Revisiting the topic of deities

Jareth
Do the gods get tired of living up to our expectations?

I seem to get some of the most in-depth comments as replies to posts I write about deities. Often these comments are challenging, but I welcome them. Some of them disagree with me on perfectly valid grounds but I also think I haven’t made my ideas completely clear, which is probably because they aren’t very clear to begin with. So I’m revisiting the topic today to make clear my deity manifesto, partly to better understand my own thoughts and partly to make it explicit where I stand, in case it isn’t already.

I’m not trying to tell you what to think

First and foremost. I hope this goes without saying, but sometimes people seem to react as if I’m saying they need to realign their personal gnosis of Deity X to fit with my (typically historical, intellectual, and abstract) suggestions. Nothing could be further from the truth, because…

I have no idea what deities are

Beyond saying that deities seem to be powers bigger than what we usually call “spirits” and smaller than the full totality of all that exists, I sincerely do not know what they are. I have been in the presence of some big powers, in places that were supposed to house or represent deities. And it is manifestly clear that when people dial a god/dess’ number, someone answers. But who is on the other end of the line? This is part of why I’m a polytheist–I believe, as much on the basis of probability than for any other reason, that more than one of these entities exists–but I’m not a devotional polytheist. I don’t know what or whom I would be devoting myself to.

In fact, I’ve arrived at the point where I find the words god and goddess pretty much useless. It is pretty clear that as abstract conceptual categories, they are not at all helpful, as I have argued before (also here). These words are packed full of so much baggage, yet at the same time they don’t really explain anything; every time I use them I feel I should specifically define them, which would take ages. I think from now on they have to be put in problem-quotes like “Celtic”.

I have no idea what deities want

I don’t even know that they “want” anything as we understand that, but what I mean is, who the hell knows what they are up to? Dogs will sooner understand algebra than we will understand deities’ motives. This was actually one of the most disturbing realizations I’ve ever come to. It took me probably a year to stop feeling creeped out all the time (now I’m just creeped out when I think about it).

I’m certainly not going to tell deities, whatever they are, what they can and can’t do. I am very cognizant of the fact that there’s no such thing as coincidence in magic, and maybe no such thing as an accident either. If you accept the proposition that deities exist, you have to also accept that they have agency and consciousness; to what extent, then, are they involved in changing perceptions of them?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know our history/myths

Nevertheless I guess I’m just not postmodern enough to feel ok with wholesale embrace of any and all UPG and rejection of historical accuracy such as we know it. It drives me crazy when fundamentalist Christians spout nonsense that is diametrically opposed to the Christian theology they claim to believe, evidently out of rank ignorance if not anti-intellectual know-nothingism. We should do better. For too long in the neo-pagan community the same ideas–e.g., ones from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess–have been recycled, frequently plagiarized, over and over. Perhaps it is the case that Mór Rígain is happy to be conceptualized as a war goddess; but even if that is true–and I for one have no idea if it is–does that mean we shouldn’t be aware of earlier conceptualizations/representations of her? I wrote a post on my herbal blog a couple years ago about how the caduceus came to replace the asklepian as the symbol of medicine, and a commenter suggested that maybe it was no accident, as Hermes could reasonably be considered a patron of the healing arts. And indeed, I agree that is possible and a legitimate way to interpret the history–but I would still argue that we should know what the facts are (to the extent that we can–I realize history has its problems).

Also, I like to study and analyze myths. I have since I was in the 4th or 5th grade (to answer the question Gordon asks his podcast guests, “Were you a weird kid?”–yes, yes I was). Myths don’t tell us what the deities are, but they have many layers and facets and if we squeeze them we get wonderful new insights into the Nature of Things (and what is history but another kind of myth?). That’s all I’m doing with these posts.

What are the implications?

That’s it. That’s the question, the whole reason I keep nattering on about deities in the first place. If we accept that deities are real, what does it say about Reality that they seem to be more responsive to our expectations than they are to facts?

(I am reminded of the scene in Labyrinth where Jareth says, “Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”)

What does it mean for us if our calls are always answered, but we don’t know by whom? What does it mean that no two people’s UPG is the same? Shouldn’t we be concerned when we find ourselves getting defensive or unsettled in the face of someone else’s conflicting experience of a deity? (I know I sometimes do.) On the grand scale, the historical facts mean nothing compared to the potential implications of these, but for me they provide a necessary reference point against which to frame the questions.

I don’t have anything invested in making people agree with me on deities because I’m interested in dialogue. You might be surprised to know–given how much I’ve blathered about them and how much I love myth–that for the most part Working with deities doesn’t play a big role in my life (though like everything else this may change). I don’t usually feel the need to put names or personalities on forces of nature and landscape, and when I address them I just use the commonly accepted name of the phenomenon or species (e.g., “wind”, “rock”, “oak”).

So I don’t need a unified theory of deities, I don’t need for the mysteries to be solved, but I do crave some philosophical conversation about them. Why do we say “armchair philosophy” like it’s a bad thing? I don’t see why we can’t philosophize in comfortable furniture. So let’s do!

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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?

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.