Saturday, March 21, 2015

Icelandic Temple Groundbreaking

Yesterday, at the conclusion of the total solar eclipse (that was coincidentally on the day of the Vernal Equinox), members of the Ásatrúarfélagið broke ground on their Reykjavík temple, construction of which is scheduled to be complete in the summer of 2016.

Congratulations to them; I'm very much looking forward to visiting the new temple when it's completed.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Some observations on some observations about race

Ms. Willowe
Obviously over the last few years, race has really become an issue in the United States. Largely, in my opinion, because of the election of Barack Hussein Obama, racial tensions seem to have ratcheted up. Most lately the neoPagan community has been fretting over a parody PantheaCon event description (not an actual event, mind you, just a parody description in a parody flyer) last month that made sport of White people being tired of Black people complaining about racism. Naturally, that caused Black people to complain about racism. They were "triggered", you see.

And now, over at Patheos' Pagan channel, one Cecily Joy Willowe has a post up entitled Not So Nice: on the subject of tone policing. In it, she makes some observations as a Black pagan (or, as she insists, a POC, or Pagan of Color, or Person of Color, or some damn thing) interacting with Whites. You can read the whole thing over there, but here are some things I really wanted to call out:
Recently, someone thanked me for voicing my opinion on a racial matter. They praised me for saying it in informative and non-confrontational way. They believe that those topics should be approached in a way that people can hear the message, learn and grow from it. Well, that is a sweet thought. However, I was quick to correct them. I was not trying to be nice or trying to educate. I was just speaking my truth.
I don't try to be nice, either (I do try to be polite, which isn't necessarily the same thing), although I certainly don't mind educating, and see nothing wrong with it (some Blacks and Hispanics do, which is part of the problem). Because there's not "my truth". There's just "truth", whether you want to hear it or not.
What I did not say is that I am not here to make White people better human beings. Do not pat me on the back because I am no one’s good POC. I am not here to protect their feelings and frankly I do not care about their feelings. I am fighting for myself and my people. White people can teach themselves how to be nicer and less racist.
Now we're rolling. Guess what? I'm not here to make Black people better human beings, either. I am not here to protect their feelings, either. If they're too fragile and get "triggered" whenever they see a joke about White people being tired of constantly walking on eggshells around Black people, it's not my job to try to cushion their wittle feewings.

But I note that above she says that she, as a Black person, wasn't trying to be nice, but White people should be nicer. Consistency, as the saying goes, is the hobgoblin of little minds, I suppose.

I too am fighting for myself and my people, and I am sick to death of white people being blamed for the ills of the world, and being told that we're the one's who need to change to accommodate the feelings of other people. Black people can teach themselves how to be more responsible and less ready to blame White people for their own damn problems, and insisting that White people change their behavior to make up for Black peoples' failures. Does this make me a racist? Of course not. I don't think Blacks are inherently inferior, but I do think that the Black community in the United States is the cause of much of its own problems. And I'm not the only one.

Black people (as a community) aren't in the troubles they're in because of White racism. They're in the troubles they're in because of their own chosen behaviors, and when they try to change those behaviors, they're actively stigmatized and accused of "acting White" or being an "Uncle Tom". If it really was a question of White racism, then we'd see the same problems in the Hispanic and Asian communities that we see in the Black community; rampant crime, broken families, surging drug use, teenage pregnancy, ever-rising reliance on government handouts, and an unemployment rate double that of Whites. But of course we don't, for the most part. Those must be some very discriminating discriminators.
However, it is nearly impossible to work with White people if they have not worked on their own entitlement issues. Otherwise, they ended up being in charge, taking up the all the space, and keeping the POC in the background. If you cannot handle a POC being at the center or being the leader, then the crucial racial problem will never be fixed.
Here's a radical thought. You don't want to be kept in the background? Assert yourself. Don't ask the White people to self-censor, or to shut up and be deferential to you, or "work on their entitlement issues". No one is "entitled" to be in charge. People end up in charge because everyone else lets them. You want to be in charge? Demonstrate that you can do it. Take charge, don't wait for someone to put you in charge. Don't let someone else in that space. Change your own behavior, don't demand that everyone else change their behavior to accommodate your wishes.

And that's part of what Asatru can do. Being the indigenous religion of the northern and western European people (and arguably beyond; the Germanic tribes got around), adopting the faith of our ancestors fills us with a confidence that neither Christianity nor secularism can provide when faced with these sorts of ridiculous demands. Whine to someone whose god tells them to turn the other cheek. Complain to someone whose faith was made for slaves, and that was used to justify slavery for centuries, of people of all races. Don't bitch to me.

You want my respect? Stand up for yourself. Don't insist I lower myself to your level because you're not willing to stand. That is quite literally your problem, not mine.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: Breaking the Mother Goose Code

I really wanted to like Jeri Studebaker’s Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years (Moon Books, 2015). I’ve been on something of a folklore kick for the last couple of years, trying to incorporate as much Scandinavian, German, and English folk-practices into my own religious practice as I could, tracking down similarities, resonances, etc. So when I saw this book advertised as a pre-order, I leapt at it, thinking it would make some solid connections between the “Mother Goose” nursery rhymes and folklore, and possibly pre-Christian material as well. Based on the blurb on the back, that’s what it should have been:
“This book delves deeply into the surviving evidence for Mother Goose’s origins – from her nursery rhymes and fairy tales as well as from relevant historical, mythological, and anthropological data.”

Alas, it was not to be. What we get is an exercise in wishful thinking, circular logic, outright incorrect information, and discredited theories. The frustrating thing is that the author does make one excellent connection, which could have been ground-breaking, but was so intent on pursuing a defense of her ideological predilections that it is treated as a mere afterthought, and not given the development it deserves. More on that later. To begin with, this book is steeped in the feminist myth of the “Great Mother Goddess”, and the so-called matriarchal civilization that supposedly existed 6,000 years ago in an idyllic egalitarian world. The long-since discredited theories of Marija Gimbutas are prominently referenced (there are seven direct references to her in the index, and , and indeed the whole premise of the book rests on the notion that 6,000 years ago, a matriarchal civilization was overthrown by nasty patriarchal Indo-European invaders:
“Although we homo sapiens have been stomping around planet earth for at least 150,000 years, it’s only been during the last 0.04 percent of that time – i.e., the past 6,000 years – that we’ve been plagued by patriarchy.” (Studebaker, p. 90)
To say that this is not a view of history embraced by mainstream scholarship is an understatement. It is the anthropological equivalent of Flat Earth-ism. Even feminist anthropologists don’t feel she makes her case: “The story that has been presented by Goddess literature is neither the only story nor “the” story, despite its power and seduction for those who actively seek to re-imagine the past and to create a “usable” past for contemporary contexts. … It may seem more satisfying to be given the “facts” of temples, of shrines, and reverence for a deity, but as feminists we are sure that longer-term interpretive satisfaction is more complicated than that.” (Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, “Rethinking Figurines”, in Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and Evidence, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

Indeed, entire books have been written (by female scholars, it must unfortunately be noted), refuting the myth of the idyllic matriarchal society destroyed by evil patriarchal invaders. Look no further than The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future by Cynthia Eller (Beacon Press, 2000):
“Feminist matriarchalist interpretations of ancient myth are rather transparently driven by ideology. Mythical evidence can by its nature be given various incommensurable interpretations. In this case, it provides no real support for the proposed prehistoric patriarchal revolution, though it does offer a fertile field for imagination.” (p. 179)
Although an in-depth study of the fallacious nature of the matriarchialist view of prehistory is beyond the scope of this review, suffice to say that it is recognized as ideologically, rather than academically, based, and respected scholarship in the field finds the idea suspect at best.

That said, it would still be possible to find value in The Mother Goose Code, were it to engage in a study of the rhymes themselves, making attempts to link them to pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, the book places such a focus on the myth of some matriarchal Goddess culture that it largely ignores much of what we do know about pre-Christian society. And where it does try to make associations, it gets even the most basic facts wrong.

To take but one example, the author asserts that the Norse mythological figure "Angr-boda" (ON Angrboða) is “of the Vanir” (p. 59). This is untrue; Angrboða is, in fact, a Jötunn, and there is nothing whatsoever to link her to the Vanir in Norse mythology. That is but one of many instances of sloppy research.

The author makes similar leaps in trying to tie the figure of Mother Goose to pre-Christian religion to the 16th-century figure. As the number of examples of goose-related goddesses is extremely limited, the author makes the completely unwarranted assumption that anything to do with animals in the family anatidae (which includes ducks, swans, etc.) should also be swept up in the net, and later brings anything even vaguely bird-related in to make her case. It is perhaps understandable, since examples of actual swan-related myths are few and far between (which would seem to be a strike against the thesis; if Mother Goose were truly the vehicle for the survival of some Goddess-culture lore, surely geese would figure more prominently).

Here we also see the first of many instances of circular logic; birds are related to the Goddess, and thus Mother Goose is the Goddess, because she has the word “goose” in her name, so thus all birds are related to the Goddess…

The author also seems to be confused as to what, exactly, constitutes her pre-patriarchal society. When it suits her purpose, her Mother Goose/Goddess stretches back 6,000 years (before the invasion of the Indo-European peoples), but at other points in the text she doesn’t scruple to use examples from Indo-European religion and myth to make her case. Which is it? Is Indo-European Paganism the evil patriarchal destroyer, or is Christianity the evil patriarchal destroyer? Depending on the circumstance, either it seems will suffice. We see this most strongly in her use of the Frau Holle myths in Germany; Frau Holle is linked to either the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg (the evidence is inconclusive), but either way both goddesses were part of the Indo-European cultus.

There is also a sudden divergence into folklore and folktales, which are, strictly speaking, outside the purview of a book on Mother Goose. For a book that is ostensibly concerned with a specific corpus of literature (the Mother Goose rhymes), to bring in a discussion of Grimm’s fairy tales seems somewhat extraneous. It does nothing to advance the central thesis that Mother Goose’s rhymes are a survival of a 6,000 year old social/magical/religious tradition.

The author also fails to make any sort of convincing case for why the figure of Mother Goose, specifically, would be a vehicle for retaining pre-Christian (or is it pre-Indo-European?) lore. As the author herself admits, the figure of Mother Goose is no older than the 16th century, well after the demise of Paganism in Europe.

Unfortunately, the author brings in yet another well-debunked myth; the “burning times”. In her conception, Europe was thick with tens of thousands of Goddess-worshippers (how they survived through five thousand years of patriarchal Indo-European oppression is left unexplained), who were put through a deliberate campaign of genocide (although it might more properly be termed memocide) akin to the Final Solution. And lest this seem like an exaggeration:
“Is there evidence that European foundling homes were designed to serve as re-education and death camps for the offspring of non-Christians? I believe there is. First, the timing is suspect. Foundling homes began when the witch trials began – in the 1300s. They quickly swelled in size and almost immediately began showing incredible death rates.” (p. 240)
Setting aside the fact that the whole myth of the “burning times” has also been thoroughly debunked, the section of the book that diverts into this discussion is not only completely non-sequitur, but verges on paranoia. It smacks of someone desperate to establish themselves as the victim of some enormous tragedy, and unfortunately it once again is completely without historical merit.

The author does not, however, make any sort of argument as to why Mother Goose would be the embodiment of the surviving Goddess Culture. There is a 6,000 year gap (or perhaps 500 years; she doesn’t make clear whether the villain in her piece are the Indo-Europeans or the Christians) that remains completely unaccounted-for. All of a sudden we’re supposed to think that a figure evolved out of nothing, to encapsulate all of that secret knowledge.

It should be noted that Mother Goose wasn’t the only figure that occupies that role. There’s also Old Mother Hubbard and Tom Thumb, who are both also credited with being the source of these fairy tales and rhymes as well. (Something that is mentioned only in passing in the current work.) Clearly it is not the specific figure that is significant, but the content of the knowledge.

This is all on top of the author’s other failings, she seems to take the view that any book published before she was born must somehow have some deep significance. That 1950 was the year in which the True Nature of Mother Goose was lost, until she rediscovered it in 2015. How else to explain her bizarre notion that commercial images of Mother Goose on the cover of books published well into the modern era has some hidden significance? Some commercial artist commissioned to do a drawing of Mother Goose in 1950 is not encoding any deep truths. He is making an image that will sell the most books, period.

With all these failings, it would be easy to set aside the book as a complete loss, but there is one idea that it raises that I find completely inspired, but which is lamentably not developed to any degree. That is the linkage between the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose (et al) and the Germanic tradition of charms and charming.

Simply put, in the Germanic tradition, folk charms take on the form of a story that is told, with the story itself being the magic spell that will achieve the desired result. We see this in the First and Second Merseburg Charms, which are a spell of release and a spell of healing, respectively. As the story is told, the desired result comes about. The use of the fairy stories and nursery rhymes in the same capacity is frankly an inspired one, but one which enjoys but a single paragraph in the book. Chapter thirteen is even entitled “Fair Tales as Magic Spells and Incantations”, but the rest of the chapter is given over to a flight of fancy wherein they are said to be representations of shamanic journeys.

This is perhaps the most wasted potential of the book. Imagine if you would a book that gave the original Mother Goose rhymes, with perhaps a chapter of background, and then spent the rest of the work explaining how each could be used in specific magical contexts. Assuming that at least some of them were surviving charms, what use was “Cock Robin” (#109 in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes)? Which ones were based on 17th or 18th century events, and thus could be excluded? Which could be traced back to pre-Christian practices and beliefs (gods as well as goddesses)? All this potential for real analysis of the existing folklore, squandered in a single paragraph in favor of speculation on shamanic journeys. It’s both sad and infuriating.

It's all the worse because when she does attempt to fit some ancient lore into the context of magic spells, it's not the Mother Goose rhymes at all. It's more conventional folk tales such as those found in the Brothers Grimm. Given the non-lyrical format of those tales, to try to shoehorn them into a European-type charm, and not the Mother Goose rhymes (which I thought were supposed to be the focus of the book)? The rhymes would seem to have been a much better fit, but they seem to have been forgotten as the author goes off on a fairy tale tangent.

There are some more prosaic failings with the book as well. The author spends a lot of time discussing various images of Mother Goose (and related images), but there’s not a single illustration in the whole book. While she does an admirable job of attempting to describe the images, the book would be much better served with a series of plates containing the images. This is a failing to be laid squarely on the shoulders of the publisher, rather than the author, however.

All in all, this book is a complete waste. It is based on an anthropological theory that has been debunked, invokes historical events that never occurred, indulges in circular logic, gets basic facts wrong, and buries the one flash of insight it contains in a stew of conjecture and wishful thinking. Some people who are already invested in the myth of a utopian Goddess-based matriarchy will doubtless eat this drivel up. Anyone who is actually interested in real scholarship and its possible application to modern-day religion will need to go elsewhere.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A model of folkishness

Imagine a tribal religion, with its roots in an ancient tradition that adapts to the modern era. Yet its adherents maintain a folkish cohesiveness.

It is a religion based on ancestry. It is the faith of their ancestors, and they pay homage to the great leaders and heroes of their past, as recorded in their sagas and stories.

They jealously guard their folkish identity. Mixed marriages are frowned upon, and anyone wanting to join who does not share their ancestry has to go through literally years of education and ritual before being allowed to join the folk.

They have a robust magical tradition, but it's neither expected nor encouraged that everyone will embrace it.

They have a collection of foundational texts to rely on, but also a rich tradition of folklore, custom, and a richly coherent sub-culture of their own. But theirs is not a monolithic culture; there are a myriad of sub-cultures within it.

They are considered mainstream, yet still manage to maintain a distinct while at the same time embracing (for the most part) the culture-at-large. But they don't let the larger culture overwhelm them.

Sounds like a good model for a folkish religion, doesn't it? It absolutely is, and it's something that folkish Asatruar should look on as a model. Of course, there's a certain core of folkish Asatruar who are, to put it gently, never going to do that because they're too enamored of documentaries about World War II and tend to rely on the word "Aryan" a lot, but let's hope they don't steer the direction of our faith.

It can be done. If the Jews did it, we can too.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Iceland Magazine on Asatru

There's a really nice write-up of Asatru in the latest (print and electronic) edition of Iceland magazine:

The article itself starts on p. 30, and the whole thing is in English. Lots of interesting stuff, and I myself can't wait to visit the new hof when it is completed. It's interesting to see some of the differences between Asatru as it's practiced in Iceland, and as it's practiced here in the United States. Over there, for instance, there seems to be more of an emphasis on nature, and a certain level of ambivalence concerning the literal existence of the Gods, as compared to here.

Well worth reading!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The historicity spectrum

Asatru being a reconstructed (sort of) religion, the question of historicity often comes up. Historicity is the historical accuracy of a given thing, person, or idea. Since no one at the time bothered to comprehensively write down just what it meant to worship the Germanic gods, goddesses, spirits, etc. before the coming of Christianity, we moderns are forced to make do with the pieces of evidence that have survived the past millennium or so.

As such, there are some things that we can say with some certainty are very accurate, some that are on more shaky ground, others that are even less likely to be historical, and some that are cheerfully and self-consciously modern inventions.

Thus, things break down in terms of historicity something like this:
  1. We know this for a fact. First-hand accounts by unbiased observers, many names of deities, major myths that are represented in multiple locations and manners, etc. Into this category would go things like the myth of Thor fishing for the Midgard serpent, which is found in written form, in carvings, etc. Also the basics of the Roman Lupercalia ritual, which were described in detail by the Roman author Plutarch, who had seen them first-hand.
  2. We strongly suspect this is so. Things that are known from archaeology without any direct contemporary textual support, thus requiring interpretation, written accounts from contemporary, but flawed or biased, observers, etc. This includes things like the dates and broad themes of holidays, more detailed aspects of deities, carvings and tapestries with recognizable figures doing unrecognizable things, recurring symbols that might mean something due to context, etc.
  3. We're not sure, but this fits some of the evidence. Here we really start moving into the realm of speculation. A lot of material derived from later folklore falls into this category, which can be compelling in the aggregate, but for which the connections are still not certain. 
  4. This is a stretch, but could fit some of the evidence if you squint. Things that take a piece of contested or ambiguous evidence and give it significance with no real certain backing. I would put the practice of runic divination into this category, which is based on an interpretation of a single ambiguous word ("notae") in Tacitus and assumes he meant runes, without any other mention of a connection between runes and divination in any other source. 
  5. We made this part up. This includes almost all of the actual text of modern Asatru rituals (there are a handful of exceptions, and even then they mostly involve re-Heathenizations of songs and charms that are believed to have been Christianized). It should be noted that there is nothing at all wrong with doing so, as long as one acknowledges that that is what one is doing. The trouble starts when invention is passed off as genuine ancient practice.
Of course, for those who do not follow a reconstructionist faith, such as Wiccans, these considerations are pretty well irrelevant. But there are quite a number of us who follow a more reconstructionist faith, such as Asatru, the Religio Romana, Hellenismos, Celtic Reconstruction, and more, and for us the question of the historicity of some part of our practice can be very important. For one thing, it allows us to "triage" things; when presented with contradictory ideas or practices, for instance, I will always defer to something that's higher, and more historical, on the scale.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts occasioned by a funeral

This weekend I had the unhappy duty to attend the funeral of the mother of one of my longest-standing Heathen friends. His mother, of course, was not Heathen, but Catholic, and so there was a Catholic service (not a full mass), and the priest made the usual statements about her being in Heaven, and waiting for the rest of us, and so forth. He seemed a likable enough sort, and I'm sure it never occurred to him that there were people in the room who diametrically opposed his religious opinions, despite the number of Thor's Hammer pendants in evidence.

It did get me thinking about the nature of the afterlife and the nature of subjective reality. There are also substantive implications for the subject of ancestor worship. If I may...

Regarding the afterlife, there are several possibilities:

  1. We're right, and the Christians are wrong. When they die, they end up in Hel or Náströnd, or in Asgard (in one or another of the Gods' halls), or dwell in the ground, or one of the various permutations of the Germanic afterlife. It's a complex thing, and doubtless a surprise to them.
  2. The Christians are right. Everyone ends up either in Heaven or Hell, and it sucks to be us. Obviously, this is the Christian position (and the relevant variation applies to the Muslims as well).
  3. We're both right. Heathens end up in the Heathen afterlife, and Christians end up in the Christian afterlife. It follows that Muslims end up in the Muslim afterlife, Hindus end up reincarnated, Khemetic Orthodox end up in the Egyptian afterlife, and so on and so on. 
  4. We're both wrong. Either something else happens when we die (didn't expect to end up in Yima's Kingdom of the Dead, did you???), or nothing does; it's just oblivion. Nobody will be complaining, in that case.
Just from my personal experience, most Heathens tend to settle on choice #3, making the afterlife a subjective thing, based on one's expectations and religious choices in life. I tend to land here as well. But this has its own implication...

One of the cornerstones of Heathen religion is the veneration of our ancestors, in the same way that we venerate the Gods. There are traditions that link ancestors to the land-spirits, alfar, and house-spirits as well. Is it appropriate to honor a Christian ancestor in a Heathen manner? Would that be insulting? Is it even possible? The Christian afterlife would seem to preclude any interaction with the material world (except in the case of Saints), because the dead are too busy basking in the glory of their God's presence. Does burning grain in their honor have any impact, in that case, given that they don't even know it's being done, and/or can't do anything to reciprocate?

I don't pretend to have definitive answers to these questions, but I welcome your speculations.