Today in the United States it is the fourth of July (though by the time I get around to posting this, it may actually be the 5th). This day commemorates the founding of our nation and its war for independence from Britain. For the longest time, while I enjoyed the fireworks and the trappings of celebration, I never thought much more about it. I know the history of our country good, bad, and in-between and I continue to read, learn, and study as time permits. It’s always been a topic of mild interest for me, particularly colonial history. This year, however, I’ve been thinking quite a bit more about the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and especially the Constitution, about what it means, the conditions under which it was written, and most of all about what a remarkable document it truly is.
This is an odd place for me to find myself. I’ve never, ever considered myself a patriot. I’ve never been proud of being American nor indeed does it form a significant part of my personal identity (as I know from talking to many of my friends that it often does for others). In fact, growing up in Maryland, I was often ashamed and irritated by the general Weltanschauung of this country. I hated what I perceived as a lack of culture and class, the stupidity and mediocrity that I saw everywhere around me (as it seemed to me as a child. As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate the nuances of this country more, particularly the way that Americans are open-hearted and friendly from the outset as a general rule. No longer being one of only two people in my grade school class who liked to read books lol, and with the autonomy of an adult in choosing her own friends and pursuits, I realize everything is not as bad as it seemed when I was small). I always longed to be elsewhere. This longing only increased when I began studying ballet with an eye toward making a career for myself. Nothing that I found in the States, especially the broad, brash ballet style so favored by Balanchine favorably compared with the elegant traditions of France, Denmark, or Russia (1). This feeling didn’t abate as I grew. Later on, having an adopted mother who was Swiss helped my political awareness to develop well outside of the American norm – I’m neither Democrat nor Republican and were I living in the 18th century, I’d probably have supported England– so it’s odd for me now to find myself more and more over the past few years in the position of not only having to explain the Constitution and in some cases basic American history to people, but also realizing what a truly remarkable project it was and remains.
Enacted in 1789, the Constitution contains a preamble (“We the people…”), seven Articles (describing the three branches of government -legislative, executive, and judicial,- the responsibilities of the state and federal governments, and delineating how the government works at a national level), and 27 Amendments, the first ten of which form the Bill of Rights, which restrict the power of the government and grant us such rights as free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms (2). It is not perfect, but it is, nonetheless, an astonishing document. In drafting the Constitution, our founding Fathers for all of their flaws, did something ground-breaking and unique, something extraordinary, and we as a nation are at our best when we are working together to live up to the ideals articulated in its laws. I don’t think the writers of the Constitution thought their country was perfect. In fact, the very language of the preamble shows quite the opposite: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” not a perfect union, but one that would be better, a more perfect union. This document was a starting point, not an end. It was the beginning of our country, not its terminus. It was a foundation upon which we might build, working toward that “more perfect” union.
Instead, today, we as a society are doing our damndest to burn that promise down, to destroy that union. Benjamin Franklin, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, once warned that, “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” As we sacrifice more of our freedom for a false sense of security, beg for more regulation on our personal lives and bodies, for restrictions on the very freedoms that our forefathers fought so hard to defend, I cannot help but think that we are slipping the yoke around our own necks. If I could go back in time to 1776, I would beg the founding Fathers to end slavery even if it cost them the support of the southern states. I would point to the divisions that are being used – not by those desiring equality for all, but by groups like antifa that would exploit that desire for their own deeply destructive ends—to destroy the country that our founders were trying against all odds to secure. I would beg them to acknowledge those men and women of color among them as equals and to fight hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, side by side to build this nation proudly, equally. Because to do anything else would be to create a putrid division that would continue to fester beneath the surface of their nation, impeding the very liberties that the Constitution urges us to ensure.
We had an opportunity to begin this country clean in 1776 and we failed to do that. I believe, however, that slowly we have been working toward a ‘more perfect union’ ever since, even though we have more often than not fallen short. It is up to all of us to keep our eyes raised high to the expectations laid out in our Constitution, a document unlike any other in the world at the time it was composed, to keep our eyes upon that and to fix our minds and characters on attaining all that it promises. I do not believe the way toward that goal lies in deconstruction, in burning, looting, rioting, and tearing down and rejecting order. I think it lies in remembering that we can and should be better than we are, and in working toward that as individuals, as communities, and human beings with a shared stake in our nation. Those things that spread division, that offer no solution but dissolution, that spit on the very freedoms our ancestors of every color and every race fought to defend do nothing to further its promise. They are the things that will destroy us from within.
I’m still not a patriot. More often than not in my heart of hearts I want to ask, “what is “American” to me that I should care about any of this?” Yet I do because I have had ancestors who survived communist Russia, who were taken from Lithuania and sent to gulags for their patriotism (3). My family story has taught me how important a thing it is to fight for freedom and to cherish its promise and at its best, that is what America stands for in the minds of so many of our immigrant ancestors and so many immigrants today (4). That same story has taught me the need to acknowledge failure while at the same time working to build up our communities, to demand change, without also begging for destruction. The marches, riots, protests currently taking place across the USA sadden me to my core and they make me angry. The peaceful protests are fine but too often they’ve been coopted by groups that have zero interest in fighting racism, but instead wish to see the end of America…with no clear, workable vision of anything better with which to replace it. It is destruction for the sake of destruction and isn’t doing a god damned thing to make the lives of POC better.
I think we should treasure our history – the good, the bad, the ugly – because it is our litmus test, our line in the sand, our point of departure. It isn’t there to make us comfortable or uncomfortable. At times, it is right and proper that we be deeply ashamed. At times, proud. Acknowledging all those messy parts, framed against the remarkable hope embedded in our founding documents, and moving forward as a people is the challenge that we have always faced. I rarely write about overtly political things here (I save all that crap for facebook). I do think, however, that participating in the civic life of one’s community is something that a well-rounded adult does as a matter of course. It’s not devotional work, but it is an obligation that we maintain as part of remaining in right relationship with the vaettir of our nation, our state, our city, our town, our immediate community (5).
We have an incredibly robust government that is capable of allowing necessary change to occur even in the face of huge opposition. Its checks and balances are our strength and somehow this keeps our government from sliding into either dictatorship or chaos. It’s a remarkably dynamic and lively system. People have the freedom to question even the constitution itself, but before we decide to rid ourselves entirely of that document, we might want to consider living up to it.
- Each of the national ballet schools in Russia, England, France, or Denmark has a unique style. The American style, in many ways defined and codified by George Balanchine and his NYCB and School of American Ballet has a style that is broad, open, and lacking in the tightly controlled elegance of the more traditional systems. It’s like dealing with multiple dialects of the same language. Each has its beauty and its flaws.
- That freedom, even when articulated in a Constitution, is never a given is perfectly demonstrated by the slow chipping away of our 2nd amendment rights in this country, a process that has been going on for decades but that has gained greater traction in the wake of Columbine and other school shootings. The degree to which contemporary Americans are willing to sacrifice freedom for the illusion of security is truly terrifying.
- When I was 15, I had the opportunity to do a nearly semester long exchange program in what was then the Soviet Union, and by chance, we were sent to Vilnius, Lithuania. Almost all of my dad’s family came from Vilnius (a few from Kaunas) and I actually met cousins while I was there. One of the most moving experiences was meeting my father’s uncle and having him grab my arms and say to me, “You tell your father I’m still here. I was sent to Siberia, but I survived and I’m still here.” I didn’t understand what he meant then or why it was so important a message, but I do now. I also understand why my Lithuanian ancestors were so deeply * angry * that I changed my last name from ‘Dabravalskas’ when I was 18 to one of the Russian names in my family line. I was a ballet dancer. At the time, every director I had made an issue of how long my Lithuanian last name was. Now, I’d tell them to kiss off but at 17 and 18 in the late eighties, trying for a ballet career, I wasn’t that bold! It was only when I married that my Lithuanian ancestors let go of the majority of their anger over that name change.
- My friend Tatyana was telling me earlier today that her parents, who immigrated here from the Ukraine when she was a pre-teen become extremely patriotic around thanksgiving and July 4 and it amused her. It made perfect sense to me though: they chose this country, coming from a repressive communist state where freedom of movement, education, job, and thought were curtailed. They know the opposite of what America represents. My dad, having been born – first generation American – in 1917 was the same way.
- ‘Vaettir’ is the old Norse word for (generic) ‘spirits.’ In this case, I’m referring to land spirits.
For further reading:
Full text of the Constitution may be found here.
Frederick Douglass’ “What to a Slave is the 4th of July” may be found here.
This is an illustration of an actual burial that was found a couple of years ago and when I first saw it, I thought of Hlif, one of our Goddesses of Healing, Whose name means Help and Who brings relief to birthing women. Ever since I learned about this burial, I have represented Her on my shrine to the Healing Gods with a bit of swan’s down.
Vedbæk mesolithic cemetery / Vedbaek burial/ Bøgebakken archaeological site
Illustration graphic novel ‘Mezolith‘ by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank
For those of you who, like me, did not learn about this in your high school American History classes, here is a good article by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr explaining what this day is all about.
This is a very good article on the desecration of Thor’s sacred Tree by Boniface.
This man was a piece of shit. He did his desecration backed by the military forces of Charles Martel (I believe it was Martel.). In case you’ve always wondered why the Heathens didn’t fight him — the asshole had an army present and protecting him. There is a similar story of St. Martin of Tours. Both accounts read as though the “saint” were alone when they destroyed the shrines. No one mentions the armed, Christian military force also present.
Now hagiography is not history but i think sometimes we have to look at these depredations – religious and cultural genocide– as an accurate portrayal of how our polytheistic ancestors were reduced to a subaltern people and then their religious traditions erased: at the end of an ax blade and a bible.
I’d like to see that statue that marks the spot where Boniface acted put to the ax. and in general, it’s about time we polytheists were the ones bearing the axes in defense of our traditions because while there are good Christians who would be horrified by such actions as Boniface represents, there are also those like the evangelicals in Brasil, who are murdering pious priests and practitioners of Candomble when the latter won’t desecrate their shrines. Monotheistic barbarism continues.
And this type of desecration of sacred places, what monotheism did in its spread across europe was religious and cultural genocide. It starts with trees and ends with people as any study of Charlemagne’s war on the Saxons shows.
Don’t think this is one bit different from what the Taliban did to those Buddhist statues. It’s the same psychopathic impulse embedded in monotheism. Monotheism isn’t just the belief in one deity, it’s the eradication of all others.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims should absolutely have clean space to practice their religions to the best of their ability. Everyone should love and honor their Gods as best as they possibly can; however, the moment they start encroaching into polytheistic spaces, we need to rise up in defense of our Gods, traditions, and ancestors with pen, paintbrush, or ax, if the situation requires. Because now, as in the time of Boniface, shrines are being desecrated and polytheists are dying.
Apparently Emily Kamp, this month’s “Polytheistic Voices” interviewee, is getting a bit of harassment on her tumblr page because she was interviewed by me. Really pathetic, folks, but unsurprising (though I constantly marvel at the lack of nuanced reading comprehension in some of my critics. Wow. There are resources that can help you, folks, really. I’d look into that if I were you. I can hunt up a list of organizations that focus on increasing literacy if you like).
At any rate, one of the criticisms is that I apparently “devalued the Holocaust” by comparing it to “willing conversions.” Firstly, buttercups, I never said anything about the Holocaust. I said, if I recall correctly, that the destruction of our traditions, the destruction of our shrines, temples, groves, and sacred places, the forced conversion and religious genocide that occurred as a consequence of monotheism, specifically of Christianity marching through Europe and later Islam through the middle east (and for a time into Europe) was a holocaust. I stand by that statement. The destruction of these sacred covenants with the land, the ancestors and the Gods, the destruction of our traditions and the corruption of the world into monotheism was a terrible holocaust, one from which we have yet to recover. The word, my dear readers, existed long before World War II. A simple search of the term on dictionary.com yields the following:
- a great or complete devastation or destruction, especially by fire.
- a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; burnt offering.
3.(usually initial capital letter) the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II (usually preceded by the).
4.any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life.
If I were to give a sacrifice to Odin, and after slaughtering the animal, commit it to full immolation that would, technically be a holocaust. The ruthless destruction of our traditions and those who practiced them is likewise a holocaust. Isn’t it interesting how context, indefinite articles, and capitalization (or lack thereof) actually matters grammatically? English is neat that way. (The emphasis in the above dictionary.com quote was in the original. It was not mine).
Secondly, if anyone actually thinks that Europe converted willingly, you all need to read your history a little more thoroughly. Moreover, if you think our polytheistic ancestors abandoned their traditions and Gods so readily then why are you even bothering to practice any type of polytheism now? Those who saw the rise of Christianity did not, in fact – despite generations of Christian propaganda to the contrary (including a deeply embedded idea of hierarchy of religions that places monotheism or atheism at the top)– go gently into that good night. I often wonder what it was like for the generation that was forced to bury their sacred items and images, or give them over to the bog in order that they might not be desecrated by Christian hands.
Let’s see, off the top of my head:
We all know about Hypatia, the philosopher tortured to death by Christians, but have you bothered to read about Olvir of Egg, a Scandinavian martyr tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson (may he be ever damned) because he would not abandon the Norse Gods? How many of you know about Charlemagne’s continued persecutions against Saxon Heathens, culminating in the massacre of 2500 of them? Or the forced conversion of the Orkneys – let’s round up all the children while the men are out working and threaten to kill them if the village doesn’t convert? So Christian. So very, very Christian.
Then there’s Raud the strong, also tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson, again for refusing conversion. Likewise there’s a Norwegian chieftain and priest – unnamed I believe in the sources – who was tortured to death by –guess who—Olaf Trygvasson again for attempting to protect the sacred images of Thor and the temple in Maeren when Trygvasson destroyed it.
We have the Stellinga, still practicing their polytheism under duress in the ninth century. There’s Eyvind Kinnrifi, tortured to death by…wanna hazard a guess? …Trygvasson again, for refusing to convert. No wonder the Christians canonized this fucker. He sure kept busy butchering the pious. May we be as efficient in restoring our traditions as he was in destroying them – and preferably without all the bloodshed.
Saints’ lives are always sickly entertaining reading, if one wishes to see what polytheists faced during the spread of Christianity. Take the life of Martin of Tours for instance. I can barely stand to read it (and I’ve had to multiple times in various theology classes). Just from memory, I recall he interrupted a Pagan funeral procession, desecrating the ancestral rites because he wanted to make sure the Gods weren’t being venerated. He destroyed multiple temples and shrines, and chopped down trees holy to the local Pagans. Each time, people protested up to the point of riots. This is not an isolated series of incidents. This was standard operating procedure for these missionaries and each time there is recorded resistance.
My favorite account is the wonderful resistance by the Pagans at Lyon in the second century who, frankly, were just sick of Christian bullshit. (Eusebius writes about this in his Ecclesiastical History and of course it’s framed as persecution of Christians. Yes, defending one’s ancestral traditions, refusing to abandon one’s Gods, and driving out the people who are desecrating one’s holy places is persecution, but monotheists coming into a place engaging in wholesale destruction of sacred spaces and attempting to force conversion isn’t? Obviously, these early Christians had the same literacy problems as some of my tumblr readers).
Blood was spilled to defend our Gods and our traditions. That Christian writers later presented conversion as inevitable and willing does not mean that it was in fact so. It was anything but.
Intrepid tumblristas are also protesting that I support human sacrifice. Obviously, this is ludicrous. What I’m not willing to do, however, is condemn our ancestors because it was occasionally practiced. They lived in a very, very different world and had reasons for doing what they did, reasons that we may now find abhorrent. I’m not suggesting we return to giving human sacrifice, but neither do I think we’re more advanced than our ancestors. We may have better technology but we’re so much more disconnected from the land, the dead, and the Gods that in no way do I think we’re particularly evolved. So take that for what it’s worth.
I do think it would be a good and holy thing if we were able to lay ourselves down before our Gods in offering and die in sacrifice to Them if that is what we wish, (you know, consent matters in some things) and how we wish to die but given the state of euthanasia laws in this country, that’s not going to happen in any of our lifetimes so what I think on this matter is largely irrelevant. Likewise, if I were a soldier, I would, in fact, dedicate my kills to my Gods. Why not? I belong to a God of war and I’m not wasteful. But you know, that’s all contextual, theoretical, and nuanced as opposed to blanket support for human sacrifice. No wonder my tumblr readers found it confusing to digest. (Though let’s be honest: given how our society treats its most vulnerable, the blanket callousness and cruelty with which we treat our impoverished, the pointless wars in which we’ve been engaged for what? Almost 20 years now…one wonders if we don’t’ have a culture that supports human sacrifice wholesale and for far less relevant a purpose than honoring the gods. In fact, I think we have very little room to condemn our ancestors when we have turned the world that we inherited from them to shit).
Remember, folks: reading is fundamental.
So having a discussion today with someone who is very much in support of NOLA taking down any monuments of the Confederacy (according to this guy, that’s not ‘destruction’). I’m very much against removing any historical monuments. I don’t think visible erasure of our history is a way of dealing with that history or of healing its wounds and I’m sick of seeing people accommodating this PC agenda. I question what’s next: desecrating the dead by removing their monuments? oh wait, that’s already happened in Confederate cemeteries.
Now I am no fan of the Confederacy. the history of slavery and human trafficking in this country makes my stomach lurch when I sit and think about it. it’s one of the most shameful periods of our history BUT it’s our history and I don’t think anything good ever came of denying one’s own history. We don’t learn by white washing and pretending things never happened, and we don’t learn by desecrating monuments to the dead.
I would be all for setting up monuments commemorating emancipation, the triumph of the Union, free black communities (NOLA had a thriving free black community since at least the eighteenth century) in the same locales but to erase history well, that leaves us with a generation that doesn’t know where it came from and so can be very easily led to where someone else thinks it should go. I’m never against adding more memorials. It’s the taking away that bothers me.
Someone asked me in one of these discussions whether we shouldn’t prioritize the needs of the living over the dead and I said absolutely not. The dead should and will always take precedence with me. A culture and a people’s worth is determined by how they tend their dead and here’s the thing, if you’re tending your dead rightly and well (which includes holding them accountable for the shit that they did), it will transform how you engage with the living. But in no world should the dead, our ancestors, take second place. Being a functioning human means being in right relationship with the ancestors, the Gods, and the land spirits and that impacts every other living interaction. We don’t achieve that by pandering to a group of PC fanatics who have no long term vision and preach only to sentiment and emotion.
If these monuments are being used by white supremacists to advance their agenda (real white supremacists, not people who refuse to feel guilty for being white), then address that, but don’t think it’s addressed by pretending that history never happened. If you don’t remember your history, you’re guaranteed to repeat it. We’re seeing that in the daily news. These monuments serve as much for warning as they do commemoration.
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Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
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We are currently in the 100th year anniversary of WWI, a war that I think often gets forgotten in the wake of the horrors of WWII. I recently read a couple of things that showed me exactly how little knowledge there is not only of this war, but of history in general. I thought it might be helpful to post a couple of simple, straightforward videos on the origins of WWI. These are not painful to watch and in fact are actually quite entertaining. Maybe it will help increase readers’ knowledge base. I agree with the narrator of one of these videos: WWI was the seminal event of the 20th century. We should know what caused it and what happened.
Here’s a discussion (quite an entertaining one no less) on factors that led to the start of WWI:
Here’s another (love this series):
(There’s one error: it wasn’t Alexander the II who was forced to accept an impotent parliament, it was Nicholas the II. I think it was just a slip of the tongue on the narrator’s part. The creators of the cartoons own up to errata here and also provide interesting and random facts that didn’t make it into the main videos. I particularly like the conclusion he comes to at the very end. Watch all the other videos first though before watching this one.: ).
Here’s part II:
and part III (they’re very short):
and the final part IV:
I particularly like the second video in that it points to the long range, inter-generational impact of WWI – not just that it led to WWII, but that the entire face of the 20th century up to and including our generation would likely have been completely different but for this war. It changed everything.