Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: May 2013

We can learn a lot from the Christians

One thing I often see, both from the reconstructionist and non-recon sides of Paganism, is a blind spot when it comes to sources that derive from Christian writers. I see this a lot particularly in Ásatrú and related Heathen faiths: when there’s a debate on something in the Sagas, or the Eddas, someone will inevitably chime in with the fact that most of the written lore comes down to us from Christian writers, who were writing after the official conversion from Heathen beliefs to Christianity, as if to shut down the discussion by impugning the sources.

The reality, of course, is that without the written sources, we would know next to nothing about the religion of the Norse. Indeed, much of our knowledge of Roman Pagan religion also comes to us from Christian sources, and the watchword from a Pagan or Heathen point of view could be, “If the Christians were against it, it’s probably a good idea.”

For example, a masterpiece of erudition on the subject of Roman religion by Marcus Terentius Varro, a book called Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum is lost. Its contents are known to us chiefly through Augustine’s City of God, in which he critiques Varro. But for Augustine, our knowledge of Varro would be much less, and thus our knowledge of the Religio Romana would be all the poorer.

Too, there remains a treasure trove of Pagan lore in the multitude of sermons, Bishops’ and Saints’ lives, capitularies, and law codes, all designed to promote Christian society by denouncing or ridiculing Pagan belief. Many of these are quite early writings, and thus could contain entirely contemporaneous accounts of Pagan practices. Take, for example, these items from “Punishments for Pagans and Others who Turn from the Church of God”, an Anglo-Saxon law text from c. 690 CE:

  • If anyone eats or drinks in ignorance by a heathen shrine he is to promise never to do so again and to do 40 days penance on bread and water. … But if he did it in honour of the demons and to glorify the idol, he is to do penance for 3 years.
  • If anyone eats what has been sacrificed to idols and was under no compulsion, he is to fast 12 weeks on bread and water…
  • If any keep feasts in the abominable places of the heathen, taking and eating their food there, they should be subject to penance for 2 years…
  • If any do sacrilege, that is summon diviners who practice divination by birds, or does any divination with evil intent, let him do penance for 3 years…
  • It is unlawful for clerks or laymen, to be sorcerers or enchanters, or to make amulets which are proved to be fetters for their souls…
  • If any use love potions and hurt nobody, if he is a layman he is to do penance for half a year…
  • If anyone seeks diviners whom they call prophets, or does any divinations, in that this too is diabolical, let him do penance 5 years…
  • If anyone take lots … or have any lots whatsoever, or take lots with evil intent, or make divination, let him do penance for 3 years…
  • If any make or perform a vow at trees, or springs, or stones, or boundaries … let him do penance for 3 years…

This is just a small sample of the whole, and it’s just one source, but you get the idea. From these negatives, we can gain an enormous understanding of what the ancient Pagans actually practiced, and this can in turn serve as the basis for revived practices among contemporary Pagans and Heathens.

Heck, even the Christian Bible itself has a lot of information on the religions of the Canaanites and Greeks. All those Israelite prophets had a lot of condemning to do, and what they condemned, we can use.

In most cases, of course, we don’t have specifics. We don’t know what words were said to make those vows, or the foods that were used in those offerings to the Gods and spirits of the land, or the rules that guided those casting of lots for divination. But the very knowledge that such things existed can give us a jumping-off point that will serve to enrich and give texture to our modern practices.

This isn’t to say that Christian sources should just be swallowed as-is; far from it. Discernment is needed to know what is actual contemporary practice, what is invention, and what is a reaction to literary sources that the Christian authors were using that were themselves outdated by the time of the fall of Rome. And reconstructionists and non-recons will have different takeaways. Recons will want to know what is relevant to their particular spiritual ancestors, and non-recons can cast their net wider, and yet still find themselves possessed of a wealth of genuine pre-Christian practices, even if the details may be different.

But even so, Christianity has done us an enormous favor by collecting and recording these Pagan and Heathen practices in the course of denouncing and banning them. This is a rich source of material that is hardly ever tapped because of its source, and that’s an attitude that doesn’t serve the contemporary Pagan and Heathen communities well. Let’s use these sources to enrich our own practices, and in some small way use that as a memorial for those who were persecuted because they refused to abandon the beliefs of their ancestors.

Religio et Superstitio

The ancient Romans were famously religious people. Their faith was expressed in myriad forms, both privately and publicly  and was tied to what we today would call the “secular” functions of the state. Notable (and not-so-notable) decisions were undertaken only after determining the favor of the Gods, and every home bore a shrine to the Gods of the household (the lares).

That said, the Romans differentiated between religio, which was the “proper” expression of religious practice that contributed to the peace and prosperity of society, and superstitio, which was taking religion to an uncomfortable and improper degree. When the Romans say you’ve gone off the deep end religiously, you should pay attention.

There was no hard and fast line between what was considered religio and what was superstitio. Like pornography in the modern era, “you know it when you see it”, but in the case of superstitio, it might be appropriate to add “in others”. Rarely do we see ourselves as going too far, being over-the-top, or otherwise anything other than completely appropriate in our religious observances.

What one person might deem respect and piety in themselves, another might see as a dangerous obsession. When someone sees themselves as a good role model, others may see them as going off in bizarre and obscure directions. One man’s deity centered practice is another’s self-centered focus on channeling a deity in what should more properly be a shared group experience. And so forth.

The point of this is that, in the modern world, no one has a lock on religio. There is no One True Way that the College of Pontiffs can declare to be religio, and other shocking practices that are then declared superstitio, to be repressed with vicious, holier-than-thou invective.

Similarly, when we share our thoughts on how we approach ritual, or which beings are or are not appropriate to honor, or the relative balance of personal insight vs. academic research, it should always be done with an eye towards remembering that there are going to be other people out there who believe differently.

We learn by engaging with those with whom we disagree, and heaping scorn on such people, treating them as pitiable wretches, or claiming they are only play-acting, merely because they don’t match our own expectations or agree with our perceptions of what is proper, is counter-productive to such an will certainly not lead to constructive conversations.

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