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 EorĂ°e, 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]

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