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Monday, May 31, 2021

Old Gods Made New

I wrote this several weeks ago, shared it with a friend who runs a local chapter of a Hellenic group to get her, much appreciated feedback, and have updated it a bit based on that. I'm adding this paragraph though because I just finished season 2 of Ragnarok on Netflix. I think it illustrates how one can take the concerns, goals, and nature of a god and contextualize them for our modern reality. If you can't read this blog post, then watch Ragnarok...or do both.


Throughout the original version of this, I think my friend had some confusion about my view on the changeability of the gods. For a short clarification to give context to things I'm saying, the gods are vast and enduring and unlike humans in many ways. As a result, over time we can see elements of them, and perspectives on them which are relevant to us now that people may not have seen before. The gods can address and deal with things which did not exist for mankind before, but which still existed in the greater purview of those gods because of the vastness of their natures. They can act in ways which address our current needs and seem different from previous concerns because they encompass a totality of modes of realizing their natures, and our interaction is one of many small pieces of that.


People get turned off by the "Polytheism" movement and the "Reconstructionist" movement because they feel like they lack relevance. Growing up, the explanation I always heard was that our goal was to worship the gods in a way which followed what we know from history and tradition but contextualized for today. Carried with this was the idea that Paganism (not NeoPaganism) is about engaging and being situated in the reality of where you are, not the fantasy in which you'd like to imagine yourself. Pagan means local and so it is very much situational - it has to deal with life as you live it.


Some people describe these approaches as attempting to imagine Pagan religions as they would be today if they had evolved uninterrupted by Christianity. This is a bad notion. The reality in which we are situated includes 500 to 1600 years of heavy Christian influence. Not addressing or considering that would be anachronistic and would fall into trying to live the fantasy in which one might wish to imagine themself.


While I would say accusations about relevance are arguably unfair, accusations about anachronism can be fair. Paganism involves piecing together bits which come from different regions at different times as if these were all part of the same religious expression and understanding. In most cases, they weren't. Frequently, it also involves attempts to adopt lifestyle elements from the bronze age, or iron age, or medieval periods or all of these thrown together. Often, people forget that modern Paganism is historical religion in a modern context and try to dress up for an imagined historical context. The anachronism accusations sometimes come with accusations of LARPing...but you can find LARPing in all religions.


Relevance though. We're talking about worshiping gods who had their heyday anywhere from a thousand to three thousand years ago - in some cases of Near Eastern and North African religions, even earlier than that. People back then were part of cultures far removed from our own with different concerns from our own and their religions were expressions of - integral parts of - those cultures. The gods answered the needs and interests of those peoples. So, how can they be relevant today?


Some people suggest that we can find the answer by looking at modern peoples living in those places once populated by those gods and their worshipers and reimagining the gods as expressions of the contemporary culture. If the gods are still part of that contemporary culture, maybe...but if they're not then we're just saying the gods are linked to that genetic heritage, or they're tied to that place intrinsically in such a way that the people and culture are still defined by them. Most people don't like the first suggestion and I think most people would realize that the second one frequently doesn't hold up.


Others might suggest that we consider the way the gods have survived in our popular awareness or even how they have appeared in pop culture. If the gods themselves guide these images then that could be reasonable. I think there are a lot of pop culture examples we can explore which run in opposition to how we might imagine the gods, either historically or in some present echo of their historical I'm not sure I'm ready to take that approach. Some people might suggest that enough people believing in the pop-culture depiction of the god reshapes the god, or feeds that popular image until it becomes the god - whether the popular image is based on some authentic or traditional element of the god may or may not matter. Again, I wouldn't subscribe to such a view, and I don't think most modern Pagans would. That kind of thinking is much more useful for addressing thought-forms and egregores.


Finally, some people might suggest that the gods can be what we want them to be. We can look for what our lives need and what we need gods for and decide the gods fulfill these new roles. Again, I don't think anyone who believes in the gods as real autonomous beings would take this view...because we wouldn't take it with other living autonomous beings. In fact, if we tried to do this with the gods, rituals, or spiritual items belonging to other living traditions people would very rightly call foul.


Since I clearly don't agree with these common ways people suggest we can personalize and make relevant the gods, am I saying that they can't be made relevant for modern culture and modern people?


No. Not at all.


I think we can look to living traditions, historical trends, and the gods themselves and easily see how they adapt without us requiring that they suit our whims.


Gods and spirits within living traditions adapt to the contexts and lives of their people. We talk about this a lot in magic when we talk about adaptability. When we look at African traditions in the Americas we see people forcibly displaced from their homes. But not just from their house or village, or even the town or region which shares their culture, but displaced from their continent to the other side of the world. The environment is entirely different. The character of the land, the plants, the animals - all different. Their context is different too. Instead of free people in their community, surrounded by people who share their language, culture, and gods, they are in a place ruled by foreigners, and live mixed with other oppressed people who are foreign to them. Their religion and language are illegal, their customs have to be hidden, and the same is true of the locals with whom they are forced to intermingle.   


So, modes of worship and ritual adapted to maintain elements that could be maintained. Other elements were hidden in other similar behaviors and practices. Gods were hidden in images which were acceptable to their captors. Gods and spirits intermingled with local gods and spirits and new relationships and stories formed. Plants, animals, offerings which couldn't be obtained because they didn't exist in the New World were replaced with similar things. In the view of the people, the Gods took on elements which related to their own natures but which reflected their ability to help with and share in the experiences of this new context along with the new troubles and difficulties it presented. We might otherwise say, the people uncovered elements of the gods which were always present, but which weren't understood or weren't revealed previously because they weren't relevant to the people yet.


I think this last part is important. In many of these traditions, gods and spirits are still recognizable between people still living in Africa and people in Diaspora. Sometimes stories vary...just as stories of gods vary regionally. Sometimes gods might have attributes and elements which relate more to their new context while retaining elements of their original context. The fact that they can accumulate new areas to be concerned with while still being understood or recognized by people who did not undergo that displacement shows that our experience and understanding of the gods can adapt to new contexts while the gods retain their natures. Their natures can allow expression and action which is relevant for the new context.


I would imagine in many of these cases, when new stories arise and new patronages are attached to a god or spirit it's because that god or spirit did something which involved this area of interest. If a god is a warrior who defends his people and that god becomes a god who helps free slaves - he is still a warrior defending his people. He's defending them from a new danger, he isn't becoming something new and different from who he was.


Adaptations can take the reality of the gods and spirits, and their ability to communicate with us into account.


A Lukumi priest told me a story which explained why Oshun receives honey. I unfortunately don't remember the details enough to recount it fully. Essentially, it was time to make an offering to the Orishas and whatever sweet substance was usually offered was in short supply. They asked if they could offer a substitute and the Orishas agreed with the substitution. While the details are too muddled in my head to confidently tell the story...and it isn't my tradition or story to tell...the point remains that the people turned to the spirits involved to confirm that they could make this adaptation.


I've heard several times of South East Asian traditions in which sacrifices and blood offerings were common for certain spirits. The people eventually negotiated with the spirits and came up with other offerings.


Living traditions show us that people who have a deep relationship and open communication with the gods and spirits of their traditions are able to communicate with them and adapt to fit with developments in human culture.


In all these instances, the change is negotiated with the gods, or some communication or experience happens. The gods or spirits see the changes we need to make and agree with them or guide us in how to make them. The gods see what new needs we have and they intercede regarding those needs or provide vision or tell stories which relate themselves to those things - usually in ways which reflect who that god or spirit already was.


Most people don't expect people from outside of a god or spirit's tradition to be the people receiving these messages or being gifted with these insights about how things have changed. Generally, if someone says they have discovered the true and hidden nature of a god or spirit, or they've decided they can dispense with the rituals or initiations that go with that tradition most people dismiss them as imagining things at best, or appropriating things at worst.


When we want to consider how the gods remain relevant to changing times, we can also look at how it's happened through history.


Cultures change and develop over time. Cultures intermingle, fade, get absorbed, and absorb others over time. When this happens the religious landscape can change. Sometimes those developments involve gods absorbing the characteristics of other gods or blending. I think the spiritual realities behind syncresis are beyond what I want to address here, but I think there are spiritual realities to it. I think there are maybe also times where it's more political than anything else and might not reflect something real.


I think more relevant to our conversation is when gods within a culture shift as a result of the shifts in that culture. This is, after all, the main thing we're really considering when we discuss the idea of historical gods in a modern cultural setting.


Religion is, almost always, through most parts of the world, relatively conservative. When I say this I don't mean politically speaking but in terms of thought and practice religious traditions frequently will maintain elements of culture which are otherwise long out of date. If we consider how religion evolves with people - particularly before the age of instant communication - it would be pretty unrealistic to think that a new generation would get a notion into their heads and decide the whole religion is going to shift to match it. It happens sometimes, but usually with kind of fringe outlier groups, or if the people with the notion are in power it might be something that takes hold but only while people in power buy into it (example: Akhenaton).

Culture might start to shift, but religious practices and stories about and understandings of the gods will probably lag behind. When the culture shifts enough, I think three things commonly happen.


First, elements of the god which weren't the focus before might become the focus. This isn't the same as deciding the god has changed what they are about. Gods are multifaceted, and major gods frequently have many aspects which relate to many areas of society and life. Some particular aspect might be the focus because it suits the needs or views of the people at the time but generations later, maybe some other aspect will become the most important. This doesn't mean the previously important aspect goes away, or that the newly important aspect is a change or growth of the god. It just means the way people engage and relate to the god has changed. If I'm traveling with a friend, and the friend speaks French and German, then in France I'll want the aspect of that friend which speaks French, and in Germany I'll want the aspect that speaks German. It's the same friend and nothing has changed, but we're dealing with different situations.


The second option is one we do see commonly in history. The god who is the focus of society might change. In some instances this is a question of who the people give attentio to primarily and is a human/social thing, in some it is reflected in the mythology and is seen to be cosmic. In the latter cases, this can include changes in rulership amongst the gods, but not always.


In Canaan, some of these shifts as far as what god was the focus of the people seems to accompany shifts in what god ruled the pantheon, as far as I understand. Those shifts in rulership of the pantheon seem to also potentially accompany political shifts as well. In Greece, we see particular gods being important for a place because of the particular heritage or customs or needs of those regions. This doesn't necessarily change who ruled the pantheon, but it could change elements of how the gods were worshiped in that place. In Rome there were shifts in importance between Mars and Jupiter depending upon the needs of the city, but those shifts in attention don't necessarily include changes in the positions of the gods in the cosmos.


So, if we look at historical religions it may be that those gods who are of primary importance to us and our lives are not the same ones who were of primary importance in history. For example, while Mars may have been of primary importance in Rome, maybe Ceres would be more the focus for Americans living in a culture concerned with commerce.


A third thing tends to happen when cultures encounter entirely new scenarios or technology. The understanding of the god expands.


I've had a couple disagreements about whether or not the gods evolve. I think the idea that the gods are the same as humans fails to grasp their divinity. I don't believe the gods are incomplete in the same way humans are and so the gods don't need the same kind of growth and development as humans. The gods have elements of their behavior which reflects human behaviors. I think sometimes this is because those elements in a story convey some greater truth which humans need to understand, and sometimes they convey some element of the gods which seems like a flaw to us when expressed through myth but which may be part of a more complex reality.


So when I say that the understanding of the god expands, I believe this is a reflection of humans changing, developing, and growing, and not necessarily the gods.


With traditional religions that survive through to today, I don't believe many of them think their gods suddenly learned about electricity or sat down and took a computer course. Our discoveries and understandings are not novel to the gods, at least not in the way they are to us. Members of traditional religions still recognize that religious laws, or divine patronages might apply to these new things. In some religions it may be that they understand a new god to be born, or some previously unknown god to now be known. In others, they understand these new phenomena in the light of older known phenomena and so they fall under existing laws and existing gods. For example, in the past we didn't know about electricity, but we knew about fire. Now that we know about electricity religion can treat it as a form of fire.  We didn't have cars in antiquity, now we do, but we still had vehicles and chariots and so cars are under the dominion of the gods who ruled vehicles and chariots.


In all these cases, we can look at history and see that just because a focus changes, or a position of importance changes, or an understanding expands it is not automatic that these mean that the old thing is gone. The gods don't stop dealing with their now less needed aspect, they don't cease to be, and their attributes don't necessarily abandon their previous meanings when they begin to include new ones. Even as Christianity grew into prominence, the gods of pagan religions didn't disappear, they became viewed as daimones and faeries, and Saints. Ancient peoples would sometimes celebrate holidays which even they admitted they didn't know why they were celebrating it - but they retained elements of some god or spirit or their heritage which was not as immediately obvious to the common person anymore. Those unneeded elements remained in place even if they weren't the thing the average person understood anymore.


So, we looked at living traditions, and we looked at history, the final place to look for finding relevance was at the gods themselves. I think, honestly, looking at what we can see in living traditions and what we can see in history tells us how we can look to the gods themselves for this.


If we want to understand how the gods fit our lives today we can ask the gods. We can listen earnestly for answers. We can do divination. We can develop deep and meaningful relationships and let them guide us through those relationships. 


We can examine our own lives and our needs and we can scour mythology and history and find gods who speak to those needs and who speak to us.


We can deeply explore the myths, history, archeology, and rituals and holidays related to individual gods and get to know them more fully than some surface summary of their personality. Once we do this we can begin to unfold how their existing nature is already relevant to our lives.


For example - Mars. Most people would say "Well, Mars was the Roman version of Ares, he was a god of war and violence and carnage whereas his sister Athena was the wise elements of war like strategy."


Those people would be wrong. Mars is not the Roman version of Ares. They are two very different gods. Mars was one of the chief gods of Rome whereas Ares did not have a broadly established temple cultus.


Rome was founded by farmers, and according to those legends, more specifically by shepherds. Those shepherds were led by princes who had been raised amongst them, after having been suckled by a wolf as babes when they escaped the murderous intentions of one of their relatives. More importantly, these shepherd princes were the twin sons of Mars. Discovering their mother's captivity and the past ill intentions of their uncle the boys rose up and gathered their shepherds and turned them into a band of warriors to overthrow the king - their uncle. They avenged their family, restored the rightful king (their grandfather), and killed their uncle, then they established a new city for the shepherds amongst whom they were raised.


Mars was the god of the early Roman people, along with Quirinus who might have been linked to deified Romulus or might have been linked to Mars, while perhaps having elements of an earlier Italic god.


Mars is initially a god of farmers and shepherds - admittedly his bucolic worshipers get into a lot of fights and wars. But he has elements related to parentage, to shepherds, to city building, to justice along with the more commonly understood connection to warfare. Even Mars's connection to warfare is more than that. Mars is a god of the military, training and military games were part of his domain and so therefore also he is a god of sports. Mars is a god of expansion and broadening boundaries to establish order as this is his role in establishing empire (whereas Jupiter is a god of imperium itself, or the power and command which maintains empire). Mars is a god of chariots and vehicles.


When we look at a god and say "Well, do we really need this war god anymore? Maybe he can relax, his wars are done, and he can stop being a war god and focus on these other areas of life..." we are probably selling those gods short. They likely already dealt with a huge array of things and had a multifaceted touch that rarely gets explored. We don't need to reimagine them and give them new areas of concern - any major god probably already had several.


When we start unpacking how much more there is to a god we can begin to unpack how much of our lives can relate to that god. For people in the military Mars could still be important. For people who play sports or work in relation to sports or enjoy watching sports Mars could be important. For people who drive cars, Mars could be important. Even in terms of warfare though, while Victory is embodied by Nike or Victoria those angels of victory still connect with other gods...including Mars. Mars is a god of triumph and can be a god to turn to when victory is needed, or when conflicts need to be explored or dealt with.


Approaching Mars for ways he can realistically fit into our lives doesn't require that Mars change, it just requires that we earnestly look at Mars and attempt to understand him.


Clearly, my point is not to advocate that anyone establish a relationship with Mars or become a Roman Pagan. Mars as an example of how the gods are enough as they are, more than enough, and we just need to take time to deeply understand them and build relationships with them. We don't need to dismiss them as needing to be reworked to suit our desires or our sense of what it means to be modern. When we seek to make the gods fit our desires, we're seeking our desires rather than seeking the gods. When we believe the gods are whoever we want them to be, we stop challenging ourselves to find their truth and explore how that teaches us about our lives.


The gods have deep meaning for many people without us needing to change them. If we don't see that meaning, then we can move on, or we can explore how the gods can change what we see.


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