The Problem with Piety

Piety is a hard word for a lot of us. I don’t have a particular problem with it, but I suspect that’s because I had good models personally and I’ve also spent the last ten years immersed academically in ancient texts wherein piety was a good thing, and presented without the baggage both of Christian influence and modern disbelief. Words mean things. They’re important. They’re building blocks of communication, and containers of culture and experience. To speak is an act of translation — a process that right there is already fraught with the potential for grievous misunderstanding (there’s an Italian saying, known to every translator: “translator:traitor.” The translator always betrays the original material by the very act of translation, necessary though it might be). We are translating our experiences and desires from the immediate but abstract realm of our own interior world into something that can influence others, even if only by evoking a response. It helps to use the same lexicon. It helps if we all understand the words we’re using. It helps if we’re all speaking the same language.

One of things that I’ve been fascinated by as I study Classics is the linguistic shift that happened when the dominant structures of the world went from being polytheistic to monotheistic. Long before our temples were closed and our practices outlawed, long before polytheists were put to the sword for their faith, early Christian writers seized control of the language of faith itself. My favorite example of this is the word “anathema”. To us, it means something evil or bad and has occasionally been used to even imply a curse. Originally, to polytheists, it was the word used for devotional offerings set before the image of the Gods. Think about that. Really step back and think about what a drastic shift in worldview the theft of one little word implies. Control the language and one controls the way we are able to conceptualize our experiences. Control the language and you control how we are able to conceptualize our Gods. Control the language and you control the common expression of the people. Why do you think it is that contemporary polytheists fight so hard over the word “polytheism”? We’ve seen where the theft of words leads.

“Anathema”, of course, wasn’t the only word co-opted and I’m going to talk about one more in the body of this post: piety. Yes, early Christianity stole piety. They didn’t just steal it, they redefined it. This actually came as a huge shock to me. I only recently discovered it in a medieval theology class that I took last term. We kept reading through the early church fathers and I would see the word “pietas” (which means ‘piety’ in Latin. It’s where our English word comes from). When I would read from Latin to English, I’d just use the word “piety.” But as I started cross referencing with published English translations, I began to notice that this word was almost inevitably translated as ‘love.’ I asked the professors about it, and they confirmed that this was the way Christians interpreted that word. I was floored. There are many, many Latin words that can be translated accurately as “affection, regard,” or “love” but “pietas” is not one of them.

I’m still a little flabbergasted by this translation even now, months later, as I write this. Let me share with you the way pre-Christian polytheists (particularly Romans from whom we actually get the word, though you see this idea pretty much throughout the ancient world) approached and defined “piety.” Looking here (I used perseus so those of you without a Latin dictionary can read for yourselves), with respect to the Gods, piety means duty. It’s one’s obligations to the Gods, the ancestors, the community, one’s family, and oneself. It’s loyalty and conscientiousness. You don’t see it used as ‘love’ ever with the Gods, and you don’t even see that definition really coming into play until quite late.

I’m going to reiterate that. Piety is one’s obligations to the Gods. It has absolutely nothing to do with emotion. It does not rest on what one might feel in the moment. It is not defined by whether or not one loves one’s Gods. It is defined by maintaining one’s obligations to the Gods. I think this is a very, very important difference.

To yoke piety to one’s emotions is a rather insidious means of shaming a person into feeling (or faking) what one considers “appropriate” emotions. This is something that I’ve been reading a lot about with respect to evangelical Christianity, and the Quiverfull movement. I’ve seen articles that talk about how there is an expectation in these homes that one will be or present as happy and grateful, and that if one doesn’t it is viewed as a moral failing. That type of emotional manipulation and the anxiety it can produce has no place in one’s spiritual life. We all have our spiritually fallow times. We all have our lazy moments. We have those times where we might be really angry at our Gods. Even for the most devoted person in the world, it’s not always a bed of roses. One should not feel guilty for feeling or lack of feeling in this respect. I think there’s potential here for great harm. One cannot command affection and leveraging piety as ‘love’ can too easily be used as a means of emotional control. Of all the places that we walk, surely with our Gods, we should be able to be and feel in a way that’s authentic.

If we return to the original definite of piety, that of duty and obligation — doing what is right and what we’ve promised, then what we feel in the moment is irrelevant. There’s no shame attached to not feeling a particular thing and feeling blasé at any given time is not a moral failing. Our feelings, which after all can be transient, are no longer the arbiters of our spiritual life. Now, it’s a glorious thing, those moments when one feels the fullness of love for one’s Gods. It’s a powerfully transformative and motivating factor when one is overcome by love and longing for Them. The fallow times, however, will come. What then? Then, there is piety. Then, there is doing all the small practices that make up devotion: praying, meditation, shrine work, offerings. Every day cannot be a conflagration of feeling. What gets us through when the only thing we may be feeling is tired? Piety. What makes us toe the line when the last thing we want is another argument about offerings? Piety. What is the most foundational building block of a tradition? Also, piety. It’s doing our duty by the Gods. That’s not such a bad thing, though I suspect for many reading this, ‘duty’ might be as highly charged a word as ‘piety.’

Aristotle said that excellence is a habit. It’s something we can choose to cultivate within ourselves and our practices. Piety, I think, is making that choice. Repeatedly, day after day. We need to reclaim the language of our devotion. That too, is restoration, and we can start with piety.

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About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on June 15, 2015, in devotional work, Polytheism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. That is quite shocking. What a completely different meaning it had originally. Thank you for posting this. I admit I don’t always agree with your personal views but your posts always make me look at my own beliefs and check in with them. This has been a truly enlightening post, so thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ganglerisgrove

      Thank you. We don’t all have to agree, but I do believe it’s very important to think and consider those things that impact our traditions carefully. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Northern Tamarisk and commented:
    Although I don’t always agree with Ms Krasskova’s personal views this article gives a rather surprising and very interesting insight into the pre-monotheistic meaning of piety.

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  3. I was struck recently by a similar instance of semantic drift. In polytheistic contexts, “atheism” (Greek atheotês) is not to deny the existence of any and all Gods, as it is today, but rather, to deny any God or Gods *in particular*. Therefore, Christians were sometimes labelled as “atheists” because they denied the existence of all the Gods except their own. This goes to show how far were the Hellenes, at least—but I think it was the default attitude of all ancient polytheisms—from a parochial or chauvinistic exclusion of the Gods of other peoples.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ganglerisgrove

      ‘semantic drift…’ …interesting term! I remember how shocked I was the first time I read …I think it was Pliny’s letters and Christians were referred to as atheists.

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  4. John Scheid’s Introduction to Roman Religion lays out the Roman view of piety very well for those interested in how it was viewed by the ancients in a concise, modern manner. I know personally I’ve deconstructed my feelings and views on what piety is and isn’t in the last year, and it’s been a very good chance to strengthen not only my religious practice but worldview.

    There are quite a few terms that I feel need to be redefined and brought further back into alignment with what the original Latin meaning was… Sacred being another word that meant something entirely different than how we regularly use it now, and it also ties in to how we view piety. That being that the original meaning basically meant it was owned by the Gods/Powers/Spirits and not to be consumed, touched, or used by mortal until it was profaned, or given back to us.

    I’m very much for taking back religious vocabulary, or at the very least meditating on what the words originally meant. I’m glad to see this being discussed more. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m a lot more startled by the drift on “anathema” (never stopped to analyze that word – now I’m going to go poke at it, thank you!) than I am by “piety”, because I can totally see the connection, especially given early Christianity. I can even see the appeal, although I think your observations about how the shame applies when it’s approached from the other end are very astute. I hadn’t thought about it that way, because I hadn’t been concerned with piety as a virtue in one who doesn’t *already* love god, and thus have some interest in *being* pious.

    Early Christians were almost entirely possessed of the zeal of conversion, so most of them probably DID vehemently LOVE their God, and consider that the essential center of praxis. That’s not so much stealing the word as an honest interpretation due to context. It’s not like it wasn’t their native language to drift in, too.

    But the point they were making back then has long since been lost due to the lack of contrast from the original context, and as you point out, it’s a very VERY different picture when you’re born into it than if you ecstatically convert as an adult. The whole doctrine around forgiveness is similarly skewed by that shift, leaving generations of Christians heavily burdened with the very same guilt forgiveness was intended to relieve.

    While I don’t believe words control thought in general – I think it depends on how any given person’s mind works – I do think we’re missing something when we can’t reach back for previous contexts.

    -E-

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    • ganglerisgrove

      in view of what was going on in Pagan vs Christian discourse at the time, it was absolutely theft, whether it was positioned that way by the Christians themselves or not. I don’t believe they would ever been quite as successful as they were without first violating the language. Language is one of the greatest and most effective tools of empire there ever was.

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      • Can you elaborate (or suggest likely reading) on “what was going on in Pagan vs. Christian discourse” that makes you say so?

        I may still not agree with you when I’m done looking at it, but that may simply be that we have different attitudes towards language use itself, which we already know.

        And frankly, I’m finding all this quite fascinating.

        -E-

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Language controlling thought is the difference between media outlets positioning black protesters in Ferguson as “protestors” vs. “rioters.” Propaganda works and most people don’t think critically enough about what they take in to ward against it. Advertising and marketing are billion dollar industries because language shapes thought and desire. language teaches us what we ought to desire. it’s a tool in the wrong hands of social control. as to the early Christian Fathers, the men involved in consciously building this tradition were in large part (not all) highly educated. They were specifically trained in rhetoric which is the art of using language to manipulate people. They were well aware of the importance of taking over the building blocks of the discourse.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ahh, I see where I’m off to the side of your point now. I’m being too narrow again.

        What you’re describing I would call language *influencing* thought, and yeah, you’re absolutely right. I *was* raised to be wary of propaganda, but I also know from the inside of my head that my thoughts neither start or end as language. But, as you point out, even if my thoughts are not themselves controlled this way, any attempt to communicate them necessarily is limited by shared language, so *society* is absolutely moved by it.

        Re: Early Christian Fathers – accepting that at face value for the moment, not having my materials in front of me, instead of arguing the point, let me just ask – what year(ish) are we looking at here. “Early Christian” can mean the first generation or two, or it can mean 3 hundred years later…

        -E-

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  6. Reblogged this on EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir and commented:
    Galina has some very interesting observations about what “piety” meant to the polytheistic Romans vs. the early Christians. I don’t entirely agree with her characterization of the Christians (when do I ever entirely agree with Galina? ;p) but her observations about the impact of the resulting semantic drift are very astute. Go read!

    -E-

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  7. Excellent! A spot-on post on reclaiming the old polytheistic meaning of religious terminology! It goes straight to the heart of the matter. And I suspect there’ll be those who dislike the ancient sense of pietas because 1) duty is an awful word and you’re not the boss of me and 2) I don’t need to *do* things to cultivate a relationship with the Gods, I just need to *feel* Them.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ganglerisgrove

    I”m looking at second through fifth centuries and unless you read Latin and a bit of Greek relatively well, i’m not sure what use my sources would be.–i’m happy to post later tonight. I can hunt up some of my syllabi if you want but to get the full impact of the language shift, you need to move from one to the other. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade reading golden and silver age Latin and to go from that to Origen, Augustine, Anselm, etc. was a huge shock. that’s when this shift first became really, glaringly apparent. But it’s not going to come out necessarily if you’re only reading in English because English isn’t going to give you the original words. I would never have noticed this shift in the meaning of piety if i were reading only in English because the word would have just been translated as ‘love.’ I”d never have known the original text gave “pietas.”If you read works talking about colonialism and indigenous studies, you’ll encounter this focus on language as well, though that’s not how I came to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: More Thoughts on Love vs. Duty | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

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