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Hitting the Nail on the Head Perfectly

In our previous discussion, Neptunesdolphins hit the nail on the head perfectly, so perfectly, that I am pulling her comment out to highlight it here: 

“Sigh, once more modernity and Monotheism strikes again. I know lots of Pentacostals and Catholics who take exception. How else are you slain in the Holy Spirit or see the Mother Mary, unless you engage with God?

Problem is that living in monotheistic culture is that all Gods are false except for the “One True God.” If the Gods and other Divines are treated as fiction, then engaging with fictional characters is considered mental illness. Unless it is pop culture Deities.

The other is that monotheistic thinking flattens the world into human, and only human. Since there is a singularity of life, people cannot imagine engaging with a plurality of Beings. It is beyond their imaginings.

The other thing about tumblr which highlights problems in Paganism – the Deities are smaller than people. People are the Deity. There is no Other, there is only them and themselves.

And of course, Progressivism as it is practiced is a religion. What is happening in Paganism is that everything is being homogenized by Progressivism. So we have the preoccupation with who is a Nazi and who should be thrown out for impolitic thoughts. Monotheism in action – thought crimes and the flattening of thought.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I would also emphasize that the attitude expressed on the tumblr page I was discussing yesterday is not limited to Polytheisms. I know plenty of devout Catholics, Orthodox, etc. who have run up against it too. Thing is, their traditions’ structures are able to support and deflect this nonsense far better than ours. We have people taking it in wholesale and building a hollow practice around it and wondering why they’re getting nowhere. 

 

A Few Thoughts on Modernity and Indigeneity,

This morning a friend and fellow theologian said to me, “It’s not fashionable to believe in God anymore but I certainly do” and I told him that I quite agree. My belief in, love of, and veneration of my Gods is the axis mundi around which my entire life revolves. I believe it is our reason for being as human beings, and a good and potent thing. My response to him was this: “I think we need to look at why it’s no longer fashionable”(1).

All of this was in response to a conference panel that I attended earlier this week, one that I found very rewarding. It was a panel dealing with sexual diversity in Orthodoxy. Several students asked me why I was there (not being Orthodox. They weren’t being mean, they were honestly surprised and/or curious). I told them that I found it interesting and above all else, there is not a single issue in early Christianity the results of which my communities aren’t wrestling with now, and in many cases the same issues are affecting all communities of faith, regardless of tradition, today. Plus, I wanted to support my colleagues for whom this continues to be a matter of grave importance within their tradition and who had put in a tremendous amount of work over the last year discussing and debating the topic.

I don’t think, theologically speaking, that sexual diversity and LGBTQ+ rights are an issue in polytheistic communities overall. There is no underlying theological position being used to condemn or bar LGBTQ+ people from becoming clergy or participating in rituals (2). Likewise, I don’t think we see men or women being barred from clergy roles on account of their gender (3). In polytheistic traditions, I think the topic of sexual diversity is a non-issue (at least when one compares how highly charged a matter it is in monotheistic circles). I was happy to see the issue being discussed and the panel raised really good and thoughtful points. It really made me reflect on what our traditions do well and where we have a bit farther to go still too. One thing, however, bothered me immensely and I think we see it in our communities quite a bit, so I’m going to mention it here.

It seemed that “modernity” (in any particular iteration) was being accepted unconditionally as an unmitigated good, and its values as progress by pretty much everyone (4). I really don’t think that it is. I’ve never viewed the values of modernity as particularly conducive to devotion, tradition, and faith; in fact, I think those values, which place humanity at the top of the ontological food chain in ways that do not help us cultivate humility, virtue, kindness, or piety, are actually quite destructive – to culture, to tradition, and most of all to developing anything resembling devotional consciousness. They encompass a way of looking at the world, of relating to each other in the world that positions us if not antagonistic to then at best outside of divine order. That same divine order fills the world with bounty, richness, and elevates us all as beloved creations of the Gods. It grants us dignity as created beings, venerative beings, homines fideles. It does not deconstruct into meaninglessness, but creates and restores and nourishes that which has been created.

I think the many iterations of modernity have, in some way, taught us to look at devotion – particularly when we are reconnecting to our respective indigenous traditions, reconnecting to our tribal realities, reconnecting across divisive lines and when we’re reaching instead into the wondrous sense of being and becoming within the hothouse of ancestral consciousness, within the seedbeds of our religious traditions, in ways that have terrifying and much-needed potential to transform the world—as primitive. We are ever and always oh so horrified that we might look primitive, to outsiders and most of all to ourselves. It’s time to get over this.

I will say again what I have said so many times in my writing. Those of us coming from European ancestries have two deep ancestral wounds that we must uncover, acknowledge, examine, and heal. The first is that Christianity came into Europe, spread across the lands that our pre-Christian ancestors and their tribes called home and eradicated our religions, co-opted our cultures, and subordinated those cultures to divisive political ends. The second, and we are much less willing to look at this one, is that our ancestors then drank that terrible poison, came across the ocean and did unto others precisely what had been done to them. We have a debt to our dead just as much as they have one to us and to our world and until we accept and acknowledge that, our traditions will continue to wither on the vine and our world will continue its descent into chaos, and we ourselves will continue to suffer and to inflict suffering on others.

We are our ancestral lines walking, for good or ill (for good and ill). Modernity may tell us this is primitive thinking. It may tell us to scoff at bowing down before our Gods, Gods Whose blessings have the potential to lift us up and plant out feet firmly on the ground of restoration, it may tell us that honoring the land, the mountains, the rivers, the trees is silly. I think, however, it’s time to take a good long look at “modernity” and ask the question: what have you given us that is better?  

I’ll stop with that question since I have a class starting in fifteen minutes. We carry our ancestors with us, yes, their mistakes, but we carry their  wisdom too and maybe, just maybe if we honor that, we can find a way out of the mess we’ve made.

 

Notes:

  1. You want to be an atheist, rock on with your bad self. I have no problem with that provided you’re not coming into our polytheistic communities and trying to take on leadership positions, or shape and change liturgical and/or theological structures. You do you: the atheist sandbox is not my circus and y’all are not my monkeys. I have my hands full with polytheists lol. Just stay in your own sandbox.
  2. An issue came up a couple of years ago with Dianic Wiccans at Pantheacon but my understanding of their theology is that they are not polytheists.
  3. There may be specific temples that are gender restricted for reasons relevant to that particular cultus, or a particular Deity may be served by only one gender – Pudicitia being served by married women for instance, but those are relatively rare exceptions within a broad and rich family of polytheistic traditions. Those exceptions likewise have to do specifically with the nature of the Deity and His or Her hypostasis being honored in a particular way or place, not the inherent rightness/wrongness or goodness/sinfulness of a particular gender.
  4. One person even flat out equated modernity with technology in a way that I found both reductionist and a-historical. The ancient people’s hand technology (Romans had heated floors, running water; Greeks had steam engines for instance). Modernity is not about technology. It’s about values, systems, and ways of being in the world.

Roman Pietas and Pudicitia

Piety was the defining characteristic of Roman religion. It was a complex and multivalent term that intersected with nearly every aspect of Roman life and thought. It is essential to understanding Roman religion as the Romans practiced it and it is essential for those of us approaching Roman Gods today to at least have some comprehension of why this was so important a part of the religion and how it was put into play. Otherwise we risk disrespect to the Gods and a cognitive and spiritual disconnect with actual Roman cultus. This is an issue in Heathenry as well, which I’ll touch on below. Roman writers like Tacitus commented on the intense piety of the Germanic peoples in contrast even to Rome itself).

Let’s start first with what the word ‘pietas, pietatis” means. (1) Generally according to the OLD it’s translated as piety and first and foremost duty toward the Gods (christians retranslated that as love toward God), also loyalty, patriotism, duty, conscientiousness both to the Gods and one’s civic duties. (2) In many respects ‘pietas’ was inseparable from ‘civitas’, civic consciousness.

Pietas was also a Goddess. She had two temples at Rome as did the Goddess Pudicitia — Modesty. (3) Modesty is a loaded term for us isn’t it? For the Romans it was a matter of *self* regulation. One was expected to behave modestly, i.e. with moderation as part of being an adult and it didn’t matter if one was male or female, the expectation was the same.(4)

I think this is difficult for those of us who assume separation of church and state. It is impossible to separate Roman religious values from their social ones. The two were inextricably intertwined. Now what does that mean for a modern practitioner of cultus deorum? (and what does it mean for Heathens because the same thing could be said of the Germanic peoples)?. I think for one thing, it means that when we run into contemporary mores that are incompatible with those of our religion, or vice versa, religious mores that are perhaps incompatible with the modern world we must consider them carefully, not immediately expunging one in favor of the other without deep thought. A process of translation of religious culture comes into play and one would hope that the wishes of the Gods in these matters would also come into play as well.(5)

I was going to keep this going and bring in quotes by Cicero, and Livy, Tacitus, and Pliny, and certain modern scholars on the importance of piety and modesty in Roman religion but I’ve decided not to do that. I was telling my husband what I was writing and suddenly this question hit me and this is where I want to end this piece because for me, this is all that matters.

The Romans venerated the Goddesses Pietas and Pudicitia. They gave Them temples and cultus, in Rome, in the heart of the city. As we struggle to restore polytheisms today, (in this case Roman polytheism, but one can extrapolate for other polytheisms too), and as we are faced with discomfort as our modern values conflict with ancient religious ones here’s the question with Pudicitia:

Are all our gods worthy of veneration except Her?

Notes:

1. We cannot assume that simply because we speak Latin derived languages that we have the same religious understanding and mindset as the ancient Romans. To do so ignores two thousand years of Christian cultural and religious influences.
2. OLD = Oxford Latin Dictionary. See also the entry here. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=pietas&la=la#lexicon
3. In similar fashion, Eidos, shame was Deified among the Greeks and Pudicitia, modesty was deified amongst the Romans. Obviously modesty — self moderation—was rather important to their religion when they went through the trouble of ascribing it to a Deity. Given how often the idea of modesty is used to devalue women, it’s important to note here that modesty was not expected solely of women in ancient Rome. It was a virtue equally expected of women and men.
4. “Modestia” actually means ‘moderation.’ ‘Pudicitia’ is specifically sexual modesty and restraint. I suspect the role of pudicitia for both men and women had to do with a separation of public vs. private. Romans lived much more of their lives in what we would consider the public eye. The division between what was public and what was private was much more permeable than for us today, at least in American culture (my swiss mother used to lament this lol). I suspect pudicitia was connected in some way with delineating private spaces, including the space of the body.
5. There is a saying familiar to anyone working in translation studies: “traduttore, traditore” which in English means “translator, traitor” the idea being that once you translate a text, no matter how diligent you try to be, you run the risk of betraying the original text and intent of the author. We need to be certain as we translate our practices into the modern day that we don’t do this with our gods and ancestors. There is a way to do translation well but it requires care.

Modernity Does Not Equal Progress

So I was having a rather heated discussion with another polytheist on twitter about modernity. He is a fan and I’m not. Or rather I think the pros do not necessarily outweigh the damage and I think we need to consider very carefully every aspect of modern “values” (or lack thereof) before blanketly accepting them and I think in many ways, the modern worldview is incompatible with a polytheistic one.

Firstly, by modernity I don’t mean technology. I specifically mean a way of looking at the world informed by the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Industrialization, and the rise of Capitalism (I’m not anti-Capitalist but even a good thing can be taken too far!). It’s informed by an age that, especially with the rise of the medical establishment, all but pathologizes devotion. (1) It’s a modernity shaped by European imperialism, colonialism, and the idea of a hierarchy of religions that places polytheisms, animism, and deeply experiential ecstatic rites way at the bottom as ‘unenlightened.’. (2) In fact, I’m talking about the love affair we have with enlightenment – as though it’s happened—and the equating of ‘modernity’ automatically and uncritically with ‘progress.’

This is so much the case that it is difficult even to frame this discussion without falling into language already co-opted by evangelicals who rave about ‘culture wars.’ Well, while I think they are part of the problem, and the values they espouse ugly and hateful, I don’t disagree that there is a conflict between our dominant culture and the way our ancestors looked at the world.

Now the last time I had this argument, the inevitable red herrings arose: “but Galina, the position of the womyns is better now, and we have democracy, and there is no more slavery” (oh yeah, tell it to the single mother of two working three jobs at barely minimum wage living in a state that regulates what foods she can purchase with her EBT card. Tell it to the young black man serving twenty years for possession of a joint in a private prison where he’s used for slave labor or better, the one that isn’t because the cops shot him in the back). “Things are unqualifiably better now. We have gay marriage.”

Yes we do but I would caution that some progress does not mean unqualified progress. The position of women? Women had to fight and die for that (actually read accounts of what the suffragettes went through to gain us the vote in the US and the UK). That didn’t just happen with some magical wave of the modernity wand and perhaps had our people not been mentally and spiritually stomped down for two thousand years of Christianity with its intense and ingrained misogyny we might have managed to improve the lot of women sooner. And lets point out that for many women the world over their lot isn’t much better now than what it would have been in a poor family two thousand years ago. Yes, we have gay marriage but we also have a sickeningly high suicide rate amongst LGBTQ adolescents. The ancient world wasn’t perfect but there were parts of the polytheistic world where same sex couplings were not an issue. In fact, there were even places where it was celebrated.(3)

Many of the conveniences we have now the ancient Romans had (running water, hot baths, indoor plumbing) and then lost with Christianity (clean might let the devil in!) and then had to regain. So I”d say we’re about running even there.

Racism is probably worse now than it ever was in the ancient world. I would go so far as to say race didn’t exist as a discriminatory classification until modern colonialism and the rise of industrialization (racism and classism are deeply intertwined as is discrimination against workers in general). As far as government goes, I make it my policy not to discuss what I consider to be the best and worst forms of government online and I’m not violating that one here! But I digress. Some things are in fact better now. I wonder how much sooner they would have gotten better without the interregnum of the Inquisition.

My intention isn’t to underplay the very important improvements we’ve made socially but to point out that there were areas in the polytheistic world just as advanced socially and ethically and we in our modern world have a hell of a long way to go.(4) I also think there are some very serious issues with modernity that cannot be easily accommodated by a polytheistic worldview.

The problem with modernity first and foremost is that it encourages us to compromise in our values and with our Gods. Some people, like my twitter critic, would argue that this is the nature of things. That as values shift in society our practices must of necessity change, that this is called compromise and is the mark of a civilized man. I’m sure that’s what the Christian missionaries told native American children too as they were herding them off to mission schools, cutting their hair, starving them, forbidding them their ‘savage’ religion, and saving their souls. Think I’m making a leap of logic? Well, I’m just trying to keep up with Mr. Twitter. Seriously though, it starts with a sense of entitlement and superiority, with a sense that one is more enlightened than those backward folks sacrificing to their gods. (5) It starts with a story we tell ourselves about how the world works.

As polytheists, I think we run the risk of having internalized that self-consciousness. I think this sense that there is something somehow less than about our ancestral ways, that we must be more evolved, that we know better than our ancestors, that we are entitled to do things our way without ever considering what the Gods might want because we can’t really know what the gods want that’s crazy talk is part of the poison that comes with being a child of the post modern age.

Because we assume that our ‘values’ are unquestioningly egalitarian, we all too often never pause to consider how a polytheist raised in a polytheistic culture might view the world and I think to restore cleanly we have to do exactly that. I think that when we approach these traditions as dead traditions (until we came along, having been all modern and enlightened to pluck them out of obscurity) we do ourselves, our ancestors, and Gods a disservice. I think that it is crucial to truly comprehend how to establish and maintain right relationship with the Gods, to attempt to at least consider the worldview of those whose entire religious culture was focused on just that. (6)

Modernity was very much a reaction to Christian hegemony. In some ways that was good, fostering as it did a greater climate of criticism and intellectual inquiry but it is significant that it was formed in response to a monolithic force absolutely hostile to polytheistic religions in all their forms. In its response to religion, “Religion” all too often came to mean “superstition” and now atheism or humanism has replaced Protestant Christianity as the highest point on that hierarchy of religions.

The result, (and I’m skipping a couple of steps here that I will address later – I don’t want this to become too long) is a certain moral relativism and subjectivity where the comfort levels of community take precedent over the rites and rituals of the Gods, where personal comfort and liberty are reified beyond piety and devotion; and the flip side of that where devotion is then given over to ridicule. “You put the Gods before anything’ my critic cried and he’s absolutely right, including over the depredations of modernity because despite the best spin doctoring in the world by first world corporations, they exist.

Progress at any cost, comfort at any cost has led to an environment on the brink of collapse. Women still fight for freedom of choice, a right they had de facto in many ancient polytheistic cultures. (7) We pollute our food sources with GMOS unthinking of the long term consequences to the earth, and we still have monotheisms tearing up sacred sites and ravaging the earth in the name of their God. I could go on. The most troubling is that we have largely lost the ability to see the sacred in the world.

There’s been a lot of talk in Pagan and Polytheistic circles lately about ‘re-enchanting the world.’ Well, I don’t think the world ever got disenchanted. We did. We lost our ability to position our world as a sacred landscape, full of Gods, spirits, temples, shrines, and sacred sites, full of the holy and dangerous. The problem is that our spiritual senses have atrophied over generations. That is in part what we’re fighting to reclaim.

Worst of all modernity teaches us to dismiss our Gods. If I were an evangelical I might refer to the unholy alliance between modernity and pop culture. We not only are surrounded by influences that teach us to take our Gods for granted, but by those that encourage outright impiety.(8) Most of us are only all too willing to compromise: “oh I can’t do animal sacrifice. What would the neighbors say?” or “I can’t cover my head when I pray, people might think I’m backward. I feel self conscious.” Or maybe “that’s too inconvenient right now and people might think I’m strange so I wont’ do that.” We talk about values but how many of us seriously sit down and consider whether or not the values we’ve been raised with (largely Christian influenced) and with which we’ve been inculcated by this idea of modernity are compatible with a polytheistic outlook? How many of us are willing to change those values when we find they’re not, rather than first immediately changing our practices?

How many of us would think to consult a diviner to find out what the Gods want before changing a potentially problematic practice out of convenience? I do not think this urge to compromise to seem more modern and ‘with it’ is a positive one, or one that serves the restoration of our traditions at all. I think it’s ultimately deleterious and a step away from secularism.(9)

I think we at least need to recognize that there are potential conflicts and as polytheists need to learn to allow our polytheism to be the lens through which we engage with and yes, judge “modernity.” That’s where the ‘culture war’ lies in our lack of critical acceptance of modernity as unquestioned progress. 

 

 

 

Notes

 

  1. Ariel Glucklich talks about this at length in his book “Sacred Pain,” drawing a straight line between the rise of the AMA (American medical association) and its British equivalent and the growing distaste for deeply embodied forms of devotion.
  2. Many of the disciplines in academia that we take for granted including Religious Studies and Anthropology came right out of European colonialism. You can see it even in the work of such seminal writers as Emile Durkheim, who positions religion solely as a social phenomenon, clearly priviledging white, upper class Protestantism as the most enlightened form of religious thought. See also Max Weber’s “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” for a glimpse into the specifically Protestant nature of the modern world view. These are very basic writers, and I note them here as a starting point for research. This is by no means an isolated thing.
  3. In the Roman empire for instance, it was not a matter of being heterosexual or homosexual but of who held the power position. It was all about power dynamics. Think also on the Sacred Theban band, an elite group of fighters that had to be partnered men. It was considered better for their psychological health and their prowess in combat if they were partnered with each other. “Gay” as a category wasn’t invented yet, and so long as one didn’t violate expected familial obligations or make an ass of oneself socially, no one for the most part cared. Of course the Theban band was still defeated by Alexander …. And his male lover.
  4. Just on the subject of women, for instance, western Locri was largely matrilineal. Certain black sea tribes had relative equality between the sexes up to and including women going to war. Pythagoreans and Cynics had female philosophers who taught the genders equally. There were plenty of female monarchs during the Hellenistic period and the polytheistic world in general was deeply inventive and creative.
  5. The polytheistic world also had an inherent acceptance of religious diversity. You don’t really see conquest in the name of God with the moral mandate to convert until monotheism. Polytheism by the very fact that it is rooted in a broad diversity of divinity seems inherently more flexible in accommodating regional cultus and other polytheisms.
  6. And in most polytheisms in the ancient world there was very little if any division between religious thought and social thought, or between “church” and “state”. Rome is a perfect example, or Egypt, or even Germania where military commanders would not make a move without consulting diviners. The sacred and a sense of our communal and individual obligations to the sacred was interwoven into polytheistic cultures organically in a way that it isn’t for us no matter how hard we work.
  7. The Roman empire for instance so loved its abortifacients that the most popular of them, sylphium, was enshrined on coins and eventually went extinct from over use. Go, Rome!
  8. We have academics parsing out the protocols of religious devotion in mystics reducing it to psychosis and social maladjustment or resistance, ignoring accounts of a deeply fulfilling spiritual life left by the mystics themselves. We turn sacred sites into tourist traps to make a buck and don’t think twice. We have television series like “Supernatural,” “Xena,” and too many comic books to count and the like presenting our Gods as laughing stocks worthy of mockery. The ancients had traditions of satire and comedy but these were rooted in a culture that by and large supported cultus to the Gods. We’re not in that situation and even in the ancient world these things were often open to criticism on the grounds of impiety.
  9. One should consider for instance how this worked (or not) for the Catholics. I would argue that Vatican II, which took much of the mystery out of the mass, put it in the vernacular, turned the priest to face the audience, and then later changes which put the emphasis away from the sacrality of the rite and on to the social experience of going to mass have watered down Catholic ritual structure to near meaninglessness. Anything approaching mystery or reverence is slowly receding, a process that started with the backlash to the Counter Reformation in the nineteenth century.