Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: September 2009

It’s a Streetlight

Something happened the other night that brought to mind a topic I’ve been wanting to blog about for quite some time now.

Saturday night, while the Trophy Wife was out celebrating Mabon with her friends (we’ve a mixed marriage, you see; she’s Pagan, and I’m Heathen), most of them happened to see a very peculiar light display in the sky. I didn’t see it, having been inside cooking way too much chicken cacciatore and generally getting things set up for the feast to follow their ritual. But I was told about the event and my first instinct was to turn to Google to see if anyone else had seen it, and if so, was there any mundane explanation.

Turns out that the same thing was seen up and down the East Coast, and was caused by a NASA experiment involving clouds in the upper atmosphere. I have no doubt that it was an impressive sight, though, and especially coming after a ritual experience I can see how one could ascribe to it more significance than it might otherwise warrant. The tinfoil-hat brigade are out in force, with claims of NASA cover-ups and sinister alien visitations. However, as it turns out, “it’s a streetlight.”

It does, however, bring up a point about the role of skepticism in heathenry (and paganism, for that matter) in general, and in those magical practices associated with it. It’s easy to say that our sacrifices bring the spring rains, or that our good fortune comes from a healthy relationship with the local land-wights. Even when it comes to the very existence of the Gods and other wights, we who live in the twenty-first century, full of miracles of technology and science, must balance faith against credulity.

Is every crow that croaks from right to left as we leave the house betokening a good outcome of our journey? Are there really Gods out there in some other world called Asgard? Do disembodied spirits really dwell in stones and rivers, and can they somehow influence our lives in ways both subtle and gross? Does the fehu rune somehow function as a key to prosperity and change? Just how literal, and how symbolic, should we take our lore and our beliefs and practices?

Naturally, this is not a question limited to Paganism. Christianity has been struggling with such things for centuries, as have just about every religion out there (the FSM being a notable exception). However, being a Heathen myself, and one possessed of what I like to think is an analytical mind, I find myself thinking about such things.

What are we doing with our rituals? Are we really making offerings to unseen entities in order to garner their favor, or are we performing actions to reinforce our group-psychological and social ties to others who do the same? Is magic really able to influence probability to make a desired outcome more likely, or is that just a psychological effect of clearly stating an intend and following it through?

More to the point; does it make any difference one way or the other?

Is religion… any religion… about connecting with a Divine force, or is it about connecting with our fellow believers? The ancient Romans and Greeks thought that orthopraxy (correct practices) was much more important than orthodoxy (correct dogma). We have a multitude of examples from history and literature of people who were perfectly comfortable mixing Heathenry and Christianity, or Heathenry and no literal belief at all. It seems to be a common thread among the Indo-European folk that the social aspects of shared belief are more important than any individual’s particular faith in the literal existence of Gods and spirits.

Partake in this thought-experiment with me.

Assume the Gods and spirits do exist. If we act as if they do exist, we gain their favor. If we act as if they do not, we lose nothing. Remember, most Pagan and Heathen religions don’t reserve punishment in the afterlife for lack of belief, but rather for bad behavior; murder, oath-breaking, etc. So in this conception, Pascal’s Wager has a bit of a side-bet.

Assume the Gods and spirits do not exist. If we act as if they do exist, we behave in a pretty socially acceptable manner. We don’t murder, we don’t break our promises. We may… may… gain a slight psychological benefit. We lose a few minutes a week, but we forge social bonds with that same time. I’d call that loosing nothing, at worst. If we act as if they do not exist, we lose nothing. And for Heathens and Pagans, there’s no eternal brimstone for choosing wrong. You just led a good life by acting as if they do exist. Pascal’s Wager really works out well for us.

So… what’s to lose by acting as if they do exist? That’s the chips we set down when taking Pascal’s Wager. A few minutes a day, on average, spent in ritual. Over the course of a human lifetime, that time might well have been spent in other pursuits. But there are benefits as well; we get social bonding, good behavior, and no damnation if we’re wrong!

So I say be skeptical. If there is proof against a thing, discard it. But if faith provides some benefit, even intangible, embrace it. You’ve got nothing to lose by doing so, and you might even gain something. Don’t murder anyone, and don’t break your sworn word. I think that’s two commandments just about everybody can agree with.

Experimental Reconstructionism

My brother Lou has coined a term to describe the approach that Afstoll Thjod is taking towards our religious beliefs and practices; he calls it “experimental reconstructionism” (inspired by “experimental archaeology”). I think it’s a perfect descriptor, and would like to expand upon it briefly.

Part of what makes it such a great term is that it juxtaposes two words that in modern Paganism in general, and Heathenry in particular, have often been taken to be opposites. If one is reconstructing something, how can there be room for experimentation? And, similarly, if one is experimenting in terms of beliefs and practices, how can one really claim to be reconstructing a religion?

One of the misconceptions about reconstructionism is that we reconstructionists simply look stuff up in a book, preferably written in the 19th century, start acting out what the author says, and then spend the rest of our lives wandering about in an atavastic stupor, never looking beyond the 10th Century and wondering if there is a way to undo our childhood vaccinations. The simple truth is that no such book exists, and if it did, it’s certain that some later author would write another book completely contradicting most of its conclusions.

The sources that are available to us– and in this I include not only the corpus of written lore, but the evidence of archaeology, comparative sociology, folklore, linguistics, etc.– are, to put it bluntly, inadequate for the task of reconstructing the religion(s) of the ancient Germanic peoples. In many cases we have only the broad outlines on a topic; the indicator that something was done, or believed, but with no meat to hang on the bone. And even then, it’s possible to get those broad outlines wrong, or make some assumption that are simply incorrect, or miss something for years that later on seems perfectly obvious.

Which is not to say that we are completely lacking in specifics; far from it. One of the benefits of having a pretty extensive written corpus of lore is that there are many nuggets for the reconstructionist to mine. But despite the claims of some modern authors, we don’t really have even a credible outline of how an ancient blót was conducted. We have a pretty comprehensive description of how the Anglo-Saxons practiced their sumble, but it contradicts some aspects of surviving descriptions of how the Norwegians did so. We have a very complete account of an ancient seiðr ritual, but I’ve never heard of any modern group that actually does it that way, completely. With all this flux and chaos, what is a good reconstructionist to do?

That’s where the experimentation comes in.

Despite the fact that I’m regarded as an arch-reconstructionist by many folks, I’ve got to say that the way I view and practice ritual has changed constantly over the years. I am constantly searching out new knowledge, and as I do so, I find new things to incorporate into ritual, or realize that something that I’d been doing for years was, in fact, not historical at all, and jettisoned it once I found a practice that was much more in line with the ways of our ancestors.

But the experimental aspect of this goes far beyond merely adjusting to new or newly-discovered scholarship. On a very practical level, some things just don’t seem to work. Other things work really, really well. The former are gotten rid of, and the latter are expanded. The whole thing is constantly being polished, honed to a fine edge, and if I do say so myself, the rituals I write today are much more powerful and effective than the ones I wrote five years ago. In some ways they are more elaborate, and in other ways they are more streamlined, based on years of practice, self-examination, and refinement.

This brings me to contrast this approach to those of more “modernist” Heathen groups. One of life’s little ironies is that some of the most vociferous critics of reconstructionism have themselves not changed the way they do ritual in 18 years! Some groups are still doing their rituals exactly as they were written in Teutonic Religion (1991), Ravenbok (1992) or A Book of Troth (1992). These are the same people who complain that reconstructionists are stuck in the past. Hell, I don’t do the same ritual today that I did 18 months ago, let alone 18 years ago. I’ve got your “living, breathing faith” right here, fella.

This extends into adding entire new spheres of beliefs and practices into our faith. Take, for example, the “everyday religion” of the worship of the land-wights and the household gods. These beings have, until recently, received mostly perfunctory attention, if they received any at all, because the Northern Revival was focused more on the Aesir (and understandably so, I might add). Among those who are “modernist”, this is just fine; they are happy with honoring the Aesir and pouring out a libation to the land-wights as an almost-perfunctory gesture afterwards. To them, there is no gap; that’s just how they’ve always done things.

But where experimental reconstructionism sees a gap, it begins to slowly fill that space, introducing new practices, seeing what works, tweaking or removing what does not. Over the last few years I’ve been doing just that (one of the early products of that research was the booklet available for download in the upper-left corner of your screen; it’s about to be vastly expanded into a full-fledged book on the subject). The lore (much of it from living folklore) is incredibly rich with practices and information on what these beings are, how they relate to humans, and how they can (and should not) be approached. It’s adding an entire layer of practice to our religion, one that existed a millenium ago in one form or another, and gives an incredibly effective counterpoint to the regular worship of the Aesir.

This is not to say, however, that the experimentation overtakes the reconstructionism. It’s not eclecticism; we don’t just start bolting on elements from other cultures and times because they “feel good”. We only add things where there is evidence that they existed in historical practice. Often, it’s the details that we need to invent or adapt, once we realize we’ve been missing something.

In this particular case, there is evidence that there was a vibrant worship of local spirits, including the house-gods and land-wights; what was lacking were the details. Fortunately, by looking just a little bit into the post-conversion era (as well as related cultures such as Anglo-Saxon England), we begin to find our wealth of details. It’s not invention; it’s filling in the specifics, breathing life into that broad outline to turn it into something that a living, breathing religion can use on a practical level.

The Irony, It Burns!

A few weeks ago over at Witchvox.com, one “Field Faerie” posted an article entitled Where’s the “Community” in the Pagan Community?

The gist of her complaint was that it was too difficult to find any fellow pagans in her neck of the woods; a small rural town in the Pacific Northwest. Field states, for example:

As far as I know, the closest Pagans to me live in a completely different city, and only in theory, because I happen to be the only Pagan I know.

Now, this is a fair enough complaint, and one that doubtless hundreds if not thousands of pagans and heathens face as well. But she seems to feel it is the fault of the “pagan community” that she is in this predicament:

But as far as I know, the largest functioning groups of Pagans are a few covens scattered here and there. Not to tromp on anyone’s toes, but covens aren’t enough. They’re too few and far in between to make much of a difference clearing the name of Paganism. Yes, covens are wonderful ways for people to work together on their path, but a coven does not a community make.

And she finishes her piece with a repeat of the same complaint; there just aren’t any pagans she can meet face-to-face:

As far as I know, I myself have no place where I can sit down face to face with another Pagan and discuss our personal beliefs. As far as I’m concerned, you lose all the intrigue in a conversation over the Internet, and instant messaging just isn’t the same as a real tête-à-tête.

So where’s the irony in all this? Check it out:


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