At last, so it seems, I have a few moments to be able to write a post that isn’t either poetry I’ve written recently for a specific festival occasion, a reaction to a series of debates going on, or an update about some event in the near future…what leisure! ;)
The present issue is one I’ve been thinking about for months, though, and it’s a very complex topic, and one which is not well served by an “either/or” or even a “both/and” approach–it’s far too subtle and essential to be treated in such ways, I think. There are far too many possibilities to break it into a dualistic schema in any realistic fashion. I hardly know where to begin as a result, though…
A debate that often comes up in reconstructionist circles is the debate over the importance of “the lore.” In certain situations, we can be far more certain that the surviving lore has some relevance to the religions and cultures we’re seeking to continue and to take our inspirations from–this is the case with a huge amount of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman materials, for example (although there is often a lack of historical consciousness about the nature or intended audience and purposes of some sources, which causes them to be misused on some occasions, etc.). In other cases, however, this is not a situation that can be said to easily or straight-forwardly exist, as if the situation with a huge amount of the (Insular) Celtic and Norse/Germanic sources–certainly, some pre-Christian material does exist for these and related cultures (though often through classically-biased lenses, but at least those are polytheistic!), but the majority of the narratives and names we have come from medieval literature that was written by Christians. They were not crypto-pagans, nor did they bring in traditional storytellers, “druids,” or skalds and scops and simply write down non-Christian stories in an antiquarian, medieval-anthropologist-like fashion.
As a result, we often get two approaches to the lore in these particular cultures: either the “if it isn’t in the lore, it doesn’t exist and isn’t valid” approach, which is prevalent amongst many reconstructionists in these traditions, and which thus causes them to be inimical toward UPG, any sort of innovation, and thus often of any direct human-divine interaction at all; or, on another side, an approach which states “the lore is contaminated, therefore we shouldn’t give it any precedence,” and which thus allows for the freedom to innovate and to have direct spiritual experiences with deities that may thus expand, explain, or at times contradict the “established” lore.
Because I’m a naturally intellectual and scholarly-minded person, but also because I see my polytheist practices as a continuation in spirit (if not quite often in word and in practice) of the polytheistic practices of people and cultures who have come before me, I am a reconstructionist. However, lots of recons in a variety of communities would not be happy with me laying claim to that label, because I do innovate, I do take my direction from the gods more readily than I do from books, and I think that even though the traditions of the past are beautiful and honorable and important to remember and to know, they may not be adequate or appropriate for the modern day and the very different social and practical situations in which we currently live and conduct our worship. In the terminology I’ve developed in my “Reconstructionism as Methodology” course in Academia Antinoi, I am a primary reconstructionist (because I have the linguistic skills and the academic background to be able to consult ancient texts directly), an active reconstructionist (because I think these religious practices, if they are to be useful, must put humans in contact with deities, and that alone is the criterion for their usefulness), and a confirmation-based reconstructionist (because I look to the ancient cultures from which I draw inspiration for an understanding of my own experiences, rather than looking to those cultures because their style of spiritual experience appeals to me as something I’d like to experience in the future).
I couldn’t begin to tell you what the Mos Maiorum might have to say about a great number of issues (and though I’m interested in knowing more on that, I’m not interested enough in pursuing that knowledge with a great deal of effort at present, because it is not immediately useful to me in getting closer to my gods), and yet I get told on a a regular basis when people attend my Ekklesía Antínoou rituals that I’m “very Roman.” I don’t know if this is because I use a lot of Latin (and, increasingly these days, Greek!), or because my style is often characterized as “high church,” or if it is because my rituals assume the existence of a temporary temple…and thus, all of these things combined end up reading as rather “Catholic” and thus “Roman” to the more Protestant-esque tenor of most American (and British and Irish) modern paganism; or, if it is simply ignorance on the part of many participants who end up commenting on my rituals in this way, who are lulled into thinking it is “Roman” because we mention the Emperor (or, rather, one particularly important Emperor!) rather a lot and use a good bit of Latin. Thus, even though I’m a recon (because I use a reconstructionism-based methodology), I know a good number of recons in various traditions that might not be comfortable with counting me as one of their own. That doesn’t bother me, any more than it bothers me that a good number of people who use the terms “pagan” and “polytheist” aren’t remotely like me, have practices and beliefs vastly different than mine, and may not even be people that I’d enjoy meeting briefly or knowing for an extended period of time. But, anyway…
As a fili and a storyteller, and a seanchaidh in the oldest sense (of “lore-keeper”), though, I have a great love for the narratives of the various cultures that inform my diverse religious practices, and I consider it an important activity and a sacred duty to know these tales, to learn new ones, and to try and use them in various ways in my religious practices beyond just re-telling and explaining them. I thus think it’s a very important thing to not only know this material, as it actually exists in the sources we have, but to portray it accurately whenever possible. One might interpret a given story a variety of ways, but the details of the story as handed down in many cases are “facts.” I’ve noticed a remarkable tendency amongst many modern pagans, often in the next breath after they claim to be reporting the “tales of the ancestors” and so forth, to play quite fast and loose with both fact and interpretation in these matters. Whether you accept that a given tale “literally happened” or not (and I accept that almost all of them didn’t literally happen as they have come down to us!), there are narratological facts that are established in a given telling or literate rendering of it, and these cannot be ignored or brushed aside or downplayed in favor of one’s own modern interpretation or understanding ESPECIALLY if one is claiming to be handing down the traditions of the ancestors, etc. To some people, this might make me a “lore hound,” and I have no problem with that, because it is important to get some of these things “right” in this regard. We can’t have a useful discussion of some aspect of Hesiod’s Theogony if one can’t even agree on what Hesiod wrote!
Let me give you an example. It’s pretty certain that no singular historical event similar to Homer’s Iliad happened in the exact way that the poem ascribed to Homer describes the situation; there is probably no human who was alive at one time in the past that is similar to or was the basis of Achilleus, nor his younger lover Patroklos. But, that doesn’t mean that getting their story “right” isn’t of importance or consequence, especially if one wants to talk about Homer’s version of these events. It is also not the case that any version of the stories of Achilleus and Patroklos currently exists and has come down to us which has Patroklos surviving the Trojan War, or Achilleus himself, and they certainly don’t go off and live happily ever after with a big gay chariot army and retire to Ibiza partying all day and night. Such a story has never existed before now, and has not been a possibility within the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, or the cultures which took inspiration from these later on, as did medieval Ireland, for example…
However, as a storyteller and a fili, I’m also very much aware of the fact that there is no reason that such a version of their story could not exist now, if there was a good reason for it to do so beyond the mere novelty of such a possibility. In fact, in some of my own written fiction on Antinous, I’ve played with notions exactly like that: what if he didn’t drown in the Nile, and instead died some other way at a different time, whether long after or shortly after? It is clear, though, for most people who read those fictions I’ve written that I’m the creator of them, and they’re new and novel and serve a purpose for us now, and thus should not be confused with what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about the subject.
And that’s where I find so many modern pagans falling down, whether recons or not, in how some of this material is transmitted and discussed and understood. New interpretations should be marked as new interpretations, and novel versions or variations on established tales should likewise be stated to be of more recent vintage. There is a very big difference between “the traditions of our ancestors” and “in the traditions of our ancestors,” which means that a lot is riding on that preposition “in,” but it’s an important difference: conveying what ancient people actually said and did and believed is one thing, but taking our inspiration from them and then varying it in ways that are useful and instructive for us is another–and, it’s important, and we must do it for these things to be relevant for us, but in the process of doing so, we need to be aware that what is being done and said and stated about people of the past is not what they themselves did or said or stated about themselves.
Before we move on to some other pertinent aspects of these questions, I am reminded of a story that I quite like, which shows how some academic approaches to these matters can often not be useful or appropriate to an actual living and breathing polytheist religion and worldview and life. In Ireland, there was a huge project in the early twentieth century which sent home questionnaires to students about folktales and stories from their parents, relatives, friends, and so forth. The usefulness of this collection has been debated and questioned for a while (and rightly so), but some work has been done with aspects of it. The main familiarity with this work that I have is through an article that was written about Ulster Cycle materials (i.e. the stories involving Cú Chulainn and his contemporaries) and their appearances in the Schools collection, as it is called. One of the stories that is part of Táin Bó Cúailnge‘s traditional and older three recensions is the combat of Cú Chulainn with his foster-brother and lover Fer Diad; but, this incident became so popular over time that it has become what some scholars refer to as “Recension Four” of TBC, with a greatly expanded series of components and events that are often not found in the earlier three recensions, and which has left a large number of manuscripts in a variety of locations. It is, thus, not surprising to find that the Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad combat tale occurs on several occasions in the Schools collection, often in greatly reduced form (it would almost have to be in order to be included in that project at all), and in several cases, the figure with whom the teller seems to sympathize more is Fer Diad rather than Cú Chulainn. In one case, the author of the article says that the storyteller got the story “wrong,” because in that version, it says that Fer Diad killed Cú Chulainn and it sort of just leaves it at that! However, this is a strange predicament, because if it is in the collection, and was “collected” in a way that is just as valid as any other story in the collection was collected, then its contents can’t be “wrong”–it is just different (even if vaguely shocking!) than the other versions that are known to exist, both in literature and otherwise in the Schools collection.
And, for that matter, do we know whether or not there were regional variations of the story in which Fer Diad was the victor instead of Cú Chulainn? I suspect there might have been, given that Fer Diad is (if I am not mistaken) a descendent of the Fer Domnann, and thus of a minority population within Ireland from a mythological viewpoint…And, just as Balor is the hero of tales on Tory Island rather than his upstart grandson Lug, why might this not be the case in some sections of Ireland? We simply can’t know whether other variations existed in the past because the literature doesn’t cover them…
This matter, thus, brings me to one that is of consequence in this wider discussion. Just as we don’t often know what local variations of a given narrative might have existed (unless they’re attested in literature), so too have many “anti-lore-hound” modern pagans and polytheists suggested that what is actually “in the lore” does not need to be taken as definitive, since it wasn’t written by polytheists for polytheists, and was not written as if it was a religious text of any sort. These are certainly important matters to consider, and are further reasons why there is no “literalism,” nor (here’s a very loaded word) fundamentalism possible in most modern forms of polytheism, no matter what proponents of using those terms might wish to assert otherwise on the matter.
Something that studying the Irish material closely and living with it intimately for many years taught me is that no matter what the medieval Irish thought about their ancestors or their gods and heroes, there is one interpretive option that they never took and never considered: they never utterly dismissed them and said they never existed. Sometimes, they interpreted the divine beings of Irish myth as unfallen humans; sometimes, they interpreted them as a special class of angels; sometimes, they interpreted them as demons, and said that the stories about them were all demon-inspired; and, of course, there was also the more generally euhemeristic view that just viewed all of them as humans and ancestors and not divine at all…but, none of these approaches did what most modern monotheists, secularists, atheists, and others have done, which is to assume that the gods never existed, can’t exist, and don’t currently exist. THAT is a really important point, and one that deserves far more attention and serious consideration than I can give it here at present…
But, this is a reality that more active-based reconstructionists, as well as many non- or anti-reconstructionists also often emphasize: the gods, if they are real, still exist and have not gone away. (Anti-recons use this matter to suggest that looking at ancient sources or using them at all is not necessary or relevant, since we can just go to the gods now; non-recons and active-based reconstructionists use this matter to advocate for a non-exclusive approach to the established lore, and that it should be used hand-in-hand with modern interpretations and experiences…and, I’d be in that same viewpoint myself, as I mentioned earlier.) If that is true now, then it is true in the past as well: just because the dominant religions and ways of life changed doesn’t mean that the gods suddenly disappeared for several thousand years. As a result–particularly in places where the existence of the gods, even if re-defined or re-interpreted, was never dismissed–during the medieval centuries when “the lore” as we have it in Insular Celtic and Germanic contexts was being written, it is possible that, even beyond the likelihood (which I think is great/high) that some of the lore was based on earlier traditions, myths, and so forth, the gods may have been inspiring and directing the medieval Christian writers in ways that could be considered authentic and viable and within the tradition quite explicitly. The gods, as a rule, don’t seem to care that much about what humans think about or define as their own religious traditions, their own theological positions, or their professed religious identities or affiliations; thus, why might they not appear to, inspire, or in some ways direct the writings of people in other religions? And especially in situations like that of Ireland, where the gods were not actively dismissed as not existing, and where the poetic practices of filidecht were mostly the same as they had been in pre-Christian times, why wouldn’t this continuous and ongoing revelation, as it were, of the gods not continue under and despite the new religious dispensations that prevailed?
As a result, even though we do need to keep context in mind when dealing with these matters, and to realize that these medieval Christians were not writing an “Irish Bible” to be taken literally by polytheists, they were very definitely writing what could be considered an “Irish Old Testament,” in that they looked to the ways of their ancestors and their tales as in many senses prefiguring the later Christian revelation. If there was not some truth to those traditions, then it would not have been worth preserving; and if various aspects of that tradition, including the identities and deeds of the various figures we now identify as gods and heroes of Irish tradition, prefigured the truth of the Christian revelation, then they must have therefore been self-evidently “true” themselves in some sense due to the acceptance of the later Christian truth. In a way that is perhaps not entirely pleasing to modern polytheists (considering that it is built upon the apparently self-evident and unquestioned “truth” of Christianity), this matter makes the preserved lore of Ireland in medieval times true and viable in the minds of the medieval Irish people who were writing it. Gods regularly appear in the genealogies of the great families of Ireland, and their ruling dynasties, and in the stories of the places where all of them lived, which then gave legitimacy and continuity and modern relevance to the people who lived on those lands and who ruled and held authority amongst their people. This is a matter that cannot be overstated, and that does not receive enough attention or serious consideration amongst modern people, scholarly or pagan or otherwise…
So, I think that there are several possible matters that can be taken away from the present reflections:
1) Slavish adherence to the established lore (especially when it is medieval) is not advisable; at best, it’s a great guidebook, and a fascinating source of entertainment, inspiration, and cultural information.
2) That having been said, knowing what is actually there, and being able to discuss it accurately, is essential for an authentic engagement with these traditions.
3) Given the ongoing reality of the gods that polytheism presupposes (and if you don’t agree with that, I don’t care–but, for the purposes of the present arguments, it’s essential, and thus if you want to contest that aspect, fine, but not now and not here), they may in fact have a direct hand in the lore that has come down to us, even when it comes from non-polytheists.
I’ve often said in the past that myth is a story that only a fool believes is true, but if you don’t believe it is true, you’re a fool; on other occasions, in a more sober and serious context, I’ve said that myth is a statement of truth that does not rely upon factuality for its truth value. There is a way in which what is written of the gods and heroes is not factual and did not happen (and in many ways, could not happen), and yet there is a narrative consistency that relies upon certain facts being established in order for the narrative to proceed; thus, myth is a reality that exists for humans in relation to the gods, but which likely has little or no value to or interest for the gods themselves, outside of how such myths serve to bring humans closer to them. (And if they do, I suspect they approve of them!) That doesn’t, however, absolve the storyteller from complete license to just “make things up” however they want about the gods and heroes, because there are consequences. Likewise, though, that means that entirely contradictory versions of myths can exist side-by-side without any difficulty for the gods, because both can be potentially “true” even if they are factually contradictory.
While the above is not as comprehensive an ars poetica for modern polytheist myth-making and mythic interpretation as I might hope it would or could be (and given that I feel like I’m having a steel spike driven through my left frontal lobe at present, I don’t think I could do better at present), nonetheless it is a contribution in that direction, that I think modern polytheists do need to think more about and discuss in ways that would be useful in the future.