I’ve had a request via private communications that was most easily fulfilled by re-posting something I wrote and posted elsewhere (before this blog existed!) on March 25th, 2010. I’ve thus reprinted it here, with a few edits for clarity of communication, but nothing content-wise being changed or shifted, nor re-ordered. The questions I was dealing with then are not dissimilar to some of the ones many of us have addressed recently, though I may not entirely agree with every point I made almost four years ago…nonetheless, here it is all the same. I hope many of you find it useful!
Thus, without further ado, here’s “One From The Vaults”…!
In Irish class on Wednesday, March 24th of 2010, we were talking about immrama, and I had them read the article by Thomas Charles-Edwards called “The Social Background to Early Irish Peregrinatio,” which was the article that introduced me (way back in 2000) to the concept of cú glas (literally, “grey dog/wolf,” but which means “foreigner from across the sea” in Irish law) and so forth. I didn’t realize, until I was actually teaching this class earlier this year, how pervasive the concept of peregrinatio is in early Irish Christianity, and how it infuses everything, from Patrick’s 5th c. CE Confessio onwards; in fact, even though we consider Columbanus and Columba/Colum Cille to be the big early exemplars of the tradition and the concept of peregrinatio, or of the “glas martyrdom,” Patrick is really the paradigmatic figure, who leaves the land he loves–first unwillingly (as a twice-captured slave), then willingly–in order to do his mission amongst the Irish. Not only the idea, first stated by Columbanus, of vita est via and so forth, but also these early Irish legal concepts of outlaws, foreigners, and issues of hospitality, pervades the culture.
While we were talking about this in class, we also talked about the punishment of “setting adrift,” which was one of the worst things possible, since Irish law didn’t have the death penalty (Christians introduced that), and thus perpetual exile from the territory by setting one adrift in a boat was the worst thing that could be done to you. But, it often turned out well; Maccuil in the Vita Patricii of Muirchú is set adrift, floats to the Isle of Man, and eventually becomes a bishop there, so it’s not always a bad thing! We were talking about what happened if you drifted back to your own territory, or if you drifted elsewhere. I said that one would be treated as if one were a stranger and a foreigner if one drifted back to one’s own territory, with no social ties; but if one went elsewhere, then you did your best to make a new life there. A student asked “But wouldn’t it be known you were a murderer or something, and wouldn’t people treat you bad?” I said “Maybe,” and then the following came out in more of a Mrs. Doyle voice than I had intended, “But just because you’re a kin-slaying, raping and pillaging murderer doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve a nice cup of tea.” The class thought that was funny, but it’s true–the law of hospitality still applied, and if you didn’t get hospitality from anyone else in the territory where you turned up (which was possible, as it could be refused under those circumstances), then what you did was go to the king and put yourself under their protection, with athgabáil (distraint, which included “fasting against” someone), if necessary. (Hence, this is why Fergus and the Ulster exiles are directly connected to Medb and Ailill, etc.) The king was required to give you hospitality in that way, and you were likewise then required to be a good guest with the king, and not to try anything funny.
So, the whole ethic of hospitality is important in various Celtic cultures, and of course in many other cultures as well. (Xenia in Greek; Jewish examples–though I don’t know the specific terminology off the top of my head; and so forth…) With this, there is an implied relationship that comes about. When one invites someone in, there is an expected social obligation of the host to be as good a host as possible, within their means, and to treat their guests equitably (if not exceedingly well and in a privileged manner, no matter who they are); likewise, there are expected obligations of the person who is a guest to act as a good and gracious guest, to not do things to offend or outrage their host, or to exceedingly inconvenience them. If one allows someone in, then that expected set of relationships is automatically implied, and need not be established or negotiated; and likewise, if someone seeks hospitality, then it is expected that the one doing so knows what the rules are, and will abide by them.
When people don’t, trouble happens. And we all know lots of examples of that.
One of the things which Finnchuill pointed out, in the comments on an earlier post I made in March of 2010, is that he’s not really very much for the idea of “being civilized,” with all that implies. Fair enough; so in response to that, I shifted my use of the expectation of people and deities of “being civilized” to “being socially responsible,” as that actually is much closer to what I was getting at in the first place.
And, I find it somewhat ironic, that the people who considered themselves the most civilized in the ancient world–the Greek and the Romans–and who looked very contemptuously at the neighboring barbarian races as “uncivilized,” in fact often seem quite uncivilized when it comes to their social and theological notions in comparison to this “barbarian” practice of implied social responsibility, reciprocity, and so forth which one finds in the Irish (and other Celtic) social mores. It has nothing to do with being civilized, or civil, or civilization (though I don’t think those terms are entirely irrelevant to the Celtic cultures at any period); it has everything to do with an understanding of social responsibility.
So, I think the same is true with gods as it is with humans. If you are a human, and a god seeks hospitality with you, then it’s impolite to refuse; but if you accept the god as a guest, there are an automatic set of rules which apply to both parties. You provide the god with the best service you can, you give them the best of your food and drink and the first serving of it, the nicest bed, the best entertainment, and you do so joyfully and enthusiastically (according to your means, both physical, financial, practical, and health-wise); and, in turn, the god tells you their scéla, their “news,” “tidings,” or “stories” (the first priority when inviting a guest in up until very recently in Ireland, after seeing to their immediate needs, was for them to tell you their scéla, possibly even before they told you their name), acts like a good guest, doesn’t scandalize or over-burden their host, is grateful for the hospitality shown to them (as long as it is adequate and isn’t offensive–whereupon satire can follow!), and likewise offers to give hospitality in turn should the need ever arise, and departing with blessings.
One wouldn’t put up with a guest coming in, telling you what food you’ll serve, being rude, demanding things and not being thankful or polite in doing so, and expecting to be treated like a king without showing any respect in return. And likewise it is with the gods. They do come seeking hospitality from us; and, the number of times this happens in Greek myth, with a god in disguise, would suggest that the ethic is just as strong (even if sometimes only implied) in those situations as it is in any of the Celtic contexts. Dionysos is a guest in Thebes, and should be treated well; he wasn’t, and Pentheus got punished for it. Zeus was a guest of Lykaon; he was treated poorly, and Lykaion was punished. However, in both cases, the god didn’t come in and start giving orders–it wasn’t the gods’ house, they had no right to do so, despite the fact that they were some of the most powerful and awesome gods in existence.
There are contractual relationships implied with our dealing with all gods, I think. They are quite specific in many of the Irish instances, and the gods can be held responsible for not holding up their ends of the bargain, and cannot run rough-shod over people who are weaker than them. That’s what a great deal of the Old Irish legal system is designed to do: to give due honor and respect to the position and social station of people at different points in the social hierarchy, but to also insure that no one with more power and influence is able to lord it over those with less, or to mistreat them as a result. The whole distraint/athgabáil process is designed to be a check on that; the poetic privilege of satire was not just a social function, but also the poet’s leverage in terms of making sure that rulers (and others) exercised their authority appropriately and their duties adequately. And, even if one party is utterly insignificant in comparison to another, it is still possible for their plea to be heard and considered and addressed.
This is true in the Christian period as much as it is in the pre-Christian period. St. Patrick himself fasts against God (i.e. uses the athgabáil legal process) in order to negotiate his privilege of judging the Irish at doomsday. Now, ignoring the presumptuousness of the idea for a moment, let’s examine what happened. God responded to him after forty days of fasting by sending an angel with a compromise; Patrick would not have it, and sent the angel back to try again; the angel returned with a better deal, but still not what he asked for, and was sent back with the same request again; eventually, God relented, and Patrick got his way. Pretty bold, wouldn’t you say? And the Christian God in that situation was understood to be the unqualified supreme power of the universe, able to do whatever he liked with whatever he wished; and, Patrick still got what he wanted out of him through this entirely customary and allowable legal process, no matter how bold or excessive it might have seemed to be.
The gods in Ireland are presented as far less omnipotent and unquestionable in their authority than the Christian god, so it’s certainly possible to negotiate with them. And, I don’t know too many modern pagans who would argue that their own gods–no matter how powerful–are omnipotent, or omniscient, etc. They may have more power than us, they may have more and broader knowledge and wisdom than us…And what that ends up meaning is that they have more social responsibility to us than not. We may not be gods (yet), but that doesn’t mean that the gods can ignore us or treat us as inferior beings who are getting too big for our britches if we expect them to deal equitably with us.
Yes, the gods often don’t; but they’re liable for doing so, and can be held accountable for their actions. (This is true in Indian tradition as well–a human sage curses Vishnu, one of the three most powerful beings in the universe, with a curse that is binding in his incarnation as Ram…that seems pretty serious, don’t you think?)
Now, there’s the question of natural forces, like volcanoes and animals killing one another and so forth. Yes, nature is cruel, but also awesome (in the original sense, as well as the more colloquial sense). We can do all that is possible for us to attempt to live in harmony with nature, and I think many of us try and do that in whatever way we feel it is possible–we all have our lapses with it. Natural forces don’t respond to us, though; you can’t propitiate a tornado not to wreck your house, no matter how many sacrifices you do right in order to avert that disaster. But here’s the thing: I don’t think those things literally are the gods. One of the things about the gods, which was mentioned in the Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi excerpt quoted in March of 2010 on The Wild Hunt blog is that the gods are the “spirits of understanding.” What this could mean is that the gods can be understood as discrete and identifiable, individual intelligences.
Theologically, this means that, for example, no matter how awesome Zeus is, he’s still not lightning directly, except in a metaphorical sense–and this is where Joseph Campbell’s talks on metaphor and myth are really useful. To say “Zeus is lightning” is a metaphor. We understand something of Zeus by looking at and getting to understand lightning (even in a scientific sense), and we can appreciate lightning as a symbol of Zeus’ power and even of his influence in certain circumstances; but he’s not lightning itself; nor is Poseidon the ocean and earthquakes, Demeter the earth, or Dionysos wine. All of these things are reflective of the presence and the wonder and the intelligence of these gods, but they’re not the gods themselves. We do well to respect wine, and the earth, and the oceans, and the power of the sky and rain and lightning, and we can revel in these things as a way to honor and understand these gods, but they’re not literally the gods. So, if lightning does strike your barn and burns it down, or an earthquake destroys your home and kills thousands, or someone gets drunk and does horrible things (like date rape or drunk driving that ends up in a fatality), those things aren’t these gods acting through people necessarily, or punishing people. These things all work on the laws of physics and chemical reactions and so forth, quite independent (for the most part) of human intervention and volition. Wishing that wine won’t make you drunk, or that the tsunami heading for your location won’t strike, isn’t going to make those things not happen, no matter how good your relationship is with Dionysos or Poseidon. These are impersonal forces–and therefore, by definition, they cannot be the direct action or presence of the gods that we understand, because the gods must be intelligences, and must be individual and with will. It is not the will of a tsunami to cause the destruction it causes, it just happens–the earth shifts, the oceans respond, tsunami. No one is mad at anyone else. The only people these days who argue that there is divine judgment in natural disasters (or in more individual things, like someone getting a particular disease, etc.) are evangelical Christians, who think that the Haitians are paying for being Voudun practitioners, that New Orleans was destroyed because of the sins of its inhabitants, that AIDS is the vengeance of God on homosexuals, etc. And we all know what we think of such people who say those atrocious things, don’t we? We think they’re pretty wrong, to say the least.
So, why would this type of logic then be applicable to pagan matters and a pagan understanding of the universe, at this point in history? I don’t deny that this used to be very commonly thought, back before scientific understandings were possible for most people. But, we know where the strengths of individual types of reasoning lie, I think, these days. Science is very good for understanding the facts of the universe and how things actually work. Religion and spirituality and philosophy and mythology are very good at giving us an understanding of meaning, and what our role in the universe is in relation to ourselves, other people, the gods, and the universe itself. (In other words, “non-overlapping magisteria,” as defined by Stephen J. Gould.)
Thorough-going logic and standards throughout a theological system is, admittedly, quite rare these days, perhaps particularly in mainstream (usually monotheistic) religions, and is responsible for many of the atrocities that go on. We all are in shock and appalling disgust at the repeated demonstrations of Christians who say “Don’t judge” and yet who tell everyone they’re sinful and going to hell; or who hold up the Gospel as their ideals, with its ideas of loving one’s neighbor and giving to the poor, and yet corruption and unjust dealings with people occur all the time. Allah is the most merciful and the most compassionate, but also, if you don’t utterly bow down to him and the word of the Prophet and don’t question it in any way, it’s straight to hell with you–Allah is great! Name a mainstream religion and I’m sure the litany of abuses and inconsistencies and outright hypocrisy like this is rife within it–which is really no wonder, then, that so many people think religion is for the birds and a lost cause and irredeemable. The way it’s been done by many people and by many organized institutions, it certainly looks that way.
As pagans, who are often painstakingly building our own theological approaches to these things, both with the materials we’ve inherited from traditional cultures, but also with input from other systems (like Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and other non-monotheistic religious systems, particularly the older ones that have survived despite Christianity and Islam and that have been around for a great deal of uninterrupted time), and with our feet firmly planted in the modern scientific, rational, and human rights, social justice, feminist, ecologically conscious, non-heterosexist (and whatever else you might wish) viewpoints, we need to re-evaluate these things and be very careful indeed about how we choose to construct them. It is obvious that the views of the gods have changed within the known historical periods of different ancient cultures: the Wesir of the ancient Egyptians was not the Osiris known to Herodotus, nor the Serapis known to the Ptolemies. Why would we assume that this has stopped now, and that it isn’t still ongoing? This is what is known in Christianity as “process theology,”(1) but I think we can just think of it as “polytheism” and “syncretism,” because that’s how it’s gone for the history of most religions that are polytheistic and syncretistic (which is to say, most of them that have ever existed). We need to question our own assumptions about the gods–which, I think, are often more assumptions and beliefs and so forth held over from previous religious systems, and not matters of direct experience or insight, which is to say, they’re matters of “belief” rather than of experience, and the pagan religions are nothing if not religions of experience–and look at them and examine and scrutinize them for what their implications are about the nature of the universe, the nature of humans in it, and the nature of human responsibility, both to the gods and to each other and to the wider world. If there is any element within these theological frameworks which can be abused, or can be employed to justify or dismiss human suffering, or can be interpreted in a way that may allow for power to be held by one group over the contractual social obligations and civil niceties of another, including issues of mutual consent, then I really do think it is in our best interests to investigate why that is. If it does result from one’s own particular interactions with deities, I don’t think the results are beyond questioning or critique, and that this eliminates our moral agency–and, in fact, I think if one argues from that viewpoint, one is probably doing so from a notion of deity and power relations that is probably abusive–but nonetheless, perhaps the terms of your own contract allow for such thing. D/s relationships among humans have those aspects, and they certainly can be present in one’s divine relationships…but, again, only if it is contractual and has been negotiated and understood by all parties involved! No one should assume it from the get-go, or think “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” and such.
So, yes, hospitality. If you invite them in, it implies a few things: they’re wanting to come in, and you’re happy to provide for them as best you can by your means. If in the course of that, you come to a relationship that is equitable, great; if you come to one that favors their power over you, then if that was agreed upon, fine, but if not, and if they have lorded their power over you and threatened you, then whoever that is (god, human, or other entity), their ass should be out on the street with curses (and depending on which system you’re working within, that may or may not have some negative consequences for you as well…it varies); if you come to an understanding in which your own interests and abilities are favored over the other and prevail over them (as would be the case with certain goetic operations, etc.), well, proceed with caution, but if there is agreement to a contract on the other’s part in return for the offerings accepted, etc., then that is pretty above-board, all things considered.
We always have the option to ignore (or postpone) a god’s call. I’d advise not doing so, not because they might end up dragging you or forcing you or making your life miserable–if they do, again, they’re liable for their actions (including if they then punish you or otherwise impose their will on you), and should be held responsible. If we think of these calls as a request for hospitality, then no matter what, we can invite them in, ask “what’s your news,” and after tending to them as best we can under the circumstances, send them on their way. They may never drop by again–and I distinctly suspect this happens a great deal more than people are willing to admit, and people take it very personally if a god doesn’t stay and set up shop with one. But, guess what? Most people who come over and are guests in our houses don’t stay for good either, unless you end up getting married or what have you. (The Phillupic Hymns was an extended exercise in that–I flung my doors open to whoever wanted to show up, and many did, and have not been back. Giving out free donuts is a good way to show you have a business, but you may not end up with too many regular customers as a result, no matter how well someone might like donuts.) So, if a god came over and you entertained them well, but they have not come back, it may not mean anything other than they just haven’t been in the neighborhood lately. That doesn’t mean you can’t go and seek them out and ask for hospitality at their house. The worst they can say is no, or even “not just now”…but I distinctly suspect that happens a lot less often than people think as well.
But when you do open the door for them, or they open the door for you, there’s a relationship, and there’s a social bond there, in which both parties are responsible for their behavior. If you hold up your end of things, you should be fine; and they should hold up their end of things as well.
There’s the rest of that statement from the Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi that I think bears mentioning here as well: Hadrian asks “What are the gods?” and Epictetus (not the Stoic one!) answers “A constellation of eyes, the spirits of understanding; if you fear, they are fearful; if you are temperate, they are sanctified.” If you admit a god into your house and you constantly fear them, well, then you’ll probably not be disappointed in your expectations. But, if you are temperate, in the broadest sense of that term, in your dealings with the gods, I think people might find them not in any way fearful; awesome, certainly, and awe-inspiring, definitely, but not fearful.
No one says “I went to the Grand Canyon and was just overcome with fear” (unless they are afraid of heights, or dirt, or something…!?!), they say “awe.” But, because of our religious vocabulary from mainstream religions, we think “fear of the gods” is a good thing, and just a part of the process. No. That swimming feeling in your stomach, that dizzy feeling in your head, that dazed feeling behind your eyes…that’s not fear, that’s awe, and that’s the business of the gods. They do it well, and to fear them as a result–which far too many people do–I think utterly defeats the purpose. If the gods are individuals, and spirits of understanding, then they probably do want to be understood, and it is in their best interests to not scare people away; and while their reality can be frightening to many (particularly those who have been accustomed to view these matters in ways influenced by the “fear of God” theologies), it isn’t intended to be, any more than the vastness of the ocean or the expanse of the Grand Canyon is best apprehended as blood-curdlingly horrible.
So, go ahead–there’s a knock, why not open the door?
1: In Pope Benedict XVI’s early 2010 letter to the people of Ireland, he said a statement that I think was meant to discredit process theology. He said that Jesus’ grace was there and available for anyone who wants it, just as it has been in the past, and will be in the future, and has never changed and never can/will change. I don’t think the idea of Jesus’ grace is the same now as it was even in pre-Vatican II days, personally…and no matter what truth process theology may hold in terms of actually reflecting individual divine realities, the history of religion and theological development certainly makes what the Pope’s argument there happens to be at least questionable.