Category Archives: academic work
The woke brigade strikes again. To preserve their precious feelings and further indoctrinate children with their utter lack of values and virtue, a group #distrupttexts has successfully gotten one of the cornerstones of Western literature banned from a school in MA. Read the full story here.
I read an article earlier about this and “teachers” were proud of this ban. Personally, it would be better if they closed the school, and any teacher that advocates for banning books isn’t fit to teach. They’re so eager to virtue signal their “wokeness” *gags* that they are denying this generation’s children a proper education. Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are core texts for understanding pretty much all of the literature that came after it. I suppose these woke “teachers” don’t want to have to be bothered to explain different values and customs or, you know, do their jobs and teach.
I suppose stories about heroism, cleverness, virtue, and fidelity (especially in women) are difficult to teach when the people teaching it have none of those qualities. Those pushing this ban referred to the “Odyssey” as “trash.” I have yet to see their accomplishments, other than denying the children placed in their care a proper education.
Personally, if you haven’t read the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad” by the time you graduate high school, you’re not ready for college. I only lament that high schoolers aren’t reading them in the original Greek these days.
The only way these days to guarantee that your children are getting a decent education, one that will render them thinking, literate, historically aware adults is to homeschool. This trend toward banning the best books of world literature, of classic literature is a perfect example of where public education is going. Object to this, parents. Object strongly and never, ever apologize for challenging this censorship. Your children deserve at least that.
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(I had to read Beowulf for a class recently and I had this moment where I realized that as a Heathen, I had a surprising understanding of many of the practices represented in the text. The piece below encapsulates some of my initial thoughts upon reading through Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation (I had read his translation before, but not for many years, so I was able to approach it fresh). To be honest, I never cared for Beowulf before, but reading it this time has completely changed my mind. It finally hit me how important a text it is for us, and how Heathen and the whole thing just opened up. So, I share a few of my thoughts with you now. By the way, read Headley’s new translation. It’s absolutely brilliant and if I ever teach this text to undergrads, that’s the text I’d use).
In Chapter five of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Friedman offers (in part) a brief analysis of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf, suggesting that their “heritage from Cain and Ham” is of particular significance in explaining both their monstrosity and their hatred for the “men in the mead-hall”(1). For Friedman, this biblical and cursed ancestry, adds a “moral dimension” to the story, one lacking even –as Friedman opines – in Beowulf and his allies (2). While not disputing the dramatic effect of such a lineage, this paper examines the way that lineage was likewise utilized by the author of Beowulf as a gloss for Heathen elements, religiously, morally, and culturally still extant, at the time of Beowulf’s composition, in English society (3).
What precisely makes Grendel and his mother monstrous? It cannot be their violence, because throughout Beowulf the reader is given multiple examples of equal violence and indeed treachery perpetrated by or against the Danes. After Beowulf’s victory, for instance, at the celebratory feast, the minstrel performs the story of Hildeburgh, Finn, and his sons. Truce is offered between Finn and the Danes but clearly only due to circumstances, not actual desire for lasting peace, and the feud is renewed at earliest opportunity with much attendant bloodshed (4). Another feud is detailed in the story of Freawaru’s wedding (5) and feud with violation of hospitality in the death of Heardred (6). Clearly, violence and bloodshed are not a determining factor in what constitutes a being’s monstrosity. Nor would inhuman appearance alone be enough to summon a group of heroic warriors. I argue that the monsters in Beowulf serve as the embodiment of the cultural anxieties inherent in society-wide conversion (7). In his book Monster Theory, Cohen positions “monsters” in part, as “harbingers of category crisis” and cultural difference (8). It is my assertion that the transition from indigenous Polytheisms to Christianity created just such a crisis of identity and category, manifested in a community that was neither fully Christian nor fully Heathen any longer. This religious (and cultural) ambiguity is reflected in the text of Beowulf itself (9).
The words used for Grendel are not necessarily reflective of this culture crises – with the exception of eotenas, a word whose etymology is connected to beings venerated in the Pagan world (10). Words like ellen-gaest(powerful spirit) andgrimma gaest (grim spirit) are colorful, but not specifically Pagan (though Heaney translates them most frequently as ‘demon,’ which has a much more specifically Christian and negative context than the original Old English terms). More significant is the note that such creatures, including eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas (ogres and elves and orcs and giants) strove with God (Þa wið Gode wunnon), indicating that they are part of an order set against the will of the Christian God, though whether this is by their nature, their ancestry, or their own will is left unspecified (11). Only in line 137 are the readers told that Grendel is “malignant by nature.” This in turn leads to a violation on the part of the men of Heorot: they sacrifice at Heathen temples, making offerings and oaths to Heathen Gods while praying for someone to save them from Grendel (12). To Whom are they praying? It is only after these prayers that Beowulf, their hero and savior arrives. Heathen cultusis momentarily foregrounded. Furthering this metaphor, in line 431, killing Grendel is described as “purifying Heorot” (Heorot faelsian) (13).
Equally important is the geography surrounding Grendel and his mother. They are outliers, in fen, moor, bog and other liminal places outside the community and specifically outside Heorot (14). Giving them a heritage descended from men who violated divine order, first Cain in the killing of his brother (already a child of Adam and Eve who violated the direct prohibition of their God), and then Ham who showed disrespect and impiety in his treatment of his father Noah, highlights that they have no place in a society defined by its Christianity. If Grendel and his Mother are in truth representative of indigenous polytheistic religions, then what is “malignant by nature” to the men of Heorot is not the beings themselves, but the larger Polytheism/Heathenry that they represent, a body of traditions that by the eighth-century had been relegated to the periphery of accepted society. In line 851, Grendel is even referred to as having a “heathen soul” (haeþene sawle).
This contrast between pre-Christian religion and Christianity is only one of many pairs juxtaposed within the text. After Beowulf kills Grendel, Hrothgar offers praises for Beowulf’s mother (15). This is then followed by the introduction of Grendel’s monstrous mother. In line 942, Hrothgar calls Beowulf the “flower of manhood,” in contrast to Grendel who was “demonic” (line 730) (16). The Danish queen Hildeburgh (17) who’s story presages bloodshed and feud, is contrasted with the appearance of Wealhtheow, who brings peace and hospitality to Hrothgar’s hall (18). Later in the text, Wealhtheow is contracted with Grendel’s mother specifically in the horror she shows when Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head (19). Finally, Hygelac’s queen Hygd is contrasted with the terrible queen Modthryth (20).
Finally, in the end, despite Beowulf’s valor and Grendel’s mother’s savagery, it was “holy God” (witig Drihten) who unambiguously decided the outcome of the battle (21). When Beowulf dies, however in line 2574, it is fate (wyrd), not God who denies him victory. In his book, Friedman notes a powerful contrast between the classical view of monsters, one of curiosity and tolerance for “ethnic diversity” versus a later Christian view of “monsters” that is “hostile and harmful,” and that positions monsters as not only outside the accepted order of the world, but as cursed, corrupted, morally degenerate, and even evil (22). This reflects the shift from indigenous religions, largely polytheistic to monotheistic Christianity, which is in many respects a shift from a diversity of divine beings, to a worldview in which there is only one God, and one acceptable religious perspective. It should come as no surprise then that differing worldviews, those who embrace them, and those whose appearances violate the norm should be viewed as monstrous. Such a shift in perspective might well be considered inevitable.
1Friedman, 106. It should be noted that this descent from Ham would also make these “monsters” black. See Friedman, 101.
2Not having read Friedman’s entire book, I am not certain if he is implying that there was a lack of that aforesaid moral dimension in the cultures, communities, and community norms represented by Heorot and its men, one that could only be supplied by Christianity or not, but I do wish that he had defined what, precisely, he meant by ‘moral’ somewhere in this chapter and how or if he was tying it to religion.
3I know the date of Beowulf is contested, but if, like the Greek epic the Iliad, the text has oral antecedents, and if one takes into account that scholars like J. R.R. Tolkien argued for dating the written poem to the 8th, century, then that would place it within a generation (or two) of Christianization. Conversion is never a clean process and it is almost inevitable that holdovers and syncretization would have occurred. See R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 182-3 and J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2015, p. 328.
4See from line 1080.
5 See from line 2030.
6See from 2380.
7See Cohen, p. 4 for a discussion of the monster as a cultural body.
9While it is well beyond the scope of this brief response paper, religion and culture are deeply intertwined. This can be clearly demonstrated, for example, in a later Icelandic Saga, the 13thcentury Njal’s Saga, which contrasts the Pagan social code and legal mores with the newfound Christian ones. The action in this saga takes place during the conversion of Iceland (which actually occurs during the action depicted in the multi-decade story). The same type of agonistic tension echoes (or maybe lurks since we are dealing with a monster text) behind the monsters in Beowulf. I know I need to examine this more closely, especially since I’m much more familiar with later Icelandic literature (Iceland converted in 1000 C.E.) but I found the many of the echoes of indigenous Pagan religions in the language of Beowulf, which shared largely the same cosmology as Pagan Iceland, striking, particularly the dogged presence of Wyrd throughout the text.
10Eotenas is cognate to the Old Norse Jotun. The Jotnar were a tribe of divine beings in Germanic Paganisms, often associated with chaos, elemental power, and natural phenomenon. Their veneration in contemporary Norse polytheism today (Asatru, Heathenry) is a point of denominational conflict. See my own work on the subject A Modern Guide to Heathenry, Newburyport, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2019. There is, despite modern theological controversies in the religion, ample evidence for their veneration in pre-Christian Scandinavia (particularly the deities Skadhi, Gerda, the moon God Mani, Sun Goddess Sunna, and Loki) and to some degree England. See Stephen Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2017.
11Heaney, lines 112-113.
12See lines 170-178.
13The word faelsian is particularly connected to liturgical purification of sacred space. Nathan Ristuccia, in his article (available here: https://www.academia.edu/4129419/Fælsian_and_the_Purification_of_Sacred_Space_in_the_Advent_Lyrics)notes that it is a relatively rare term, with over half its known uses occurring in either Beowulf or the Advent Lyrics. See Ristuccia, 6. The text likely existed for generations as an oral epic before being committed to text. It can therefore be viewed as an initially Pagan text later Christianized as the society changed. The Christian elements are marginal and it would be interesting to
14I think an argument could be made that Heorot itself represents the sacred enclosure of a fully Christian community, with outliers to that community also outliers to that creed.
15See from line 940.
16Heaney translates this line as “and his glee was demonic” but þa his mod ahlog actually means “then his heart laughed.” Regardless, Grendel is laughing over the slaughter of Heorot’s men.
17See from 1070.
18See from 1161. There seems to be a subtle connection between women and vengeance, both with stories like that of Hildeburgh but also Grendel’s mother and her quest for vengeance. I’m strongly reminded of a brutal line from Njal’s Saga, occurring when one of the main female characters demands vengeance for a kinsman: og eru köld kvenna ráð (cold is the counsel of women). Is the anonymous author implying that women are potentially monstrous because of this inherent desire for vengeance?
19See line 1649.
20See from line 1932. Many of the obvious contrasts are between the female characters. I cannot help but wonder if women were a point of particular anxiety when it came to Christianization. They would, as mothers, grandmothers, nursemaids, be in a very influential position when it came to inculcating religious values in children. Inter-generational transmission of religious traditions is crucial to creating a sustainable religious community. Might this point to anxiety over potential Pagan influences in women? Or is it simply that women were traditionally frith or peace weavers in the mead-hall, and brutality and violence are a violation of that traditional role?
21See line 1593.
22Friedman, 90 and 107. Moreover, monsters are now evil, not through any moral choice of their own, but through something completely outside of their control: their lineage, connected now, as in Beowulf,to Cain and Ham.
Cohen, Jeffrey, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MH: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Friedman, John. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
This week for one of my Patristics classes (1) we’re reading the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (2). I had only previously read his letter to the Romans, so I wasn’t prepared for the lush and sensual language of the others (3). He urges his congregation to “by symphonic in your harmony, taking up God’s pitch in unison, that you may sing in one voice…” (4) employs complex building and architectural metaphors (5), baking metaphors (6), and urges his people to take care in what they intellectually, morally, and spiritually consume (7). Finally, he talks about his service to his God using the metaphor of military service, positioning baptism as weaponry, faith as a helmet, love as a spear, and endurance in one’s faith as a full set of armor (8).
As I’m reading this, keeping the context always in mind: these pastoral letters are being written by a man being dragged to Rome, under guard and in chains, heading to a truly horrid death, I can’t help but wonder how our communities would respond today were our religions suddenly proscribed by the Government. Would we lay down our lives for our traditions and Gods? I hope this is never put to the test because frankly, I don’t think most would, not when they can’t even stand up against name calling by an anonymous online mob. Recanting and bending the knee is so much easier after all, regardless of what one truly believes. Why be good when one can put on a passable seeming?
Yesterday, I saw someone express a yearning for new temples. I thought, will our communities be paying priests, administrative staff, cleaning staff, those tending and raising sacrificial animals, attendants, oracles, etc.? No? Well, then you can’t have a temple. They don’t run themselves. They are community and community funded endeavors and moreover fully functioning micro-economies. We don’t actually have functioning communities, so we’re already behind that curve. We have way too many people who pay lip service to faith when it doesn’t impact their day to day lives or cause them inconvenience (be that latter of thought, of public image, time, or physical wellbeing). People who purport to love the Gods, but see no value in sacred service, are unlikely to lay down their lives in loyalty to those Gods, especially when they have zero respect for those who do serve Them. And oh, I can hear you all formulating your rebuttals about all the ways you’d keep your faith alive in secret. Why only in secret? How many of you reading this lack the courage to stand proudly as polytheists in your daily world? Yes, that comes with consequences and if those are too harsh for you to bear, what happens when you’re asked for more?
Don’t you want to give more? Is there any limit to what you would give the Gods that have made you, formed you, Who have stepped up to claim you, Whom you venerate, the act of which is our raison d’etre as creatures made by Divine will, heat, hands, and breath? What precisely should be the limit to honoring Those that gave us everything?
To be fair, I know how scary it can be to consciously ‘other’ yourself, as publicly claiming your polytheism openly in your world might do. I get it and there can be consequences. Just this year I lost a very good friend who finally expressed the contempt for my religion that had apparently been bubbling under the surface of his little agnostic mind for Gods know how long. It’s probably going to be a significant issue in my academic field when the time comes for me to find a job. I’m fully aware that it may preclude me from that actually happening (and this doesn’t take into account denominational differences and arguments within our religions). There are cases where I think silence is perhaps golden: if custody of one’s children is at risk, if you live in a country where you can be dragged out killed. We do not. Of course, then the question arises of how do you work to change those settings, situations, and laws to make it better for those who come next (9)? There is a point though where one has to just trust the Gods and do the work, whatever that work may be. It’s about learning to prioritize correctly, learning to value the right things, and developing good habits of living those choices day to day. Each day is a choice, an opportunity to make a new choice, a better choice. That holds true not only devotionally, but pretty much in every aspect of our lives.
Ancient polytheists saw virtue as something that could be cultivated, and as something that should be cultivated. This was in part, the purpose of philosophy and also of one’s education and civic training. We allow ourselves none of those arenas in which to train ourselves in moral virtue today. When we come to our Gods consciously, it’s without the external scaffolding that would encourage healthy mindsets, healthy behavior, commitment, and courage and a whole host of other good moral (and spiritual!) habits. Even the idea that one can cultivate good habits of devotion (whatever those may be for a devotee within a tradition with his or her Gods) is a new and possibly revolutionary thought to many.
So what do we cultivate in ourselves? Are we even kind and encouraging to new converts, some of whom may be going through a very natural grieving process for the religions and religious cultures they have left? Do we do anything to actually build in-person communities that will thrive in a sustainable manner after we are gone? Are we doing anything to actually repair those threads broken in the first century?
It starts with good, solid personal devotion, with household worship, with raising children in one’s tradition, with overcoming fear, and in a thousand other ways. It means changing how we think and most importantly of all, how we live in the world. None of that is easy and each of us will make mistakes, from which we’ll hopefully learn. We should be proud of our traditions, of what we are doing and what polytheists before us did. We should be joyous in glorifying our Gods through lives well lived in Their service. Let it not be said that Christians have better, stronger, more committed faith than we do. Let it not be said that they do more for their God than we do for ours. As our world is falling apart around us, we can’t afford to be complacent. Now is precisely the time to throw ourselves fully into our traditions, into our devotions, into our practices and to ask how we can do more. What “more” means, will be different for everyone based on health, wealth, calling, Deity, etc. But there is always a “more.” Complacency is the death of a tradition and maybe that’s the biggest lesson we can take from the first century and its interlocutors Polytheist, Christian, and otherwise. When we stop caring and moreover stop striving we might as well pack up our shrines.
- Patristics is the study of the early church fathers, writers of the generation after the Apostles, so roughly second century C.E., whose writings laid the groundwork for the theologically orthodox positions that became the early Christian church.
- Not much is known about Ignatius. According to what can be gleaned from his letters, he lived in the second century C.E. and was caught up in one of the sporadic persecutions against Christians. He was sentenced in his own province, but then for some reason (scholarly opinions vary) transported to Rome for the sentence (death by wild beasts) to be carried out. On the way, he wrote pastoral letters to various churches and at least one bishop of his acquaintance.
- Several of us have been known to joke that the letter to the Romans is torture porn, but having read them all as a set, I think it more a matter of a man going to a horrible death, writing pastoral letters to encourage his community but also pumping up his own courage so that he can go to his martyrdom (he’s already been sentenced at this point) in a way that does his faith proud.
- Letter to Ephesians, chapter 4.
- Ibid, chapter 9.
- He talks of good and bad yeast, and the preservative qualities of salt, and the aroma of healthy food in his Letter to the Magnesians, chapter 10.
- Letter to the Philadelphians, chapter 3, wherein he uses an agricultural metaphor.
- Predating the medieval ‘armor of God’ by several hundred years, this passage may be found in his Letter to Polycarp, chapter 6. I should point out that Ignatius isn’t in any respect without fault. One passage in this letter made me quite literally throw up (chapter 4). Instead of taking a stand against slavery – which in the Roman empire was a prospect anyone of any race, creed, or color might face—he uses language that goes well past accommodation. It’s sickening. I have never read a single early Christian author that challenged slavery. Many polytheistic Romans questioned the institution, philosophers positioning it as a moral stain on the slave owner. I have never – yet, there’s much I haven’t read – seen anything approximating this in Christian language. The slave owner may be told to “not be arrogant towards male and female slaves” but also is cautioned to “neither let them become haughty; rather, let them serve even more as slaves for the glory of God.” (letter to Polycarp, 4). It makes me sick. I don’t know if it was a matter of the apocalypticism that so defined early Christianity making temporal suffering seem unimportant, that Christianity spread through lower classes, especially slaves first, if they didn’t care, or if they thought suffering was bringing the people closer to Christ (This sickens me even more: If one is going to offer suffering to a God, one should have the option to fucking consent first, not have that forced upon one). None of this changed with Christianity’s ascension to imperial power in the 4thcentury, no matter what narrative you might read in Christian sources about how this improved people’s lives. Slavery wasn’t abolished in the Western Christian world until the 19thcentury. It continues today throughout much of the Islamic world.
- I don’t think it’s ever correct to disavow our Gods. That matters and, I believe, marks us spiritually in a way that is very hard to erase.
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Breathe. If no one else has told you this, let me say it now: you belong here. You may not feel like it and that’s ok. This is a big transition, whether you’re going from high school to college or undergraduate to graduate work. It can take some time to find your footing and imposter syndrome is a real thing. I guarantee you everyone else in your cohort is feeling just as nervous, anxious, and maybe a little confused. Give yourself time to adjust.
You belong right where you are. It may feel like others in your year group know more than you do, but I’m betting they don’t, or if they do, rest assured you know just as much in your own area of expertise. I remember when I was doing my first MA, I kept thinking that everyone knew more than I did, and sooner or later they’d figure that out and realize I didn’t belong; and then one day I overheard a couple of students talking in the bathroom and I realized none of us knew what the hell we were doing. We were each finding our way. So, relax and trust the process.
Yes, the language of academia can be weird. Think of it like its own dialect. That’s one of the things you’re learning and no one expects you to speak it fluently from day one. When you come across books or articles by scholars and you really like the way they’re written, save them and try to read more by that person. The more you read, the better a scholar you will be, not just because you are reading more information, but because this is one of the ways you will develop your own academic voice. That takes time and a lot of practice.
If you haven’t found it already, go buy the book “The Professor is In,” and check out the blog by the same name. This is the book I wish to Gods someone had given me when I started graduate school. It’s been tremendously helpful.
Do not leave your required language exams until the last semester. You will hate your life. Get on those things from day one.
Be present in your department for social things now and again. It makes a difference and you’re all in the same boat after all.
Most of all, try to enjoy what you’re learning. The world will not end if you get a bad grade. Don’t be afraid to approach your professors. They’re human, they’ll talk to you. For those starting their undergrad or graduate careers via zoom, I know this isn’t the academic world you expected, but try to make the most of it. Hopefully next semester we’ll all be back to in-person learning again. Most of all, welcome back to school. It’s exciting regardless of whether we’re in person or not. ^_^
I just returned from a conference at Villanova this past weekend. The Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) conference is one of the leading theology conferences held every year just outside of Philadelphia. It’s really my favorite conference, the one I really, really try to do every year. It’s a lovely group of people and I always learn so much when I attend. This year the panels were so good (they pretty much always are) and I feel I have new things to gnaw upon, so much productive feedback to integrate into my work, and so many new books to track down and read. I can’t wait for next year (and for me to say that about any conference is miraculous. I might enjoy them but they generally wear me out. This one, well, I was sorry when it ended).
This year I chaired a panel and presented a paper. Usually I work in Patristics. My ongoing area of interest is developing a cultural poetics of the eunuch, looking at early Christian sources and the way ideas of the self and the holy were mediated through the figure of the eunuch. Because this conference covers more than just late antiquity, however, I was able to present a side project, one that is rapidly becoming a major secondary area of interest for me. I first gave an iteration of this paper, titled “Ravens in the Mead-hall: Rewriting Faith in the Wake of Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars” at last year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Conference and in between then and now, I’ve tweaked it considerably. This paper discusses Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons and their consequent forced conversion through the lens of post-colonial theory. It utilizes the Heliand, the 9thcentury Saxon translation of the Gospels as a lens through which to explore the re-positioning of the Saxons as a subaltern people, and the ways in which their indigenous religious traditions remained vividly relevant within the framework of Christianity. It gets a little darker than this implies, discussing things like forced child oblation, genocide, and the erasure of indigenous religious cultures too (and these darker threads are things I intend to continue exploring with this line of research). It was remarkably well received.
This is partly my way of holding space as a polytheist for our ancestors. Yes, it is useful to go to professional conferences. It’s a chance to explore these side topics, to get valuable feedback, in an atmosphere that – at least in this case – is fairly relaxed and congenial. Yes, I really want to look more closely at the ways post-colonial theory can be applied to Charlemagne’s atrocities. The more I learn about forced child oblation, forced exile, forced conversion and all the various ways the Franks impeded on and erased Saxon religious culture, the more I’m convinced that it’s here specifically that structures were first put in place that came to be used throughout the conquest of the New World, six hundred years later. Before all of that, however, I am holding space for the dead.
This is important. This is part of our history as contemporary polytheists. This is the story of our traditions, what happened to them, and why we are in the position we’re in today of having to reclaim, rebuild, and restore. If we do not understand what happened and where we came from, then we will never truly appreciate the importance of that restoration, of holding staunchly to our traditions, of cultivating piety and respect and reverence for our dead.
Why do I do this? Let me give one small example: during the Q&A, one of the attendees, a senior scholar who herself later presented a fascinating paper on a piece of Arthurian lit., said to me very earnestly, “I think it’s important to remember that the Franks had good intentions.” When I picked my jaw up off the floor I responded, “I’m sure that makes all the difference to the five thousand plus Saxons butchered at Verden.”
I’m sure that makes all the difference in the world to the men, women, and children who fought to maintain religious and cultural independence and instead ended up exiled, impoverished, with their children forcibly interred in monastic “schools” where they were Christianized and denied a Saxon identity religious or otherwise. Are you fucking kidding me? That is like saying Hitler had good intentions too. Who the fuck says that? Yet here we are in 2019 and I’ve an intelligent, educated scholar in all earnestness urging me to remember: the Christians had good intentions. That’s why I do this, because that attitude is everywhere in academia. It isn’t genocide if it occurred before the 19thcentury and was blessed by the cross.
Of course, not everyone thinks that way and most of the scholars that I work directly with would be equally appalled by such a thoughtless comment, a comment that erases the religious and cultural genocide of a people. Still, there are enough who do not question the narrative of the goodness of conversion, of Christian expansion, who do not realize that such expansion came with a heavy price, writ in blood, who do not realize it was forcibly done against the will of numerous peoples, or who do not care, that it is important to hold the line openly and at times vociferously. The evidence is there for those scholars who care to look. It is my obligation to do so. The intentions of those who destroyed our traditions really don’t matter. The results speak for themselves.
For those interested in reading my article in full, it will be coming out in the next issue of Walking the Worlds.
There are times it’s really funny being an academic. I have noticed over the years that there is the assumption (from other academics) that we are all “secular moderns.” This is not the case, not at all, in theology but it generally is in history and I’ve encountered exactly that terminology (“secular modern”) again and again.
For instance, I was sitting in a history class a few weeks ago right next to our professor. He’s great and the class is a lot of fun but he made a comment that began innocently, “as secular moderns…” and I just growled under my breath to which this gentleman (and I use that term in the most positive sense: he was a very gracious gentleman) immediately reevaluated “well, most of us. I am at least …” and went on with his comment. I appreciated the reconsideration immensely because it’s not the first time, nor the second, nor the tenth that I’ve encountered that assumption and I think it makes a difference not just to how we approach material but also to how we comprehend the motivations and practices of religious people that we’re studying. Not to mention erasure of experience is never good and never serves academic inquiry however innocently that erasure may occur.
We should of course interrogate our automatic biases, question our approaches, and evaluate our integrity consistently and honestly but we should be working with our whole selves not cutting off the most important part of who we are as human beings just to get a job done. No, I am not a secular modern and in one of the beautiful ironies of being a polytheist haunting the halls of academe, I think most of my colleagues in theology, most of whom belong to staunchly monotheistic faiths, would say exactly the same (I know some of them would at least, because several of us have had precisely this conversation).
It is irritating the assumption that we are divorced from religious practice simply because we are educated. The academic world is space that for thousands of years was not only defined by religion but was in fact, created by it. Polytheists: philosophers, scientists, educators, and thinkers developed not only schools and methods of pedagogy, but the intellectual agora of their time and Christians and later Muslims adopted and continued this process (perhaps, I will grant, with a little less in the way of free thinking and exploration at certain points in history). Jewish communities had always had, as far as I know, strong cultures of learning. There would have been no scientific revolution without deeply devout thinkers and library shelves of great literature would be empty. Far from culling one’s intellectual acumen, being deeply rooted in one’s religious tradition, in devotion to one’s Gods, is a logical outgrowth of a proper education and it is precisely one’s devotion that inspires and challenges one every moment of every day to use those gifts, most especially the intellect, that those Gods have given. The main difference between secularists and the rest of us is that our work is rooted in humility, the knowledge that just because we have the capacity to do something doesn’t mean we perhaps ethically and morally should, and an immense gratitude. It is rooted in awe and respect. It is rooted in a sense that there is a purpose to the underlying scaffolding of creation, and most importantly of all that we are connected to something far greater than we shall ever be and perhaps even answerable to those Powers.
I work at a university whose motto is ad maiorem dei gloriam– for the greater glory of God. (I will admit whenever I see it, in my mind I usually change the dei to deorum lol unless I’m thinking of one specific God like Odin or Mani at the moment I walk inside). When I walk into our theology building, that motto is inscribed on a huge carpet right inside the entrance and this is good. There is comfort in that reminder of what our ultimate purpose is, of what it is –our Holy Powers—who undergird everything that we do within those walls (and without for that matter). I like the reminder. It centers me. It restores my focus. It allows me a split second to reorient myself and to remember that there is not a single place I shall ever go where my Gods are not. Every single thing that I do should in some way glorify Them, every thought, every moment every action. This is what it means to live a connected, engaged, spiritually rich and fulfilling life. We bring our Gods with us and They open up the mysteries of the world for our exploration. The whole of learning is a conversation with our most beloved Holy Powers. The whole of learning is a long, extended moment of devotion.
I’m not secular for one very important reason: because that implies that there is a space somewhere where the Gods are not. I do not believe such a thing is possible. I’m not modern because that would accept this idea of deity-privative space as good. I do not think it is. For those sputtering about how we have such amazing technology as moderns, yes, we do and so did our polytheistic ancestors. The Greeks had steam engines for Gods’ sake, and the Romans flushing toilets, to give but two exempla. Technology is not something that just existed in the unhallowed halls of modernity nor is the problem with “modernity” or “post-modernity” or whatever you want to call it (they’re all slippery and inaccurate concepts) technology and science. Rather, the problem is the way we frame ourselves in relation to the world. The corollary to secular-modern then, is a reorientation of our purpose as thinkers. Instead of building up the world so that it reflects the Gods Who made it, we deconstruct. Instead of approaching our insights and work with humility, we have hubris (especially in the area of science). We no longer see the inherent connection not just between us and a world that is wondrous and full of Gods, but between each other too.
The argument of course is that religion has no place in the public sphere and I disagree. I think intolerance for or violence over another’s religion has no place in the public sphere but that is a different thing all together. I welcome the richness and multiplicity of perspective that happens when I’m sitting in a classroom with two orthodox deacons, a pacel of Jesuit seminarians, a Coptic monk, an atheist, a Unitarian minister, some random Catholics, and me with the class being taught by a devout Anglican (to give but one example of one particular class breakdown). If we are honest about where we’re coming from and the forces that have shaped our perspective and perceptions, fruitful and fulfilling dialogue can occur. It is in fact possible to be honest and openly devout without shitting on someone else’s religion. Instead, we find common ground in the acknowledgement of our devotion. Then we get down to the intellectual work at hand.
I need to wrap this up, though there is in fact more I would say on the matter. I’m currently attending a conference at an Augustinian university where I am sure I’m the only polytheist presenting. The conference focuses on theological currents in patristics, the medieval period, and the Renaissance and yesterday I gave a paper on Charlemagne’s butchery of the Saxons where I discussed forced oblation of Saxon children by the Franks. It was well received and the questions gave me insight into the next part of this project. In about twenty minutes I’ll be attending a panel on Apocalyptic narratives in the Roman and Byzantine worlds. In each case I come away enriched and in each case I come away with a thousand questions that further my own work; and yes, for those of you who are wondering, I’m completely open here as a Heathen.
As I’ve mentioned before in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve just started PhD work in theology. I attend a Jesuit university (it was my first choice and I really love the program) and to my knowledge, I’m the first polytheist to be admitted to their theology program. I work with lovely people, most of whom are either clergy or in some way very active in their own religious communities, and my classes are really thought-provoking and actually quite relevant to the work I do within my own tradition. One of the things I intend to do as I move through the program is share my experiences and thoughts, those relevant to my position as a polytheist in a traditionally monotheistic discipline, here on my blog. So, this is really the first of what I suspect will become an ongoing if occasional thing.
I’ve been in coursework now since the end of August and I’ve begun to notice a few things about myself.
Having taken theology classes in the department even while doing my MA, I knew that it was surprising to some people to meet a polytheist who was also a theologian. I also knew that for every person who took it in stride, I’d meet those who dismissed my religion or were condescending or mocking (the latter two are definitely in the minority at my school). I was ready for that and for the most part, I get asked really good questions and then we have equally good theological discussions. It’s great. I really like the people with whom I work. What I wasn’t prepared for and what isn’t so great – and I want to make it clear that this does NOT in any way come from anyone in the department nor the department itself, it’s completely my own psyche—is that I’m starting to feel a certain insecurity and defensiveness about my legitimacy being a Heathen priest, compared to and when surrounded by Orthodox and Catholic priests and other devout but monotheistic clergy. I have also been feeling not only on edge (some of which may just be normal as a first-year PhD student), but somewhat ashamed, as though I’ve in some way failed my Gods –though there was no reason to feel so: I’ve never once hidden or denied my faith. It was really weird and it took me awhile to realize what was happening.
I started getting a push from Odin to be more visible as a polytheist. I thought, I don’t hide it at all, how much more visible should I be? Am I being given a new clothing taboo or something (I have certain religious taboos by virtue of my work as a vitki or shaman, mostly around the colors that I’m permitted to wear)? That didn’t feel right and I took it to divination last weekend. That’s when all of this got sorted and I realized how I was allowing myself to be affected. I was pushed, not just by Odin but by other Gods too (including Athena, Whom I’d consulted for a client) to remember who I was and that as a priest, my position is every bit as licit as those other clergy members with whom I work. Moreover, our traditions have ancient roots. I was urged to remember that we are rebuilding now specifically because our traditions were decimated by the spread of Christianity (and later Islam). I was urged to fight off this mental miasma, which is precisely what I was told it was, and keep in the forefront of my mind that they have very little they didn’t steal from us. Their religions are built on the remnants of temples they destroyed, on the graves of our polytheistic ancestors, from fragments of our mysteries. I am there representing not just myself and my own tradition but our collective polytheisms. I’m the kick in the teeth, by presence alone, that says you did not succeed and your way is not the only way. I carry the rubble of every sacred space destroyed by the spread of monotheism in my soul. I walk with a thousand upon thousand ancestors who remember their sacred ways. I am there to remind you that you did not win, you will never win, and one day we will outnumber you all. On that day, things will change. Polytheists invented theology and I am the first of what will become a steady flood ready to take it back. We are here and it’s our time to have a seat at this table.
I am very fortunate however, that this is a department in which being devout is not an issue. That is not generally the case in academia in general. In theology, we are not generally your “secular moderns.” Pretty much every single person that I’ve encountered is in some way connected to a particular religious tradition and/or active in their devotion and praxis. It’s always interesting to see what I’ve always assumed to be true being played out: two or three of us who are very devout, even if we come from dramatically different religious traditions, have more in common overall than a devout polytheist would with someone who was atheist or agnostic (though there are always individual exceptions). That opens up the ground for conversation and I think we learn from each other and that is good.
I thought long and hard about writing this and even longer about posting it. What decided me was that I know of several polytheists either in theology or religious studies programs or contemplating the same (and that we so often get pushed into the latter field rather than theology proper is a conversation in and of itself). I know several polytheists in other graduate programs, including at my university, and have encountered a few undergrads as well. The mental pressure of opening up previously monotheistic spaces is real and on the off chance that I can help prepare others and spare them some of the cognitive disconnect I experienced the last month, then I felt it important that I post. I am in a very, very supportive department. I’m completely open and out as a polytheist. If I reached out to my advisor or any of the professors about this, they’d be the first to offer support and the same with my student cohort. That is not going to be the case in every grad student’s life. It’s important to be prepared for these things. Pressure often comes from unexpected places and I would never, ever have considered this to be one of them.
My solution to Odin’s request that I be more visible as a polytheist is to simply speak more openly about it. Yesterday, a fellow student asked me what I did this past weekend for instance, and I told him I’d done a good deal of ritual work, that we have a moon God (Mani), venerated extensively in our house and with the beautiful harvest moon it was the perfect time for rituals to Him. Last week when I was questioned about a brooch I was wearing, I said honestly, “It’s a shrine piece. I wanted to feel closer to our moon God today so I decided to wear it to keep me in devotional headspace.” I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation. Monotheistic students, as far as I know don’t have to think about this in a theology department. As a polytheist, I do. It’s no one’s fault but simply the status quo as it stands. I am grateful that my Gods trust me to do this and I am grateful that I recognized what was happening (it’s good to have a tradition that has the sacred art of divination!) before it had eaten too deeply into my confidence. For those of you in grad school, develop a good support network. You never know how the stress of the work you’re doing will affect you. Sic itur ad astra.
For those of you near NYC, the Cloisters Museum is currently having a lovely exhibit of books and jewelry from the 14th Century Jewish community in Colmar, France. It’s all on loan from the Musée de Cluny, Paris and while a small exhibit, definitely worth seeing. I went to a preview a couple of weeks ago (I received a Fellowship in Jewish studies this semester and it was one of the events recommended for us) and I’ll be going at least one more time this semester. (For those of you who, like me, are mobility challenged, please note that the Cloisters is really rough. While there IS an internal elevator, it’s accessible only with the aid of the staff and there are four flights of stone stairs to get to the ticket desk. Good luck).
I was particularly taken by the intimate nature of so many of the pieces. Most of it is women’s jewelry and if i recall correctly what the curator told us during our tour, the ring size at least points to it all belonging to the same woman, or at least the same family. Material culture is so incredibly fascinating. I took quite a few photos while I was there. The piece that impressed me the most was a wedding ring. It was used only for the actual ceremony in medieval Judaism. The every day ring would have been of solid silver or gold (I was told it was to protect the woman from being taken in by unscrupulous fiances: solid metal is easy to measure so you know precisely what you have). Look at the incredible filigree work:
Then there was this piece, a brooch about the size of a silver dollar. It really highlighted how there was so much cross-cultural contamination (in good ways) between the Jewish community in Colmar and the surrounding Christian majority. The styles in clothing, jewels, and so much more reflected that cross-pollination.
And finally there was this MSS that shows three skeletons. Y’all know how I like ossuaries and bone chapels so this immediately appealed to me. They look like they’re having a good time. LOL.
That’s just a taste of the exhibit — there were too many people there for me to take a lot of photos but if you’re interested, check out the website above. That is all.
Today is the bookversary of my more academic bent book, Transgressing Faith, which was originally submitted as my Master’s thesis in Religious Studies from NYU. 🤓
An eye-opening and balanced presentation of the history of the Heathen revival in America and its attendant conflicts over where to draw the boundaries concerning belief, practice and identity.
Though this restoration has only been going on for a few generations there is tremendous tension within the community concerning areas such as gender, race, normative social presentation, sexuality and questions of religious authority.
All of these are explored with a special emphasis placed on how the community treats those who don’t quite fit in or are called to intentionally transgressive roles.
Who has read it? What were your thoughts on it? Your questions?