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Broken Lines

January 11, 2016 6 comments

Broken lines run through many animist and polytheist religions.  In some places, those lines are fairly stark.  In others, the division between what was and where we are is sometimes bridged by practices and beliefs based in the old ways.  At least for Americans, most of us are completely divorced from even the lived folk ways and folklore that remained with pir Ancestors due to successive generations assimilating, by force or choice, into monotheist and then US culture.  We lost connections to where our Ancestors came from, their language, and their ways along with it.

I was never taught any folklore or folkways from Germany, England, Ireland from our family.  No songs, no stories, no practices, and only a few recipes collected from family members.  I was taught a smattering of German words.  There was nothing left by the time I was being raised.  I was raised a Catholic, which at least taught me virtues of regular prayer, piety, an appreciation of the Ancestors that came before me, and an appreciation of ritual.  Still, by the time I was being raised every vestige of any animist or polytheist inkling had been wiped out of my family.

So, when I felt the call from my Gods, I did what anyone would do in this situation: I read about Them.  As I read about Them and learned how to make offerings, and what kind of offerings specific Gods might like, I started to do prayers, to make offerings, and learned how to divine so I could better understand Them.  I had to reforge links with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir through trial and error.  Only after a few years of being a Northern Tradition and Heathen did I finally have an Elder to look up to, ask questions, and seek guidance from, and it dramatically changed my life.  She had done the same in her own turn before me, and I benefited from that.  There was so much I was able to grasp and explore because I had help in filtering things through a sift of experience, someone with the ability to separate ice cream from bullshit.  It helped me to grow in the religion, and it helped me to better understand myself, the Holy Powers, and my place in things.  While we are having to work with a broken lineage to our ancient, polytheist past, having Elders and co-religionists to rely on now helps to ease the burden of the journey.

I do not believe we would struggle as much in terms of basic dialogue, understanding, walking these paths, or learning about and from our Holy Powers if our lineages were still intact.  What is facing many animist and polytheist religions now is how to navigate these lines of separation.

I see these as issues that directly relate to most polytheisms having broken lineages, and being actively addressed now:

  • A basic lack of familiarity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of a given tradition. Not everyone needs to know every God or Goddess, but there are more than a few Gods who often get short shrift when, because of cosmological function, community function, or relationship with everyday life, They ought to be better known. For instance, Gerda.
  • A basic lack of familiarity, understanding of, and engagement with religious protocol. Things like the implications of the guest/host relationship factor really big into polytheist religion, and it ought to have more of an impact on how we frame our relationships given how these ideas influenced and continue to influence, when they are known, the lives of those who engage in reciprocity and guest/host relations in a way that is respectful to both and upholding of reciprocity between them.
  • A basic lack of familiarity with ritual purity. These don’t have to be elaborate. These can be simple things, like washing the hands and face before offerings, or taking a shower before holy day celebrations.
  • A basic lack of piety. The very bedrock of how we engage with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir need not be all bowed heads and uttering long prayers, though for some that may be the expectation and it is on the worshiper to fulfill it. A basic lack of piety means that even reverence at a shrine is not tended to. Things like the offering cups are cleaned on a regular basis, or you don’t just offer when you want something; you maintain a good relationship with a God, Ancestors, or vaettir. It would be like inviting Grandma over, not having cleaned or even prepared a meal for her after not seeing for a year to hit her up for cash.
  • A basic lack of understanding core principles of a polytheist path, such as the aforementioned reciprocity, guest rights/host rights, where one’s place is cosmologically and in relationship with the Holy Powers.

There’s so much more, but on a baseline we would have these things taught to us and modeled for us as a matter of course as part of being in polytheist societies.

Since our Ancestors did not stay the course, whether by sword, torture, starvation, and/or their choice of conversion, we can only speculate so far as to what they would have done.

Reconstructing and reviving the animist/polytheist religions requires us to do what we can as we can to revive, reconstruct, and/or revitalize the religions and cultures we are engaged in with the help and/or direction of the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. Where there are unbridgeable gaps in knowledge, we ask Them to help us fill in the holes, to create a whole, healthy religion and spiritual understanding in which They are tightly wound.  There are several factors worth thinking on in how we reconstruct, revitalize, and/or renew these religions.  A good overview of this, written by Caer, and exploring the ideas of antiquity and modernity in the context of these conversations can be found here.  One of the major factors being considered by a lot of folks is on modernity, and whether it is a help or hindrance to this.  I am firmly of the view that modernity is a deep hindrance to understanding and embracing a polytheist worldview.

Looking at life and the world now, there is little room for my Gods. Where would I look for my Gods in modernity when so much of it is built on the bones of sacred places and their worshipers? Where would I look for my Ancestors ways’ in this world when the holy sites of the old countries these cultures hailed from (now often tourist attractions/traps) have to be fought for just so they aren’t paved over or removed? Where would I look in modernity for the vaettir when companies gleefully bulldoze 10,000 acres of old growth forest just for 100 years of unfettered limestone mining?

Modernity demands my silence in one hand and pretty looking shackles in the other. It promises to spare me from direct shackles that others bear on my behalf so that my computer can be built, the electricity runs, the Internet and all the various apparatus that keeps it afloat keep on running. It’s colonialism by other means, with all the ‘externalities’ bought and paid for with the blood, sweat, tears, misery, and lives of other people. Part of my work in service to the Gods is to sever that cycle when and wherever I can. Modernity is a poor substitute for a religious teacher.

Polytheist religion informed by ancient cultures which were based in Europe is not synonymous with modernity’s Eurocentrism. Rather than encourage such a mindset, if we were to pay close attention to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and live in better concert with Them, it would be quite a revolutionary act. It would discard the largely Eurocentric-based and upheld myth of evolution which placed Christianity, then later atheism or agnosticism at the top of the proverbial heap. It would discard the notion that animist, polytheist, and similar religions were backward, misguided, or that what was found within these religions was something better relegated to a bygone period.

Animist and polytheist religions generally embrace living with and within a world we inhabit with our Holy Powers, where their considerations are taken into account. To my mind this is part of piety and reciprocity. It is a powerful, subversive, and revolutionary thing to regard a stream, lake, piece of land, one’s home, or wherever one goes to be full of spirits, and potentially a home to the Gods and/or Ancestors in addition to the vaettir who call that place home, or ARE that place. It is no small thing to consider that the rights of such a place to be free from damage is part of the rights of the land itself as the land itself is a vaettr (spirit) and/or collection of vaettir (spirits), or it may Itself be a God or many Gods.  It also demands that our religions live in the now, and not be ossified in the past, bound only to what the lore, or what archaeology can tell us.  Most reconstructionists will tell you this is generally what happens in reconstruction anyhow.  It’s a methodology for how to take in and work with information, rather than a religious model itself.

I had to tackle this head-on when I became a priest of Anubis.  There was no temple structure.  I was learning from someone outside Kemetic orders, traditions, etc., and all I had to go on was what they taught, and my ongoing spiritual work and communication with Anpu when they left my life.  There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel that goes on in modern Pagan, animist and polytheist religions, at least in America, because infrastructure is so lacking, very often all we have are books to look to.  If you are lucky enough to have a local community, you may have one or two folks somewhere in your wheelhouse who want to do ritual with you.  If not, it’s a loner’s game.

What I do not mean to say is that infrastructure, hierarchy, etc. is the only way for polytheists to do things moving forward.  Some folks simply don’t work well within such things, and that is fine.  For others, belonging to a hierarchy is actually at odds with their path for religious reasons, such as a taboo, what role(s) they may serve within a community, etc.

For a lot of folks, though, there’s a deep desire to have functioning communities.  Some people would like these with temples, structures, community events, festivals and celebrations, and so on.  This requires some kind of hierarchy to organize and to keep going. At the very least if one is part of a polytheist religion where the heart of the culture stops and starts in the home, a hearth culture, someone needs to teach the other family members the religion, and/or help keep devotional work, offerings, and so on, on a regular basis.  At the other end of the spectrum, a full-on temple could require things like dedicated temple staff who are the only ones to care for the icons of the Gods within an inner sanctum, with some staff dedicated either on a full-time, part time and/or volunteer basis to do maintenance and care for the temple.  While more hearth culture forms of animism and polytheism may not require much in the way of financial support, more complex and elaborate forms like the temple complex example above, absolutely do.

Each animist and polytheist in each animist and polytheist religion will be affected by these choices, and it will affect how future generations receive and understand their religion and culture.  In repairing our broken lines, we have to ask ourselves which lines we are able to repair now, which ways we accept may not be reparable, and what new lines we will make with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  How these broken lines are worked with, repaired, or made new will determine what religions future generations inherit, contribute to, and pass on, or whether future generations receive a grounding in the religions to begin with.

A Response to Sam Webster’s Ancestor Worship and Dealing With the Dead

October 11, 2013 3 comments

Sometimes reading through posts on peoples’ blogs, I get inspiration to write. Sometimes it is in addition to what they’ve written, and sometimes it is a rebuttal. Sometimes the post inspires me to write on some aspect of my own life, religion, etc. Sometimes it is not much more than an extended “Hell yeah!”

I read through Mr. Webster’s article. What I found did not so much challenge me as trouble me, as he says he is acting as a Pagan pastor. Particularly since Ancestor work, worship, and veneration are parts of the foundation of the Northern Tradition, I, accordingly, view the Ancestors as part and parcel of the life one leads.  As a shaman, priest, and Ancestor worker within this Tradition I find the attitudes Mr. Webster presents towards the Ancestors in the writing concerning.

Ancestor worship has become a popular topic in the Pagan community, but it is worth noting that it is not universal, or necessarily normative. It can also lead to some problems. . .

Not every Pagan will regularly worship Ancestors but I have yet to hear of any Pagan not at the least worshiping, venerating, and/or remembering their Ancestors, at the very least, on or around October 31st.  

Ancestor worship can be worship of one’s blood, spiritual, adopted, chosen, lineage, and/or inspirational Ancestors. He notes that there are Asian and African lineage-based Ancestor worshipers that know their lineage and where it comes from. I’m not sure what he is trying to make a point of here, excepting that perhaps they can trace their lineage back to where it originated, or some point in antiquity to where records fail or become irrelevant. The problem with painting with as broad a brush as Mr. Webster does, is that he already is showing inaccuracies and he has only started to stroke the canvas.  Mr. Webster notes that “This is a degree of specificity we have yet to achieve,” and yet, I can point to my own Elders, and a great many Wiccans can point to their own lineages. I view this knowledge as a good. I can point to who trained me and how, where this and that idea developed, and provide due reverence for them when they have passed on, while still improving upon the lessons they gave me, and passing on those lessons to the next generation. I find no issue with honoring ones Elders as part of the Ancestors provided those Elders are actually dead. 

In his next section he makes the point that not everyone works with the Dead.  He is absolutely wrong.  Every one of us will die, and we all know or will come to know someone who dies. Whether or not the religion itself acknowledges it, and engenders a positive relationship with the Dead, is an entirely different story. I know that I am picking on semantics here, but if you are going to be a pastor, and an effective communicator as one, the language you use to describe things matters. I’m not saying one must be perfect, but his connection of the Golden Dawn with what may be one of the very few exceptions to the rule of working with the Dead does not effectively make his case or tie it into the main theme he is writing about in this piece, especially in regards to Pagans as a whole. He notes that the Golden Dawn developed during ‘the great age of Spiritualism’ and made strides to divide itself against the practice of mediumship, favoring scrying, and that it actively discouraged contact with the Dead. This is because the main thought of those in the Golden Dawn at the time is that what they would “speak to would not be the blessed and intelligent soul, usually” and were “thought by those Victorians to be reincarnating or possibly passed on to their reward, and so not available for conversation”.

So the main way of viewing the Dead from the Golden Dawn’s perspective, according to Mr. Webster, is that ‘They are dead and we would not want to have conversation with them anyhow even if they were able to be contacted.”  

What he says next is both mystifying and boggling to me, as a priest who worships and works with Anpu, aka Anubis. He says that “I generally give no thought to ancestors or even lineage”. This, despite being “a priest of Hermes and Hekate”. It seems he serves a particular role, basically to help the Dead find Their way so They are not lost. He notes that to talk to them “would not occur to me.” It makes no sense to me that someone who works with the Dead would not seek out and cultivate a connection with their own Dead.

Perhaps that is just the work that Hermes and Hecate want him to do and no more. I do not worship either God or Goddess regularly nor have enough regular contact with Them to make a judgment. I am not a priest that works within that culture. Perhaps one who does would have a better understanding and be able to make one.

That all said, I deeply disagree with the next paragraph where he says “ those Dead whom folks are invoking and making offering to might better be considered the Honored Dead or Mighty Dead”. No.

If my Great-Grandpa Datema comes and talks to me it is probably just Great-Grandpa Datema. He is one of my notable Dead, both because I have a name for him, and he has a story that I know, told to me by my grandparents and by him, of how he immigrated to America as World War I was going on. He is one of the Väter (the German word for Fathers that I use rather than alfar, as that word, while sometimes denoting powerful male Ancestors in the lore, it also means elf) as he is one of the great roots that were laid down in my families when he came here to America. He isn’t especially powerful in terms of raw strength, but he has the wisdom from where he came from, and the lessons of how hard it can be to live between two places. By the time he died, Great-Grandpa had lost most of his ability to speak and write in Dutch, and by turns, also did not speak or write terribly great English, either. Yet his wisdom, support, and love for his children is a powerful force in its own right and so I honor him as one of my Väter. Perhaps this is a difference in culture, but I view all the Ancestors as worthy of my communication, as potential helpmeets rather than just calling on the Might Dead, Honored Dead, Heroes, etc. It may be that one of my less notable Dead, or Dead for whom I do not have a name, will have the key that opens up the path before me, or gives me what I need to face a challenge, rather than one of the Might, Honored, etc. Dead.

What he goes into next is his own work and view. Ancestors, to my mind, can imply biological connection but can also imply everything, such as adoption and lineage, that I noted above. I think he insults his own lineages and Ancestors when he calls those who empower or inspire him from the past just ‘the Past’. Especially since he takes refuge in what I see as something those Ancestors, and other Ancestors, are directly involved in. The fact that he has the gall to refer to his Ancestors as a set of resources, as just part of ‘the Past’, as he puts it, is…well, insulting.

His last concern (please note I don’t think he has laid out his concerns thus far effectively or with solid reasoning) is “that folks are performing practices such as seasonal rituals ‘because their ancestors did them’. Seriously? How is that in this day and age meaningful motivation?”

Granted, if I lived in a climate that was totally unlike my Ancestors’, i.e. I lived in Phoenix and celebrated a harvest during the dry season, I could see his point. The objection he has unravels pretty quick given where I live.  From what I have been told by those who have visited and lived in Germany, Michigan does tend to have very German-like weather and harvest patterns. So, a lot of Northern Tradition holidays would be fine being repeated in roughly the same times over here because they fit into the general scheme of our own weather and harvesting, minding that a lot of the celebration of holidays were based on local reckoning, such as moon phases, harvest times for local farmers, omens and the like.  It would not be impossible or even unwieldy to do many of the celebrations my Ancestors may have done in ancient Germany. Yes, we live in modern times, and I would not expect my military, or my militia to hang prisoners of war. My Ancestors were practical. If it worked, They used it. If it would no longer be acceptable to do something I am sure there would be other ways found, invented, or inspired to.

I find myself rankled at his use of ‘the Past’. The Ancestors are not just ‘the Past’, per se; They were, and are, in some sense, People. They lived. Practicing at least some of the things in the ways our Ancestors did them can give us understanding of how and why. It is like archaeologists who learn how to knap flint; the process of learning how is as important to understanding the questions of how and why, and related questions to them as well, such as “Why this style of arrowhead?”, “Why this method of holding the stone?”, or “Why this flaking style?”. It is as, if not more important than the answers received at the end result of making the arrowhead, knife, carving, etc. By not trying to make these connections, rather than degenerate our rituals, we degenerate our relationship with the Ancestors and become more lazy. The Ancestors’ ways of doing things were frequently challenging, labor intensive, or required a lot of input from many people to be effective. Sometimes spiritual value is lost when we are not asked, or demanded, to put effort in. There is spiritual value in doing things the old way, such as making a Sacred Fire by hand, having experienced this. Our focus for almost every ritual, in my view, should be on the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and doing right by Them. I believe that for us to have the power that Mr. Webster believes we should have for our rites, it is absolutely necessary for us to do the hard work, personally and communally, that They require whether or not our Ancestors did it this way or that traditionally/according to the lore.

In the end, I did not feel that Mr. Webster made any firm points. It felt rather like he was merely railing against the notion that the Ancestors deserve honor, regular communication, and proper respect. I am an animist and polytheist operating out of a reconstructionist-derived view, and as such, believe that the lore and archeology are jumping off points. The Ancestors’ ways may not all work for the times we are in now, but for those practices that we can translate into modern times, I feel very deeply that we should. There is much wisdom that the Ancestors, as well as the Gods, and spirits can teach us if we would just listen, and especially, do the work. Out of anything that rankles me it seems that this article rails against the work that is needed to effectively communicate with the Ancestors and to bring Their Wisdom into the modern times to be shared with all who would hear and do the Work. 

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