Friday, February 28, 2014

Myth & Cult - on the Nature of the Gods.

(Another snippet that got a good reception on the internets, preserved here so I can avoid typing it again.)

In the business of restoring polytheistic worship in a European context we are faced with a variety of difficulties.  One of the most notable is the almost total break in folkloric transmission concerning the nature and desires of the gods and spirits. Kids just don’t grow up with an intrinsic understanding of who Dagda Mor is, in the way they may know St Jude,
or the bigger names in the more common pantheons. We are left to reassemble our ways from the snippets available in preserved ancient literature, from equally ragged folkloric bits, and by analogy with modern Non-European polytheisms.

As readers have seen me say before, the long round of invocation that Neopaganism has been making to the gods and spirits is paying off. Pagans are hearing the voices, seeing the visions. It is not unusual for personal experience to contradict scholastic norms (which are never the same as real lore transmitted by folkloric methods). Those of us who look to scholarship as a primary (almost scriptural in some cases, though not Yr Hmbl) source of the nature of the gods can be confounded when worshipper experiences contradict our understandings.

My friend John Machate asked how we respond when someone reports actions of a god that contradict scholarly understanding. Sez I:

…let's start with a little theology...

I'd say that there's no such thing as a god that isn't worshiped. God-ness is defined by the relationship of a spirit to mortals. If the spirit is in a relationship of offering-and-blessing, i.e. if it has cult, then that spirit is a god; if not it is not. It may be a spirit of some other type; it may just be a character in a story, provided to help poets make a point.

The tales are not, after all, mythology. We have no Celtic stories that were provably told by pagans to pagans (and Norse is little better). Even in cases of unbroken mythological lines, such as India, or of good preservation of literate Paganism, such as Greece, the nature of the gods is determined by both story and cult. The actions of the gods in cult are local, specific and often related to the needs of their worshipers, rather than their poetic category.

No Celtic God has
been more altered by
Neopagan gnosis than
To speak of a god and the actions of a god, we can go two routes. We can describe the poetic and symbolic categories most often associated with that being. We say that Brigid is a goddess 'of the hearth' or 'of home and kin', or that Morrigan is 'of battle'. When we attempt to derive these big categories I suppose it makes sense to draw on the tales we have.

The second source is the power of the god in cult. I don't suppose anyone would suggest that Brigid would not defend her worshipers with war, if needed, or that Morrigan *could not* heal or aid in childbirth. That they might do so for the right petitioner does not, I suppose, change their greater poetic category. If I were healed by Morrigan I don't suppose it would lead me to address her as "the Healer", though I would recite that she had healed me. It's common in practical world polytheism to ask one's house-gods for what one needs first. They often come through, without resorting to others in the local pantheon.

So if a modern Pagan comes to me and says "Morrigan saved my childbirth" I would congratulate them, and perhaps remind them of their debt. If I hear "Morrigan is a Goddess of Childbirth" I'd ask for references.


Steam Druid said...

Nice post. I think you're on to something. Would you consider giving this a fleshing out?

Steam Druid said...

Fleshed out to book-length is what I meant.