Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Ancient Heathen Practices Do We Keep?

[The original version of this essay was submitted to my mentor in the Clergy Program. I was asked whether I could clearly state "what aspects of our ancient practices we wish to keep and which we do not? What policy would you formalize that would help you tell someone else when they should accept a practice and not accept other practices or beliefs of our ancestors?"]

What Ancient Heathen Practices Do We Keep?

What aspects of our ancient practices do we wish to keep? Which ones can we discard? How do we determine which beliefs and practices we should accept?

I have been wrestling with this set of questions for a few weeks. I must admit, however, that even after accepting the assignment, I felt that trying to work out a coherent, reasonable approach seemed far too huge a task for me. Truly, who am I to answer such questions? The first strike against me is that I have only been involved in the tradition for a short time. Other folks had been actively researching and promoting the religion, even starting organizations and writing books, well before I knew of it. Strike two is my lack of proficiency in the lore. I do work to regularly add to my knowledge, and I love to do the readings, but the simple fact remains that I am not a "lore hound" -- that is, I do not have a vast repository of lore or historical data committed to memory.

And the third strike?

I actually got well beyond a third strike against myself. But then I started to calm down a bit. I realized that, although there were others who were superior to me in knowledge, I have a sincere desire to be of service to the Gods and Goddesses and all who approach them. I have been serving in this capacity, albeit with small steps, and no one has questioned my capabilities or worthiness to do so. I further realized that the questions that lead this piece are the very questions that everyone involved in the Reconstruction must answer. And we must continue to evaluate and answer these questions as the movement grows and matures, as new folks are awakened to the path. And if I am going to be successful in my service, I must be part of the conversation regarding those questions.

Third -- and here I am continuing my previous meme of the three strikes, but now in a positive bend -- I realized that this query really boils down to a single question: What ancient practices are relevant today?

Although I have already taken a tangential path to bring several questions down to one, I am going on another slight tangent. I believe it will serve a useful purpose, and I hope that will be evident when I return to answering the question of relevant practices. During my brief forays into studying theology, and by that I do actually mean theology of a Christian persuasion, I came across an interesting approach to Biblical interpretation. I say it was interesting because I felt that the approach, although espoused by two Evangelical theologians, could be applied to the study of just about any "scriptures" -- please note the use of quotes here implies that while not all faith traditions can be said to have their own scriptures, as the Abrahamic faiths do, many of them do have writings of some form or at least some historic record to be translated and interpreted for a modern audience. I recall that one of the instructors referred to the method as a triangle because it had three points. I cannot remember what specific name, if any, he gave the triangle -- I have the lecture recorded somewhere, but cannot find it or my notes. I do, however, remember the basic gist. And it goes something like this: When considering a writing of a spiritual nature (or even one of historical record), one has to approach it in light of its literal context, historical context, and eternal context. In other words:
  • What is the literal meaning of the passage?
  • What did it mean to the original hearers?
  • What does it mean today? (The Christian approach tries to determine the "eternal truth" or meaning of the passage for all time. But I would simply look for a relevant modern meaning.)
In applying this triangle methodology to our ancestors' practices and beliefs, I would add a fourth and final context: Is it practical (feasible)? So, I have taken the triangle method of Biblical interpretation, which originally had no application to our faith, and developed a model for evaluating practices and beliefs. A visual aid for this model appears below [click image for larger version]:

Next I will show the model in use in evaluating two practices.
Ancient Practice Analysis #1: Bog Justice According to the Free Dictionary, a Bog Body is any one of the approximately 700 preserved human remains found in natural peat bogs, mostly in western Europe, from about c. 8000 BC to early medieval times. "That they have been variously found with cut throats, severed limbs, ropes around the neck, and so on suggests the possibility of ritual killings, murders, and ignominious burial (since none was found within a proper grave)" [thefreedictionary.com]. There is debate as to whether these bodies represent certain evidence of executions for a crime, sort of a "bog justice" if you will, or as a human sacrifice, or something else entirely. Even with the debate, the fact that our ancestors seemed to have a practice, even minimally so, of placing bodies into bogs will suffice for the purpose of analysis. 
Q1: What is the literal meaning of placing a body into a peat bog? A: It is a dead body dumped into a bog. It is not a pleasant burial. 
Q2: What is the historical meaning (i.e., what did it mean to our ancestors)? A: I will use the Free Dictionary information here and conclude that this is an "ignominious burial." While we cannot know for certain, in looking at other historical records, we can safely assume that this was not a desired end. It was likely something to be avoided. 
Q3: What is the modern relevance of bog justice? A: Modern relevance in killing someone and dumping the body? If we are to assume an historical basis of justice, then the modern relevance would be retribution, or perhaps vigilante justice. In either case, it would be an extreme punishment. 
Q4: Is bog justice practical today? A: It is neither practical nor feasible. Our modern society has a legal system for addressing grievances and crimes. And as flawed as it may be, it is a system we have to work within, otherwise our actions will be branded as criminal and then we will be subject to it (the system). Besides, depending on one's geography, a peat bog might be very difficult to find. A similar analysis can be applied to the concept of raiding, and the same conclusion can be drawn: it is not practical in today's global society. (Greg Shetler briefly covers this very topic in his book, "Living Asatru"). 
Ancient Practice Analysis #2: Animal Sacrifice  Animal sacrifice is the ritual consecration, killing, and then offering of an animal to some form of divinity. Depending on the tradition, this was (and, in a small number of cases, is still) done to appease or maintain favor with the divinities. Animal sacrifice has a long history in poly- and monotheistic traditions. [More information: Pagan Institute: Animal Sacrifice and About - Alt Religion - Which Religions Involve Animal Sacrifice.]
Q1: What is the literal meaning of sacrificing an animal to the Gods and Goddesses? A: It is a communal giving of a gift to higher powers. 
Q2: What is the historical meaning of animal sacrifice (i.e., what did it mean to our ancestors)? A: A sacrifice of this nature was not taken lightly. It was a "gift for a gift" -- a gift with a very high price. Additionally, our ancestors believed that blood was a very powerful gift because it represented life itself. 
Q3: What is the modern relevance of animal sacrifice? A: In this case, I feel that the modern and ancient meanings are roughly equivalent. However, there is little question as to which perspective placed a greater value on the sacrifice. For our ancestors, giving up an animal to sacrifice was a risky prospect and it bespoke a great trust in the natural powers to provide. Today, we have convenience stores and giant grocery outlets -- and most of us do not grow or raise our own food. 
Q4: Is animal sacrifice practical today? A: From my perspective, living and working as I do in the post-agricultural (even post-industrial) world, animal sacrifice is not practical or feasible. I could follow one of the alternative practices, such as making a bread or cake "animal" and sacrificing it. or making a work of art and offering it up. But I do not have the resources or knowledge to raise an animal for sacrifice, nor do I have the proper training do conduct such a sacrifice. There is still a minority of folks for whom animal sacrifice could be practical. As I recall from a recent interview on RavenCast, Kveldulf Gundarsson lives on his own farm and conducts animal sacrifice at the high holidays. This is entirely appropriate for him and his wife in their practice.
So, in conclusion, there are four qualifiers I use for determining whether to adopt a practice or belief from our ancient ancestors: Literal Context, Historical Context, Relevance, and Practicality/Feasibility. And, as I have shown in my second example, sometimes there is room for variance as the practice in question will be appropriate for some, but not all, the faithful. That, of course, makes perfect sense in a religion with no established dogma.


Jim Clare's Blogspace said...

Thanks, I enjoy reading your post. I will think of the 4 points as I read.


SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

I like your thought process here. These are important questions to ask.

I think relevance must be held in dynamic tension with a more conservative approach that asks, "Regardless of its present contemporary relevance, did the ancestors know something about life, the world, and larger cycles of time that still make passing this particular practice down worthwhile even if it does not seem immediately understandable?"

As far as bog burials, the idea of punishments with some kind of shame attached to them might seem outdated, but I think the victim of a child molestation possibly might get some great satisfaction in seeing their perpetrator drowned in mud like the scum they are. *Shrugs*

And let's not conclude too quickly that raids are irrelevant. Tell that to the Somali pirates.

Here's a question I would ask as well :

Our ancestors resisted Roman imperialism. Which aspects of the modern world that we take for granted represent modern forms of Roman imperialism that our ancestors would still resist to this day?

The asking of this question impels us to look the opposite direction from the pole of relevance. Here, instead of seeing how ancient practices can conform with the modern world, we might have to ask, "What might we have to sacrifice or give up to be more in alignment with our ancestors' values?"

Again, these remain questions for each person to struggle with and ponder, not any set of foreclosed answers, but I think the more dynamic tensions you have in a tradition, the more alive and creative it is.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Ok, I'm thinking more about your thoughts here, and I agree with you that bog burial is impractical in this day and age.

However, the practice still has relevance. It could lead to a ritual : Bog Burial In Effigy. This could be a powerful social protest form. Criminals who have committed especially heinous crimes could be made in effigy and then ritually submerged into a swampy, muddy area.

I think we have to look at the original purpose of a practice and then think about how we can MAKE it relevant.

I would suggest that one of the purposes of a bog burial was testimony. When the person arrived in the Underworld for their court date, they would be sullied, which would be instant testimony that people up above felt there were heinous, abominable deeds that had been committed. This would not be enough to convict, per se, but would be taken as important testimony by the Gods.

A ritual effigy burial could accomplish the same sort of thing. Of course, it should not be done lightly, nor without the due process that would have been given in the old days, which means a full jury trial would have to be given. This might amount to little more than social theatre, but it could be effective social theatre. If the person being represented objected, they could have the opportunity to send representatives to the trial.

I think we have to do the same thing for raiding before we dismiss it. What was the function of raiding, and how could we bring that function forward into the present? Part of the function of raiding was to equalize out hoarded wealth. It was a fairly "direct action" approach to economic justice. (It could also, obviously, be used in the reverse direction.) It has a kind of "Robin Hood" like function to it, and there are all kinds of ways to imagine bringing Robin Hood like tactics into the present.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article! I love your thoughts, I know that they'll be very helpful as I read through the lore. These are big questions, thanks for asking them.