Monday, July 27, 2015

July Garden Update

With the miserably cold Spring that we had here in the Garden State, and the unnaturally cold June and most of July, I'm surprised that the garden is doing as well as it is. But anyway, here are some pics as of today.

Tomatoes and peppers to the left, then corn, cucumbers lower right, and pumpkins behind them. (You can see the vé waaay off to the far right if you look closely, and that lattice thing in the far center is the seiðhjallr.)

The pumpkin patch. So far, it had been frustratingly all flowers and no fruit, until today I noticed...

The first actual pumpkin! Tiny, but it's better than nothing.

Corn's doing well.

Tomatoes took a while, but they're coming in nicely.

Cucumbers always do well here. I'm already giving them away to the neighbors.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One Giant Leap

On this day in 1969, American Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. What an achievement of the American spirit and the human will. Let us follow up this great achievement and spread humanity to other worlds.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part Two)

In part one of this series, I tried to set the stage with some initial questions to frame the issue of how to approach reconstructionist religion (specifically, reconstructionist Heathenry, but applicable to different strains of pre-Christian religion). I'm not exactly going to follow the questions raised in that first post as an outline, but will be referring to them (and hopefully providing some answers) as I progress.

It is a fact that we do not have anything close to a comprehensive picture of what Germanic Heathen religion looked like. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Germanic peoples were largely illiterate, and had no tradition of written histories, commentaries, and so forth as did their Roman and Greek contemporaries. Much of what we do know comes to us from much later Christian authors, with some Christian and Pagan contemporary accounts, plus evidence of linguistics, archaeology, and other historical sciences.

This quite properly brings into question the accuracy, and therefore the usefulness, of those written sources.

In terms of the Icelandic sagas, the question is most acutely felt. Written centuries after the fact by Christian scholars and scribes, there is fierce debate in academic circles about the historicity of each. Some are felt to be mostly-faithful historical accounts written down from stories passed down by oral tradition, some are felt to be complete inventions, or based on Continental or Classical stories. As a rule, when using saga evidence, the provenience of the specific saga being used must be evaluated.

Especially when dealing with pre-Christian practices, the question must always be asked, "is this an account of what Heathens did, or is this what Christians two centuries later imagine Heathens did?" Some Christian authors, such as Snorri and Saxo, also deliberately de-mythologized pre-Christian figures, turning them into mortals for purposes of telling the stories. The impact of such must be weighed when using them as sources.

Contemporary Pagan writers require similar scrutiny. Tacitus is the most well-known such source, with his Germania, written in the 1st century CE. But is doubtful that Tacitus himself ever visited the lands of the Germans, and it has been convincingly argued that his account was deliberately played up as a counterpoint to the failings he perceived in contemporary Roman society. There is yet another school of thought that holds that his descriptions of various Germanic tribes are actually a much-muddled account of Germanic views of the afterlife. Does this mean that Tacitus should be tossed out? Of course not. But as with the late and Christian-inscribed Icelandic sagas, care must be taken when drawing conclusions.

Written accounts can also be contradictory, which could point to a number of different issues. Perhaps there are two differing accounts, as we see with the tale of the death of Balder, recounted by Saxo and Snorri in very different ways.

Archaeological evidence is, of course, objective in and of itself, but the interpretation thereof is quite open to subjective analysis. It becomes too tempting to see Hugin and Munin in every bird-motif, and Loki in every bound figure. It should also be remembered that most scholars aren't coming at the material from the point of view of practical application (i.e., a reconstructionist point of view), and it's entirely possible that those of us who are looking for practical implications of things that puzzle scholars might come up with an insight precisely because we're actually using the material. That is called experimental archaeology.

Similarly, modern scholarship tends to take certain things as assumptions. Question those assumptions. Go back to the original source material whenever you can and find out whether it actually says what the later scholarly interpretation says it says. As I've pointed out in the past, it sometimes isn't the case.

All this said, I think we can distill down a first rule of reconstructionist religion:
Consider the source. Don't take sources at face value, but weigh the reliability of written sources, and be open to new interpretations of archaeological and other physical evidence.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part One)

It is often said that Asatru in general is a "reconstructionist" faith, meaning that it attempts to reconstruct the ancient faith of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. While this vague description is sufficient to dstinguish it from more modern eclectic and inventive religions such as Wicca in casual conversation, it is not satisfactory when one considers the details.

I'd like to begin exploring a more systematic approach to reconstructionism in general, which would apply to many faiths which fall under that banner, including Asatru (Norse paganism), Celtic Reconstructionism, the Religio Romana (Roman), Hellenismos (Greek), Romuva (Baltic), etc. While I'm mostly going to be using Norse/Asatru, and to a lesser extent, Roman/Religio Romana examples, the general principles involved should apply across the board.

At the outset, two fundamental issues must be recognized. The first is that, thanks mostly to the efforts of Christian supremacists to eradicate pagan and heathen religions, and the general ravages of time, we are often confronted with the fact that we have an incomplete record. Even the Religio Romana (Roman paganism), while blessed with a number of excellent contemporary primary sources, is lacking in many details. The situation is far worse with Asatru, where the literary corpus is almost entirely Christian in its provenance, and is almost entirely lacking in details (such as what rituals looked like, what words were spoken, etc.).

The second is that, by the nature of history and social evolution, it is fallacious to refer to "the Religio Romana" or "Germanic paganism" as if they were monolithic and never-changing edifices spanning centuries and hundreds or thousands of miles. We find, for instance, two distinct versions of the myth of the death of the Norse god Baldur; the Icelandic version portrays him as an innocent slain by Loki's machinations out of spite, while the Danish version portrays him as a lust-filled warlord who goes to battle to take a wife who has scorned him from another man. Loki doesn't appear in the Danish version at all. Gods appear in some places and not others, and even in the Religio the Collegium Pontificum would vote to make alterations over the course of time.

Given those two basic premises, we find ourselves faced with fundamental choices to make based thereon:

  1. How do we identify gaps in the record?
  2. How do we properly vet the material that we do have?
  3. How do we go about filling in those gaps?
  4. How do we identify Christian (or other) influences? 
  5. What do we do once we've identified it? Do we ignore it, or "de-Christianize" it, or something else?
  6. Do we focus on a particular point in time and space, or do we use a more syncretic approach?
  7. How do we set the boundaries of eclecticism and invention in a reconstructionist context?
I don't pretend that my answers to these questions will be universally accepted, but I hope to demonstrate that attention to them will result in a much more robust and viable reconstructionist experience. Those questions will be explored in subsequent articles in this series.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: Asatru: A Native European Spirituality

I've been meaning to start a series of reviews of "beginner's Asatru" books, since one question that keeps coming up in online (and face-to-face) conversations is, "what's a good book I can start with?" So when Stephen McNallen's Asatru: A Native European Spirituality arrived a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I'm not going to go into Stephen McNallen's history or that of his organization, the Asatru Folk Assembly (full disclosure, I'm a member of the AFA). There are some people who are biased against him, and nothing anyone says will change their minds. This review is not for those people.

The book's twenty-five chapters are divided into two parts; "A New-Old Religion", which covers a lot of the history and underlying philosophy of Asatru, and "Practicing Asatru", which, as might be guessed, offers somewhat more practical advice in terms of ritual, calendars, etc.

But even so, what distinguishes this book from many others is that it is both more philosophical and more practical at the same time. Even the chapters that describe the philosophical underpinings of Asatru go out of their way to explain how that philosophy can be expressed in the everyday world. I found this grounding of the history and philosophy in practical application to be refreshing and it turned the book up a notch or two in terms of applicability.

To be sure, the book has the usual descriptions of the Gods and Goddesses, ritual calendars, and outlines of the two main rituals of Asatru; blot and sumbel. But it deliberately does not include sample ritual scripts, or a Yule ritual, then an Ostara ritual, then a Midsummer ritual, and so on. He covers soul-lore and the afterlife, as well. There is a brief obligatory chapter on the runes, and the book closes with thoughts on the future of Asatru, including an intriguing suggestion regarding intentional communities.

While the book is definitely written from a folkish perspective, it is by no means obsessed with the subject. It explains the concept that the Gods are our ultimate ancestors, but there are no lengthy and tedious ramblings on metagenetics and the White Race and so forth; those expecting the stereotypes of who McNallen is will be sorely disappointed. The book simply takes for granted that Asatru is, as the subtitle says, a native European spirituality, and then moves on from there. There is definitely a lot of worth in these pages that even a non-folkish Asatruar will be able to use, if they can just get past the author's name.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book for Asatruar from all ends of the spectrum. It's certainly not perfect; there are a few things in there that I might quibble with, such as "days of remembrance" for Heathen heroes and martyrs and such, which I find both ahistorical and unnecessary. But the pluses outweigh the minuses by a huge margin, and the book is easily worth the modest price.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy Birthday, America

No apologies. No soul-searching. We're the best nation on the planet, and I'm not ashamed of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Midsummer 2015

We (Skylands Asatru Fellowship) don't do a blót for Midsummer, as we follow Snorri's calendar from Heimskringla. The tribe and friends got together very informally, feasted on hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausages, and spent the night around the fire drinking mead and talking. One person read a prepared poem about the day, but mostly it was just good conversation. A few of us did jump the fire, for luck.

All in all, I can't imagine a more pleasant way to spend the day.

Here are some pics from around the fire. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take one that included everyone; we had about a dozen people, all told.