Mor Rigain, Elen, and thoughts on modern “Celtic” paganism

Elen of the Ways from John Matthews' Celtic Shaman's Pack
Elen of the Ways from John Matthews’ Celtic Shaman’s Pack

Following are just some thoughts I’ve been working with. They’re probably not very coherent, and they’re certainly not intended as the last word on anything.

First of all, I suppose some might wonder why I write “Celtic” in quotes. In the field of archaeology, there are those who believe that there was sufficient cultural unity among the Iron Age peoples who lived in the area between the Mediterranean region in the south, Scandinavia in the north, and the Scythians in the east to call them by a single cultural name, which is Celts. The name is ultimately derived from the Greek name Keltoi, but no one knows if they used such a name for themselves, and anyway Keltoi went out of vogue along with Greek hegemony. The Roman version of the word was Gaul, but they applied it more specifically (e.g., for the Romans, people from east of the Rhine were Germans, not Gauls–even though archaeologically they look the same as their neighbors west of the river). The name Celts came out of 19th-century linguistics, when languages were being categorized and placed onto phylogenetic trees; a linguist (can’t remember his name off the top of my head, sorry) grouped Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Breton together and called them “Celtic,” figuring they were representative of the languages spoken by that particular flavor of barbarian the Greeks called Keltoi. So anyway, the archaeologists in this camp argue that these Celtic-speaking people’s commonalities outweighed their local differences, and they would have all recognized one another as belonging to a semi-coherent group relative to outsider groups (Romans, Scythians, what have you), so we can safely call them all by one general name.

There is another camp who believe that, while there is evidence from placenames to suggest that languages belonging to the so-called Celtic branch of Indo-European were spoken within the region described, and a decorative style (La Tène) which became widespread (notwithstanding local variations) there, that is not sufficient evidence to conclude that everyone in temperate Europe would have identified with one another. And if they didn’t, then there’s no reason we should. For this group of scholars, use of the term Celts requires that they define the term anew every time they use it, with the literature review and the dozens of citations, the arguments for and against basing cultural ascriptions on language, etc., that inevitably would require–so it’s just not worth the effort. It’s much easier to use a more specific term like “the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age population of Lower-Humpton-on-Doodle” for example, since academic papers always tend to be focused on one narrow little time and place anyway.

I find the second argument more persuasive–and would apply it equally to other putative unified groups like Scythians and Germans and Native Americans–but I recognize that Celts has a certain meaning for most people today: that is, Celtic-speaking people living in temperate Europe from the Iron Age up through the early middle ages, who made La Tène- or medieval Irish-style art. In modern times, people from Ireland, Wales, and Scotland and their American descendants have found common cause in Celtic identity, which in part has enabled resistance to British (English) colonialism, and that shared identity has been retrojected into the past. That’s problematic, if understandable, and if I were writing for an academic journal I wouldn’t use the term Celtic at all; but I use it since it has meaning for people today, though I put it in quotes to show the word has issues.

Wow, that digression was rather longer than I intended. But in a way, it’s emblematic of the entire problem that has been bothering me, which is:

We need to stop trying to shoehorn the past into our modern categories. And we need to get more rigorous about our epistemology.

I’ll be honest. There’s a side of me that is really bothered by historical inaccuracy. There is another side of me that is aware of all the myriad problems with “history” and “accuracy” but just doesn’t want to go there right now. I know how to keep my historical-reactionary side in her place but she is right that this need to apply modern categories to the past, or for that matter human categories to the divine, and the inability to recognize why these categories are irrelevant, have led to a lot of BS in paganism. By BS I don’t just mean trivial historical inaccuracies; I mean a complete unmooring from context. In the first Rune Soup podcast, an interview with Peter Grey from Scarlet Imprint, Gordon opines that if the current magical renaissance can be said to have a unique form or trajectory, it is the restoration of context to magic. That stuck with me because I have talked before about the pitfalls of loss of context, but to sum up my view, we don’t need to worry so much about accurate replication of some ritual practice or magical tech, but rather why we are doing it, why it even exists in the first place. And this should be an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and our spiritually significant others.

It’s cool to see people working to restore context to magic; is that happening within paganism too? I honestly don’t know as I’m not really a pagan. And the main reason I’m not is because of this lack of context.

What specifically do I mean when I say lack of context? In my last post as I was singing the praises of the Story Archaeology podcast, I mentioned (not quite in so many words) that the hosts have basically demolished the notion that Mór Rígain (a.k.a., the Morrigan) was a war or death goddess. Yet this is the prevailing view of her in modern paganism even/especially among devotees of Irish deities. (See the Wikipedia article if you don’t believe me. It is terrible even by Wikipedia standards.) Now I’m not going to tell the Great Queen what she can and can’t do; perhaps she’s happy to be addressed as a war goddess. But we can only see her that way by essentially ignoring everything she does and says in the extant texts, and what kind of devotion or scholarship is that?

Almost everything in this description is wrong.
With all due respect to the artist, almost everything in this description is wrong.

Is our psycho-cultural need to shoehorn Mór Rígain into a war goddess role so great that we are going to let it blind us (1) to everything else she actually is and (2) everything we could learn about ancient Irish/”Celtic” society/beliefs/values through a better understanding of her? And if our need is so great, what effect does that have on our personal gnosis of Mór Rígain?

This gets to my point about having a more rigorous approach to epistemology. On the one hand, we must learn to content ourselves with the fact that very little is known about the “Celtic” deities–in most cases we don’t even know who is a deity! This makes it all the more tempting to try and force a modern (usually Classically-inspired) framework onto them, to create a pantheon and categorize them according to what they are god/desses “of.”On the other, we really need to interrogate the assumptions and psycho-cultural needs we are bringing to the table and how they limit our experiences of these deities.

I think the case of “Elen of the Ways” is one of the most egregious examples of lack of context leading us into neopagan fantasyland. Like a lot of people with British ancestors, I’m a descendant of Elen Luyddog, or Elen “of the Hosts,” a Romano-British ancestrix saint to whom–or rather, to whose putative husband, the 4th-century Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus–many families trace their descent. We don’t know much about her from history, she could even be a historical fabrication or pure legend; much as I would like to claim descent from her as a goddess, it is a leap too far to ascribe divine status to her. Elen is also called “of the Ways,” because according to one medieval text, “Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made.”

This article is a thorough and concise explanation of this epistemological quagmire. Elen appears in the tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion, in which Magnus Maximus (Macsen) is totally mythologized; there’s no reason to assume Elen didn’t get the same treatment. No one argues Magnus was a god, yet the magical elements of Elen’s part in the story are taken at face value:

“…which has led many modern pagans to proclaim her as a goddess of roads, ley lines, shamanic journeying etc….a goddess presiding over ‘dream pathways’ and the ‘Guardian of all who journey’….Some modern pagans see Elen Luyddog as a ‘goddess of sovereignty’…”

Oh boy. But wait, it gets better:

“…the modern pagan goddess Elen is often visualised or encountered as an antlered woman, often wearing deer hides or possessing fur herself. This image is as far from a cultured Romano-British Empress as is possible. Now, to take a sceptical view, this may be a chicken and egg situation. It happens that the Bulgarian word for reindeer is ‘elen’, and I wonder if someone has put two and two together and made five. To take a generous view, there is a remote possibility that Elen was originally a reindeer goddess whose name has miraculously survived into a modern language, and that she was the original ‘Elen of the Ways’ who later became conflated with Elen of the Hosts….For those looking for the oldest of the old religions, Elen becomes perfect. Not only does she appear to be a goddess of sovereignty, whom Macsen Wledig weds to gain the kingship of Britain, she also becomes a goddess of ancient pathways walked by a species of deer not seen in Britain since the end of the last ice age.

“This image of Elen, as far as I can gather, originates with Caroline Wise in the 1980’s…”

I think “someone has put two and two together and made five” sums this story up perfectly. Not only do we have the leap from politically powerful Romano-British woman to pre-Roman goddess of sovereignty, we also have the leap from commissioner of roads to primeval goddess of all forms of journeying. Now as far as that goes, it just seems to be a case of assuming every person in legend must be a god/dess and proceeding to inflate the case accordingly. A classic case of de-contextualization. But there is a weirder, more interesting, and potentially more problematic issue at stake:

“…it remains true that Someone out there, and possibly more than one Someone, is answering to the name ‘Elen’. This may be the ancestral spirit of Elen Luyddog, or it may be something else altogether….It is not unlikely that a goddess, perhaps because she likes the offerings being given, or because she is a powerful being in that particular locality, chooses to answer when a name is called. [It is not unlikely that a hungry ghost would answer, either.]…I have no problem believing that she could be a powerful ancestral being that has become attached to the roads that she has been associated with for at least eight hundred years, or that another entity interested in these roads has begun answering to the name of Elen.”

It’s that “another entity” that bothers me. We can never be completely certain, when we dial the Other side, who is going to pick up. To some extent that may even be a-feature-not-a-bug of the connection. But on a purely practical level, as a descendant of Elen, I want to know that when I call, it’s my 46th great-grandma who is answering and not some random stranger with no vested interest in my wellbeing. And if I reach out and touch someone who shows up as a reindeer goddess, I want to know who that being is–I don’t want to force a square peg into an Elen-shaped hole.

Improving signal strength and fidelity, however, is supposed to be part of what we are doing here, part of the whole point of magic. For those who are drawn to “Celtic” paganism, this all begs the question, do you want to know your deities (bearing in mind you’ll never have all the organizational details you would for Greek, Roman or Egyptian ones) or would you rather just play with Celtic deity paper dolls? And for all of us, what are we going to do to improve signal strength and fidelity? How are we going to improve our spiritual scholarship? How are we going to return context to what has been de-contextualized for 1000+ years? Are we really struggling down this old crooked path just to see our own psychodramas reflected back at us, or are we trying to do something greater here?

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Are you listening to Story Archaeology yet?

Boann by Jim Fitzpatrick
Boann, by Jim Fitzpatrick

Seriously you guys, are you listening to the Story Archaeology podcasts? If you have any interest in “Celtic” mythology and/or spirituality, Irish myth and/or folklore, or Celtic or Druidic reconstructionism or revival, you really should be listening.

I’ve been interested in all kinds of myth and folklore since I was in elementary school, and got particularly into “Celtic” myth and folklore starting around age 12 I’d guess. It’s been an abiding interest, although I had to set it aside (along with everything else that wasn’t directly dissertation-related) for most of the decade* I was in grad school. So I was excited when a friend of mine pointed me toward the podcast after I had finished my degree and actually had time to read/listen to things out of pure interest. I used to know the Irish stories a lot better but forgot a bit over the years…

But I have been blown away by how Story Archaeology has changed and deepened my perspective on the values, social norms, cultural/mythic information (for lack of a better term), and persons represented in the stories. Chris Thompson (a storyteller and mythologist) and Isolde Carmody (not sure what her specialty is but she reads and translates Old and Middle Irish), the titular “archaeologists,” shy away from referring to any of the characters as gods or goddesses in order to try to break out of a Classical-style-deity framework that has for so long been awkwardly imposed on Irish myth by neopagans and academics alike. As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts this is something I strongly endorse. The content isn’t 100% academic, as each podcast usually involves a retelling by Thompson of the story in question, and both she and Carmody engage in plenty of speculation that will never be refuted or substantiated academically simply for lack of evidence. Much of that speculation is pretty persuasive though, at least I think so.

For me, they have been able to connect a lot of dots that would have forever been unconnected since I don’t read Old and Middle Irish. One of the things that Carmody does is to translate the meaning of people’s names; many of those names are allegorical, and by knowing what they mean you gain a sense of who that character is in a nutshell and it can totally change the meaning of a story. More importantly, when the names are etymologized and translated you see that what superficially appear to be different characters may in fact be just one who is called by synonymous or closely related epithets in various texts. I think this latter is important for two reasons: First, because I think we are all aware at this point of some of the excesses of neopaganism, specifically the tendency to ascribe god/dess status to every name that appears in any myth or folktale. Worse yet, to make them “god/desses of” this or that. And second, because you begin to see connected story arcs–real myths–rather than just isolated stories. This has been sorely lacking in Irish and Welsh literature (not for lack of trying on pagans’ parts though) because the versions we have of these stories were written down by Christians who no longer remembered the old myths.

Just to pique your interest, here are some examples of things that piqued mine:

  • The story of Airmed–usually called a “goddess of herbal medicine” or some such silliness–may actually be a version of a John Barleycorn-type tale about the agricultural cycle of cereals. You only see this if you know what the names mean.
  • What seem to be various characters called Eithliu, Ethlinn, Eithne, Étain, Boand, and possibly also Bé Find may in fact all be one person. I’m always wary of being reductionist, but I think we should regard god/dess (and ancestor figures’, culture heroes’) names as epithets in most if not all cases, and in that light, these are at the very least people who share the same epithet and their roles within their respective stories overlap significantly. And what they have in common is really interesting. I think this is a likely legit goddess, frankly, though your mileage may vary.
  • When you consider all the texts in which she appears, there is actually not much indication that Mór Rígain (Morrigan) is a “battle goddess,” even less a “fertility goddess.” Though she does appear at times of battle and offers aid to warriors, there is something else going on with her that I can’t quite put my finger on. The main themes seem to be prophetic poetry and shapeshifting. When you take all her textual appearances together, you get a sense of sorcery much more than of war or death. Almost (but of course not really) Hekate-like. Another one I think is a legit goddess. Similarly, there is virtually nothing to connect Macha with battle, but a lot that connects her with the fertility of livestock.
  • Some of the stories featuring Manannán mac Lir may have originally been about Midir. Thompson and Carmody show that Midir (his name means “Judge”) was closely connected with Irish concepts of fair distribution, right behavior, and those of course underlay the institution of kingship. They speculate that possibly Midir started being edged out of the stories in the middle ages at least in part because he stood for values incompatible with those of Norman rule.

Oh, and also–you can finally learn how to properly pronounce some of those names with their confoundingly counterintuitive spelling (from an English-speaker’s perspective).

*I would just like the record to reflect that a decade is still less than average to get a Ph.D. in anthropology in the U.S.

(Dis)orientation

20151117_135329
View of my house from the river.

A quiet rain is falling on the 150ish-year-old farmhouse I now call home. The house sits on a hill overlooking the Hocking River, in the midst of 40 acres of meadow, pasture, and woodlands. The ceilings are high, there’s almost no insulation in this part of the house, and some idiot blocked up the fireplaces years ago, but it’s been a mild autumn, I’ve got a dog curled up on the couch with me, and it’s warm and cozy here. It could change any minute though; the weather here is moody to say the least. And outside it is dark as pitch and the coyotes are calling.

My new/old home is in rural southeast (Appalachian) Ohio, a place that, until a week ago, I had never been before. Yet it has always felt like home to me, and I always knew I’d come back here someday. My mother was born in Athens, and my maternal ancestors have been settled in the region for about 200 years. When my best friend got a great job here and almost immediately announced that she’d fallen in love with the area, despite not having any roots here herself, I knew it was more than coincidence. One by one obstacles cleared and pennies dropped and it became clear that I was supposed to make this my home once my mom had died and finally hang out my shingle as an herbologist (which hasn’t happened yet but is in the works; more in a later post).

I arrived two weeks ago Saturday. I’ve wanted to post something every day since then but the information and sensory overload has me tongue-tied (keyboard-tied?). Plus a lot of it is…weird…although my landing here has been soft, the welcome warm, and the orientation process pretty gentle. I just haven’t been able to find the words until now, and the ones I’ve cobbled together are entirely inadequate. My cousin visited this area once many years ago and before I moved, she told me that the whole landscape had a haunted feeling. It’s lousy with old cemeteries, decaying barns and farmhouses, historical mine disasters, a huge Victorian insane asylum, and Native American burial mounds, so haunting would seem likely (and I’m not ruling it out), but the word I would use is inspirited. One of the first things I noticed was how alive the landscape seems. “Well, of course it’s alive, dummy,” I said to myself, “you’re looking at trees.” But I mean that out of the corner of your eye the trees seem to have mischievous faces like Brian Froud creatures, that then disappear when you look directly at them. I constantly feel like I’m being watched, warily. I already love this land but it hasn’t made up its mind about me.

hawthorn 1
Honey locust branches frame a view over the pastures.

During the day it’s peaceful and calm here. In a word, bucolic. Nighttime is a different story. To some extent this is just the nature of rural places: there are a lot of critters and they come out to eat when it gets dark. My housemate and I have seen rabbits, foxes, raccoons, and more deer than we can count, hear coyotes not infrequently, and a couple days ago the newspaper reported a mountain lion in the general vicinity. (That’s just the wildlife that comes out by night, of course; there are lots of other beasties during the daytime.) When it gets dark, it gets very dark–no city light pollution here. On clear nights you can see the Milky Way. I grew up in the country until I was 7 or so and I’ve always considered myself a country mouse at heart, but after so many years in cities, the totality of nocturnal darkness here has taken some getting used to. But at the risk of sounding overdramatic, I think there are other things–eerie, uncanny things–that come out at night.

20151117_132922
Woods at dusk.

I know it’s not just my imagination because this place is absolutely crawling with pagans, a fact which I put down to the fact that everybody senses, on some level, the presence and primacy of old powers here. The (all too brief) influence of some wormwood and anise extract one night brought intensely clear perception–my breath was taken away by the beauty of the night here; everything seemed to be reaching out to communicate with me and all other beings. I felt enmeshed in a web of sentience and radiance.

creek and sycamore
The skeletal white silhouettes of sycamores stand out against the autumn landscape.

In addition to its spooky qualities, this also feels like a wild landscape, though it’s really not. It’s been farmed and mined and deforested and pumped and excavated. It hasn’t been a frontier for a couple hundred years now. Humans have altered the ecology in many ways and there are probably as many domestic species as wild ones. I feel like I have to reiterate here that while I’m no farmer, I’m no stranger to the country and to agriculture. So this isn’t just some romantic pastoral ideal on my part when I say that this place is not tame.

On that note, I had a funny experience a couple days ago. All day I had been thinking about just this thing, the wild, magical, uncanny vibe of this place. That evening I sat down to check my email where I saw this subject line:

That's my Pan

Subsequent research uncovered that That’s My Pan!™ is a line of personalized cookware of the sort you might like if you frequent potlucks and have a really bad memory. But at the time, given my earlier line of thought, this is more what came to mind:

Pan's Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager
Pan’s Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager

…which you have to admit was a lot more a propos than spam aimed at church ladies. I recalled that some new local friends of mine have an image of Pan on their mantel, which at first I took as reflective of who my friends are, but I now realize is more a reflection of where we all live. It may not be this particular foreign Hellenic deity that we sense here (in fact, that may just be shorthand used by some less-verbal part of my mind to communicate to my more-verbal, abstracting consciousness), but there is no question that Pan’s characteristics–wildness, abandon, altered consciousness, disorientation, discomfiture, fear, ecstasy, vitality–are abundantly present. I cannot wait to get to work here.

 

In pagan Spain, Part III

In Part I, if you missed it, I wrote about the paganness of bullfighting; in Part II I wrote about Andalucía’s Virgin Mother goddesses. In Part III, we talk about Jesus…

Hospital de la Caridad retablo by Pedro Roldan

My ramblings about “pagan” Spain are not just a matter of ethnographic interest. It’s the broader themes they touch on, which have been tapping at my mental window for the latter half of 2015, that are the juicy bits. In particular, death and sacrifice. I haven’t met many non-Latin Westerners who aren’t at least a little uncomfortable with bullfighting, for example; and yet animal sacrifice is something some pagans are quite comfortable with, as are many African and diasporic religions. I believe a big chunk of our bad feels about bullfighting come from the misapprehension of it as merely an entertainment; but regardless, I believe a sober reflection on bullfighting and how it makes us feel can help us dig a little deeper into what sacrifice means, why we do (or don’t) it, what values it enacts, our relationship (as humans, as priest/esses, as devotees, etc. etc.) to the sacrificee, and how best to go about performing a sacrifice. A life unexamined is wasted, but a religion unexamined is dangerous to all concerned.

With Jesus we come back around to sacrifice, since in Christian theology his crucifixion was said to be the ultimate sacrifice, that renders any other unnecessary forever. That sacrifice wrote a blank check to the cosmos. In the Spanish context, though, it seems that it’s a check that needs to be signed again every year through ritual reenactment. That’s hardly unusual in the context of pagan Mediterranean religions, but you don’t see it too much in mainstream Christianity.

There’s been some discussion of animal sacrifice in comments on the Well of Galabes blog (the comments about sacrifice are somewhat peripheral to the subject of the blog post). If I remember correctly, one person said they would have no part of blood sacrifice and any deity who would demand it is, if not actually evil, then certainly not the sort one wants to associate with. Someone else said, if you have a problem sacrificing chickens I sure hope you’re not eating meat because hello, hypocrisy? And yet another person said something like, slaughtering animals was a normal part of life until very recently, and dedicating to a deity a death that was going to happen regardless just makes sense. It’s like inviting the deity over for dinner.

This latter approach makes a lot of sense to me. I have to be honest–if and when I ever find myself keeping livestock, I am not going to be the one slaughtering it. It’s not a moral virtue on my part–quite the contrary, in fact–it’s just a personal limitation, even a weakness if you will. I think our society’s squeamishness around death is both silly and damaging to the dying and the grieving–which, let’s face it, is all of us at various times–but even so, I don’t think animal slaughter was ever meant to be ho-hum. When you bring about someone else’s death, that should matter to you. You should take it seriously and reflect on your own mortality and that of the deceased. It should be uncomfortable enough that you can’t ever undertake it lightly or in excess. A little ritual hedging around the event can only help.

On the other hand, I believe it was the anthropologist Michael Taussig who said that sacrifice is not about an exchange (“Hey, thanks for all that rain you’ve been sending our way; here, have a virgin,” or, “If you give me a million dollars, I’ll give you a chicken”) but is instead a way of entering a non-normal state of being that enables communion with the deity/ies. (It’s been many years since I read that, so I might be garbling it a bit.) I wonder (because I don’t remember) whether Taussig was viewing sacrifice as an essentially taboo activity that, in left-hand path fashion, acts to liberate the participants from stultifying social norms.

Greer writes, in the Galabes post linked above:

“When Christianity first emerged, after all, it did so in a world where the practice of animal sacrifice was a normal part of religious worship; everybody knew from personal experience what was involved in killing an animal in honor of a god and feasting on its flesh. In that context, reenacting the sacrificial death of Christ and ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood must have packed emotional force of an intensity and concreteness that can barely be imagined today. Even now, though, the Mass is edgy stuff; the symbolic cannibalism at its heart reaches straight down into primal desires and fears about eating and being eaten—and that’s an important part of what gives it its power.”

Gordon proposes that in sacrifice,

“…the non-physical recipients are fed not by the things they accrue, but by the things we deny ourselves….To me, this implies that the awareness of lack in our consciousness is the actual ‘sacrifice’, the actual ‘currency’, that is exchanged between the physical and the non-physical.”

That works for explaining how our offerings are received, but not so much in the case of an animal that is ritually slaughtered but then eaten by the humans involved, because arguably, the people might not otherwise have been about to eat that chicken, but they would probably have been eating a chicken. I don’t find the lack argument totally persuasive; it may well be true some of the time, but it can’t explain all the forms of sacrifice. My own experience isn’t sufficient to have formed a strong opinion on this though.

Yet thinking about the “awareness of lack” brings me back to the grieving that is so central to Andalucían religion. (Incidentally, grief also forms the main subject matter of flamenco songs, which is part of why people look so tortured when dancing to the “deep song.”*) Grief is the ultimate awareness of lack. If, as Gordon says, our non-physical neighbors are fascinated by lack, something they don’t experience, then the entities honored as various Virgins and Christs must be loving 20th/21st-century Spain.

I keep coming back to the question, how–and why?–does one celebrate grief? That’s what I see happening in Sevilla’s Holy Week rituals (and indeed Spanish comedy as well). But it proves that it can be done. Perhaps even that it should be done, sometimes.

Death more generally runs through (what I consider to be) Andalucía’s pagan traditions like an underground river. You may not see it clearly, but you can always hear it burbling away beneath. For people who know how to enjoy life so well (¡fiesta y siesta!), Spaniards have always struck me as quite morbid. Actually, I’m sure that’s no accident. If they are unusually preoccupied with their own mortality, they arguably have reason to be: just in the 20th-21st centuries they endured a tremendous amount of wealth inequality with grinding poverty for most, a vicious civil war, an oppressive dictatorship (which many perversely love in retrospect), regime change, drought and famine, and a collapsed economy. I noticed when I lived there how, in addition to preferring their Virgins to be depicted in a state of eternal mourning, they like their Christs battered and bloody. In Spain they want a Jesus who really knows what it means to suffer.

El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)
El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)

There’s a famous story about the artist who sculpted one of Sevilla’s images of Jesus, popularly known as El Cachorro (The Puppy). The artist, Francisco Ruiz Gijón, couldn’t get the look of agony on the face right, until one evening when he stumbled upon a Gypsy man–whose nickname was The Puppy–dying of a knife wound in an alley. Now that was how Jesus should look! (I imagine Ruiz Gijón whipping out his sketchbook on the spot, to The Puppy’s brief but no less massive consternation.)

In Sevilla, the wee hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Jesus ostensibly died, are far more socially important than Easter Sunday is. Which is kind of funny when you think about it: The central mystery of Christianity is not supposed to be Christ’s death but his resurrection. Osiris was also defined by his resurrection, and though he was often depicted as a mummy, it seems to me (not an Egyptologist here) that he’s mostly depicted alive. Even when he’s dead, Isis is usually in the midst of reviving him or he has ripe grain growing from his body. So what’s with all the gory Jesus iconography?

Well, you can’t resurrect unless you first die. Part of Jesus’ mythology is that he is human (among other things), so by definition his body has to be able to die. Evidently this is something Spanish people (Andaluzes anyway) can really connect with. Likewise, maybe they identify better with a Virgin Mary who grieves because they too know grief and find the deepest wells of empathy within it.

Yes, when it comes to Spanish Jesus, the deader the better. One might even say it’s a case of overkill. One might say the same about bullfighting, even if one regards that as a ritual sacrifice. In turn I wonder, are we to learn from this that a more torturous sacrifice has more juju? Must the sacrificee be put to the test in order to prove himself** worthy of the best possible completion of his life? Are these things relevant to the non-physical honorees of the sacrifice at all, or do they only matter within human categories?

As I mentioned in my last post, there is something very Attis-like about Andalucían Jesus. I’m not saying that he “is” Attis in the sense of direct continuity with that specific deity in pre-Christian contexts, but modern Spanish Jesus certainly seems to play a similar role. The annual reenactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death in springtime, with his body subsequently transforming into bread/food/grain, and the repeated bull sacrifices from spring through autumn, smack of agrarian fertility concerns. I also want to emphasize that I do not see parallels exclusively with Attis; there are obvious parallels that can be drawn between Spanish Jesus and Osiris, Horus, and Mithra, for example. None of this is about one-to-one correlations but about specific iterations of enduring themes and mythic truths, and to a lesser extent playing around with how we understand the category “pagan.”

Make of it what you will.

*There are folkloric forms of flamenco grouped under the rubric of “little song,” in contrast to the more classical deep song. They tend to be danced in a more upbeat style, but even there, the songs are almost always about grief.

**Jesus and bulls all being male, I use the masculine pronoun deliberately here. It does beg the question of what the female role(s) in this passion play might be–grieving only, or something more?

In pagan Spain, Part II

In Part I I considered the pagan aspects of bullfighting. Now we move on the Virgin Mother goddesses…

There is a folkloric tradition binding bullfighters and the Virgin Mary, the different representations of whom, as I have argued before, are for all intents and purposes distinct goddesses, or at least distinct avatars of a generalized Mediterranean mother goddess. Up through the 1970s, the only form of social mobility for young men in Andalucía was to become a bullfighter, but it wasn’t easy to find a trainer or a patron. So the bravest or most desperate would-be bullfighters would sneak into the bull breeders’ fields at night to get some practice passing bulls with a cape. This was incredibly dangerous because Spanish bulls are very large and extremely aggressive, plus it was dark, and if the breeder’s ranch manager caught you, they would likely shoot you on the spot. Lots of guys were gored to bleed to death alone in the night somewhere. Not surprisingly, in such situations, you want to have a little supernatural protection. And so, at least according to legend, bullfighters tend to be especially fervent in their devotions to their Virgin.

And the feeling, we are told, is mutual. There’s at least one famous song about one of the Virgins mourning the death of her devotee, a young would-be bullfighter in the fields. The most common representation of the Virgin Mary in Spain, particularly in Andalucía, is la dolorosa (the sorrowful). This is Mary distraught over the death of her son Jesus, with tears on her face and frequently a heart pierced by daggers. This is the Virgin that people pray to for help. Yes, there are representations of Isis Mary holding Baby Horus Jesus, but these are usually located in small side chapels; the largest and most central representation of the Virgin is almost always a dolorosa. So, mourning is a defining feature of these goddesses’ mythology and of the relationship between them and their people.

I think what we are seeing in these separate goddesses who yet seem to be the same, is the meeting of locally-specific land- and community-based powers with more universal deity powers. I don’t fully understand how this works, but I think it’s a lot more representative of how old time paganism functioned than the highly abstract universal deities that seem to be popular with modern pagans. For whatever reason, grief seems to have become the nexus that enables people to connect to these deities, and has come to sort of encapsulate their nature.

But there’s mourning, and there’s mourning. This is how one of the most famous and popular Virgins is dressed as she mourns perpetually for her dead son Jesus:

Macarena en paso

She is standing here on the paso or float that will carry her around town on the night of Maundy Thursday/Good Friday. You know, the day Jesus was crucified. She looks pretty magnificent in spite of a few tears; there is about a ton of gold and silver here, and those five flowers on her bosom are made from enormous emeralds and diamonds.

But this is how she looked in 1920, when her most famous bullfighter devotee was gored to death by a bull:

Macarena de luto

Gone are the emeralds and diamonds (a gift from that bullfighter) and the golden mantle, replaced by widow’s weeds.

Wait, widow? Yeah, I said it. I realize that what I’m saying is…uh, non-canonical…to Catholics and other Christians and once again I have to reiterate, this is not something local people in Spain would ever say. This is my interpretation of what is really going on under the surface. Just as numerous scholars, pagans, and magicians have spotted the obvious parallels between representations of Mary and Baby Jesus and Isis and Baby Horus, I think the Virgin in southern Spain (Sevilla in particular) has picked up the dropped thread of an ancient goddess. The way the Virgin mourns for Jesus and her bullfighters looks a lot less like a mother grieving her son than it does like a woman grieving her lover (your mileage may vary, but that’s my take). Not that those two things are mutually exclusive–indeed, I think the Virgin’s mourning is multivalent, by which I mean that people connect with it through their own experiences of grief, whether those involve a lost parent, child, spouse, lover, or what have you. But the mother grieving for her son/lover was a major religious and mythic current in the pre-Christian Mediterranean, in the form of Cybele.

In light of this, I think it is interesting to look at a well-known story about two of Sevilla’s patron saints, Justa and Rufina. According to the story, they were sisters, from a family of potters, who lived during the 3rd century AD. At that time, Spain was the Roman province Hispania and Hispalis (Sevilla) was an important river port and center of trade. In the version I heard, celebrants carrying an image of Cybele/Magna Mater on a kind of litter or float, passed by Justa and Rufina’s family’s shop and demanded a sacrifice of pottery. Naturally, the Christian sisters refused. (The rest of the story is your standard martyr story–they were hauled in by the Roman authorities, tortured, and killed.)

Carrying religious effigies around on litters isn’t exactly unique to Spain–they did it in ancient Egypt, they do it in modern Japan–it’s something people just do. Other kinds of Christians do it in other parts of the world. But I guarantee nobody gets into it the way people do in Sevilla during Holy Week. Hours and hours of pounding drums, funeral dirges, incense wafting, candlelight, bloody penitents, strange robes and headdresses, people spontaneously bursting into ecstatic praise songs, throwing flowers–I mean, if that’s not a pagan ritual then I don’t know what is. And if it doesn’t alter your state of consciousness, nothing will. (Jesus is a part of this too, but I’ll get to him in the next post.)

So ok, it’s pagan, but why do I associate these goddesses with Cybele? Well, it might not be Cybele per se. Many cultures have called southern Spain home, or established colonies there, from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, Celtic-speaking peoples, Visigoths, and Muslims from Africa, Arabia, and Persia. It was deliberately religiously pluralistic until the Reconquest and the exile of Jews and Muslims in 1492 (a banner year, that one). In Sevilla, you can still feel the undertow of different cultural currents. For example, the Virgin pictured above is Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena (Our Lady of Hope Macarena). Though I’ve heard different proposed etymologies for the name Macarena, the only one I’ve found remotely persuasive is that it derives from al-Makrin, the Arabic name of a gate in the Roman wall near this Virgin’s church, subsequently applied to the surrounding neighborhood. In Sevilla, it makes perfect sense that a nominally Christian Virgin, probably carved in the late 1600s, would take her name from the Arabic name for a Roman neighborhood. And as Gordon points out, such deeply layered cultural palimpsests are where magic is made.

Magna Mater

My point is that there undoubtedly a lot of goddesses worshiped in that city through time, including numerous mother goddesses, and maybe even many grieving mother goddesses. It could be, for example, that in this region people more readily connected with the part of the Isian-Osirian myth where Isis mourns for the dead Osiris. Perhaps most likely it’s a syncretism involving aspects of all these goddesses. Those that are specific to Cybele and shared by the modern Virgins are (1) They are urban. Cybele was not exclusively urban, being associated with nature and wild animals, but she did have an explicitly urban connection at least in Greece. (2) A central element of their myth is mourning for a dead lover who dies and is resurrected and who, at least in some versions, is also the goddess’ son. In Cybele’s case, this lover is Attis, and he was also her priest. It is noteworthy that the goddess’ consort is never her equal. In Sevilla’s version of Catholicism, Jesus doesn’t receive anywhere near as much popular devotion as the Virgin. She is treated as a goddess, he is treated as something less than a god. (3) Springtime festivals. In Roman times, Magna Mater/Cybele had two festivals, Hilaria, a week-long celebration around the spring equinox; and Megalesia, also about a week, which began on April 4. And (4) from the 2nd-4th centuries AD, taurobolia–bull sacrifices–were offered to Magna Mater née Cybele. (I also have to say that I’m not the only person who has made the connection between the Virgins and pre-Christian mother goddesses, I’m just making it my way.)

“In the late republican era, Lucretius vividly describes the procession’s armed ‘war dancers’ in their three-plumed helmets, clashing their shields together, bronze on bronze, ‘delighted by blood’; yellow-robed, long-haired, perfumed Galli [priests] waving their knives, wild music of thrumming tympanons and shrill flutes. Along the route, rose petals are scattered, and clouds of incense arise. The goddess’s image, wearing the Mural Crown and seated within a sculpted, lion-drawn chariot, is carried high on a bier.” (quoth Wikipedia)

In Sevilla, Holy Week is the major religious festival and while its dates change every year, they are of course always in March or April. Holy Week is holy through its association with the death of Jesus and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter begins the season of (what I interpret to be) ritual bull sacrifices. Two weeks after Easter comes the April Fair, another week-long festival, but this one dedicated to drinking, dancing, rich people showing off their horses, lots of bullfights, and general Bacchanalian revelry. Collectively, Holy Week and the April Fair are known as Fiestas de Primavera (spring festivals).

So while I don’t 100% commit to the idea that the Virgins are avatars of Cybele specifically, Cybele/Magna Mater’s cult does seem to at least be one strand in the skein–which is, appropriately, the symbol of Sevilla on the city flag. Given the Mother’s “Virgin’s” special patronage of bullfighters, might we consider the possibility that the bullfighter enacts the role of her priest and consort, and that the recipient of these sacrifices is in fact the Great Mother, who occasionally also requires the sacrifice of her priest? Again, I’m not making the argument that this is some secret 5,000-year-old religion that has persisted since the Bronze Age. Rather, I’m saying that the most resonant threads from religions both ancient and modern are continuously teased out and re-woven. But at the same time, because the local deities were never completely allowed to “die” or be forgotten, they continue to communicate with people and to teach their mythology. We can’t overlook their role in writing the story.

Have yourself a happy Halloween folks!

In pagan Spain, Part I

I was thinking about autumn today as I was walking my dog and enjoying the cooler temperatures (“cooler,” of course, is relative in Southern California). Fall has always been my favorite season here in the US, but in Spain my favorite season is spring.

Spanish spring is a heady mix of contagious eroticism, religious fervor, and electric physical vitality. Now, spring was also a big deal when I lived in Minnesota, but there it was more a matter of relief, tempered with disgust at the vast quantities of mud and months-old dog poop newly revealed from beneath the thawing snow. I should specify that when I say “Spain” here I am really referring to the southernmost region of Andalucía, and in particular Sevilla, where I lived in from ages 15 to 18. It’s a pretty warm part of the world, no snow except in the mountains, so the verve of spring in Sevilla is not that winter-is-finally-over feeling you get in Minnesota. It’s…different. A young St. Theresa of Avila, begging her superiors for a transfer to a convent in some other time, reputedly explained, “To live in Sevilla in the springtime and not sin it is necessary to be a saint.” Well, she should know.

I’m not just thinking about this because of the change of seasons, or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but more on a metaphorical and metaphyiscal level than the literal one. My life in Spain was an experience intimately tied to my relationship with my mom. My mom had been traveling to Spain to visit friends she’d met in 1971, when she went there to do a pilot study for anthropological research. The research ended up never happening for various reasons, but the friendships turned out to be lifelong. When we moved there, it was because one of her acquaintances offered her a teaching job at a college he ran. Part of my mom’s salary would be free tuition for me, and I was bored as hell in high school, so we took the leap. As far as we knew at the time, it might be a permanent relocation; though, as it turned out, it was only three years. For me they were very formative years as you can imagine if you have ever been 15-18 years old.

Being just five weeks past my 15th birthday when we moved, I was full of teenage pissiness. I’d been hearing my mom’s Spain stories my whole life, and they were interesting, but for reasons I still don’t understand and can only put down to hormones and being a weirdo, I hated that we were on such unequal footing there. She’d been going to Spain for more than 20 years, she had friends and acquaintances and a boyfriend there, whereas I was leaving behind all the places and people I was familiar with.

That said, it took me all of about 24 hours to decide that it was going to be an excellent adventure.

Anyway, long story short, I observed some things that I thought might be of interest. These are not things I’ve seen talked about much in the magical community–and that could just be my ignorance, but if that’s a real thing then my observations might prove (as the anthropologists say) “good to think with.”

I’m not the first person to observe that Andalucían Christianity looks like a very thinly veiled paganism. While I think that’s the case, I don’t put full stock in arguments that what one sees there is some unbroken line of continuity from the Bronze Age. It strikes me as more like a tapestry where individual threads break, but the loose ends are picked up again; the pattern gets a little messed up, its original designer long forgotten, but is never completely lost.

In trying to organize my thoughts, the themes that seem to me to most clearly embody the paganism of southern Spain are bullfighting, sacrificed Jesus, and Virgins. I have already written a bit about the Virgins, but I want to be more speculative here. These themes are all intertwined and I hope I can do justice to their interrelationship, but once I got started writing this post got super long, so I decided to break it up.

bullfight

The first thing to understand about bullfighting is that it’s not a sport. I don’t know why that idea seems to be so hard for people from non-bullfighting cultures to grasp. I get that most Westerners are really uncomfortable with the subject, as am I, but does that mean we can’t at least understand it accurately and on its own terms? I used to have a little test I would submit travel guides to, but checking their bullfight section. The number of inaccuracies seemed to be a good index of how poorly researched the book would be overall. I never did find a single accurate description of what goes on in a bullfight, which tells me something about how invested we are in not understanding it. The same is true of most descriptions coming from animal rights organizations. Do we really think that understanding something means condoning or enjoying it? Bullfighting is bloody enough as is to excite the sympathies of any animal lover, there is no need to exaggerate or misrepresent the case.

Anyway, a sport is a contest between two more-or-less evenly matched opponents, where either can win. From a Spanish perspective, bullfighting is a highly ritualized art form. If you want to find out what went down at Sunday’s fight, you look it up in the Arts and Culture section of the paper. First of all, while most bullfighters (I used to live in a house full of them) would agree that the man and the bull are more-or-less evenly matched, nobody “wins” a bullfight. An especially brave bull may be given an “indulgence” and allowed to live but that is rare indeed. In that case the bullfighter still has to go through the motions of stabbing the bull through the heart, but using his bare hand, which is even more dangerous. Probably 99% of the time, the bull dies, because that is the point of the whole endeavor.

Bulls are the only animals believed to have courage and nobility like a human man. Although these characteristics are considered quintessentially male, bulls are believed to inherit them from their mothers. Just as the most honorable way for a man to die would be in righteous battle, that is also the only honorable way for a bull to die–in ritual combat with the only being who can truly understand and relate to the bull. Man and bull are equal polarized forces, light and dark, civilized and wild, life and death.

Bullfights are riddled with the number three. There are three bullfighters (each fighting two bulls), and each fight is divided in three parts. Each of those three parts is in turn divided in three, for a total of 9. I don’t have to tell you people how magical those numbers are. I’ve heard various explanations for the purpose of the three parts; for example, some argue that the point of having a guy on horseback stab the fatty deposit on the bull’s shoulders with a short-bladed lance (the first third of the fight) is to weaken the bull, but bullfighters tell me it’s to test the bull’s nobility. (“Nobility” here means that the bull keeps charging in spite of his pain and without thought to his own safety.) If the bullfighter is particularly skilled and brave, he may be awarded three trophies, the bull’s ears and tail.

There is a bullfight “season” in Spain which begins on Easter Sunday. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

It seems patently obvious that a bullfight is a ritual animal sacrifice. In fact, it used to involve a lot more sacrifice: Today the horses ridden by the guys with lances are heavy, placid draft breeds, blindfolded on the side that faces the bull to spare them anxiety, and swathed in impenetrable body armor. But 50 years ago they were just light carriage horses with no armor, and they were routinely disemboweled by the charging bull. Three jabs with the lance per bull times six bulls per afternoon meant up to 18 horses being killed along with the six bulls. I saw some old footage once on TV, and if you think bullfighting now is brutal, you just cannot imagine the carnage back then. But I digress. Just as when a chicken is sacrificed to a lwa or a lamb is offered to a Greek deity, after the fight the bull is butchered and eaten. However, there’s a disconnect in that the meat isn’t eaten by celebrants at the rite, but by whoever happens to buy it from the butcher. And most people don’t prefer bull meat because it’s tough. But then, the meat is not the point. A further disconnect is that, if this is indeed a sacrifice, the recipient is unspecified. In modern times, I think the bullfight has functioned as a sort of sacrifice to the people, sort of like a scapegoating where the death of the bull relieves the people of their burden of sin. But that’s just my interpretation and is certainly not explicitly articulated.

Some believe that bullfights descend all the way from Bronze Age Minoan tradition, referencing the paintings of “bull-leapers” from Crete. Others say that bullfighting simply evolved from a military-training-cum-bloodsport of Moorish times, where warriors on horseback would hone their skills against bulls. If bullfighting really is the remnant of an ancient religious ritual, what does it mean for that ritual to lose its context, or perhaps more accurately, for the religious context to change?

I think bullfighting fits within a widespread pre-Christian Mediterranean custom of bull reverence and feats of death-defying derring-do revolving around bulls, but I’m not sure that requires 5,000 years of unbroken tradition. But this brings me to my next topic, which is for next time.

Gods of place? Religion in pre-Roman Britain in light of Shinto

Were pre-Roman British god/desses tied to places or landforms? If so, does this make them not gods but something else (e.g., genii loci, spirits)? What does one’s answer mean for one’s practice of Brythonic-flavored polytheism, or for how we understand polytheism in general?

Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan
Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan (photo by yours truly). The rope (shimenawa) and paper streamers (shide) mark the tree as ritually pure and inspirited. I like to think of it as the Otherworld’s velvet rope.

I’m not sure if the subject matter of this post will be controversial or a whole lotta so-what. I don’t have enough (embodied) people to discuss this sort of thing with so perhaps I’m just reinventing a wheel that has already been worn down to the rim. But the conversation isn’t over until I weigh in, right? (Right?)

Speaking purely from gut instinct, intuition, opinion, and UPG, I have this persistent feeling that 20th-21st century polytheists are much too  limited in how they/we define “god/desses.” And at the same time, not nearly limited enough.

This idea was ratting around and then today I came upon this (in internet terms very old) discussion on the Caer Feddwyd forum. Thematically, it’s consistent with many others I’ve seen there and in other polytheist theological discussions. This particular iteration of the theme revolves around author Dorothy Watts’ (Religion in Late Roman Britain, Routledge 1998) argument that pre-Roman religion in Britain was animistic and tied to local places and landforms, and it was only after the Romans came around naming things and trying to make them equivalent to Roman deities that the British gods came to be represented as human (-ish). User Heron, who opened the topic, writes:

“There has been much debate in the past on this forum about the distinction between gods and spirits of place. I’m not sure that the early Romans, before they absorbed the Greek pantheon, made the distinction in a particularly hard and fast way. But what about all the named gods? Watts suggests, for example, that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring.”

Another user then opines:

“If the comparative evidence is of any use at all, I think all of our core gods must be fairly human. Okay, Lugus was born from an egg, Belgios was a giant serpentine cyclops, and Rigantona occasionally turns into a horse, but the essential nature of the gods is human.”

And finally a third adds:

If the pre-Roman populations did not tie identity strongly with the individual because the survival strategy relied on the communal tribal identity, then I would suggest that the synopsis presented would have a very good basis to take it forward.”

(All emphases mine.) I don’t mean to reduce these forum users’ entire polytheistic lives to these three quotes, but I do think there are assumptions underlying these quotes that deserve to be, as the academics like to say, “unpacked.” Regarding this topic, religion in pre-Roman Britain, or “Celtic” religion as some like to think of it, I think we can learn a lot from Shinto. I’m not alleging a prehistoric connection between Britain and Japan, nor am I arguing that Shinto can somehow be a stand-in for all ancient religions. Rather, I believe that as a thriving, non-diasporic, non-colonized*, never-Christianized, polytheistic religion**, one which has been around in some form for a good 2000+ years and possibly since the Upper Palaeolithic if Japanese opinion is to be believed, Shinto may be the only comparand we have for understanding the lived experience of a pre-Christian polytheism. (There might be others, and if you know of one I would love to hear about it.) For me, Shinto is doubly useful because it’s a religion I have some personal experience of.

View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Shinto is a religion such as Dorothy Watts described–animistic, and focused on local landforms that are recognized as embodying spiritual power. Once when I was visiting friends and doing research in Japan, my friend’s mom, knowing my interest in Shinto, pointed to a mountain and said what I took to mean, “There’s a kami on that mountain.” Kami can be translated “god” or “spirit,” but Shinto makes no distinction between the two. I asked where the kami was; I could see the vermilion torii gate that denotes a sacred shrine precinct in Shinto but didn’t see a shrine. “No,” she said, “the mountain is the kami.” I don’t know exactly where we were–we were on the road at the time–nor the name of the mountain, but the story stuck with me because it was the first time I realized what kami are.

How does this relate to pre-Roman British religion? Well, note that the first user brings up named gods specifically, evidently presuming a contrast between animated places in the landscape and gods with  names. I don’t understand where the perceived dichotomy comes from. Major landmarks typically have names. Heck, even tiny hills and creeks have names. In Appalachia, where my maternal family is from, every “holler” (hollow) has a name. In Shinto, the landform and the kami are coterminous and consubstantial; naturally they share the same name because they are the same thing. So when we read that “Watts suggests…that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring,” in reference to our comparand Shinto, we might speculate that “Coventina” was the name of the sacred spring who was the goddess/spirit. Not a water goddess, but water-as-goddess. Much in the way that Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji) is the name (one of the names, actually) of the kami who is that mountain.

Shinto does have more universal kami, who are linked less to landforms than to natural things or processes which exist throughout Japan: for example, Amaterasu (embodied in the sun), Susano-o (a god of plague and storms), and Inari (god/dess–gender varies by region–of growing rice plants). Whether or not these deities are viewed as greater, higher, or more powerful than the local kami depends on where you live and what your goal is. Though Shinto doesn’t distinguish, as outsiders we might draw a distinction between the deities of myth (such as Amaterasu, Susano-o, Izanami and Izanagi) and those represented and honored only in local practice. The mythic deities appear in cosmological stories such as the creation of the Japanese archipelago and of other deities (as recorded in Nihon shoki and the Kojiki), but we would do well to bear in mind that the only reason these myths were written down, and not others, is because they served the hegemonic purposes of the ruling dynasty. They were, in effect, the royal family’s genealogy and ancestor stories. As far as I know there is zero basis for assuming that these myths were widely held, or these deities widely worshiped, throughout ancient Japan. This reminded me of Lewis Spence’s hypothesis regarding druids (in The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain), viz. that they were the priests of a cult of divine kingship, and not representative of the religion or practices of your ordinary Brython or Irish farmer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to substantiate that hypothesis, but given that all the extant “Celtic” myths pertain to royal and/or divine lineages, I think it’s pretty darn plausible. It might be that pre-Roman British religion “on-the-ground” was a more animistic, idiosyncratic, shamanistic affair.

Supposing that there were local landform deities in pre-Roman Britain; would they have been “human”? I am of the opinion that no deity is human except insofar as this is our frame of reference for them. A human, or partly-human, shape makes a good interface allowing us to relate to beings that are ultimately beyond our ken. In Shinto, some deities are represented in human form (e.g., Amaterasu, Susano-o), others are indicated by the presence of their representatives or images thereof, usually animals such as deer or foxes, while still others have no physical form other than their shape in the landscape, but may temporarily occupy objects called go-shintai 神体 (literally “god/spirit-bodies”). Go-shintai are seen only by priests but during annual festivals are carried around outside the shrine on palanquins.  Amaterasu is represented by/embodied in mirrors. All of these various representations or symbols are designed to facilitate contact and communion between the kami and the human community. They are a way of making mountains, diseases, thunderstorms, and trees relatable for humans. In return, the kami get attention, honor, music and dance, and offerings. Without these, my understanding is that a kami can degenerate into a “monster” or demon, or even die. Sometimes, one community’s kami is the next town’s monster***.

I find that last bit interesting given the fate of the Romano-British temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, which survived for quite a while after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, but once the Romans had left Britain, came to be regarded as the abode of scary faeries and goblins.

The notion that gods/spirits embodied in an animated landscape would be predicated on a prioritization of group vs. individual identity is intriguing, but I don’t see any evidence for it. I mean, even societies that strongly emphasize the individual’s communal context (Japan being an oft-cited example) don’t lack a concept of individuality, or of individual deities. I have no doubt that pre-Roman British concepts of the individual were different from ours, but in ways we’ll never fully know, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the question at hand. However, in this brief article on the Green Shinto blog, the author speculates that the much vaunted Japanese consideration for others might derive from the values of Shinto. As the author puts it, kami is the word for “mirror” (kagami), minus the ga (“ego”). (The Japanese language elevates puns to an art form.) In a world amply populated with spirits, on whom the people’s dependence is recognized and performed daily, mutual respect and responsibility is a high priority.

I do think it likely that the Romans introduced a new way of relating to deities, specifically, through representing them in human form. Iron Age Europeans had the technological chops to create representations of deities had they so desired (and maybe they did, only we don’t recognize them as such). Especially in the metallurgical domain, the La Tène culture’s skills were unrivaled at the time. We must therefore conclude that the dearth of human forms represented before the arrival of the Romans was due to a lack of interest in them. Evidently, however they related to their deities was good enough without statues and carvings. (And after all, how would you make a statue of a river? Why sculpt a mountain when the mountain is right there before you?) Instead, we see a preference for swirling, ambiguous curves that morph into any number of shapes depending on the light and the angle and the state of consciousness the viewer brings to them. This ambiguity is so prevalent, so clearly intentional, that I find it unsurprising that we still get confused trying to imagine how these peoples might have related to the natural and numinous worlds. But the peoples of the Mediterranean region all seemed to share a love of representing their deities and interacting with those representations, and clearly that practice was so essential to their religious practice that the Romans (and Christians) took it with them wherever they went.

Torii, Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan
Torii at the entrance to Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan

I think what we are seeing here is the difficulty that people raised on a 19th-20th-century model of the Greek model of polytheism within a Christian milieu have wrapping their/our minds around other polytheisms. I think for most of us in the West, our first encounters with gods other than Yahweh or Allah are stories from Greek mythology, which portray the gods in very human terms (unflatteringly so, even). We think of deities as characters. We imagine them as gods of–goddess of love, god of music, etc. I very much doubt that the Greeks understood their gods in this way, but I certainly don’t think it’s representative of what other cultures did and thought. For one thing, we might consider the possibility that the reason we have no surviving “Celtic” cosmologies is not only due to Christianity and colonization, but possibly because their stories never fit neatly into that package to begin with. I have always considered the assignments of figures from Welsh and Irish myth as gods of to be extremely tenuous, generally based on very reaching interpretations; now I think it’s time we chuck them and start over with radically different polytheisms. Ones where the gods aren’t characters, but presences; ones where the gods aren’t human, but, well, gods; ones where the distinctions among “god/dess” and “spirit” and “land” and “animal” and “ancestor” are porous at best; ones that are deeply, intensely local and consubstantial with place–and simultaneously, the land is equal parts animate, ensouled, inspirited, haunted, magical, genealogical, numinous, and mundane. There will still be room for universal deities, but even then they will have local interfaces. More importantly, they will be understood as part of a complex but more immanent network of relationships rather than as the default deity model.

Consider the huge number of Celtic deity names that are only attested in one inscription (e.g., Cernunnos), or in one region, and/or which we know are cognate with the name of a single landform. There are others that appear in different regional variations across a broad territory where Celtic-family languages were spoken, such as Dôn/Danu. What if the deities we so long to make universal, to render gods of abstract notions like “nature”and “sovereignty” are local landforms? What if the wide distribution of names like Nodens (and cognates thereof) and Danu is as much, or more, due to the habits of Roman soldiers and scribes as it is to some putative pan-Celtic (or Gaulo-Brythonic, or Germano-Celtic, etc.) belief, as we know was the case with Epona? Or what if these more widely-distributed deities are those claimed as ancestors by royal families, like Amaterasu in Japan? My point is not that any of these is the answer but that there are many answers, some of which haven’t gotten enough airtime. Similarly, one doesn’t have to approach polytheism via Shinto–light can come from other directions too. My questions are intended as food for thought.

This is not just anthropological navel-gazing. It’s not just about more closely approximating how our ancestors may have seen their relationship to deity. It’s about setting our own relationship to the land and cosmos in better order, evolving our “religious sensibility” (sensu Greer) to something less ontologically reductionist and abstract. I think what Shinto as a comparand can teach us about polytheism is:

  1. There need be no dichotomy between gods and spirits, or named gods and ensouled landforms, or animism and polytheism. We maybe should question why we like those dichotomies so much.
  2. Universality and the hyper-local, the abstract and the super-specific, both have roles to play in polytheism and their relationship is not necessarily a hierarchical one.
  3. Social machinations of elites, cultural contact, movements of armies, and many other less-than-divine processes are formative in the evolution of a religion and put the lie to culturally-essentialist notions of spirituality. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded of it and sometimes it’s easier to see clearly when you are an outsider looking in.
  4. Although I didn’t get into details of Shinto practice, it gives us a model for ways of relating to deities that are different from what most Western, non-African-diasporic polytheists know. For instance, belief is very much secondary to participation, and who a kami was “originally” is less important than what they do now. It’s not that we should replicate these ways of relating–and we couldn’t, because in the West we don’t have a widespread network of temples and professional priests and shrine attendants, but I think it’s refreshing to see a flourishing polytheism that isn’t consigned to “alternative religion” status.
  5. There are few gods of. Rather there are gods as, gods in, and gods who. Kami are phenomenological. For me at least, this makes their presence and nature more immediate and more intimate, though thoroughly ineffable.

*Shinto and Buddhism have influenced one another in Japan, and to some extent been syncretized, but the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and its subsequent spread was not so much a result of colonization as royal dynastic strategy and diplomatic relations with Chinese and Korean kingdoms. It’s interesting, but too big a topic for one blog post.

**It depends how you define “religion,” but here I’m defining it on the basis of participation in community rituals that are aimed at communing with numinous, supernatural, or divine presences.

***Sorry, I know it’s bad form but I can’t give you a source on that. It may have been personal communication from an acquaintance who is a particularly devout Shintoist, whom I once helped with translating a presentation on kami and concepts of spiritual purity and pollution. Or possibly it was in A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine by John K. Nelson?