So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

22 June, 2009

With All This Bathwater, There Has To Be A Baby In Here Somewhere

For this round of pagan values month, I'm going to spend some time gnawing at the differences between ancient and modern worldviews and explore a bit about what that requires of the modern practitioner, on the thinky thoughts dimension. Obviously, I'll be drawing primarily on my own religious background here, but a lot of this is applicable to others, and thus a lot of it will be written generically.

First of all, and perhaps most subtle in its effects: we are, for the most part, not living in communities of co-religionists, let alone tribes or nations. Most pagans were raised in other religions, or none at all; many of us are at a loss for how - or if - to raise our children with our own traditions, if we even have formulated traditions that might be appropriate for children. We can have no city-wide festivals as were done in the ancient Mediterranean, let alone the sort of city festivals that drew celebrants from all over the country as was the case at times in Egypt.

We are not surrounded by people who believe and practice as we believe and practice; in fact, many of us feel the need to hide ourselves for fear of repercussions. Even when we can gather in groups of other pagans, that does not mean that we can gather with co-religionists, and public festivals frequently take on a neo-Wiccan or similarly flavored tone because that is one of the few things that most participants might be aware of. (In some cases, the only thing that some of the participants know.) Our families and communities are for the most part not of our religion - though in some cases, they may be different pagan religions - and in fact many of the places that put an emphasis on primarily having relationships with co-religionists have alarming, cult-like tendencies towards insularity and isolation.

The difference this wreaks on the practice of reconstructed religion is both huge and subtle. Much of the information we have, when we have information, is dependent on the large-scale, the cultural assumptions being in line, the public festival in which entire communities participate, and we do not have these things. We have to find and adapt these things to the scale on which we live - an individual, a family, maybe a small working group - often in the absence of any significant knowledge of how an individual might have thought of the gods, might have constructed religious duty, might have acted in their home. We can guess, we can extrapolate, but this is new construction inspired by the old, not the way they did it in the olden days.

Related to this: the philosophy of the individual is far more thoroughly developed than it was in the past. Most people likely to read this are not typically thinking in terms of where they fit into their tribe, or their heirarchy, or the complicated social dynamics that come of living in more or less the same place among more or less the same people for a lifetime. Yes, the ancients thought in terms of individual needs, individual prowess, and so on, but they were also members of coherent peoples with complex layers of family, clan, ethnic, social ties. When we read an ancient text that mentions deferring to superiors and being gracious to inferiors, we do not read it as they did; we have different ego-boundaries and senses of place. We do not necessarily live within a short walk of our closest kin, and thus do not think of one of our souls as the same as our family. Many decisions are based on individual need and desire, rather than social patterns - and while many people think there is a 'cult of the individual' that has gone too far, that is, again, an individual's opinion. The very nature of conversion would probably be utterly alien to most ancients, and most modern pagans are converts.

Ancestor veneration, reverence for that family soul? What does it mean to people who have limited family ties due to mobility, due to feeling that past generations were unethical or unworthy, due to simply not knowing where they came from? What does it mean to mongrelised people, with ethnic ties sweeping across huge swaths of continents? What does it mean to people whose more immediate ancestors would likely not approve of such veneration in the first place? What place do honored elders who are not of our kin and clan have, if any, on our western shrines?

If the worldviews we wish to touch are born of particular lands, climates, and situations, how can we properly know them in a completely different context? I do not live in Egypt; I don't even live in a landscape dominated by a river, nor one with the stark twinned dualism of its landscape. For all that I resonate spiritually with these ideas, I do not have them engraved onto my understanding of the world the way someone who lived in that land would do.

And, to conclude, because it's totally late and I should have been asleep hours ago: we have the wrong information. It doesn't even matter what information we have, whether drawn out of old texts, extrapolated from art, recorded by historians or monks or whatever; it's not the information we need. We don't know what the information we need is, because it's about how to bridge between the old and the new. We may know a lot about how a divine king can rule over a unified, heirarchical, and ritualised society geared towards a particular envisioning of how to honor and serve a particular set of gods; we don't know jack about how a diasporic scattering of converts in a society of entangled and separated loyalties can build a functional model that is true to that original world without recapitulating it, because attempting to recapitulate it as it was is dumb.


Orlando C. said...

Oh gods, can I just tell you how much I am loving this series of articles. I'm not a pagan, but I amateur classicist. And most of the pagans I know--like most of the religious persons I know--are deeply, unselfconsciously unaware of their own historical roots. It is so nice to hear a thoughtful 21st century person revisiting classical paganism from an in-group point of view.

I might respond in some more coherent way later, but in the meantime, just, thanks.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I'm glad you're appreciating it.

There's a fair amount of moderately active hostility to theological work in some parts of the pagan community - less so the reconstructionists, I think, though there's a shocking anti-intellectual bent in some recons that bugs me a lot - so I believe that it's particularly important work to do.

I should probably do some writing on the other half of my religious stuff, though really the theology there doesn't make me feel as shouty. ;)