Tag: faith

Ancient Culture in a Modern Day

Two concepts that come up a lot in European polytheist religions, especially Celtic ones like Gaelic Polytheism, are that of culture, and ethnicity. Many people come to these religions because they feel a lost connection with their ancestral heritage and want to reclaim it.

Yes, this is another article that begins with an overtly “Oh great, here we go with this again” style line and then moves on to a completely different topic. It catches people’s attention.

Rather than re-explaining how blood-religion is nonsense and ahistorical and folkish sentiments don’t make sense from a reconstructionist point of view, let’s bring up something that no one wanted me to ask (and therefore by proxy, is far more interesting): Can Gaelic Polytheists become culturally Gaelic Polytheist?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few months now, and I’ve seen some similar talk in the Gaulish community every now and then. The question is simply that of “Can someone construct a culture that they feel is more in-line with the teachings of their religion, and adopt it?” – I believe this is possible, although arguments can be made about if it’s practical or not. If we suppose culture is defined as “The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group – also, the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time”, then there becomes some leeway for religious culture to be something we embrace. Largely it’s something many polytheists have avoided to avoid “LARPing” – something I touched on recently – however it’s something almost all other religions have in some form or another. I’m here to argue it’s something we shouldn’t avoid, because it’s something we’ve largely not thought of or discussed, even if we thought we have.

Suppose Jane the Heathen wants to adopt her religion more completely. She doesn’t just want it to be her private religion, she wants to be culturally Heathen – she wants to relearn her customary beliefs and social norms, rebuild her material traits, and change the characteristic features of her everyday life to be more in line with the teachings of her Gods and the practice of her faith about Them. One way she might go about this, as we’ve seen historically, is to try to reconstruct what the pre-Christian Germanics (or, more often on accident, early- to mid- Christian Norse in particular) would wear, and eat, and drink, and play, and do etc. Then, having done her best reconstruction, she adopts those that are viable in the modern day, and claps her hands, calling it a day.

Jane, my friends, is LARPing. Not about her religion, which is completely genuine, but about her culture. She’s trying to revive a culture that existed in the material conditions of pre-Christian Northern Europe, however she is likely not in that location, and definitely not in that time. That culture doesn’t fit in the modern day, very major swathes of it are non-viable, impractical, or impossible – the result being that the culture seems…”weird.” It’s off, it feels forced, and it comes off as insincere. This isn’t because she hasn’t put all the work in and genuinely tried to adopt a new culture – it’s purely because she tried to adopt a culture that cannot work in the modern day, away from the context in which it actually existed.

There’s something else Jane can do, however. All that effort reconstructing perfectly what the pre-Christian Germanics would have done, can be put to use afterwards with a bit more effort in order to effect the creation of a modern Heathen religious culture, one that can function in the material conditions of the modern day without sacrificing any of the religious teachings or merits. This is possible because we’re aware that Jane can start doing all things associated with adopting a new culture, and in this hypothetical she started that process with old Norse or what have you (I’m pretty garbage with Germanic religions and cultures, as many readers can tell I’m quite sure). All she’s doing instead in this instance, is rather than reconstructing an old culture, she’s constructing a new one that fills the same role the old one did, but in the modern day. (Post edit – I’m aware the roles these cultures fill are not the same, as religion and culture in pre-Christian Europe were largely interchangeable and that’s not exactly the same situation in the modern day, but I think you’ll find that doesn’t change my point.)

One question that immediately comes up, and that I still ask myself often, is “Why would anyone want to put the effort in to do this?” – especially for Gaelic Polytheism which has living Gaelic cultures like in Ireland, Scotland, and Mann. The way I describe the difference here is through “lines”. Think of a line connecting Séan the ancient Gael and Daithi the modern Irishman. There is an unbroken line here, influenced by Catholicism and Protestantism and invasion and colonization and many things. This is a living, breathing, real and beautiful culture worth engaging with on its own merits. On the other hand you have a sporadic, broken line connecting Séan the ancient Gael and Aisling the modern Gaelic Polytheist. This is a culture that we are looking to construct from the modern day, based on what we know from the ancient period. The reason why the ancient period is relevant is, as in my article on Ancient Beliefs in a Modern Day, we can use these ancient people’s knowledge as a stepping stone for what the Gods want to share with us and teach us in the modern day.

As for the actual question of “Why” do it – everyone has their own answer. If you have no reason to do it, that makes sense. However many of us find ourselves exhausted with the individualist consumerism of American culture, the poisoned constructed “white” culture that doesn’t exist but somehow does, even though no one wants it to, etc. Personally, I’m quite ready to have white America view me as something very different from itself. Even if I readily recognize I’ll never not benefit from the inherent privileges of being white, I’m quite attracted to the idea of making those privileges as few as possible for me by completely disconnecting myself from the culture.

With my thought process hastily described, and fully planning to go more in depth in a future post a good while from now, I’d like to propose the concept formally as something polytheists not be afraid to experiment with. I’m going through the process of adapting my material traits from the standpoint of a modern Gaelic Polytheist culture, as with my standard everyday interactions. I think more actively about how the Gods would want me to act, and that has made me more vocal and firm on my beliefs in public while also less aggressive and, well, “assholeish” for lack of a better phrase. I ask for my religious holidays off like my other religious co-workers do, because my holidays are serious days of celebration for me and I want to spend them worshipping instead of working, and I take my religion seriously – like everyone should. These are small steps but make a very big deal – they “out” you as something other than a normal, white American (For those of us GPs who are or seem to others in public to be white), and I believe that’s a rough and easy way to measure how much of your religion you’ve adopted as your culture. The day polytheists can get together, and random Americans say “Who the hell are these foreigners??” is the day we can be confident that we are Gaelic Polytheists religiously, as well as culturally.

Not all of us want to be that, though. That’s perfectly acceptable, and isn’t any better or worse of a concept or a goal. Being 1% culturally GP, 5%, 50%, 99%, or 100% are all “side-grades” as they say. This is not an inherently religious venture – it’s first and foremost a personal one, however I believe it can very rapidly become a devotional one. That is to say, it’s a way to get closer to your Gods, become more devout, and follow Their teachings more closely and reliably. Hopefully this is a concept that is more readily acceptable and distinguishable from historical LARPing going forward.

Knowing me, it’s definitely not. I’ve been told that basically everything I do with religion is LARPing. Feel free to contact my agent and inquire about hiring me for your local Ren Faire.

Ancient Beliefs in a Modern Day

A question that sometimes gets asked to me by atheists, one that in my experience even monotheists already know the answer to, is: “So, do you sacrifice…people?”

We’re not completely certain whether there was or was not widespread acceptance and use of human sacrifice in pre-Christian Gaelic society – recently, it’s even become more mainstream to question the idea that mainland Celts practised it – but even knowing that, atheists often have the expanded question of “So, since we know that they did, do you sacrifice…

…animals?”

This additional question is one that boggles the minds of modern polytheists like myself, as it’s something that we feel atheists should inherently know the answer to. We follow these ancient religions for a reason, we reconstruct them for a reason, and we practice what we practice within them for a reason.

The more veteran polytheists reading this may, by now, have entered their ‘Yellow-Alert’ mode. After all, I’ve avoided stating, in plain English, whether or not I do or do not (or would, if evidence was found) practice animal or human sacrifices. We say things like “We practice these religions for a reason”, as if we all share the same base justifications – but those with enough experience might wonder, given my avoiding it, if maybe I’m one of those, someone who’s reasoning is completely alien, and would be willing to engage in animal sacrifice.

I wouldn’t, for the record – but all of this illustrates an important point.

Not all of us practising the same religion are doing the same thing, for the same reasons, or with the same mindsets. Even within our methods of formulating our theology, the justification each person has for using even the same exact methodology can be extremely different. So different, in fact, that it can dramatically change the outcome of their practice and their mindset. For that reason, I’d like to write today about the concept of reconstruction, and what it’s for.

When I first became a polytheist, I knew I wanted to be a reconstructionist. None of this making-it-up-as-I-go-along nonsense that I saw a bit of, I wasn’t trying to create a new religion, start a cult, or role-play. I wanted to practice the religion of the pre-Christian Gaels in the modern day. Except, pretty rapidly I realize that I didn’t actually want to do that. I didn’t want to practice the religion of the pre-Christian Gaels – there were aspects of it that I simply wasn’t interested in. Hypothetical ones like human sacrifice, confirmed ones like animal sacrifice – I didn’t want to be involved in those things. So was I really reconstructing the religion of the ancient Gaels…?

The answer is “No”, shockingly to other reconstructionists, and I argue that most likely neither are you. We’re not reconstructing the religion of the ancient Gaels. We’re constructing a modern religion of worship of the Gods of the ancient Gaels (Or Germanics, or Egyptians etc) as we believe would logically exist in the modern day. We believe that the Gods had lessons for the ancient peoples, and that they have lessons for us modern peoples – those lessons aren’t always the same, however. The result is that our modern religion is functionally not the same as the ancient one.

To clarify – We worship the same Gods as the ancient Gaels, and we believe in the same cosmology, but we don’t practice the same religion. If we define religion as “A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”, then we’re lacking the second half of that definition to practice the same religion as the ancient Gaels. Even if we perfectly reconstruct what they did, we very likely will change it enough to fit the modern day and us as modern peoples that it would be absurd to consider them the same religion.

Except…I’ve been speaking too definitively here: “We” do this, “We” believe that. There are people reading this that will say, quite confidently, “No, I am in fact reconstructing the religion of the ancient [blank]s”. They disagree fundamentally with my claims here about what we are doing, as reconstructionists.

That’s fine, I genuinely believe, however I argue that there’s a misuse of some terminology here. I’m not interested in gatekeeping, however I believe there is a very real difference in the religion of one devoted to Gods, and one devoted to history.

I practice (and reconstruct) Gaelic Polytheism because I want to worship, as genuinely as I can, the very real Gods that the ancient Gaels also worshipped. Someone else might reconstruct Gaelic Polytheism because they want to reconstruct the religion of the ancient Gaels, and then practice it. These sound very similar, but they are completely different.

One is the practice of a religion devoted to the gods of the pre-Christian Gaels. The other, sadly, is a historical re-enactment project. I’m not often one to use “LARPing” as an insult towards polytheists, but it’s about as close as one can come while still holding onto an air of authenticity. This isn’t to say that people like this don’t genuinely worship the Gods – however, their priorities are so misplaced as to put their own desires of “Historical authenticity” before whatever lessons or desires the Gods have for them.

It may not seem like this distinction is problematic – let the re-enactors re-enact as is their right. This is a problem, however, because of how inherently social religion is. The result of these thought processes gaining prominence in the faiths can easily result in newer polytheists being misled in their own practice. Heathen writer VaporIcecream describes what can happen when newer polytheists are misled by charismatic perversions of theological understanding – these new polytheists go on to “[Cause] drama and strife to fellow pagans, for no other purpose than they never thought about it critically for themselves[…]

To speak plainly and avoid lecturing, the purpose of these religions should be the devotional worship and love of our Gods. The strategies we use, such as reconstruction, are simply means towards that end. They are not, and never should be, the end themselves. We see this issue in the opposite direction as well with individuals who view the Gods more as tools to be used or demons to be feared, these individuals often shunning any genuine worship of the Gods in lieu of impious and misotheistic concepts of “working with” the deities. It wasn’t very long ago I encountered a self-described polytheist, in a polytheist space, suggesting they “Reward” the Gods “When they’re good”, and shun them “When they’re bad”.

It’s not hard to find those who reject the lessons of the past so vehemently that they deconstruct the religion entirely and end up with something…”different”. This issue is for another day, however – I simply think it’s important to keep in mind that issues lie in both direction.

Let us not forget that we as humans are inherently imperfect, and it’s the perfection of the Gods that we seek to learn from and emulate. Not the other way around.

A Welcoming Hand

When I became a Gaelic Polytheist it was quite hard to get involved in the religion. In “pagan” circles, both in-person and online, polytheists rarely spoke out about their religions. Unfortunately for newer polytheists like myself, the only real public options were Celtic-style Wiccans (duo- or pantheists rather than polytheists) or folkish Heathens (racists with runes, rather than polytheists). Supposedly if you lived in Greece or a very specific section of New York there were Hellenics, but I didn’t hear about them until years later. No, back then there were no Gaelic Polytheists, or Brythonic Polytheists, or Heathens (the real ones, not the folkish) to speak to you about polytheism.

Rest assured they were there, and they spoke to each other, but they weren’t there to speak to you about polytheism.

If you wanted to adopt one of these revivalist polytheist faiths, you had to do your own research and reinvent the wheel. After a lot of reading, learning to be a linguist, and time spent in your own practice, you might stumble upon a group who’d then do you the favour informing you of just how wrong you’d been up until that point. “That point”, of course, could be anywhere from a few months to many years after you converted. For me, it was almost 8.

In modern polytheist religions, you’ll find an inherent aversion to proselytism. Many of us came from either Catholic or Protestant families and communities. Those who didn’t would grow up harassed and bullied for that very reason. Very angrily glaring, yelling, or even assaulting those who didn’t fall in with the over-culture’s religion is something we’ve had to deal with all our lives, and still deal with to this day as polytheists. For that reason and more, we cringe at the thought of proselytizing.

How lucky we are though, the privileged few, able to sit by and grace those who want to find our faiths and worship our Gods with the righteous life we all had to live. After all, if we had to spend years becoming theologians just to practice the basic tenants of the religion, then surely they must as well? What could be worse than denying them their right to search endlessly by giving them a welcoming hand into the religion? We must simply be fated to exist as a religion of scholars – no normal people allowed.

Of course, proselytism doesn’t need to be synonymous with evangelism or forced conversion. Proselytism is, by definition, “to induce someone to convert to one’s faith”. Induce, in this case, meaning “to convince by persuasion or influence”. Certainly, this can be done in an inherently negative way – after all, a sword or a gun is awfully persuasive. However, it’s also clear that one can be induced to convert via entirely respectful and peaceful means. Even so much as providing information about the religion in a persuasive way can induce someone to convert, and that allows those amongst us who are scholars to help those who would join us that don’t have the time and resources to pursue a degree-less PhD in Manx Cosmology.

What do we lose by refusing to proselytize, though? Even if there are positives, there are also clear potential negatives – perhaps it’s best to simply avoid it. I propose that by shunning proselytism we commit the gravest atrocity against those who would join our religions – we inherently rob them of their choice by forcing them into a lottery. In order for me to become a Gaelic Polytheist, I had to get lucky and find some vague information hinting at modern worship of Celtic gods – had I not, I’d have likely never found the faith and simply moved on, instead living a miserable pseudo-atheistic existence. Many of you readers will have similar answers to the question “What if you never found out about your religion,” and as stated earlier, we are the lucky few.

What we gain by proselytizing is more than just new converts and a more stable religion. We gain the knowledge that we, as worshippers, have not closed off our religion into an esoteric sect. It becomes clear to everyone that those who wish to join our faith, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, are in fact free to join. As it stands, we say to each other that anyone is welcome, and then wonder why our religions are White Boy Clubs. If every woman looking for her religion, or every non-binary person looking for their Gods is met with the stony faces of a small group of white men who have made no effort to be seen, and have only been discovered by accident – what message does that send?

I propose we send a very different message to those who may be interested. To my fellow polytheists, don’t be afraid to openly inform and recommend conversion to the spiritually searching, or the religiously abused. Our Gods are loving and we seek to emulate Them – if it’s inappropriate for us to invite someone into our faith, that simply means we have a very real problem that needs to be addressed.

It’s not enough to simply not prevent new converts from joining your faith. Reach out a welcoming hand.