Over at his wonderfully iconoclastic Archdruid Report, David Michael Greer last week posted a lengthy piece on The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism. In it, he basically makes the case that merely because things are different today than they were in the past, that does not make them quantitatively “better,” nor does it imply some sort of evolutionary imperative towards a given social or moral order that just so happens to be the one that predominates among a particular political subculture today. It’s well worth reading the whole thing (including the several delicious examples he gives of early 20th century “progressives” taking away rights for certain minorities that are now sacred cows among today’s left), but here are a few choice bits:
Those of my readers who followed the late US presidential election may remember Hillary Clinton’s furious response to a heckler at one of her few speaking gigs: “We aren’t going back. We’re going forward.” Underlying that outburst is the belief system I’ve just sketched out: the claim that history has a direction, that it moves in a linear fashion from worse to better, and that any given political choice—for example, which of the two most detested people in American public life is going to become the nominal head of a nation in freefall ten days from now—not only can but must be flattened out into a rigidly binary decision between “forward” and “back.” …
Chronocentrism is pandemic in our time. Historians have a concept called “Whig history;” it got that moniker from a long line of English historians who belonged to the Whig, i.e., Liberal Party, and who wrote as though all of human history was to be judged according to how well it measured up to the current Liberal Party platform. …
It needs to be remembered in this context that the word “evolution” does not mean “progress.” Evolution is adaptation to changing circumstances, and that’s all it is. When people throw around the phrases “more evolved” and “less evolved,” they’re talking nonsense, or at best engaging in a pseudoscientific way of saying “I like this” and “I don’t like that.”
We see this constantly and consistently in the bleating of the alt-left within neopaganism, especially within the Marxist crowd, that their political or social beliefs are somehow inherently better because they are newer than older political or social beliefs. The trajectory of history is of course part and parcel of the Marxist philosophy these pro-genocidal authoritarian losers embrace, but it sees full flower in discussions about folkishness, democracy, nationalism, and the like.
Bringers of progress
Stuck as they are in 1930’s and 40’s historical models, these Marxists (and anarchists, and whateverthefuckelse they want to call themselves) usually apply the blanket label “fascist” to such things. Even though, ironically, fascism (including, dare I say, National Socialism) is more properly a phenomenon of the left. But they generally mean traditionalism, which is by definition the antithesis of progressivism, which is the philosophy of “if it’s newer, it must be better,” that, also ironically, fuels the modern consumerist culture which so many of them claim to abhor.
That flies in the face of the traditionalist view, which enjoys a definite overlap with modern folkishness, in terms of preferring local to global as a general rule, family structures that promote reproduction are preferable to family structures that intentionally thwart reproduction, acknowledging the fact that biological differences between men and women (both psychological and physical) are real and not something to be ignored or suppressed, democracy isn’t necessarily the most preferable form of government, representative art is preferable to abstract art, and most certainly that individualism is preferable to collectivism.
It might not be 100% optimally efficient, but does that make it “wrong”?
But note always my use of the word “prefer” rather than “require.” It’s the left that is always trying to force other people to conform to some idealistic vision. And Utopia is always just one execution away.
I’m not by any stretch of the imagination claiming that all of those things are necessarily inherent in folkishness, which by my definition is simply the acknowledgement that race and ancestry is relevant to religion, and some religious faiths are inherently folkish in nature (although there are of course specific exceptions), just as some are inherently universalist in nature. Asatru, most forms of Hinduism, Judaism, and Amerindian religion fall into the former category, while Christianity, Islam, Scientology, Wicca, and neopaganism fall into the latter category. Unsurprisingly, claims of absolute truth generally come from the latter half as well.
However, there is a bit of confusion between, and a distinct need and opportunity to explore, traditions that are Christian in nature (due to Christianity’s hegemony over Europe over the last millenia and a half or so, depending on the locale), rather than, as I might have it, truly traditional Germanic views that predate Christianity.
Of course, this isn’t to mean that older is always better. That’s just as wrong as newer is always better. But there are a lot of older things that don’t deserve to be discarded just because they’re old, just as there are newer things that deserve to be embraced. Just because I approve of flush toilets, vaccinations, and space colonies doesn’t mean I have to also approve of the destruction of human biological diversity, Socialism, mass production, and the suppression of individual liberty to prevent someone else being offended.
Each year around this time, in Facebook posts and elsewhere, we are certain to be lectured by well-meaning Christians on the “sinfulness” of celebrating Christmas. Their arguments can be persuasive. “In the Bible, God never told us to celebrate Christmas,” they say. “Christmas has its roots in paganism,” they say. So that must mean we’re just dupes celebrating a pagan ritual when we ignorantly think we’re gratefully celebrating the birth of Jesus. Who wants to celebrate what God never told us to celebrate and which supposedly has its roots in paganism? Not me! But are those things really true?
Since Mrs. Miller doesn’t actually link to any examples of people saying this, it’s difficult to suss out whether this is actually happening. It would have been nice, and unfortunately without something specific for her to be chewing on, this has the look of a straw man. Fortunately, Google is a fine mistress, and I was able to quickly find a few examples of the question of whether or not Christmas is Pagan, from good, upstanding Christian ministries and groups; should be easy to find the sorts of Christians that Mrs. Miller is talking about, right? Let’s take a quick look:
Heh… I’m just having a bit of fun; I do know there are Christians out there who don’t like Christmas and condemn it as Pagan. But they’re not the majority, by a long shot. And in fairness, they’re not complaining about the holiday; they’re complaining about the trappings and customs that have been attached to it (more about that later). But finding pro-Christian stuff was a lot easier. Goodwife Miller continues.
While there is no specific instruction in the Bible to honor or celebrate the birth of Jesus each year (and no, of course we don’t know the actual date of His birth), neither is there any prohibition of it.
REALLY??? Is a committed conservative Christian actually making an argument that, “if it’s not specifically prohibited in the Bible, it’s okay to do”??? ‘Cause I’m very sure there isn’t any “thou shalt not commit abortion” or “thou shalt not have gender reassignment surgery” or “thou shalt not have sex wearing a Pikachu costume” passages in there.
The Bible says this is okey-dokey!
Interestingly, there really is a concrete Biblical prohibition on one cherished Christmas custom:
But as for using the literal words of the Bible as a guide to what one is and is not allowed (or compelled) to do, I’ll leave it to Jed Bartlet to have the final word:
But I digress. Gentlewoman Miller continues…
Further, when you read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, it is clear that heaven and earth celebrated that miraculous event. Can you imagine the breathtaking awe felt by those humble shepherds at the sight of the multitude of heavenly host praising God on that powerful, wonderful occasion?
So a bunch of angels appeared in the desert, and the shepherds looked around and said “WTF just happened?” but nothing about heaven and earth celebrating what happened. Again, since Mrs. Miller doesn’t provide any passages to back up her assertion, it’s hard to tell. Maybe she’s thinking of Luke 19:40 (which has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, by the way)???
I can think of nothing more worthy of annual remembrance and celebration than the birth of Christ, alongside the celebration of His resurrection from the dead (the supposed “paganism” about which we are also lectured by those same well-meaning Christians. “The root word for Easter is the name of a pagan goddess!” they say). These events are part of the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Well, the word Easter does come from the Old English word Eostre, which was, according to Bede, a Heathen goddess. So… yeah. That’s probably why different languages have different words for things, and many languages call Easter a variety of different words related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach”. English being a Germanic language and all…
But I think this is at the heart of the problem with Mrs. Miller’s article. She is confusing the complaints about customs, language, dates, and the like, with the significance of the holiday in the Christian religion. Legitimate complaints about those things don’t necessarily mean they are complaining about the Christian symbolism associated with the holiday.
I submit to you that the truth is the opposite of these assertions of paganism. The claims that the pagan rituals in which Christmas (and Easter) supposedly are based pre- date Jesus’ birth, earthly ministry, sacrifice and resurrection from the dead are wrong. Nothing “pre-dates” Jesus. He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He is outside of time, because He is before time. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing – nothing – was made. He is God. His willing sacrifice to save the world was set and planned before the dawn of time and creation of the world.
Well, that’s a nice (and conveniently self-serving) theory, but just saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.
Fortunately, we have history, and archaeology, and historiography, and all the other branches of science to tell us that yes, things did happen prior to 4 BCE, when your savior-god was supposedly born. Time being linear (even if events do move in great cyclical patterns), are you actually saying that Satan literally has the power to see the future?
All pagan (satanic) rituals, “holidays” and celebrations throughout history are nothing more than cheap imitation knock-offs of the Real Thing. Satan has always tried to set himself in the place of Jesus, to be the object of worship. Before being cast to earth, he tried the same thing in heaven. To this end, he has created myriad false religions and rituals, from blatantly pagan to sneaky, fake “Christian.” Not only are these designed for Satan to soak up men’s worship, but also to deceive men and keep them from coming to a saving knowledge of Truth found only in the Word of God.
Except, of course, that there were religions before Christianity. Heck, there were religions before Judaism, which is the spiritual basis for Christianity. Unless she’s saying that Satan founded the Egyptian religion millennia before there even was a Jewish or Hebrew people? Or perhaps he was responsible for Neanderthals worshiping the skulls of animals, or burying their dead with horns? Because that’s religion, too, and it way predates that sorry patchwork you call a faith.
In so many different ways, since the fall of man in the Garden, the devil has deceptively imitated and mocked Christ’s ministry and message, even before they played out in time. So, no, the celebration of the birth of Christ – that we call Christmas – does not have its roots in paganism. It’s the other way around. Satan has always stolen the ideas he has from Christ’s truth, and then he twists and perverts that truth into lies and grotesque wickedness.
So… Satan can see into the future. And then arrange things so that he can create things that presage that future, but… not. Gods, this is as absurd as Satan planting fossils in the ground, or arranging photons in space so they happen to hit the Earth at exactly the right instant so as to give the illusion that the universe is more than six thousand years old. And Yahweh lets him! Her god is either a sadistic fuck who enjoys seeing the humans he supposedly loves being conned, or, well, not quite what he’s been cracked up to be.
Another point to consider is the fact that the world, currently under Satan’s lordship, despises and reviles all things of God and Christ.
But wait. Isn’t Mrs. Miller in the world, too? And of it, because she’s got a physical form (I assume; otherwise how could she hit the keys on the keyboard?) Doesn’t that make her a vassal of Satan?
Thus, we see Satan’s war on Christmas, waged by his servants the God-haters among us. If Christmas was truly based in satanic paganism, don’t you think the devil would be fine with its presence in the public square?
Oh, the “war on Christmas” canard. I was waiting for this one. How successful it has been, too. Why, the padlocking of church doors on December 24th has been a staple of our society for years. The postal service, pressed into service, routinely opens up cards throughout December, gainfully employing hordes of people with Sharpies to cross out the word “Christmas” and replace it with “Holidays”. There’s nary a mention of Christmas in print, or radio, or television.
It’s almost enough to make you wish there were churches on every corner. But those were bulldozed years ago in preparation for the final assault on Christmas.
Christianity has a collective martyr complex, but in the absence of real persecution, they seem to feel compelled to invent it. “My cashier didn’t say “Merry Christmas”! I’m just as oppressed as Christians who are killed in Somalia!”
Instead, we now see almost every major corporation aggressively scrubbing even the mention of Christmas from their businesses and advertising.
Indeed. Like A.C. Moore, Barnes & Noble, Bath and Body Works, Belk, Best Buy, Bronners, CVS Pharmacy, Dillards, Hallmark, Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, JC Penny, K-Mart, Kohl’s, Lehmans, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Menards, Neiman Marcus, Rite Aid Pharmacy, Sears, Staples, Toys R Us, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart. All of whom appear on the “nice list” published by the Liberty Counsel.
It’s irksome to see the ridiculous level this corporate purging of Christmas has reached. Having been in radio for 22 years, I’ve watched as the generic word “holiday” has slowly replaced Christmas in national radio ads. It would be silly if it weren’t so devilish: “This holiday, give the gift your sweetheart wants!” “Make your holiday cards special!” “Find all your holiday gifts in one location!” “Do your holiday shopping with us, and save!” “We have the perfect holiday gifts at prices you’ll love!”
I know it shouldn’t come as a surprise to squaw Miller, but there are other religions out there, that are just as legitimate, and legally protected, as hers is. And most, if not all, of them have holidays clustered around the winter solstice. Not to mention the entirely secular holiday of New Year’s. And as the population of the United States (and the West in general) has slowly shifted away from Christianity to other faiths, or no faith, or a mushy “spiritual but not religious”-osity (ugh), the assumption that any given person will be Christian. Saying “Happy holidays” or advertising “holiday gifts” is simply safer for retailers who want to make the maximum number of potential customers feel welcome.
It’s not “holiday.” It’s Christmas.
…and Diwali, and Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve/Day, and Yule, and Kwanzaa, and Saturnalia, and Zartosht No-Diso, and Festivus, and Korochun, and Hogmanay, and dozens more. Christianity is not the only religion out there, and retailers would be idiots for not wanting to reach out to the 30% of Americans who aren’t Christian.
No one sends out “holiday cards.” They send out Christmas cards.
No one does their “holiday shopping.” They do their Christmas shopping. No one gives “holiday gifts.” They give Christmas gifts.
See above. Lots of midwinter festivals have gift exchange traditions. In fact, the tradition started with Roman Saturnalia and Norse Jól.
This is yet another example of the world doing its worst to obliterate even the mention of Christ – in this case, as it appears in the word Christmas.
No, this is an example of the world being inhabited by a majority of people that aren’t Christian, and don’t want to follow your insipid sexually repressive death-cult.
The giant corporations are glad to scrub Christmas from their advertising, but boy do they love to load up on national “holiday” ads in order to separate you from your Christmas cash!
Yeahhhhh, about that…
Christmas is not pagan, and it’s not “holiday.” It is part of the greatest True Story in the history of stories. How fortunate we are that God so loved the world! Jesus, stepped down from the glory of His heavenly throne and into the form of man. He was born into the world He loved so much that He willingly offered His precious, sinless life in place of ours, and all we have to do is believe and accept His free gift salvation.
Yeah, yeah. We’ve all seen The Little Drummer Boy. Your religion’s midwinter myth has been shoved down out throats on national television for decades (how’s that for being oppressed!). Doesn’t make it true.
For those well-meaning Christians who deeply believe celebrating Christmas is wrong, an offense to God, then for them, it is wrong. Let every man be convinced in his heart. But, for those of us who view it as the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, then let us celebrate it with joy and thanks to God.
And here, I think, is the fundamental disconnect, and why frau Miller would have been much better served to pick a few concrete examples, rather than the straw man she ended up arguing against.
On one level, I actually agree with her. The celebration of the birth of their savior-god is absolutely a Christian thing, and there’s nothing wrong with Christians doing so. The date may or may not have been selected to coincide with a couple of Pagan Roman celebrations, but who cares? Christians can choose dates for their holidays like anyone else.
However, it should also be noted that modern (and historical) Christmas celebrations have accumulated enormous Pagan and Heathen customs over the years, many of which I’ve detailed (and will continue to detail) here on the blog as the Yuletide season continues. In fact, I hate to say it, but Jason Mankey has outlined the Christian and Pagan provenance of a host of modern Christmas customs and symbols, and done a very good job of it (I might quibble on the edges here and there, but it’s a good piece overall). I daresay when people write against Christians celebrating Christmas, they’re really referring to the Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Wassailing, drinking and overeating in general, commercialism in general, St. Lucia, Rudolf, Yule Logs, and on and on and on. And maybe they have a point, if one is so wrapped up in the Bible as to want to purge from one’s life anything that doesn’t come out of Leviticus.
The other problem with her analysis is the blind willful refusal to acknowledge that any other religion besides Christianity exists, let alone that all of them have holidays around this same time of year, that the United States is becoming steadily less Christian, even if she might not like that fact, and businesses want to try to sell goods to as many people as possible. It just makes sense to market to a full third of the population who don’t happen to share her faith, even if “holidays” becomes a handy shortcut to do so.
So this is going to be a rare post where I disagree with Lucius Svartwulf Helsen, who earlier today posted As It Was In The Old Days… over at his usually-excellent Son of Hel blog.
See, I consider myself on the reconstructionist end of the pool, and as such I really don’t have a particular problem with “our ancestors did it, so I’m okay with it” as a general principle. I think the specific examples the unis give regarding their anti-Folkish position are rubbish, but that doesn’t invalidate the general principle that, basically speaking, our ancestors spent tens of thousands of years honing their understanding of the Gods through a particular, if ever-changing, cultural lens, and they are therefore going to have a more accurate view of what those Gods are like, and what They happen to find pleasing.
Now, this approach necessitates a certain bifurcation when it comes to classifying beliefs and practices. On the one hand, we have those things that directly relate to the Gods, and can therefore be classified as “religious” according to our modern understanding of the term. On the other hand, we have those things that deal with those things that are purely interpersonal, and thus fall on the “secular” side of things, again according to modern understanding.
That does not, of course, change the reality that our ancestors didn’t see such a division. To them, there was no difference between those things that were done for the Gods (or other spirits) and those things that were done between men. But on a practical level, in a world and a culture where laws are in place that do not recognize the primacy of “but my ancestors did it this way” as an argument, such a distinction is necessary.
So, when Helsen provides a list of things he finds… problematic… I find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of them. Of course, being a product myself of a 20th-21st century post-modern, post-Christian, mostly-secular, liberal democratic culture that is ever-more obsessed with individuality rather than clan/tribal identity, I am programmed to find some of them personally distasteful. But when it comes to things from his list such as:
killing each other over insults
fucking at the dinner table
I really don’t see the problem (although I’m going to ask where he got the fucking at the dinner table thing, because I don’t remember reading that in any of the Icelandic Sagas).
But killing each other over insults? Honestly, we could do worse than returning to a state of affairs when we didn’t rely on an impersonal justice system that was more interested in slavish obedience to written law, rather than a situational system that was self-enforced. Holmgang isn’t the worst thing in the world. But that’s a social, not a sacral, thing. I don’t see it as a religious imperative.
Fucking at the dinner table? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it myself, and as mentioned above I don’t think that was a particular thing that our ancestors did, but I’m also not too concerned with Victorian mores concerning sex. As a rule, sex is a good thing, and the sooner sexual taboos that have been held over since the late 19th century go away, the better. But again, that’s social, not sacral.
Human sacrifice? Bring it on. We already execute criminals convicted of heinous crimes such as murder. If society deems they are to die, I see nothing wrong with doing it in a sacral manner that gives their death some meaning beyond mere vengeance. Bearing in mind that the objects of such sacrifice were state-defined offenders such as criminals and prisoners of war* (so it’s not just plucking random people off the street and hanging them), of all the things on his list, this is the first that deals with the Gods themselves.
Wholesale slaughter? I invite Helsen to watch any documentary about World War II. It is quite justifiable, and hardly confined to “the good old days.” So we return to the social.
But animal sacrifice in particular I object to being on such a list. I’ve written before about the practice, and its centrality (and modern relevance) to Heathen religious religion. I’ve personally been to a swine-blot, and to this day it remains one of the most intensely spiritual rituals in which I’ve ever participated. It also falls in the category of “things relating to the Gods” rather than things relating to men.
In this case in particular, short of Odin Himself appearing simultaneously to every Heathen on the planet and telling them to stop, I’m inclined to err on the side of history, and accept the idea that this was pleasing to the Gods for thousands of years, and there is absolutely no reason to think that has changed just because humanity in the West has moved away from a largely agricultural lifestyle where such things are common, to a place where most people don’t care where the hamburger-wrapped-in-plastic came from.
The Gods are not beholden to mercurial changes in human mores.
And polyamory? I’d never do it myself, but if someone else wants to do it, in full knowledge of what they’re getting into, I don’t see why my own jealous nature should prevent other people from trying it. Everything above-board, known to and with the blessing of all involved, then my personal preferences shouldn’t be enough to stop them. Once more, social, not sacral.
Now, Helsen has made the distinction between that which is legal, and that which is morally right, before, and I don’t disagree. Indeed, I think it has a very distinct impact on my own division between how our ancestors interacted with one another, and how they interacted with the Gods. But even there, it must be remembered that morality, as such, is a human invention, and the Gods are not held to the same standard as men. Thus do I make the distinction between the sacral and the social.
Again, the Gods are not beholden to mercurial changes in human mores.
If we accept the premise that our ancestors knew more about what the Gods wanted, based on their thousands of years of constant interaction with Them, and thereby honing their knowledge of what the Gods did and did not find pleasing (through observation of omens, comparison of outcomes, direct intervention, etc.), it stands to reason that we should defer to them in how we approach the Gods. And if the Gods find it pleasing to receive offerings of animals, or having capital punishment carried out by the State done in a sacral manner, then I’m frankly okay with it, as long as it can be done in the proper fashion.
I’ll weigh ten thousand years of religio-cultural evolution that says such things are right, against forty years of human cultural change that says some people don’t like it, any day.
__________ * The key being that the objects of such sacrifices are those already condemned to death by the laws of the land. Why not give their life a religious meaning beyond simple vengeance, or deterrent, or a cold calculation that it’s cheaper to kill a prisoner than imprison them for the rest of their life? If I was, for some reason, on Death Row, I would petition the court for such a death, to give my execution a deeper meaning that mere secularism can’t provide. Again, this is not about grabbing random (or even deserving) people off the street, hanging them, and sticking them with a spear.
Just a quickie for now. John Beckett has a post up on Pathetic Pagan entitled Our Gods are not Jealous Gods. Of course it’s a play on the Biblical verse about Jehovah of Sinai being “a jealous god“, but it makes me wonder whether Beckett has read any classical mythology. Like, ever.
And what about Aten? This Egyptian god is largely heralded as the first experiment in monotheism. That’s “jealousy” by definition.
Loki, we are told, was greatly jealous of Balder, and contrived his death because of it. And although they’re not gods, the Eddas and Sagas are replete with examples of women arranging the deaths of people out of jealousy and desire for vengeance.
Those are just a few examples off the top of my head. Mythology has hundreds of similar examples.
Our gods are reflections of ourselves. They’re not some sort of paragons of virtue like Jehovah of Sinai is supposed to be; they feel hate, jealousy, love, desire, and all the rest. They are us. As befits our ultimate ancestors.
Beckett is engaging in a knee-jerk anti-Christian reaction when he tries to make the case that ours are not jealous gods. They are. But they are also loving gods, and giving gods, and all the rest of the spectrum of human emotion. It’s wrong to deny them their… human-ness simply in an attempt to shake one’s fist at the Christian god because of one’s upbringing.
One of the things with which modern Ásatrúar and other branches of the modern Heathen family are blessed is a comprehensive and effective means of moderating conflicts between individuals and groups. The Icelandic Sagas, Eddaic Poetry, and other sources of written lore give us a plethora of examples that can, and in my opinion should, be used to resolve conflicts between modern Heathens.
It should be taken as axiomatic that members of a tribe, or other social grouping, would form a coherent block of support for any individual engaged in a dispute with someone outside the group. So, to take an example, if an East Angle had a dispute with an East Saxon, he could reasonably count on his fellow East Angles to support him in that dispute (just as the East Saxon could count on similar support). Crossing tribal boundaries, and supporting someone in the útangarðs against someone in the innangarðs would be next to unheard-of, and would certainly require some sort of extraordinary circumstance, such as sworn oaths of loyalty leading to conflicting allegiances.
That said, it is certainly not the case that the only sort of resolution of conflicts between individuals, families, clans, or tribes is the feud. A long and deep tradition of shild, the payment of monetary recompense for wrongs or other crimes, up to and including murder (where it is termed wergild), is evident throughout the lore. We see it in examples in the Sagas of Icelanders, and built into the Germanic law codes that stem in their earliest forms from the unwritten tribal codes of conduct (“thew” in the contemporary Théodish parlance). For every wrong there is a price that can be paid to make it right.
In cases where the wrongdoing was laid out plainly in the code of law, the issue was simple. A price was specified, and upon payment the crime would be absolved and the matter settled. The wronged party explicitly gave up any rights to vengeance once the shild was paid. So it is in contemporary Heathenry. Once shild is agreed to and paid, the wrong is completely wiped out, frith (peace) is once more obtained, and no one on either side has a right to complain about the act or its consequences in the future. Failure to abide by these strictures is the chief reason that feud could result; society because out of balance once the implications of a paid shild were ignored (or where shild, which might have restored balance, was not paid in the first place).
For cases where the code of law did not lay out a specific price for a specific wrong against someone, there was yet again a way to make it right. There are three ways that a dispute could be resolved; samning, sjálfdoemi,and jafnadardórmr. The point is that both sides, no matter the mechanism, arrive at a mutually acceptable price. Once the price was named and paid, the matter was done. It could be as little as a handshake and an apology, or as much as land and gold. Whatever the specifics that are agreed to, once the shild is paid, the matter is done and any further claim of vengeance was invalid.
Samning is the ordinary process of negotiation. Such negotiations were handled through a third party, acceptable to both sides, in order to be able to avoid direct contact between the two parties prematurely, which could result in heated words and a breakdown in the negotiation process.
Sjálfdoemi means “self-doom”, and essentially lays the question of shild, or recompense, on the other party. It was used with the expectation of goodwill. One offering sjálfdoemi to another essentially gave up all rights to negotiate to that other person. There are rare occasions where it was misused (and the misuser lost standing within the community, and his reputation was harmed), but on the whole it was an effective tool when both sides in the dispute were known to be honorable, reasonable, and would not take advantage. It essentially took the form of the injurer to ask the injured what a fair shild would be. The injurer was, by offering sjálfdoemi, bound by whatever price the injured named.
Jafnadardórmr was somewhat different, and involved what we might today call “binding arbitration”. It was done in the context of Þing, and the arbitrator was a respected member of society whose interest was maintaining the peace. He could be counted on to make a fair and impartial ruling. Because of a lack of established law-courts within the modern Heathen community, this is quite obviously not an option used overly much, but as the Ásatrú community grows and matures, it can be hoped that it could see more widespread use.
There are two places the system breaks down.
The first is in situations where the wrongdoer fails to acknowledge the wrong done. That was the definition of murder in ancient times – to kill someone without owning up to the deed. To kill someone and acknowledge the fact to the next person one saw was, in fact, the honorable and correct thing to do. In such a circumstance, one could then pay a reasonable shild and restore the balance and the peace of society. But if one denies that a wrongdoing has been made, then there is no basis for negotiation.
The second is when arbitration is attempted, but spurned. Such spurning could take the form of either a direct refusal to negotiate, or the setting of some shild that was so obviously outrageous (either outrageously high or low) that it was obvious to any impartial observer that there was no negotiation being made. As a rule, this required something of a history to actually be established – someone with a history of this sort of behavior was named an ójafnaðarmaðr (“one who does not deal fairly”), and his reputation suffered accordingly, sometimes fatally in extreme circumstances.
When the process of negotiation has broken down, despite the efforts of at least one party to make it work, then our ancestors were forced into more violent means to resolve their conflicts. Feud, einvigi, and holmgang. The particulars of such are outside the scope of this particular article, but it should be noted that the potentially deadly outcomes of duels render them relatively moot in terms of modern practice. There is no tradition of “foam swords at dawn”, and the threat of physical harm or even death is not something that can reasonably be removed from the equation. Without that potentiality, it becomes a non-option in modern society. So arbitration and compromise become our modern options, and if they fail, we resort to feud. Fortunately, feud in our modern world ends up being insults and accusations hurled across email, and that, in and of itself, does not imbalance society.
I should say at the beginning that this is specifically not an entry in the whole polytheist vs. atheist Pagan debate. Rather, I think that the polytheist side of the debate has been poorly represented until now, and I would like to take the opportunity to ruminate on that failure of my side of the argument to present a more balanced picture.
One thing that has been lost in the din of recent days is the voice of those polytheists—among whom I count myself—who believe in the literal existence of the Gods and Goddesses, spirits of the land, shades of my ancestors, etc. but who do not have the intense “devotion is everything” attitude towards Them that some do.
It is a misnomer (an understandable one, given the participants on that side of the discussion) that all polytheists must by their nature be God-spouses, engage in ritual “horsing” (possession by spirits, including one or more Gods), consult with Them multiple times every day on even the most trivial matters, and, most important, insist that anyone who does not indulge in such über-piety (or—Gods forbid!—deny Their existence) is somehow less of a “real” Pagan/Heathen than they are.
Historically, such cases are few and far between, and their true nature is shrouded in poetic language and possible misinterpretation. Even taking such accounts at face value, they represent an infinitesimal fraction of the total Pagan community of the time, and even of the total sub-community of Pagan priests and priestesses. Read the Pagan and Heathen polytheist blogosphere today and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who married Loki or who chats with Dionysus over breakfast.
For most of us hard polytheists, that crosses the line into what the ancient Romans termed superstitio (“excessive fear of the gods, unreasonable religious belief, superstition (different from religio, a proper, reasonable awe of the gods).” – from the entry in Lewis & Short). And of course there is no set definition of where the line is, and no central authority any more to make that determination, but each person knows it when he sees it for himself.
The vast majority of us hard polytheists don’t engage in such practices, and most of us look on them with suspicion. For many of us, even saying “Dionysus came to me in a dream and told me to marry Steve” would garner polite smiles whilst slowly backing away and avoiding eye contact, let alone claiming that one is somehow “married” to a God or Goddess, or that one is regularly literally possessed by a deity and used as a conduit for divine pronouncements.
Does this mean that hard polytheists do not believe in direct contacts with the divine? In most cases we do, but it is usually accompanied by a lot of cross-checking, soul searching, and other verification to make sure it’s not just our imagination run away with us. In many reconstructionist faiths there are also historically-based practices that are used to accomplish such divination, and following such practices tends to lend more credence to oracular pronouncements. And it’s (relatively) rare.
Folks on the atheist side have spoken up, to their credit, saying that they, as a whole, don’t share that dismissive attitude. I hope that I can do at least a little to help foster the notion that those of us on the other side of the debate don’t all share the exclusionary attitude similarly on display by a (vocal) minority.
If you follow the news, or watch Jay Leno, you’re probably aware that there are a number of scandals a-boiling within the Obama administration right now. Two in particular should be extremely worrying to every Pagan and Heathen, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum (and even if you consider yourself “apolitical”).
I’m going to ask you to set aside your personal politics just for a minute. If you’re a Democrat or a liberal, try to forget it was Republicans and conservatives who were targeted. Just for a minute, I beg you, resist the temptation to assume it’s a good thing or justified simply because it’s conservatives being targeted.
Never forget, if we have a government that can do this to conservatives and Christians today, we have a government that can do this to liberals and Pagans four years from now.
The first scandal relates to the IRS. In the process of its acknowledged unfair scrutiny of conservative groups, the IRS started demanding donor lists, details on activities (including what books were being read in a book club), lists of interns, and, most recently, telling religiously-based organizations that they cannot take stands on particular issues, that they would not be permitted to exercise their Constitutional right to protest, and – most damning – that they were not eligible for tax exempt status because “your position is not based on facts.”
Let that last one sink in for a minute. We’re finally starting to get rid of local laws banning fortune-telling. Do we want to turn around and give that authority to the IRS?
The second scandal relates to the NSA. It has been alleged that the NSA and other intelligence agencies have been systematically collecting phone records, emails, and other information on American citizens (a program started under President Bush, but continued and expanded under President Obama, even though Candidate Obama condemned it). Even if the contents of those calls and emails aren’t examined (and there are rumors that that is the next shoe that’s going to drop in this scandal), the metadata thus collected lets the government build a complete picture of your associations, where you are at any given time, who you’re talking to, your social networks, and so forth.
Yes, they say it’s for security. But is security really advanced by logging the phone calls and emails of each and every person in the country? Is anything gained by logging your emails? Remember Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
On the one hand, we have a government that has proven its ability and willingness to build complete profiles about anyone, whether or not that person has been charged with a crime, has had a warrant against them signed by a judge, that would allow even the most innocuous transactions to come under the closest scrutiny. And if you think you’ve done nothing wrong and therefore have nothing to hide, you’re wrong.
On the other hand, we have a government that has proven its willingness to target individuals and organizations that it considers to be its political opponents. To the point where the IRS feels empowered to question those groups about the content of their prayers, and direct them to give up their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association, simply because the administration in power at the time doesn’t like what they have to say, and who they want to associate with.
The government that can do this to people you don’t like today is the very same government that can do this to people you do like tomorrow. Maybe even you yourself.
The Wiccan Law Federation, a 501(c)(4) organization dedicated to representing Wiccans and Pagans in religious freedom cases, has its tax status re-evaluated by the IRS, and is told that they need to present both sides of civil liberties issues equally, or they’re not fulfilling their educational mission.
Organizing for the Earth, a liberal 501(c)(4) organization that supports Democratic causes and candidates relating to climate change, has its tax status held up for two years, and is required by the IRS to divulge the names of all its donors, staffers, and to give up the passwords for its Twitter and Facebook accounts.
The New Jersey Wiccan Alliance, a purely religious 501(c)(3) organization, is asked by the IRS to provide complete records of the content of their prayers and whether or not they intend to stage any rallies or protests against military interventions in foreign countries, or against cover-ups of child abuse in the Catholic church.
Information is leaked concerning several high-profile Wiccan and Pagan bloggers and journalists who have been especially vocal in their condemnation and investigation of conservative Christian politicians. This information is highly embarrassing personally and professionally, and is used to discredit their reporting.
Lest you think that none of those things could actually happen, think again. They already have, to conservatives, Republicans, and Christians. If you think that there is going to be a Democratic majority in government for the rest of your life, you’re sadly mistaken.
Once the precedent has been set that political opponents are fair game, and the organs of government are fair instruments to investigate, track, and attack those opponents, then it’s only a matter of time before those instruments are turned against Pagans.
That’s why this needs to be stopped here and now. It’s not about snickering that government is persecuting folks you may happen to disagree with. It’s about making sure that the Christians aren’t snickering four years from now about the government finally putting those witches in their place. This is a weapon that shouldn’t be turned against anyone in our democracy, and we should not tolerate or encourage it merely because it hasn’t — yet – been turned against us.
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.