Sunday, 12 July 2020

Primordial Morality

"Lucretia" by Bassano (16th/17th century)
"Lucretia" by Bassano (16th/17th century)
One sometimes encounters the notion that Christian values are foundational aspects of contemporary Western culture, but if this is so what happens when Westerners stop being Christians in large numbers? I have relatives who believe that within 3-5 generations without Christianity human behaviour will devolve into a hellscape, and fathers will start initiating their daughters into sex. I have total confidence that this will not happen (at least not commonly – such behaviour will continue to be regarded as aberrant and wicked). Not because I have confidence in any other particular moral code prevailing but because I suspect that most people have a gut instinct for what is fundamentally right and wrong, and that where that instinct is absent reason can fill in the gaps – absent other factors which may cause reason to lapse (such as rigid belief systems, psychological scarring, brain damage and general low intelligence – unfortunately all of these things are fairly common). What might ethics in a post-Christian world look like? Looking to European notions of virtue before Christianity prevailed may give us an idea, as may looking deeper into our own selves.

Roman Virtue
Ancient Roman polytheism was primarily concerned with the proper conduct of ritual rather than personal morality, but meritorious conduct was not entirely divorced from the realm of the religious, as Cicero lets us know in On the Laws. In that work people living in an ideal society are described in the following way:
“Let them worship deities … who have won a place in heaven through their merits, such as Hercules, Liber, Aesculapius, Castor, Pollux and Quirinus; and those qualities through which men may gain access to heaven – Mens <Mind>, Virtus <Virtue>, Pietas <Piety>, Fides <Faith>; of these virtues let there be shrines but none of any of the vices … Let sacrilege committed that cannot be expiated be deemed impious …

Except for the servants of the Magna Mater – and they only on their fixed days – let no one beg for contributions. He who steals or takes away what is sacred or in trust in a public place, let him count as a parricide. For perjury the punishment is destruction from the Gods, shame from men. The pontifices [priests] shall punish incest with the capital penalty … Let them fulfil vows scrupulously … Let them treat their dead kinsfolk as divine. Let there be limits to expenditure and mourning for them [cited in Beard, North and Price, Vol 2, at 353-355]”.
From this we see that Cicero condemned begging, stealing, killing family members, lying under oath, incest, and excessive mourning rites. He praised:
  • The healthy mind, ie, intelligence and mental courage.
  • Piety, ie, unflinching devotion and loyalty to family, friends, country and Gods.
  • Faithfulness, ie, trustworthiness and reliability.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Polytheism for Beginners

"For Karin's Name Day" by Larsson (1899)
"For Karin's Name Day" by Larsson (1899)
After over a decade of being consciously polytheistic I think perhaps it is possible that I may have some useful advice for people new to polytheism. All of the advice below comes from years of studying mostly Roman and Germanic sources, as well as some others (such as Celtic polytheism, Buddhism and Hinduism), as well as my lived experience.

There is no one and true way
The first and most important piece of advice I can give is to completely ignore anything that follows if it does not resonate for you. I am not a guru, and I suggest you be wary of anyone else who holds that they have discovered the one and true way to be a polytheist. Polytheism does not just imply a plethora of Gods but also a plethora of approaches to the divine.

There are no texts which are the polytheistic equivalent to the Bible
Polytheism predates literacy and flowered in an age of limited literacy. Therefore there are no texts that should be regarded as absolutely authoritative. The closest you can get to this in Germanic polytheism is the Havamal, which is part of the Elder Edda (also known as the Poetic Edda). If you are new to Germanic polytheism I suggest reading The Saga of the Volsungs, then the Elder Edda (because many of the poems relate to the story of the Saga of the Volsungs). If you want something really easy to read then the Prose Edda is a great starting point, though fallible. 

In Roman polytheism there is nothing quite like the Havamal, in terms of spiritual guidance, but if you can get a handle on Ovid’s Fasti and Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods you will learn a great deal - though neither of these texts are particularly easy to read for beginners. A good beginners text is Beard, North and Price’s Religions of Rome: A Sourcebook, and to get an overview of the Roman mindset Shelton’s As the Romans Did is great. There are a number of good scholarly books dealing with Roman polytheism but they tend to focus on Roman polytheism as a State religion, with only glimpses of how polytheism would have been experienced by ordinary Romans. Of ancient texts Ovid’s Metamorphoses is perhaps the easiest bridge to understanding Roman polytheism, as well as Apuleius’ The Golden Ass

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Aesculapius – God of Medicine

"A sick child brought into the temple of Aesculapius" by Waterhouse (1877)
Mythological origins of Aesculapius
In the Roman tradition Aesculapius is the God of medicine. Myth proclaims him as the son of the God of healing (Apollo); the father of the Goddess of good health (Salus);* a favourite of the Goddess of skilfulness (Minerva, who gifted him the blood of Medusa, which could restore the dead to life), and as a child he was said to have been a student of Chiron – a centaur renowned for his wisdom and skill as a doctor. There are a number of stories associated with Aesculapius, most of them Greek in origin, like the God himself. In The Nature of the Gods Cicero (1st century BC) tells us:
“As for the sundry figures called Aesculapius, the first is the son of Apollo and is worshipped by the Arcadians; he is said to have invented the probe, and to have been the first to use splints for healing. The second is that [he is] the brother of Mercury mark two. The story goes that he was struck by lightning, and that he is buried at Cynosura. The third, the son of Arsippus and Arsinoe, was reportedly a pioneer in the application of purgatives and the extraction of teeth. His tomb and grove are open to inspection in Arcadia [3.57]”.
In the same work Cicero informs us that Aesculapius was not born to Godhead, but was one of those “men who conferred outstanding benefits [and so] were translated to heaven through their fame and our gratitude … These men were duly regarded as Gods because their souls survived to enjoy eternal life, for they were both outstandingly good and immortal”. Other examples of men who became Gods include Hercules, Liber, Romulus and the brothers Castor and Pollux (Cicero, 2.62). The most popular story of the apotheosis of Aesculapius describes how he brought back to life Hippolytus, who had been killed in a chariot crash; Jupiter then struck Aesculapius dead in retaliation for disrupting the natural order.
“Hippolytus, after [being] … torn apart by stampeding horses … came again to the heavenly stars, and the upper air beneath the sky, recalled by Apollo’s herbs and Diana’s love. Then the all-powerful father, indignant that any mortal should rise from the shadows to the light of life, hurled Aesculapius, Apollo’s son, the discoverer of such skill and healing, down to the Stygian waves [Virgil, The Aeneid, 7.641-782]”.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Pax and the Roman Understanding of Peace

3rd century denarius depicting Pax 
The worship of the Goddess Pax (Peace) in ancient Rome first comes to prominence during the reign of Augustus, when in 13 BCE the Senate commissioned the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of the Augustan Peace) to mark the safe return of Augustus from Gaul and Spain. Significantly, it was dedicated on the Campus Martius (field of Mars), which until the 1st century BCE had been used primarily as a military exercise ground. This is a powerful hint as to how ancient Romans understood Pax, ie, that Pax and Mars have a relationship with each other. In the Roman mind, Mars (war) establishes the necessary conditions for Pax (peace) to flourish.
“One of the legacies of the classical world is the belief that a secure peace can be obtained only through war … Cicero … said: ‘If we wish to enjoy peace, we must wage war. If we fail to wage war, peace we shall never enjoy.’ … The Romans believed that war and peace alternated as cause and effect. The civil wars broke out because of the extravagance that followed the wake of earlier wars. The luxury and prosperity of the late Roman Republic and Empire, and the enervating effects of peace effeminated its citizens and made them the prey of barbarian invaders … 
The Roman concept of peace was fragmented. One way of looking at this is to remember that during the regal and republican periods of history there was no God or Goddess who personified peace. While it is true that Saturn was said to have established the Golden Age, a time of peace and harmony, and that no war could be declared during the festival of Saturnalia, the Golden Age was no more. Peace was an abstract … concept that was imported into Rome and personified as a Goddess. At the same time, there were several [long established] deities who personified war, such as Mars and Minerva … 
Another way of looking at the slow development of the Roman concept of peace is to examine the changing meanings of the word pax. According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, pax originally meant a pact between individuals, or a blessing conferring freedom from divine anger … Pax took on the meaning of a broad concept or policy only in the time of Augustus with the Pax Romana, a state of tranquility within those parts of the empire that had been pacified … the classical Roman concept of peace assumed that peace must be preceded by a total victory imposed by the victors, which assumes the existence of war … Augustus had derived the concept of peace from the Greek Goddess Eirene, who had been known to the Greeks since the time of Hesiod [8th-7th century BCE]. Although the Greeks had fought their wars ferociously, they, and the other city-states of the ancient Greek world, had generally restored peace through negotiated peace treaties rather than demanding total victory … [By contrast, a] Roman peace treaty was imposed on enemies after a crushing victory … Roman coins often depict Pax linked to the Goddess Victoria, with the latter wielding a sword and shield and displaying war trophies. This reinforced the idea that peace was something to be imposed, hence the motto Mars pacifier [Manning at 31-32]”.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Our Degenerate Age – A Buddhist Prophecy

A man feeling spent after a night of debauchery
Detail from "Marriage a la Mode" by Hogarth (1743)
In many Indo-European religions there is a tradition which predicts the decline of humanity. The Romans spoke of an initial golden age of man, followed by a silver age, bronze age and finally iron age, with each age being less virtuous and less verdant than the last – it was predicted that our kind would finally be wiped out by floods and starvation (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses). In Germanic spirituality there is a tradition that speaks of mankind’s devolution: kinship bonds break down, lasciviousness and violence abound, the weather is harsh and sunbeams turn black (implying volcanic ash clouds?) – this is the age just before the destruction of our world by violence and fire, Ragnarök. It will be followed by the rebirth of a verdurous world when Gods and virtuous folk begin anew (see the Völuspá). In Hinduism it is taught that there are four epochs that characterise the cycle of existence. The first is the most blessed age, with each of the succeeding ages becoming more degenerate than the last, until the cycle begins anew (see the Mahabharata). 

Likewise, in Mahayana Buddhism, which originated in northern India but is now most common in NE Asia, there is a very old and widely accepted prophecy which speaks of the inevitable decline of Buddhism. It describes three ages. The first begins with the life of the Buddha of the Shakya clan, at some point between the 1th-5th century BCE (the exact century of the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha is unknown), and lasted between 500 to 1000 years. This was a golden age of Buddhism, when it was comparatively easy to follow the Buddha’s teachings and achieve enlightenment. The second period represents a time of the weakening of Buddhist spirituality, it also lasts between 500-1000 years. The third age is said to last for 10,000 years. According to Japanese tradition it began in the 11th century CE (which coincides with the Islamic conquest of south Asia; Muslims massacred Buddhist monks and destroyed their monasteries, universities and libraries, thus causing Buddhism to almost disappear from these regions where it had previously flourished: Reat at 76). During this latter age it is said that it will become increasingly difficult for people to follow the Buddha’s teachings, though there will be a period of flourishing before finally becoming obscured and lost. Following this there will be an extremely long period of spiritual darkness, after which a new golden age of Buddhism will eventually emerge, ushered in by the Maitreya Buddha.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The Greco-Roman Cosmos

Illustration from La Sphere du Monde by Oronce Fine (1549)
(the sublunary elements are fire, air, water and earth; above the moon is aether)
In most ancient Greek and Roman minds the distant stars were not thought to be suns capable of supporting a family of orbiting planets, and our own sun was not thought to be the central hearth-fire of our familial solar system. Their view of the cosmos was fundamentally different to our own.
“The Greeks, by about 500 BC, were trying to explain the movements of the planets by first assuming the earth to be the centre of the universe. ( … practically everyone before modern times assumed that it was.) A philosopher named Anaximenes about 550 BC suggested that the stars were fixed in a huge hollow sphere that enclosed the earth, the sun, the moon and the planets … This sphere might be motionless while the earth turned, or vice versa. Later Greeks argued both ways. 
The sun, moon and planets could not be fixed to this sphere of the stars, because they did not move along with the stars at the same speed. They must therefore exist in space between the sphere of the stars and the central earth … each must be fixed in a special sphere of its own [Asimov at 25-27].”

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Beggar Spirituality

"A Beggar Girl" by Sargent (c. 1877)
When my husband died nearly two years ago it was as if in a thunderstruck moment I realised that the cosmos was not as I thought it to be – it was so much darker and more painful than I had imagined. I saw that the Gods had not kept me free from misfortune, and that my approach to worship had been absurd. I dismantled my beautiful shrine and even destroyed one of the statues in a state of bitterness and blank despair. But I did not stop believing in the Gods, nor did I hate them. Rather, I saw that on a very fundamental level *I* had got it wrong and that I needed a wiser and more realistic approach to the divine. Answers to difficult questions can never be finite – because the universe and the questions keep changing – but what I see now is that I was more of a spiritual beggar than a spiritual seeker. 

When religious practice revolves around begging for blessings from the Gods why should the Gods not go silent? The best Gods surely don’t wish to surround themselves with emotional paupers, begging for this favour one day and that favour on another? Would they not rather take an interest in those with the fire to go out and seize the day, taking what they want based on their own hard work and determination? What God worth worshipping favours sycophants and beggars? The Gods don’t exist for us so that they can dole out all the things we are too weak to get for ourselves. They exist in their own right, with their own ambitions – just as we do. It may be that they influence events, but their powers are not infinite and they cannot change the fundamental realities of all life in the cosmos – which is that loss and death and the suffering these things bring is inevitable. We ourselves have more power to alleviate our suffering than any God. Even if there were a God or Gods who granted us every wish we would just keep asking for more, and growing evermore spiritually infantalised all the while. When finally those indulgent Gods become bored of their beggar-worshippers what despair and tantrum throwing begins! For some people atheism is the ultimate “f—k you for not answering my prayers!”

Saturday, 27 October 2018


"Dream Idyll (A Valkyrie)" by Hughes c. 1902
In the Prose Edda Snorri Sturluson describes Valkyries as women who “serve in Valhalla. They bring drink and see to the table and the ale cups … They are sent by Odin to every battle, where they choose which men are to die and they determine who has the victory” (at 44-45). In the Völuspá Valkyries are described as coming “from widely beyond, ready to ride to the people of the Gods. Shall-be wore one shield, Brandisher another, Battle, War, Wand-maid and Spear-brandisher: now are the War-lord’s ladies, ready to ride over earth, Valkyries” (Elder Edda at 9). In the Grímnismál Odin is said to speak of the Valkyries thus:
“I want Wielder and Mist to bring me a horn; Axe-age and Brandisher, War and Strength, Clash and War-bonds, Smash and Spear-waver, Shield-truce and Counsel-truce and Power-trace: they bring the Einherjar ale [Elder Edda at 56]”.
Renowned Old Norse scholar H R Ellis Davidson describes Valkyries as:
“… fierce female spirits attendant on the war-God … Valkyries play a great part in the stories and poems about the exploits of the legendary heroes … They are said by Saxo to vary their appearance, and to be seen sometimes as fearsome beings and sometimes as beautiful maidens, who offer love to the warrior. Protective spirits of this kind were said to attach themselves to the kings and princes who worshipped Odin, giving them help and counsel and bringing them luck in battle, while at death they received them as their ‘husbands’ [Scandinavian Mythology at 41]”.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Fate in the Germanic Tradition

Brynhild and Gudrun are bound by fate; by Rackham (1911) 
In the Hamdismál (a poem within the Codex Regius) a man who is about to die says to his brother: 
“30. ‘Great glory we have gained though we die now or tomorrow; no man survives a single dusk beyond the Norns’ decree’.”
The brothers have won “great glory” because they have, at the urging of their mother Gudrun, avenged the death of their sister by slaughtering her murderer and in the doing of it showing themselves to be fearless warriors. They do not lament their imminent death; to do so would be futile, for the date is preordained. They cannot choose the hour of their death, but they can choose the manner in which they meet it, either boldly or otherwise. It is as if they fearlessly look into the eyes of death even as they succumb to his grip. Equally pointless as resisting the hour of one’s death is attempting to embrace death before the hour decreed by fate – just as Gudrun failed in her attempt at suicide by wading into a rough sea:
“13. [Gudrun laments:] ‘I went to the sea-shore, I was angry with the Norns, I wanted to rid myself of their painful plans: high waves lifted me, didn’t drown me; I climbed up on to the land, since I had to live [Gudrúnarhvöt, Codex Regius].”
These lines suggest that in traditional Germanic polytheism fate is immutable, and we only have so much control over the things that happen to us. The disparity in the fortunes of men is explained through the workings of the Norns, who dwell by the Spring of Fate:
“20. From there come maidens, knowing much, three from the lake that stands under the tree [Yggdrasil]: Destiny they called one [Urdr], Becoming the second [Verdrandi] – they carved on wood-tablets – Shall-be the third [Skuld]; laws they laid down, lives they chose for the children of mankind, the fates of men [Völuspá, Codex Regius].”