This is the first of a set of posts that I'm going to be making for International Pagan Values Blogging Month, because I think this is important stuff to be going at, for one, and also because I've been too much of a ranty bitch here and I'd rather talk religion and theology for a while.
I'm writing this from a generic perspective before digging into things from my own traditions; these aren't going to be true for all pagan religions, or anything, but they're sort of first-order true historically (requiring back of the envelope calculations to correct). As someone with a reconstructionist sensibility who is also kind of amorphous and blurry, I find this sort of thing a useful place to start out from.
I've started a 'pagan values month' tag in case some of these don't get hooked up into the blogfest correctly or something. The ancients were great believers in backups and all.
So. A few points of general historical interest, possibly a little whimsical in presentation.
- Our ancestors knew what they were doing. They are also, due to being our ancestors, our closest allies in the spirit world, and, being in the spirit world, probably have a better handle on all this numinous shit than we do. Keeping on their good side is smart, as they're the best allies we've got when the weird goes down.
For a more modern perspective: Most reconstructionist paganisms include some level of ancestor veneration. Further, the entire concept of reconstructionism is based on a form of "our ancestors knew what they were doing", the idea that these old religions actually had some stuff sorted out and we can start working from that basis. Even non-reconstruction pagan religions often have forms of inherited lore and tradition, as well as some level of ancestor veneration. This is all, of course, rendered much more complicated by shifts in the nature of tribal identity in the West, having known specific ancestors who were real jackasses, or having people who feel like ancestral figures without any particular blood tie. People muddle through, in the end.
- The gods don't care whether you believe in Them any more than the rocks care if you believe in them, the panther in the forest cares if you believe in it, or your cousin Sam cares for that matter. What they care about is whether or not you treat Them properly and do what They want, much like the rocks and your cousin Sam (the panther is well-aware that you're unlikely to do what it wants, especially if you have a spear on you, but remains hopeful that you won't). Your community cares, too, because they can see whether or not you do the right stuff, and the gods occasionally have a blast radius.
For a more modern perspective: Most pagan religions are orthopraxic. Some are militantly orthopraxic, knee-jerk responding to a culture that puts an unbalanced amount of weight on belief by refusing to consider systematisations of thought as relevant. Even in a community that has a healthier balance, it is entirely likely that there will be a number of different beliefs within that community, much as the ancient world had people who had philosophical perspectives on the nature of the gods living alongside people who had belief in the gods as entities and various other shades of meaning. For many of the religions with a strong basis in historical cultures, there is a sense of shared community practice; while people will have their own personal practices and devotions, religion is a matter of public ritual as well. This is one of the things that is actively different for a lot of modern pagans, due to the diasporic and convert-based nature of the religions in question.
- It is blatantly obvious that different people deal with different gods. Why, if everyone had the same gods, it'd be much harder to tell our tribe from their tribe, and that Just Wouldn't Do. (Besides, these gods are our oldest ancestors/creators/etc., and they didn't beget/make/etc. them.) And there's no point in making other people worship our gods, really, because that would be like adopting them into the family, and we don't actually like them all that much and we don't want them over here thinking like they're as good as the rest of us. Let 'em have their second-rate gods, and let 'em have them over there.
For a more modern perspective: most pagans are not big fans of proselytisation. I suspect that in all honesty this has a lot more to do with feeling harassed by a dominant culture of pimped conversion than anything with historical basis; however, the closest thing we have to a conversion culture in the Western pagan world is the Romans, who tended to declare various local gods equivalent to various of their gods, say, "Do these rituals this way or we'll stomp you some more", and go away. At least in theory, pagans are not threatened by people with different gods, beliefs, and practices; in practice, well ... the difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.
- Sometimes those foreigners from the tribe over there actually have a cool god. (They probably stole it from us back before we remember.) Well, cool gods are cool; we can worship that too. We may even come up with a story of how that god relates to our gods if we feel like it.
For a more modern perspective: For all that many modern pagans rant and rail about god-borrowing and similar practices, they are ancient. Even without getting into the major things like the aforementioned Romans or Graeco-Egyptian syncretism or anything else, people nicked gods from their neighbors all the time. And with modern communication and the research of lost cultural traditions, just about everyone is everyone's neighbor these days. A historically-based practice will likely center on a particular cultural grouping of gods, yes, but a smattering of other gods is far from implausible.
- Gods tend to live in particular areas. It's rude to not give the ones in the area one lives in proper respect when one travels.
For a more modern perspective: most modern pagans no longer consider major gods to be strictly bound to particular locations. (Gods of locations are a different story, of course. They tend not to move much.) Nonetheless, They have places They are strong in, whether the homes of individual people, houses of worship, etc. Unfortunately, the value of giving care and attention to local powerful gods is not one that has really carried over into modern paganism, perhaps because it would obviously, in many cases, require being polite to Christians.
- Gods are embodied. Not simply, the way people are, but in a complex interlacing of forms and appearances. The sun is not the sun-god, but if you can't perceive the sun-god by observing the sun, that's not a terribly effective sun-god, is it? (But at the same time, that same sun-god may be embodied in an icon, a sacred animal, and so on; learning to see the gods in all their forms is an important mental thing.
For a more modern perspective: The word that gets thrown around a lot is "immanent", in opposition to "transcendent". God is in us, and in the environment, and all this. Now, the ancients kind of sucked at environmentalism in general, but their basic attitude was in many places that all kinds of things (animals, plants, and natural phenomena) might happen to be the current form of a god going about godly business, and thus worthy of respect and cautious treatment. Many also crafted icons to house gods when gods wanted to drop in in humanish ways; these were later degraded as "idols" by people who figured that a god in a body was limited.
- Gods are not omniscient. Nor are They omnipotent. (Though They may approach these things within their particular domains of interest.) They are certainly not omnibenevolent. They have Their own agendas, and those agendas are Their primary concern. They may offer help to people if that forwards Their agendas, or if those people are perceived as useful; it's just as common for people to wind up caught between a major divine personality conflict, or just haphazardly hurt by an agenda. In short, gods are a lot like people. Just, y'know, really big ones.
For a more modern perspective: the gods aren't going to fix you, make everything all better, or otherwise cuddle you through your problems. Sometimes you have to deal with shit under your own power. This is a big deal for people who are raised in a culture in which the Problem of Evil is a major underlying philosophical concern: where is an all-powerful, all-good deity when you really need one? "Jesus with tits" paganism is ahistorical, in other words, and frequently abuses the names of gods Who aren't inclined to agree. Like other people, gods aren't perfectly reliable, and They don't have infinite patience either.
- Worship is making a deal. God doesn't do what you want? Withhold the sacrifices. This is a contract, and there are rules and principles.
For a more modern perspective: honestly, a lot of modern pagans are really uncomfortable with the sorts of compulsions that the ancients would put on the gods. But one of the standard sorts of prayers we have recorded (on shards and other things) goes something like, "If you do this thing for me, I'll sacrifice this for you" or some similar service. And a lot of other things are, "If you don't return things to the way they should be, the rituals will stop." The god-impersonation intrinsic to Egyptian theurgy makes a lot of people kind of squeamish.
Ngh, that's what I got for now. I'm probably missing a few, but what the hell, if I keep digging at this until I unearth everything in my head that might fit I'll never get anywhere.