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].”

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Germanic Values – Advice from the Hávamál

Depiction of Wotan by Breitkpod and Hartel (19th century)
In the second half of the 13th century CE an unknown Icelander copied a number of Pagan era poems into the Codex Regis (literally meaning Royal Manuscript), which makes up a large part of what is known as the Elder Edda or the Poetic Edda. Among them is the Hávamál, which means something like “Sayings of the High One”, the High One being Odin. Theoretically Odin is the speaker throughout most of the Hávamál, if not the author. From a scholarly point of view the Hávamál is thought to be a composite of poems, written by up to six different authors hundreds of years earlier, before Iceland adopted Christianity as the State religion in circa 1000 CE. Whoever the author, or authors, the Hávamál is an invaluable record of traditional Norse values; it is full of good advice and insight, much of which is perfectly relevant to our own times. For this reason I attempt to summarise and extract those parts of the Hávamál that I find particularly inspiring. In so doing I draw from two translations: Larrington (translator), The Poetic Edda, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, and Orchard (translator), The Elder Edda: Myths, Gods and Heroes from the Viking World, Penguin Books, 2013.

Death is coming for you no matter what you do, so live fearlessly:
“16. A senseless man thinks to live for ever if he bewares a war; but old age won’t grant him a truce, whatever spears may grant [Orchard].” 
“16. The foolish man thinks he will live forever, if he keeps away from fighting; but old age won’t grant him a truce even if the spears do [Larrington].”

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hecate in the Roman Tradition – Trivia of the Crossroads

"Hekate" by Blake (1795)
Hecate (or Trivia, to use her Latin name – as this is now also an English word with a very different association I will retain her Hellenic title) is an enigmatic Goddess of the triple crossroads, the stygian night and magic; though she walks through the dark she is not a Goddess of darkness itself, for it is her torches which lit up the way for Ceres when she searched for her abducted daughter. Hecate is associated with both Diana,* who lights up the night, and Proserpina, who gives us hope that life can emerge from death. Hecate's rites were not recorded on the official Roman calendar (Beard at 384), but her veneration was well known in Rome. Cicero tells us that altars and shrines to her were commonplace in Greece, though not apparently in Rome at this time, however, she is referred to by a number of contemporaneous Roman poets, such as Horace and Catullus, which suggests that Hecate had already been successfully synchronised into Roman polytheism by the 1st century BCE. By the 4th century CE her worship was apparently prominent enough for Roman senators to be counted among her priests. This was during the last gasp of overt Paganism in Italy, when Christianity had become the religion of emperors; Paganism was increasingly mocked as a set of superstitions befitting peasants and barbarian Germans. Perhaps in an effort to assert greater spiritual legitimacy, some affluent and well educated Pagans were embracing an increasingly more sophisticated species of polytheism, by fusing it with mystery religions and philosophies from the east (a process which had been ongoing for centuries in any case). Roman veneration of Hecate appears to have gone hand-in-hand with this, for she almost certainly featured prominently within the well known Eleusinian Mysteries – a Pagan sect that was apparently so spiritually fulfilling that initiation into its secret rites brought about the apostasy of Constantine I’s nephew Julian, who would later be known as the last Pagan emperor of Rome.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Dis Pater and Proserpina

"The Rape of Proserpina" by Ulpiano Checa (1888)
In Roman polytheism Dis Pater, Pluto and Orcus are all names for the same God of the underworld and of death. His consort Proserpina is equally a Goddess of death, but also of spring, and thus the possibility of renewed life. Any discussion of one of these deities is incomplete without the other. Both deities should be understood as being essentially the same as the Hellenic Hades and Persephone. Although they are infernal Gods they are in no way like their Christian usurper, Satan. They are not inherently evil and their raison d'etre is not to torture the damned or tempt the weak. Nor is their domain a burning hell, but rather a “gloomy palace” (Ovid) surrounded by water. Dis Pater is euphemistically called the rich one – this title meaning, literally, rich father. As the foremost God of the underworld Dis Pater is naturally associated with all the wealth that comes from it, including gold, precious gems and, most importantly, the latent fertility of the earth. This latter aspect of the God links him with the Goddess of the harvest (Ceres), and of course her daughter who emerges from beneath the earth every spring, Proserpina. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

When Odin Recruits: On Becoming a Pagan Widow

Detail from The Death of Messalina by Rochegrosse (1916)
Note: this is a cathartic narration of my experience.

Earlier this year my husband (W) died suddenly from pulmonary embolism. He was in his early 40s. We first met at school, when he was 16 and I was 14. We hooked up two years later. For almost the entirety of my adult life we were together and for most of that time we were totally into each other (although we did have problems, and break ups, here and there). I adored him, he was my universe. Although I’m not sure I knew quite how much I adored him until he died. He treated me (mostly) very well. He had a traditional approach to our marriage; he was protective and loyal. He would not have left me for a younger woman when I got into my 40s (like my sister’s husband did). He was not emotionally abusive or violent (like my father). He was honourable and true. He didn’t care for religion but, even so, he had personal values that he upheld and believed in – he had integrity.

It happened as follows.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Buddhist Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

"Courtesan looking into the mirror" by Yoshitoshi (19th century)
It is axiomatic that nirvana (ie, the extinguishment of suffering) is the ultimate end goal in Buddhism, however it is equally axiomatic that most people dwell in an ocean of suffering, hence most people do not achieve nirvana, but they do die. What happens after death is something that not all Buddhists agree on. Many Western Buddhists hold afterlife views that differ little from atheism, which is to say that essentially they do not believe in an afterlife except in some very abstract way (such as that what we do in our life echoes on through the ages, or that our material remains will eventually become the basis of some new form of life). However, the orthodox teachings make it clear that traditional Buddhism embraces the concept of repeated rebirths into multiple realms of being. Thus when most of us die we do not die with finality, rather death is part of the ongoing life-death-rebirth cycle that characterises ordinary existence.

The Theravada afterlife
The orthodox position of Theravada Buddhism on rebirth is laid out in The Debate of King Milinda, as written down in the 1st century BCE – it records a dialogue between the Greek king of Bactria and the sage Nagasena. Nagasena says that ordinary people are reborn but that from existence to existence these people are:
“Neither the same nor another … [just as] a pot of milk that turns first to curds, then to butter, then to ghee; it would not be right to say that the ghee, butter and curds were the same as the milk but they have come from that so neither would it be right to say that they are something else [Pesala at 11].”

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Western Mourning Traditions – After the Funeral

"Love's Melancholy" by Meyer (1866)
In secular times such as ours the rites of mourning have become somewhat vague. Generally speaking, there is a notion that one wears black for a period of time – though no one really expects black to be worn at any time other than at the funeral – and sometimes a group of people may wear black armbands for a certain period, such as a football team at a sports event. There is also a half-remembered tradition that widows should wait for a year before becoming romantically involved with someone new. In the last few decades a new quasi-tradition has arisen whereby the bereaved are encouraged to book some sessions with a grief counsellor or psychologist. Beyond these things it is hard to pin down Western mourning traditions, even Debrett’s fails to say much on the matter, advising of little more than the intricacies of funeral arrangements while acknowledging:
“It is only in our increasingly secular times, when death has become something to be ignored, avoided and indeed feared, that these most final and utterly inevitable rites of passage are often, quite wrongly, skimped on [Morgan, Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners at 96].”
The truth of the matter is that we are mostly left to invent our own way of mourning. Society at large, as fragmented as it is, will expect little from us once the funeral is over. The insensitive will hope that we will simply move on and adapt to the new normal as quickly as possible – the grief of others and the reality of death is simply too awkward to deal with. Those who care will probably encourage us to do “whatever feels right” and treat us gently (unless they are overwhelmed by their own grief). Those who mourn are often left grasping onto thin air, with few known traditions to fall back on – at such times looking at historic traditions may give the bereaved something to work with.