Sunday, 22 November 2015

How Many Polytheists / Pagans Are There?

"The worship of Apis" by a follower of Lippi (c. 1500)
One thing seems certain – there are not too many people in Western nations who identify as polytheists … or are there? If social media, such as Facebook and reddit, is anything to go by there are perhaps only a few thousand people in the English speaking world who practice Roman polytheism. The number of Germanic polytheists in English language dominant countries seems to be higher, but even then it seems the numbers are only in the tens of thousands at most.Statistical information only gets us so far, because meaningful data is limited, with the United Kingdom giving us perhaps the best hint of the true numbers. In the 2011 UK census the following written answers were given to “what is your religion”:**
  • Pagan = 56,620
  • Wicca = 11,766
  • Druid = 4,189
  • Heathen = 1,958
  • Witchcraft = 1,276
  • Shamanism = 650
  • Animism = 541
  • Reconstructionist = 251
  • Total of the above listed categories = 77,251

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Incense – Offerings to the Gods

Smoke from incense arises around a Shiva devotee
When prayers are made to the Gods it is traditional for them to be accompanied by offerings, which may be quite humble. This is the case in both Roman and Germanic polytheism. For example, amongst Vikings we know that offerings of bread, meat, onions, milk and either mead or ale could be included alongside prayers.* Likewise, amongst the early Romans offerings were often without ostentation. In keeping with the traditions instituted by Numa, an early Roman king renowned for his piety, the most traditional offerings were made of “flour, drink-offerings, and the least costly gifts” (Plutarch, The Life of Numa), thus spelt, bread, specially prepared sacrificial cakes (often sweetened with honey), wine, milk, flowers and local herbs. Of these latter ingredients early forms of incense would have been made, simply by placing them on burning charcoal, as was the usual practice for burning incense in the ancient world. By the imperial age Rome’s trading ties stretched far and wide and exotic goods from the east were added to the list of popular offerings (Ovid, Fasti, Jan 9), but by far the most popular of all was frankincense, the burning of which became synonymous with Pagan worship.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Pagan Funeral Rites

I’ve heard it said that there is a spiritual lesson to be learnt in contemplating death, so, although it is discomfiting to think so carefully about a world in which I will be dead, I have written an account of what I wish should happen to me as I lay dying and after my death (at the end of this post). In composing it I was mostly influenced by Roman, Celtic and Germanic Pagan funerary practices, which I attempt to summarise below. Note that I do not hold a strong view regarding the afterlife, though I tend towards a belief in some kind of reincarnation (mostly due to exposure to Buddhism, though note that there is evidence for belief in reincarnation, amongst an array of other beliefs, amongst early Indo-European societies, including pre-Christian Celtic, Germanic and Greco-Roman peoples).

Roman funerary customs
Much of what we know about ancient Roman funerary customs relate to the aristocratic dead. Lying in state, elaborate funeral processions – complete with chariots, hired musicians and professional mourners, the making of death masks, being laid to rest in a mausoleum, etc are more than most of us can expect. For ordinary Romans we know that their bodies would typically be either buried or cremated outside the walls of the city, alongside personal items such as jewellery, eating and drinking vessels, pottery, dice, toys, etc. Where they were wealthy enough to have tombstones it was not uncommon for the information inscribed thereon to include information about the deceased that would be offbeat by today's standards. A husband might praise his wife's virtues and list them, or a child's personality would be described, or the reader might be encouraged to live life to the full (“do not refrain from the pleasures of love”), or the deceased might proclaim his or her belief in the philosophical teachings of Epicurus (“I didn't exist, I did exist, I don't exist, I have no cares”). It was important to many Romans that they be afforded proper funeral rites, and we know that even people of modest wealth, including slaves, joined funeral clubs to ensure a decent funeral (yet many others died impecunious and were either buried in a mass grave or burnt at a public crematorium). This was not just about ensuring dignity after death, appropriate funeral rites were thought to improve one's prospects in the afterlife, including minimising the chance of departed spirits becoming lemures – malevolent spirits of the dead.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Religion of the Rus – Germanic and/or Slavic Polytheists

Artist: Vsevolod Ivanov. Source:
In the early 10th century a devout Muslim diplomat was sent by the powerful Abbasid Caliph to teach the intricacies of Islam to a king of the Volga Bulghars, deep inside Russia, who had recently converted – possibly so he could enlist the help of the Caliphate in his struggles to defend his kingdom against the nearby Jewish Khazars. This Arab traveller is now commonly known as Ibn Fadlan and he has become famous for his account of the polytheistic peoples he encountered on his journey, especially the Turks and the Rus – both peoples would, respectively, become Islamic and Christian within a century or so of his account. The Rus were (most scholars believe) originally Vikings who, over a roughly 200 year period, assimilated with the Slavs of Russia and gave their name to that great nation. The 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle is the primary source for this assertion. We also have corroborating evidence from, inter alia, another Muslim called Ibn Rustah, a Persian scholar who authored an encyclopedia that was completed in 913 – his entry relating to the Rus is thought to derive from an anonymous source dating from the 860s, and in it he seems to suggest the Rus and the Slavs are distinct from each other when he writes:
“The Rus raid the Saqaliba [an Arabic term with multiple connotations, it can be used to specifically denote Slavs, or as a general term denoting northern Europeans], sailing in their ships until they come upon them. They take them captive and sell them in Khazarin and Bulkar [ie, to the Khazars and the Turks]. They have no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging the land of the Saqaliba.”*
Ibn Rustah then goes on to describe the Rus in a way that is entirely consistent with what we know of Vikings:
“They earn their living by trading in sable, grey squirrel and other furs. They sell them for silver coins which they set in belts and wear around their waists.
… The men wear gold bracelets. They treat their slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade … 
If one of them has a quarrel with another, it is referred to the ruler, who settles it as he sees fit. If they do not agree with his settlement, he orders the difference to be settled by single combat …
They have great stamina and endurance. They never quit the battlefield without having slaughtered their enemy. They take the women and enslave them. They are remarkable for their size, their physique and their bravery. They fight best on shipboard, not on horseback [ibid at 126-127].”

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Germanic God and Gods of Fire

Scalloway Fire Festival (2014). Source:
Something that has long puzzled me about Germanic polytheism is the apparent absence of the worship of a God or Goddess of fire. Fire must have been an integral aspect of ancient and medieval Germanic life and is, in many other Pagan religions, accorded due reverence. That ancient Germanic Heathenry shared this characteristic is suggested by Julius Caesar who, in one of the earliest historical descriptions of the Germanic people, specifically mentions that fire was, along with the sun and the moon, highly revered by the Germanic tribesmen he came into contact with. So why is this great Germanic God of fire so seemingly elusive to us now?

What has survived from the myths of the Norsemen puts forth three of the more obvious candidates:
  • Surt – a powerful and destructive giant from Muspellsheim, the realm of fire; it is prophesised that he will ride out as leader against the Gods at Ragnarok with a weapon that shines like the sun and, after defeating the foremost God of fertility (Freyr), he will burn the world; this final act of destruction is necessary in order for the renewed earth, renewed men and renewed Gods to emerge from the ashes of the old.
  • Logi – a giant whose name literally means “fire”; he is most famous for outdoing Loki in an eating contest; for fire consumes more swiftly than man or God. Snorri Sturluson tells us that “the one called Logi was wildfire itself” (The Prose Edda). Arguably, Logi could be considered to be Surt by another name, or as one who manifests from the same destructive fiery realm.
  • Loki – a powerful deity associated with deceit and dishonour. The belief that he is a fire deity is popular among some contemporary Heathens. He is prominent in Norse mythology even though there is no evidence of his worship among Norse people. Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson aptly describes him as “a kind of semi-comic shaman, half way between God and hero, yet with a strong dash of the jester element” (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe). Sometimes his wiles are amusing, other times they are malevolent. He is strongly associated with the events of Ragnarok, for he is the father of the Fenriswolf (destined to kill Odin), the Midgard serpent (destined to kill Thor) and Hel, who rules over the realm where those who have died of disease or old age go (but from where the beloved God Baldr will emerge after Ragnarok). Loki himself is destined to kill and be killed by Heimdall, who watches over and guards the Gods. Loki is thus like Surt in the sense that he is, despite his oftentimes sinister and destructive nature, an integral player in the life-death-rebrith process signified by the events of Ragnarok. It is said that a “ship journeys from the east, Muspell's people are coming over the waves, and Loki steers” (The Poetic Edda). Whether or not these things are enough to establish him as a fire deity is ambiguous. Relatedly, in the nineteenth century the notion that Loki and Logi are in fact the same deity arose, partly due to the similarities in the pronunciation in their names. However the very facts of the myth surrounding Logi seem to contradict this notion, for how could Logi defeat Loki if they are but the same being? While Loki's destructive affinity with Surt and perhaps Logi may hint at confirming his nature as a fire God it is nowhere made explicit that Loki has a fiery nature, despite the extensive number of references to him in medieval Germanic literature. Davidson notes that “Loki does not behave like a fire spirit, and indeed seems to be as much at home in the water as on the earth, so that some scholars have even tried to see him as a water spirit” (ibid). Loki is a fascinating deity, but there just isn't enough compelling evidence  to establish him as a fire God. In any case, even if he is a fire deity, he can be of little assistance to mankind, for according to myth Loki is currently undergoing torment in that cave where the Gods are said to have tied him down as retributive punishment for his role in bringing about the death of Baldr. It is said that Loki is bound with the entrails of one of his children, and his face rests immediately below a venomous snake who continually drops poison onto his face – most of the time his wife holds out a bowl to catch the venom, but when the venom falls on him he convulses so violently that the earth shakes. 
The deities above are principally associated with destruction; none sounds like a God to give comfort, such as fire must of done, when it warmed the home and cooked the family meal. Much less so can we imagine Surt, Logi or Loki as Gods of ritual and sacrificial fire. At best Surt and Logi (and possibly Loki) are forces of nature to be propitiated as representations of fire in its most violent form. Is there not a more benevolent Germanic God of fire?

Friday, 14 August 2015

Pagan Swear Words, Expletives and Exclamations

The TV series Spartacus is full of inventive expletives
When I experience momentary frustration or surprise I tend to outburst variously with “Jesus Christ!”, “Christ almighty!”, “crikey Moses!, “oh my God!” and other biblical profanities.* These words flow out of my mouth impulsively, and in a sense they are just meaningless words, and yet sometimes after I unthinkingly exclaim them they bring home to me just how close Christian thinking still is. Should I then switch my expletives to a Pagan mode? On television and online I have come across the following alternatives:
  • Gods be good!
  • Juno’s c-nt!
  • Juno’s peacock!
  • Jupiter’s cock!
  • Jupiter’s eyebrows!
  • Neptune’s beard!
  • Odin’s Raven!
  • Pluto’s thorny cock!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Problem with Mythology

"The Rape of Europa" by Reni (1639)
We must be cautious when we read myths – too many of them are the spun out creation of storytellers that risk reducing the Gods to characters in a fairy tale. The great, divine and essential nature of the Gods may thus be obscured. We should be mindful that the popularity of some myths in the ancient world may have contributed to the decline of polytheism – and may also impede contemporary comprehension of the Gods. Christian writers of the Roman era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Minucius Felix, invoked Greco-Roman myths to mock the Gods, and therefore belief in them. The Christian poet Prudentius went so far as to write “depart adulterous Jupiter, defiled with sex with your sister” (cited in Beard 2 at 361). If we were to accept myths at face value then the early Christian fathers could be occasionally convincing, in terms of eroding our belief in the Gods. If we understand that myths may be beautiful and instructive in some way (sometimes acting as a gateway to sacred knowledge), but that they should always be treated with caution and never treated as somehow equivalent to religious scripture, then we get closer to the truth.