wyrd is cause and effect, but also more than that. It's a little bit like fate and a little bit like karma, yet neither concept perfectly captures what we're talking about here. It might help a little bit to understand where the word "Wyrd" came from. (Here we go again.) 

So wyrd comes from the Old English verb weorþan, meaning "to become," which itself derives from the Indo-European root wert-, meaning "to turn." Thus, Wyrd expresses the sense that something is becoming, or that one thing is turning into another thing. It's active. It's changing. It's a process. And it's important to understand this, because it means that Wyrd is not synonymous with fate, which by definition is both unchanging and unchangeable. The Fates of Greek and Roman mythology laid out a path for our lives that we had very little control over: Whatever they decided was going to happen to us, was going to happen to us. That's not what we're talking about with Wyrd.

Now, there's no question that the Germanic people were fatalistic in their outlook on life. If you were meant to die in battle, succumb to disease, or fail to make it through the long winter, there wasn't much you could do about it. But they still believed that you could influence the ultimate outcome of things through the actions you chose to take in every moment. And that's because, again, Wyrd is not static. It's not something set in stone. It's something that's always becoming, based on the choices you make. 

To better understand this idea, let's look at the Wyrde sisters themselves. The Norns, their counterparts in Norse myth, stood over the Well of Fate at the base of Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, and measured out the life-threads of all people. One sister spun out the thread, another measured it, and the the last one cut it. That's how your birth, life, and death are determined. In the Norse stories, the sisters' names are Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld, whose names mean, roughly translated, "fate," "happening," and "debt." We have clues from an Old English dictionary that their Anglo-Saxon names might have been Spinel, Metten, and Deaþ. Respectively, those translate to "spindle" or perhaps "the spinner"; "mete," or "the measurer," one who metes out; and, well, death. The Anglo-Saxons had a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter like that. 

And what makes the Wyrde sisters significantly different from the Fates of Greek and Roman myth -- and probably even from the Norns -- is the idea that while the Wyrde oversee the loom of our lives, we're able to control, at least to some degree, how the threads in our tapestries get weaved. The process of weaving goes on throughout our lives, which is why we say that Wyrd isn't a fate set in stone. It's a constant state of change. Every choice you make in the here and now determines what direction the next thread gets weaved in. 

But even that's not the whole story, because our tapestries don't take shape in isolation. Wyrd is far bigger than any of us. Wyrd is a web that encompasses everyone and everything. And where the tapestries of our own individual lives intersect with others, we can create effects that then spin out into those other tapestries. That is to say that our choices don't happen in isolation. Every choice we make doesn't just affect our own Wyrd; it can have ripple effects on the Wyrd of others. Everything has a butterfly effect. If I'd chosen years ago to join a monastery and shut myself off from the world -- something I actually was giving thought to at one point -- then I never would have met my wife, and we never would have had our daughter, and the three of us wouldn't be living together in Idaho. Likewise, if my wife had chosen not to read the personals ad I'd placed online, her choice would have set my life and hers on drastically different courses. In this way, others' choices also affect our Wyrd.

There's a rune-like symbol out there that appears to have been created in the 1990s. Like many things in modern paganism -- the Wheel of the Year being a prime example -- it's something that looks back to the spirit of ancient pagan traditions but remains of strictly modern provenance. This symbol has come to stand as a visual representation of Wyrd and how it works. I find it quite striking. Most commentators say that its three interlocking sets of three branches is a depiction of the interconnectedness of all things within the web of Wyrd. But to me it signifies something much deeper. I see one set of diagonal lines as representing my own past, present, and future, and the intersecting set of diagonal lines running in the opposite direction as representing the past, present, and future of other people -- mostly those with whose lives I've come into contact, but in a larger sense everyone and everything, since the web connects us all, even in cases we can scarcely perceive. Finally, there are the three lines running straight up and down behind the crisscrossing lines. These, to me, represent the persistent and unchanging Wyrde, the three sisters, whose influence over our lives is always intimately part of our own. Our fates cross over with others' fates, but it's ultimately the sisters who get the final say over all of us. 

Here's what the symbol looks like:

Pretty darned powerful, if you ask me. 

So where exactly does the "fate" part come in to all of this, if the Anglo-Saxons were such fatalistic people? Well, that's the part of your tapestry that's already been woven. That's your orlæg, which is something like your past fate, or the things that are out of your control. Everyone has an orlæg. You're born with the orlæg of being born to specific parents, in a specific place and time, with specific physical characteristics, and with certain genetic predispositions. These are the things you're stuck with, and there's nothing you can do about them. But our orlæg also encompasses the choices we and others have made along the way that have affected the tapestry of our lives up to the present moment. Like the stuff we were born with, these things are in the past and therefore can't be changed. If you got behind the wheel after too much to drink last week, and you totaled your car and broke your arm, you can't go back and get un-drunk, can't un-total your car, can't un-break your arm. What's done is done. All our actions have consequences, and they affect the directions our Wyrd can spin out in from that point forward. We still have freedom to make choices in the present, but those choices are always conditioned, and often limited, by what came before, by our orlæg. We have no choice but to work with the hand we've been dealt, and also with the circumstances along the roads of our lives that we and others have created for ourselves. 

Having studied Buddhism for many years, I see a lot of similarities between the concept of Wyrd and that of the Buddhists' idea of dependent origination, which states that nothing arises in isolation and everything that happens is to a greater or lesser extent conditioned by something else. The late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh called it "interbeing," which I think offers a clearer understanding of the concept: When we sit down to a plate of peas, for instance, we realize that the peas didn't just show up there by themselves. They required soil, moisture, and sunlight to grow. They required someone to plow a field, plant seeds, and harvest the plants, which had to be sent off for processing and canning, which required a truck driver to take them to the store, where somebody had to put the can of peas on a shelf and a cashier had to scan and it bag it when you bought it. You might say that all those steps in the life of our can of peas was an act of orlæg, leading up to the Wyrd of our choice to purchase the can and cook them up at home. And your choice to eat peas instead of, say, carrots had a small financial effect on the maker of the peas versus the maker of the carrots. It also gave your body a different nutritional input from what you would have had by consuming the carrots. In small, subtle ways, those choices will in turn affect your future options. Your Wyrd is constantly becoming your orlæg, but your orlæg never has the final word -- at least until Deaþ, the Wyrde sister, snips the thread of your life.

There's a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring that I think illustrates both concepts in a striking way. It happens when Galadriel leads Frodo into a glade at night and fills a magical basin with water. She tells him that by looking into the basin, he will be able to see "things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass." As he peers down, he does at first see a replay of recent events that suggest a growing tension within the fellowship. These are the things that are set in stone and can't be changed: his orlæg, and by extension the orlæg of his companions.

But then Frodo sees something terrifying: a future vision of the Shire in flames and the hobbits in chains. If you've read the books, you know this scene as reminiscent of the scouring of the Shire that comes into play near the end of The Return of the King. That event doesn't happen in the Peter Jackson films. Instead, it's used here in this scene to let Frodo know what will happen -- not might, but will, as Galadriel makes clear -- if his quest to destroy the One Ring should fail. Thus was Frodo's Wyrd unfolding moment by moment, and the choices he continued to make in the present would determine the ultimate fate of Middle-earth. 

But of course, this was not something Frodo could accomplish on his own. His part in the story was perhaps the most crucial of all. But if any of the other members of the fellowship had failed in any way, then their actions, their Wyrd, could have doomed Frodo's Wyrd, possibly through no fault of his own. If Boromir had taken the ring, if Gandalf couldn't have escaped his imprisonment at Isengard, if Sam had never come back after being turned away and heroically carried an exhausted Frodo the rest of the way up Mount Doom -- if any of those events out of his control had taken another turn, then it wouldn't have mattered how hard Frodo tried to set things right on his own. 

As Galadriel told Frodo: "The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fall, to the ruin of all." That just shows you how tenuous all of our lives and potential futures really are -- indeed, how fragile our Wyrd can be. The direction we send our Wyrd in, based on our present actions and how they intersect with the actions of others, can make all the difference in the world. Thus, we should always choose carefully and wisely. We can't control the choices others make, but we always have the power to make our own choices -- and those choices matter. Always. They might even end up influencing the choices others make. And that's why Galadriel adds, after her ominous warning to Frodo, that "hope remains while the company is true." We're all in this together, quite literally. No one is immune from the effects of the web of Wyrd. But we can have a say in how our Wyrd unfolds.

And yet this is not the end of the story, because we know that the Anglo-Saxons still believed that there were things about our lives that were certain to happen -- that no matter what we did, what kind of Wyrd we made for ourselves, we couldn't stop the inevitable. For an example, again we can look to the Lord of the Rings movies -- and I think it's not by accident that J.R.R. Tolkien would have worked these ideas into his tales, given his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history. 

In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf is trying to remember the way through the Mines of Moria, Frodo confides in the Wodenish old wizard that he wishes the One Ring had never ended up in his hands. Gandalf replies by letting Frodo know he understands his concern, that it is the same concern of all who have to live through such difficult times. But he also suggests that this was always the way things were going to work out, when he says that "Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case you were also meant to have it." And Gandalf adds that this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it may seem, but rather "an encouraging thought." 

Now, is Gandalf stating that the web of Wyrd made that moment inevitable, that things could not have worked out differently based on the past events that led up to the present? Perhaps. Or maybe he was just voicing a belief that our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would have held -- that it is very difficult for any of us to alter events to such a significant degree that things could have turned out any differently. Maybe a few of the details would have been different, but the end result would have been largely the same. 

I think this is merely a statement of the obvious -- that events are usually much larger than any of us, and that most of us are effectively helpless, in the grand scheme of things, to do much more than be swept along by the waves that others have created. In most things that happen to us, we're bystanders, and there's not much we can do about it. It's hard to have an influence in many, if not most, things. To cite a contemporary example, I don't want my tax dollars to fund wars overseas that ultimately only serve to prop up American empire -- but there's really not much I can do about that. I can write an editorial. I can go out and protest. I could vote for a pro-peace politician -- if one actually existed. Or I could decide to be a tax resistor. But no matter what I do, the war machine is still going to grind on. The only thing I can do is decide what my role is going to be in the bigger picture, if any at all. Or, as Gandalf put it, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." 

This is pretty much why the epic poem Beowulf flatly states: Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel: "Wyrd goes ever as it must." Or, as another Old English text pointedly puts it: þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle, wyrd byð swiðost -- "Christ is strong, but Wyrd is stronger." That's a sentiment that probably a lot of Anglo-Saxons shared as they were being converted to Christianity against their will. Wyrd, in other words, apparently decided that things were going to turn out that way, whether the pagans liked it or not. 

Now, this could also simply mean that our ancestors couldn't see the bigger context in which these things happened, which made them seem like fate. Even today, when we have such a bigger vantage point on history, science, and world events, still none of us can see the entirety of the web of Wyrd. But to ancient people living hard lives, the events leading up to a terrible battle in which you were likely to die probably felt as if the gods had fated this end for you all along. It was always out of your control. And whether the gods decreed it or events simply led up to that point really didn't matter: The almost certain doom someone faced in a given situation would have been the same either way. 

So the most you could do was to face your doom with courage, in which case you might have some slim chance of success and you could maybe change your Wyrd. Maybe your actions could inspire others to greatness, which could change their Wyrd. Even if you died, maybe your heroic exploits would serve as inspiration to those left behind. That, too, could have an effect on the Wyrd of others. But on the other hand, if you just rolled over and accepted defeat, then your fate, quite literally, was sealed. 

It should also be noted that our ancestors weren't above resorting to magic to try to influence their Wyrd, which is really not all that different from when people in our current time pray to God in their time of need. When things seemed uncertain in those ancient times, you might have turned to amulets and talismans, or spellcasting, or making offerings to the gods. Or you might turn to a soothsayer to see what your future held, so that you'd have the best chance possible of averting your fate. The bottom line is that there was a certain amount of belief back then that there was a supernatural element to your Wyrd. Likewise, if things did turn out in your favor against all odds, there would have been a strong belief either that the gods heard your prayer and spared you, or simply that luck was on your side. And again, this is an understandable viewpoint to take when you can't see the entirety of the web of Wyrd and things seem out of your control and stacked against you. A distant ripple effect that ended in your favor might as well have been a miracle.  

But the question remains: Is the end of your story really set in stone? Is it as unchangeable as your birth? Will Deaþ get out her scissors at the same predetermined time, regardless of what you do and what choices you make? Even if we're free to make choices during our lives and send the threads of our tapestries spinning in any number of directions, are we still just weaving our way to an unchangeable destination? Is it fated that I'll die on July 13, 2037, and all I'm doing is changing the scenery along the way? 

That's the part of Wyrd I struggle with. It's kind of scary. But at the same time, it's pretty humbling to think that when your number comes up, there's not a single thing you can do about it. And that just makes you want to do the most you can with the time you're given, just as Gandalf said. We're all at the mercy of the Wyrde, when you get down to it, whether we have a preset expiration day or not. Even the gods are subject to their spinning and cutting. 

And yet at the same time, I find this outlook on life and death to be a little bit inspiring. A lot of this has to do with the state of my health and my religious upbringing. I haven't felt well for most of my adult life. No one has ever been able to give me an answer why, which means I haven't been able to find a remedy, despite years and thousands of dollars' worth of tests and procedures. I know something's wrong, but since I don't seem to fit neatly into anyone's box, the root of the problem or problems goes unaddressed, and I feel more run-down and despondent the older I get.

I spent a lot of time when I was younger praying to the God I was told to believe in. I was told that if I asked, I'd receive. And yet nothing ever changed. I never felt better. I never got the miraculous healing that so many others seemed to get. It left me feeling either like I was unworthy of God's mercy or I was doing something wrong. 

But as time went on, I stopped blaming myself, because I realized that if this God was really both all-loving and all-powerful, as I was told he is, then he would have been compelled to make me better. And since he didn't, then either he wasn't actually all-loving and all-powerful, or he didn't exist. Either way, my relationship with that deity had to come to a close. And that left me free to believe that some things about my state of health are simply out of my control -- but that I also have some power to influence things from here on out. I'm not sure what that might be, but even if I just try to keep a positive frame of mind, that's something. 

And it's more than I had when I believed that there was a deity out there who knew all there was to know, past, present, and future. Because if a deity like that exists, then it negates the free will that his believers always claim we have. If this God knows how your life is going to turn out before you're even born, then you're just a puppet on a string. You never had any say in anything that goes on in your life. Free will is just an illusion. If you want to understand why the Calvinists believe what they do. that's pretty much it in a nutshell. And it's a terrible way to look at life. It leaves you no agency. It leaves you at the whims of a deity who's already decided whether he's going to listen to your prayers or not.

But looking at life through the perspective of Wyrd, I can take comfort in at least knowing that the things I do might actually have an effect that's not predetermined. Even if there are things I actually can't change -- and even that is strangely comforting in its own way, knowing that maybe things just are the way they are and that's all there is to it -- maybe I still have some say, some semblance of control. Why things have to be this way for me is something I can't answer. Karma would tell me that maybe I'm paying for something horrible I did in a past life. But that's something I can't answer, and either way, it's better just to come to terms with how things are and try to make them better, regardless of what I might have done in a previous existence. 

And who knows -- maybe I can petition these gods the way my ancestors would have, and maybe they'll be willing to lend a hand. At this point, I'll try anything. At least these gods seem far more relatable, more direct, more in the muck of the here and now along with us. And that's not something I take lightly. 

Wyrd goes ever as it must -- but maybe I can give it a little nudge along the way.

[WC: 4,314 / TWC: 46,684]