Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 9: Relevance Matters

Last time, I talked about the two primary strands of reconstructionist paganism out there these days. One is Celtic paganism, many of whose traditions are known through the popular eclectic pagan paths like Wicca. The Celtic cross-quarter festivals -- Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain -- are also well known thanks to their incorporation into the Wheel of the Year, and the Druidry movement also has its roots in Celtic, particularly Welsh, lore.

Then there are the Germanic pagan paths, sometimes known as Heathenry. The best-known group here is the one that calls itself Asatru, a religious and spiritual movement that centers itself on what we know of Norse mythology and culture. This is where you find people using a lot of Viking symbolism and honoring well-known pagan gods like Odin and Thor.

Because we've informally followed the Wheel-of-the-Year path for several years in our family, I've delved a little bit into Celtic paganism. But it's the Germanic path that I'd like to explore a little more deeply, and I'll explain why.

The first thing to know is that Heathenry isn't all about Scandinavian myth and history. Within Germanic pagan reconstructionism, Asatru will take you down that road. But there are other groups that explore different Germanic subcultures from times gone by. One group, known as Aldsidu, delves specifically into the world of the ancient Saxons. Another, known as Fyrnsidu, focuses on what we know of the spiritual mythology of the Anglo-Saxon people who invaded England and over time created their own unique culture there.

I don't know that I'm too fond of the name Fyrnsidu. It means "Old Ways" in Old English, but the word "Fyrnsidu" makes me think about ferns more than it does Anglo-Saxon history. But the things the Fyrnsidu focus on are the things I'm also interested in studying. Why? Glad you asked.

First off, I've always been fascinated by English history. England ruled the world at one time, and the people who founded the country I live in were mostly of English descent. The influence of the English runs deep, even today, and it's fascinating to me to look into the history of the peoples who came to dominate the world for such a long time. In some ways, I feel a connection to them. 

Tied up in this interest in the English and their ways is my fascination with the English language and its earliest literature. I was an English major in college and have always had an interest in the history and mechanics of the language. I could read about word etymologies all day if you'd let me. I was that weird kid who diagrammed sentences in high school for fun. That's just how I roll. I love seeing the relationships between words and how grammatical systems hold everything together and make the words work in tandem with each other. There's a reason I copyedit stuff for a living. 

And part of my love of the language is seeing how it evolves, even today. But what I really enjoy doing is looking back to the earliest days of my native tongue and seeing how it developed as a way to bind the Anglo-Saxon people together. Old English is beautiful to my ears. There's a primitive ruggedness to it that evokes the harshness of the lives of the people who spoke it. Once we get to Middle English, we can hear how the French influence following the Norman Conquest softened the language's hard edges. It's interesting to read Beowulf and then The Canterbury Tales and see just how drastically the language had changed in a few short centuries. They almost don't sound like the same language at all. And the average person who goes back to Beowulf today would be challenged to understand any of it. It might as well be a foreign language, save for the occasional glimpses of what was to come, with sounds like "what" (hwæt), "that" (þæt), and "was" (wæs) peeking through the highly Germanic framework.

And speaking of Beowulf, what an amazing old story of knights, dragons, and monsters; heroism, gallantry, and bravery. Even though it's technically not a story about an Anglo-Saxon warrior -- Beowulf himself was Scandinavian -- and even though the story was written down by scribes who had converted to Christianity, the tale still reveals a lot about what Anglo-Saxon culture was like and what values it held highest. Stories like Beowulf would have been handed down orally through families and communities and would have served as a kind of cultural glue, the exciting mythological figures in the story being used as a vehicle to convey what things that culture valued, and why the storytellers found it important to uphold and preserve those ideals. When you hear the story being read in Old English, as opposed to in a Modern English translation, you can almost hear the crackle of the fire and the chill in the air as the ancient peoples would gather around and listen to the storyteller spin the tale. 

But while Beowulf gives us an insight into the lives and ways of the Anglo-Saxons, it doesn't give us a sense of where they came from. I don't mean in a geographical sense. We know what part of the world the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from. But what were their founding myths? What bound them together in the first place? The truth is, we actually have very little idea -- possibly because most of the Anglo-Saxon people were illiterate and relied heavily on oral transmission of their stories, but also possibly because the written records, if there were any, were lost or destroyed. 

One Englishman who perceived this deficiency in Anglo-Saxon lore was J.R.R. Tolkien. In his letters, he often lamented that England lacked a substantial mythology of its own. Inspired in part by the Kalevala and the way in which that work provided a rich mythical history for the Finnish people, Tolkien set out to create his own universe that reached back through the mists of time. It has to be noted that whether he intended for his own work to be explicitly a mythology for the English remains a matter of some academic debate. In other words, his disappointment in the lack of English mythology doesn't necessarily mean that he intended for his literary works to address that gap. But regardless of his intent, the detailed and compelling history he spun out from The Silmarillion all the way through the Lord of the Rings saga ends up filling the void that existed, and I'd wager that centuries from now, that's how his labors will be remembered. 

You could argue that England already did have a mythological foundation by way of the King Arthur stories. The problem is that Arthur really has more to do with Wales, and therefore probably with Celtic myth, than it does with anything specifically English -- i.e., Anglo-Saxon -- in origin. Arthur's story is, of course, also imbued with medieval Christian overtones, and the Anglo-Saxon story predates the arrival of Christianity in the place that came to be known as England. That's the story we didn't have, and the one that Tolkien wanted to see addressed.

But whatever Tolkien's ultimate motivations for creating his mythological universe, it still invokes a deep Englishness. We know, for example, that the Shire, the setting for Tolkien's hobbits, was inspired by his love of the English countryside of his childhood. It also spoke of his fondness for a time when the English people felt more connected to the earth, before the Industrial Revolution blighted the countryside and weakened that bond. There's a reason that natural landscapes and features were such an integral part of his stories -- think of the tree-herding Ents -- and why he equated modern mechanization and industrialization with things like the evil of Isengard and the destruction of the natural world that fed its greedy fires. Tolkien loved trees. He loved the uncomplicated simplicity of a life lived in harmony with the ebb and flow of the natural world. Tolkien might have been a devout Catholic, but I think it's fair to say that he had a pagan heart.

I'm mentioning all this because I love Tolkien. He's one of my favorite authors. His Middle-earth makes me homesick for a place I've never been to. It makes me think of no place more than a kind of idealized England -- one that maybe only ever existed in myth, but then that's as it was meant to be, and for me is part of its appeal. When done well, myths should inspire us. They should make us reflect on where we came from, what really matters in life, and where we're going -- whether that means our future lives, the fate of humanity, or perhaps our destination after this life is over. For me, Tolkien masterfully does all those things. And it's in very large part because of the works he created that I want to dig back into the history of the Anglo-Saxon peoples that inspired so much of his world.

Now, of course, it's no secret that Tolkien also borrowed heavily from Norse mythology to flesh out his world. Norse myth is teeming with mythical creatures like elves and dwarves, and the name Middle-earth itself derives from Migdard, the world of humans at the center of Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life. There's also a sense of connection between humans and the Norse gods in those stories, an immanence, that just doesn't exist in Christian tales. If the presence of the gods doesn't seem overtly obvious in words like The Lord of the Rings, think of it this way: There's a reason that the very English hobbits share a story with figures like Gandalf. We might think of Gandalf as just a wise old wizard, but in truth, he's very heavily modeled on the Norse god Odin. 

Tolkien no doubt had to turn to those old Norse stories because there's so little Anglo-Saxon myth available to us. Norse myth gives us the Eddas, which are overflowing with stories about the gods and the world they oversaw. As far as Anglo-Saxon sources go, in contrast, we have Beowulf, a few other surviving Old English poems, and an eighth-century book by the Venerable Bede, a Christian monk, called The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. That's really about it, other than some breadcrumbs here and there that we find buried in other historical texts. If you want to learn about the Anglo-Saxon peoples and their myths, you really have to dig. There's a reason they say that paganism is the religion with homework.

And that's actually part of the appeal to me. I love to dig in, study things, expand my knowledge, and come to my own conclusions. I've always been drawn to esoteric traditions because you have much more latitude to explore and interpret things on your own. You're actually encouraged not to take things literally, as so many religious people do. 

One of many problems I always had with Christianity is that everything is dictated to you. You're told what you have to believe and how you have to interpret the scriptures. It's all too rigid and dogmatic. In recent years, I've taken an interest in what the characters of the Bible tell us in a symbolic and allegorical sense, much in the same way that Jung saw religious figures as archetypes that told us something about who we are as human beings -- in short, they're expressions of our hopes, fears, and desires. But you can't really access the stories that way without being called a heretic. 

Nor are you allowed to point out the obvious character development of the person of Jesus from the earliest Gospel, Mark, where he's depicted as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher and healer, to the latest, John, written a few decades later, where Jesus has been transformed into a god-man and speaks authoritatively about himself as the only route to heaven. Somebody spun a yarn, embellishing the story as time went on, and the evidence is right there for everyone to see. It's likely that Paul had a lot to do with how a Jewish rabbi was turned into a redemptive deity for all of humanity. Take the Jewish story of the awaited messiah, borrow from Mediterranean legends about dying-and-rising gods, mix it up with some Hellenistic philosophy and myth, and you've got yourself a new religion -- one that probably has very little to do with the real-life person that that wandering rabbi from Mark was based on.

When you separate faith from the nuts and bolts of the story, you end up with something that admittedly can have practical applications -- mostly in terms of leaving us an appealing ethical framework with which to navigate this life, along with figures like Sophia, who encourages us to seek discerning wisdom, and Mary, who connects us to the sacred feminine and gives us a compelling mother figure to relate to. It can also give us hope. But as a religious system? One whose tenets you're told you must accept if you want to avoid eternal damnation? Yeah, that just doesn't work for me. I don't respond well to threats. Nor do I find it particularly inspiring that a human incarnation of a deity came to rescue me from the predicament that this deity allowed to happen in the first place. So I have to be "saved" by this deity from what this deity will do to me -- i.e., throw me into a fiery put that he made -- if I don't let myself be saved? Seriously? Who thought this was a good idea to base a religion around? 

It doesn't help in the slightest that this deity falls apart in a heap of absurdities, contradictions, and logical impossibilities when you start poking at it. 

Also, I'm just going to be blunt here: What significance does a Middle Eastern myth have to my life? If Paul and his ilk hadn't transformed a Hebrew tribal storm deity into the universal God, more people would reasonably be asking this question. Now, I'm not saying that other cultures' stories can't have an influence on us. There are lots of things I find interesting about the Hindus' gods and their ideas of absolute reality. I'm also quite inspired by China's Taoist philosophy, Japan's animist Shinto religion, and Buddhist philosophy from India, China, and Japan alike. But those are stories that, in a sense, were never directed at me. I can appreciate them and learn from them, but they'll never feel like stories I can fully embrace. Middle Eastern myths are no different. We may have built Western civilization on those Middle Eastern myths, but at the end of the day, that's still what they are: the stories of what to me is a foreign culture. 

Don't misunderstand: This isn't a race-based argument about how only people from one ethnic group should be able to worship a particular way. I covered all that a few posts back. Worship whatever you want. I don't care. I'm just saying, in my case, that before the Christians ever conquered Europe, the people there had an intimate relationship with a whole other set of deities who guided them, challenged them, walked beside them, rather than barking out decrees from some distant heavenly realm and demanding their absolute obedience under threat of damnation. At some point in the distant past, there's a decent chance that my own ancestors would have known these old pagan deities. And I'd like to try to make my own connections with those deities. I don't have a great relationship with my family, but I can still honor those from the distant past who made my life possible. And one way I can do that, one way that I can maybe rediscover some kind of familial closeness to my kin, is to reach back to a bygone time and try to cultivate a deeper connection to them through something that can bind us beyond just blood. 

Going down this route has actually piqued my interest in doing one of those DNA tests to see what kind of ancestry lies in my past. I know from the genealogical work some of my family members have done that I do have English ancestors in my fairly distant past. But in fairness, I also have German ancestors. So while my forebears could have been Germanic pagans, it's not likely that they were all of the same variety. But it's still likely that somebody in my family centuries ago observed some kind of pagan practice, whether it involved the Norse Odin or his Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Woden.

Yes, that's right, Woden. You've probably heard of Odin, but maybe not of Woden. The two most likely spring from the same mythological source, but that's not to say they're identical, either. And I think that's another thing that intrigues me about the Anglo-Saxon pagan path. Everybody knows about Odin and Thor, but little is known about how the stories of these gods changed when the Germanic tribes split apart from each other, such as after the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain. And they most likely did change, as these things often do when cultures develop their own individual identities and trends and customs. But in what ways did they change? Well, you have to do the research to see if you can figure that out. And that's right up my alley. I enjoy a challenge. It's comparatively easy to find information about Odin, from the Eddas and such, but what about Woden? And what other things are different about Anglo-Saxon mythology? There doesn't appear to be an Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Loki, the Norse trickster god, for example, and we don't really know why. But at the same time, we know there are deities unique to the Anglo-Saxon path, like Seaxneat, the national god of the Saxon peoples.

And really, how fascinating it is to ponder the fact that four of our days of the week are explicitly named for Anglo-Saxon gods -- Tiw (the equivalent of the Norse Tyr) for Tuesday, Woden for Wednesday, Thunor (the equivalent of Thor) for Thursday, and Frige (the same, unsurprisingly, as Frigg) for Friday -- yet even though our forebears found these gods important enough to be worthy of such a distinction, we still know so little about them. For people like me who love to dig in to a mystery and try to find the answers, even if the answers can never ultimately be found, stuff like this is a flashing neon sign daring us to step through the doors. 

All this stuff aside, a big part of the reason I feel drawn to Anglo-Saxon myth in particular is very subjective: I just feel a connection to it. For some reason, the Norse myths feel to me like someone else's myths. I'm not sure I can put my finger on why that is. Maybe it's my ancestors speaking down through the ages to try to tell me something about my own past. Who knows.

Anyway, I've done the mix-and-match salad-bar approach to religion. I want to try something else. I want something that feels authentic, rather than a mishmash. What did this one particular group do? What were its customs and practices? How I can I relate to that and bring it forward to the modern day, in a way that respects the values of that culture? How can I best embrace those values? Those are the things I'm interested in exploring -- and not just for the intellectual satisfaction, but in the hopes of building some kind of spiritual-religious framework that has a solidity that my past ventures have lacked. There's something to be said for eclecticism, but I think the danger is that it leaves you with a shallow understanding of the paths you pick and choose from. Maybe there's something to be said for picking one path, really digging into it, and fully embracing that one and that alone. We'll see how it goes. 

In closing, I'd like to circle back to Tolkien's mythology. The end of the story of The Lord of Rings brings about the end of the Third Age, and with it the place of the Elves in Middle-earth. As the Fourth Age, the age of Men, dawns, the world changes. The terrible battle over the One Ring has ended and the forces of evil have been defeated, but Men have already proved that they are vulnerable and corruptible. Wars will break out again. Families and friends will be divided. Further violence and bloodshed are almost inevitable. We know that without Tolkien's ever explicitly saying it, because we live in the Fourth Age, an age ruled by humans, where the great tales of the distant past have left us. Not only have men lost their valor, but when the Elves left Middle-earth, their magic left with them. 

But hope is not lost, Tolkien would tell us. We can still look back to the magic of those ages long past to work toward making our own world better. For example, even if the trees have gone silent in our world, their timelessness, fortitude, beauty, and literal rootedness in the earth can still teach us important lessons about how to shape our own lives. Those lessons of old are still there. We just need to know where to look. The magic may not be as obvious and prevalent as it once was, but that doesn't mean it's gone. 

One of the great things about Tolkien's stories is that they can help us look back to our ancestral mythologies and thereby pull their values forward to inform our own lives. That's what religion, at its core, should do for us -- not make us want to judge others and forget about this world, but to promote harmony among people and get involved with making this world better, both for ourselves and for others. Embracing those values may just become a little easier if you can more easily find a connection to those old stories. And to me, that's the benefit of turning back to these once-lost myths. Myths reveal deeper truths about ourselves, all the more so if you can make them feel like your own. 

Tolkien's stories are many things. You can just read them as nice fairy tales. You can see them as tales about a specific time and place in our distant past. What they're not is a vehicle for some woke 21st-century corporation to manipulate for ideological ends. (Hello, Amazon.) But beyond that, they do tend to speak to universal human ideals and values, and that's what continues to make them so compelling to so many people. But if you can make the characters in those stories feel like kindred spirits, like people who share a commonality with you in some time long since past, chances are they'll take on a deeper personal meaning for you, which could just mean you'll feel inspired to be more like them as you go about your daily life.  

The same holds true for the gods of old that informed Tolkien's stories. If you have a sense that the gods you honor once roamed the same lands as your ancestors, maybe you'll be able to take their lessons to heart and deepen your spiritual practice. 

Are those old gods still out there? That's for all of us to discover for ourselves. My suspicion is that they are. We just need to know where to look.

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