Monday, November 23, 2015

The Musconetcong Mantis-Man

I happened to stumble across something today which actually makes a lot of sense, given my previous thoughts and practices regarding what I regard as the "goddess of place" of the Musconetcong River, which flows right past my home, and to whom I have taken to making offerings in the Germanic fashion. On occasion, the goddess of the river has shown herself to me as a white heron.

Apparently, several fishermen in the Musconetcong have encountered what they describe as a "mantis-man". The encounter was apparently featured on one of those cable cryptozoology shows, as wellHere's the first, and more detailed account:
Although the water was clear, there had been heavy rains the past couple of days. We should not have been out there; the river was “smooth” but the current was exceptionally strong. I was leaning backwards and digging my heels into the the gravel but the river was still kicking me along pretty good. Sketchy navigating.
Please know, I am “privy to the paranormal” and always have been. Shadow people, ghosts, whatever. But what I encountered that day was not Spirit. It was a “biological”, living creature. But it disappeared into thin air almost as soon as I saw it.
... I just “Caught it”. Movement out of the corner of my eye to my left and there it was—
Humanoid. Tall. 6 foot at least –no reference points– but I sense 6’6″ – 7′. Moving away from me back up the bank. (I am chest-high in the river) The first thing I see was the ‘grasshopper’ thigh, but bending forward like a human. Then the whole form. He is looking at me over his shoulder, moving up the bank, astonished, amazed. What, that I am in the water in a strong current, that I can see him? But yes we lock eyes and this creature is astonished– I get the sense that he can’t believe I am in the water, that he can’t believe I have seen him, that I am not perturbed at all– something of all three, I still don’t know– just astonishment and he is actually trying to get away from me and the water!
Triangular Head. Huge, slanted black eyes. Just like a Praying Mantis. It’s whole body was gangly, nobby, ((Nobby!) but you could still sense it was powerful, and no– I would not say it was a “Big Bug”– it was definitely humanoid despite the mantis/insect qualities. ...
No bank to speak of on the developed side, but the sloping bank on the rural side was high (ten feet?) A strip of trees about 10 – 20 yards thick separated the river from the fields beyond, but there was the occasional gap/path, each about 20 yards wide that allowed clear access to the river. ...
When I saw The Mantis Man, it was in one of these gaps, moving back up the bank towards the fields, looking back at me over its left shoulder. About 15 – 20 yards away.
So understand that it was several feet above me (I looked up at it) and framed clearly against that blank/white sky. Like a full ghost apparition, it was indeed clear but nevertheless nearly transparent and fading fast. Then it “evaporated” mid-stride.
Again, I stress the strong impression that The Mantis Man was cloaked and I “caught it” just right; it abruptly found itself against a “new”/blank background and was adjusting quickly. No, I do not believe it “slipped” into another dimension/plane.
I detected movement and first saw that strong left thigh, (and strong right calf) then the whole thing and immediately those eyes/face. The whole encounter was only a couple of seconds. I can not tell you with any strong certainty what its feet or hands looked like –I wasn’t looking there– but I can tell you that its arms were “normal”, and not the literal Mantis forelegs I have recently seen in drawings of these “Aliens”.
And another, briefer (and third hand) account:
Apparently about a year ago my friend and his brother were down at Stephen's State Park fishing right around dusk. During this time, while his brother was roughly 50 yards downstream fishing, he said he felt this strange vibration in his right ear and from that he turned and looked to the right. When he turned and looked to the right he said he saw this 6 to 7 foot praying-mantis-looking-man... just standing there and unable to believe that he could see him. He said the creature was black and gray and to be quite honest, the way my buddy was telling me this story, I was having a tough time. I know he saw this thing... because I could see it in his face.
Now, I don't believe in aliens visiting our world or anything, but I do think that at least some of the "alien" sightings in recent decades might be nature spirits (and I'm not the only one). In centuries past, when people saw these sorts of things, they knew them to be the land-wights, brownies, elves, etc. that they knew of from the stories their parents and grandparents told them. In today's world, in the absence of that sort of oral folklore, we necessarily interpret them in a way that makes sense to our modern sensibilities. In this case, aliens.

Still, it's interesting to see this sort of thing focused on an obscure river in northwest New Jersey, coincidentally the same one in which I've long sensed the presence of a very strong land-wight that was probably known to the Lenape Indians as well. I've certainly never seen anything mantis-like, and there's no telling whether that's the true form of the spirit, just a form it took on, or whether these reports have nothing to do with the land-spirit I know, but it's an interesting bit of data nonetheless.

I'll certainly keep an eye out for anything particularly strange the next time I visit the river.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Subverting Paganism

transitive verb
 - to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.
 - to make (something) weaker or less effective 
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
To be honest, I was done with the whole atheistic paganism thing, because at the time it seemed like nothing was left to be said. But then something new came up that's relevant, and I think it deserves some attention and discussion.

Over at Reddit last week, John Halstead, chief voice of the "atheistic Pagans", agreed with a commenter that atheistic paganism was "subversive". A couple of days later at Patheos, he expanded on what exactly that subversiveness meant:

"Atheistic Paganism is subversive to the dominant paradigm which teaches us that our only choices are a supernaturalistic worldview or a despiritualized materialism, or between a literalistic theism or a desacralized universe. This paradigm pervades American culture and, disappointingly, has made its way into contemporary Paganism as well. I see it every time someone assumes that, because I am an atheist, that I don't believe in anything larger than myself. I see it when people [say] one cannot be a Pagan without believing in magic, or gods, or other supernaturalism. There is a third option; reverence for a re-sacralized material universe."
Now, the other week I caught a bit of flak for suggesting that Heathens and Pagans could still be valued members of the Heathen and Pagan communities, even if they did not believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the supernatural. I stand by that assessment, based as it is in both history and a sense of confidence in the strength, endurance, and vitality of Heathen society in general (I'll let the Pagans speak to the state of their own society and community).

But, and this is a vital point, that assessment rests on the assumption that the non-believers in question are not going out of their way to publicly mock and undermine belief in the Gods. That they are "going along to get along", and enjoying the benefits of belonging to the Heathen or Pagan community, as they perceive those benefits, without abusing the hospitality of their host communities (or sub-cultures).

But when John Halstead says, publicly and seemingly proudly, that he sees atheistic Paganism as being "subversive" (although he quibbles about why that is the case), that tells me he is in no way behaving in accordance with the demands of hospitality. Guests have responsibilities, and not going out of your way to insult or subvert your hosts in their own hall is one of the larger ones.

And when Halstead says he's being "subversive", he's even going beyond merely being insulting, because the very definition of "subvert" includes the connotation that the thing being subverted is going to be destroyed and harmed. He might see it as a beneficial transformation, but any fundamental transformation requires by definition the destruction of the thing being destroyed.

Halstead is fundamentally wrong when he says that "this [supernaturalistic vs. materialistic] paradigm... has made its way into contemporary Paganism". The fundamental opposition of Paganism to the materialist world-view didn't "make its way" into anything. It was there from the beginning, whether you place that beginning in the Medieval era, the Romantic era, Aleister Crowley in the 1920's and 1930's, Gerald Gardner in the 1930's and 40's, or the explosion of neo-Paganism in the 1960's and 70's. With the exception of the Medieval era, those expressions of Paganism (and Heathenry) were reactions against the lack of supernaturalism and spirituality that the "modern age" (whatever age that might have been) was imposing on society.

If we are to believe Halstead's own words, then it is he who is trying to get his materialistic ideology to "make its way" into modern Paganism. Not content with simply enjoying the benefits of the Pagan aesthetic ("I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me."), he must change... dare I say subvert... the dominant world-view within the Pagan community to suit his own.

I think a large part of that attitude is borne of the fact that he honestly, in his heart of hearts, can't believe that anyone really does believe in the literal existence of the Gods, or the efficacy of magic. He really just can't conceive that someone can really, sincerely, believe that rubbish. So to him, his is a noble mission; to just give the rest of us the push we need to knock the scales from our eyes and admit that he was right all along, and of course nobody really believed that Odin was talking to them.

So I stand by my assessment. Orthodoxy (correct thinking) is not a requirement for membership in the Pagan or Heathen communities; only orthopraxy (correct action), within the bounds of the reciprocal rules of hospitality. But when someone is deliberately, and self-admittedly, trying to subvert the dominant culture (or in this case, sub-culture), to ruin and destroy it secretly from within (as the dictionary definition of the term reveals), then that person should not be welcome within our halls.

Does this mean that societies never change? Of course not! But their change occurs naturally, within the boundaries of the fundamental ideas that define that society. Once those fundamental boundaries are erased, the society ceases to be, because its defining elements are gone.

Good guests don't try to destroy or insult the things that their hosts hold sacred. Don't be a bad guest.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

More on the arrests of the Virginia white supremacists

Two days ago, a story came out of Virginia about the arrest of two men (now three); Ronald Chaney, Robert Doyle, and Charles Halderman, on charges of conspiracy to purchase firearms (in the case of the first two) and conspiracy to commit armed robbery (in the case of the last one). More charges may, of course, follow.

Now, one thing that's grabbed the attention of the news is the fact that the three men practiced "a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith" and intended to attack synagogues, black churches, and buy land to use in the coming race war.

Naturally, those of us who practice Asatru are not pleased with the emphasis on these morons' religion. It doesn't seem to be at all relevant to the case; they were caught red handed trying to buy weapons illegally. Boom. Open and shut case.

But the news is the news, and once Asatru and white supremacy got into it, that's naturally the headline. And some folks will seize on this as an opportunity to tarnish those of us who cleave to a Folkish view of Asatru. So I reached out to the Allsherjargodi of the Asatru Folk Assembly for a statement, and confirmation as to whether or not these guys had anything to do with the AFA. Here is his response:
Robert Doyle and Ronald Chaney have never been members of the Asatru Folk Assembly, nor to our knowledge have they ever attempted to contact our organization for any reason.  
Attacks on innocent and unarmed people are reprehensible. Per the Declaration of Purpose of the AFA, "Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic." We urge our members to act in positive, nonviolent ways to further our  faith and to advance the legitimate interests of our people.
(At the time I asked for the confirmation, it wasn't clear that Halderman was arrested, so no, the mention of Doyle and Chaney but not Halderman is not some cutesy legalism on McNallen's part; it's a fast-moving story and facts are still coming out, and I only asked about the two because I wasn't sure the third had been arrested at the time. Update 11/14/2015: I have been informed that the AFA has never heard of Halderman, either.)

That is about as definitive a statement on the subject as one could hope for, and as a member of the AFA myself, I'm glad to see the actions of these sorts of folks being denounced.

And as predicted, more liberal news outlets are taking advantage of the story to mock Asatru in general, and they're not differentiating between the Folkish and the Universalists; we're all nuts to them:

So you use the arrest of a couple of white supremacists to take cheap shots at an entire religion? Way to stay classy, Gawker.

One local news outlet in the area found a local Asatruar who was eager to differentiate Asatru from white supremacy, but I'm afraid although his point was well-taken, he didn't exactly come across as a great spokesman for our religion in general (protip; when trying to educate the public about Asatru, maybe cleaning the house, wearing something other than a t-shirt that says "That which does not kill me better run", and putting away the swords and axes, might be a good idea):
NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Unfortunately it looks like this circus is going to be in town for a while. Let's hope that the coverage gets less sensationalized, and responsible Asatruar might be able to use this incident to educate the public about what we really are all about.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Two white supremacist Asatruar charged

Robert Doyle and Ronald Chaney
Okay, this story from Virginia is doubtless going to get big, big, big over the next few days and weeks, but just to get it out there:
The FBI has arrested two men they say were plotting to bomb a church in order to start a "race war."
Robert Doyle and Ronald Chaney "ascribe to a white supremacy version of the Asatru faith," according to court documents. The FBI says Doyle held a meeting on September 27 at his Chesterfield home to discuss "shooting or bombing the occupants of black churches and Jewish synagogues." 

I'll have more on this soon, but batten down the hatches; there's rough seas ahead, methinks.

Reviving culture vs. religion

I know it seems like I'm on a Sarenth Odinsson roll lately, but honestly it's something of a coincidence. In this case, he wrote a (first) reply to my post on atheist pagans, pointing out an aspect of the discussion (religion vs. culture) that I myself thought of while I was writing my post, but it was getting so long that I didn't include it. So I'm glad Sarenth caught the same thing, because it shows I was communicating my point properly:
these were intact cultures with room for non-believers, whereas, for our purposes, we are strictly reviving our religions, and the culture will follow after.  We simply have a different demographic makeup.  Americans don’t have the investment in anything like an Althing culture, Gebo is practically nonexistant as a feature of regular life here, and that is with contracts and contractual reinforcement. I think there’s room for non-believers in our culture, but there’s also a reason I don’t invite them to my Northern Tradition Working Group or Study Group.  These are polytheist religious groups. [Emphasis, and double-spaces after periods, in the original.]

What are we reviving?

Now, I can't speak for Sarenth specifically, or anything outside my own experience of American Heathenry, but from my perspective we are indeed trying to revive more than just a religion. It would be impossible to do otherwise, because in the ancient Heathen mindset (and, indeed, in much of the Medieval and pre-modern mindsets), there really wasn't any distinction between religious and non-religious activity. Religion permeated every aspect of life, from farming to warfare to weaving to metalworking.

And many of us in the Heathen community are trying to recreate that sort of mindset. A magical mindset where the spirits of stone and stream and tree are everywhere, where there really is a tomten in the corner, and where the birds sometimes fly in a particular direction because the Gods want to tell us something.

We are creating a subculture within the larger host culture, somewhat more isolated and self-sufficient than the norm. We do embrace the concept of the Germanic gift-cycle, and we really do embrace the Germanic ideals of honor and courage, and practice all those things and more among ourselves, even if the larger host-society does not. We can still invest in those things, and bring up our children with those ideals, even if the broader culture does not.

Note that this is not to say that we are completely isolated and off the grid (although some Heathen groups do tend more in that direction than others). I still watch television, and I'm still looking forward to the next Star Wars movie (no, seriously, I already have tickets for the premier of Episode VII), and I still have a full-time job that doesn't involve blacksmithing. But at the same time, we can live in the broader culture and still retain those aspects of our own subculture that define us as Heathens. We're not the only religious minority to do so, and it's certainly not impossible.

Just because we don't live in a Germanic "honor culture" doesn't mean that we can't embrace such a thing ourselves, and live by it. In a lot of ways, that's why we're so baffled by, and often hostile to, today's über-Politically Correct culture, with its victim mentality, "microagressions", and expectation that any offense is something that should be dealt with by getting someone from the outside to either prevent or punish the transgression. It's just not how we think. It's not our culture.

And I daresay the reason the atheists still want to count themselves among us (in hyphenated form, sometimes) is because they value that culture.

So when he says "these are polytheist religious groups", I counter that a polytheist religious group includes culture as well by definition, and a re-creation of the ancient mindset that accompanied it, because ancient culture and religion were inseparable. And, need I say, orthopraxic.

Host culture to subculture

It is also the case that, in ancient times, there really wasn't anywhere for an atheist to go. The only options were, operate within the host society (which at that time was overwhelmingly pagan and polytheistic) or suffer outlawry or exile (and even then, it's not like there was some atheist colony somewhere they could go to; it was pagans everywhere you turned). In today's society, there really are options, including simply embracing the host culture and abandoning the Heathen (or Pagan) subculture.

So in that respect, I can see how someone might object that, now that there's an option for atheist pagans to choose, they're not doing so. They're sticking around in the Heathen/Pagan subcultures, and in some cases, trying to change them. I get that, and it's the "trying to change them" aspect that I specifically disagree with. If an atheist Pagan or Heathen does remain within one of those subcultures, it must be with the implicit understanding that the subculture is as it is, and isn't there for the atheist to turn it into something it's not. If that's their goal (and I think it is, at least for a small but vocal number of them), then they really should abandon ship and create something of their own, and stop trying to change what the rest of us have, and believe.

So on that point at least, I think Sarenth and I can agree.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Freedom of conscience

A week ago, I suggested that the contretemps between those who do not believe in the existence of the Gods  and those who insist upon it for membership in "the Pagan community" (whatever that means) can be resolved by understanding that Paganism (and Heathenry) is a collection of religious practices, rather than a collection of religious dogmas; the essential difference between orthopraxy and orthodoxy.

Alas, it seems that answer isn't sufficient for some folks, who insist that proper ideology is necessary for proper practice:
My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought.  One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought.  Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning.  I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts.  In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought.  The reverse is also true.  Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.
In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship.  Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings.  In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire.  This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.
Did someone say, "orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy"?

Now it should be noted that Sarenth and I are using different terms, and it's entirely possible that our disagreement comes from the fact that he's specifically talking about the "separatist Polytheist" community that has arisen in the last couple of years, and I am specifically talking about the broader "Pagan/Heathen" communities.

I realize that there are many on the deep end of polytheism (the ones who engage in god-spousery and so forth) who are consciously trying to distance themselves from the broader Pagan/Heathen community, and I get that and their reasoning. And if it's the case that Sarenth is using "Polytheist" in that more separatist sense, then indeed he wasn't responding to my argument, because my argument was talking about a different community than he is. But for my purposes, I'm going with the dictionary definition of polytheism:
belief in or worship of more than one god
Which leaves the room open for both those who believe in, as well as those who simply observe the outward modes of worship of, many Gods.

The origin of the split

It may be of interest that the split between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, at least in the modern Heathen community, originally stemmed from the vicious fights within Asatru between the folkish and universalist camps. At the time (the mid-late 90's) Theodism was actively engaged with the Asatru community, and tensions were high, and the fights within Asatru threatened to spill over into Theodism and tear it apart along similar lines.

Garman Lord (the founder of Theodism) came up with a perfect solution; the concept of "freedom of conscience" as a foundational precept of Theodish Belief. That is, everyone was allowed to believe whatever they wanted to believe in terms of ideology, theology, etc., as long as they "practiced the King's religion". At one stroke, the wind was taken out of the sails of those (on both sides) who wanted to impose their ideological and theological choices on others.

It's not something found in Asatru as a rule, but it's certainly something to think about in the broader context of the current debate. Especially when we're not talking about specific organizations (which can of course be exclusionary along any lines they wish), but broad definitional categorizations like "polytheist", which no one person or group of people can claim to own, no matter how much they might want to exclude people who disagree with them, be it on politics, theology, or some other ideological question.

A thought experiment

That said, I submit the following thought experiment as a way to explain why an insistence on orthodoxy, that is, "right belief" is simply impossible on a practical level.

Imagine two self-identified Heathens, Einar and Eirik. Both are members of an Asatru tribe, both attend a Yule gathering. Both have many friends in the tribe, and bow their heads respectfully during the blót to Freyr while they are sprinkled with blood, both sit at high places at the sumbel, both give gifts in hall, and both make beautiful and impassioned toasts in honor of Freyr, their ancestors, and their host.

One of them believes the Gods have a real existence outside of ourselves, and one of them believes the Gods are merely mythological archetypes.

Which is which?

Unless you can answer me that question, then I submit that the answer doesn't matter, and you shouldn't care. It's impossible to police, as long as the non-believers take my advice from a week ago and simply go with the flow, as it were. That's apparently what they're interested in, supposedly.

The empathy of understanding

Which does raise a question. I did ask a while ago why atheist pagans didn't just call themselves atheists, and insisted on remaining within the Pagan and Heathen communities. While I did get some answers (from John Halstead in particular, who started this whole conversation), I am still no closer to understanding their reasons. Heck, they're even writing a book on the subject, and I have no idea why they call themselves Pagan.

But you know what? That's not remotely the point! I don't have to understand their position to understand that they might well have a reason. I'm not their judge. So when Sarenth says something like this:
Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. 
I have to hold myself back from yelling at the screen, "it doesn't make sense to you, but it might make sense to them!"

That attitude is really emblematic of a complete lack of empathy. "I can't understand it, so there can't possibly be anything to understand." That's the attitude that leads some leading separatist polythieists to call non-believers "degenerates".

That sort of attitude does somewhat undermine Sarenth's arguments that "adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today". I've certainly never said any such thing, but I can see how, with that sort of attitude and name-calling, others might.

Tradition, not ideology

What I am saying, however, is that orthopraxy does not, in fact, stem from orthodoxy. Orthopraxy stems from tradition and custom. Just as the house-wight doesn't care if the homeowner believes that Jesus is the son of God as long as he gets his bowl of porridge with a pat of butter every Yule-eve, so too do the Aesir not care if the people making offerings to Them honestly believe in their heart that They exist, or whether they have doubts, or whether they adopt a more intellectual understanding of Them.

And how can we tell? One of the elements of blót is the taking of auguries and omens to see whether the offering has been accepted. Not all of us have the benefit of Gods talking in our ears all the time, after all... Does your kindred or tribe or whatever harbor respectful unbeliever practitioners within its midst? If that really was something the Gods didn't want, it would be reflected in the luck of the tribe. I've never heard of a systematic study being done, of course, but I would think if that did happen, the circumstantial evidence would quickly make the situation clear.

The modes of disrespect

Now, I do agree with Sarenth on one key point, when he says:
Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.
That's certainly true, and I made the very same point in my earlier post. Those who go out of their way to disrespect the Gods (whether it be in an insulting verse, like Helgi Skeggjason did, and got outlawed for) or by making public statements referring to our "sad little gods" (like John Halstead did, and apologized for, and then proceeded to start hurling insults at people, rather than the Gods, which is... better... I guess), do deserve to be shunned and ostracized.

But they should be shunned and cast out not for their beliefs, but for their actions. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people go quietly about their business as Pagans and Heathens, believing that the Gods are archetypes, yet still being productive, even honored, members of their communities, because they're simply not assholes about it. Hel, they can even make the case, on a philosophical level, as long as it's done with respect (and engaging in discussion about the reality of the Gods is not, in and of itself, disrespectful; if done properly, it can be a tool for getting to know Them on a deeper and more meaningful level).

But I would also point out that trying to define away people for what is in their hearts, rather than what they have done, is equally as obnoxious and harmful as getting up on a rock and shouting "the gods don't exist, and you're fools for believing that they do!" Deeds, not thoughts. Actions, not beliefs. Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

Einarr or Eirik? If you can't tell the difference, then they're both doing it right.