Welcome to a more or less Celtic Reconstructionist blog, where love of the Old Gods is still strong

Sonntag, 31. März 2013

Easter, or Debunking Pagan Myths

Today, I read a very thought-provoking post by The Domestic Witch about the Goddesses Eostre and Ishtar.
On finding out that there is no definite proof for the existence of a Goddess named Eostre, nor of Her attributes such as the hare or eggs, the author said she felt – and I quote – “the exact same way now as I felt as a kid when I found out that the Easter Bunny wasn't real!”
I perfectly understand how much it can affect you when something you believed to be valid is shown not to be so. So it got me thinking – how can we as pagans make sure to prevent this from happening to us?
Most of our sources that detail the legends of our Gods and Goddesses have been put to writing by Christians, mostly monks, writing a) with their very own agenda, b) from a Christian perspective, and c) perhaps not knowing the whole picture and belief system they were describing. So obviously there will be inconsistencies and we have to accept that apart from archaeological or historical facts, we can never truly *know* whether a given piece of information about our Gods is truly correct (‘correct’ as in ‘believed by practitioners in the time of or prior to writing’).
Considering this problematic source material, for me it raises the question: Is something “wrong” because there is no ultimate proof for it? After all, there  is no ultimate proof that a man named Jeshua existed about 2000 years ago, that he believed himself to be or actually was the son of Jahweh, and that he died and rose again from the dead. Yet Christianity has built a whole church on these ‘facts’ and engage with Jesus on a day-to-day basis in prayer, meditations and Mass.*
Obviously, in the case of Easter/Eostre, a case can be made for it being if not outright wrong, then at least untraceable to pre-Christian roots. But in other cases, it might not be as easy to tell.
So the question is: how do we build a living, flourishing tradition if there aren’t any sources that definitely hand us the truth? Just assuming pagan roots everywhere will only get us to more myths that need debunking. 

Eostre with hares - truth or myth?

In my opinion, what we need are the following three things:
a) a healthy dose of historic and linguistic knowledge (e.g. knowledge of the writers of, say, the Eddas, their time and possible agenda in setting down the texts, as well as knowledge of other texts dealing with historical evidence and/or folklore of the geographical region you’re interested in);
b) a healthy dose of scepticism. Ask for proof of somebody’s claims – if a book doesn’t cite resources (nor tells you straight ahead that it relies on UPG), how will you know where the author got their information? For example, Llewellyn’s Spell-A-Day Almanac lists an associated “colour/incense of the day” – where does this information come from, I wonder? (disclaimer: I don’t own the book myself, so maybe they do state whether it’s UPG or some other source). Also, ask people (on the internet and IRL) where their claims stem from – can they point you to a source? (Note: I don’t count references like From a friend who analyzed the myth: Adrian Bott” as a proper quotation – linking to an article by Mr Bott, however, is helpful in that I can go and build my own opinion on the matter). Just don’t go and believe everything you’re told just because the other person is pagan and “knows that XYZ is true.” – If you check myths like this, it only takes you about half an hour on the internet to find out that the Venerable Bede is the first one mentioning the Goddess Eostre and that hares and eggs are a much later addition (see e.g. Mr Bott or this article).
c) a healthy dose of UPG (which you should verify with others in your community, as you could mistake your own mind-clutter for the voice of your deity, especially, say, in times of stress, when listening is hard enough as it is) – UPG can help us build a tradition in those areas where information is scarce (For example, we don’t know much about Loki’s sons Narvi and Vali apart from Their fate and Their names – and even these have been questioned by scholars. However, veneration of Them flourishes in the Lokean community. Why? Because people have listened and used the little resources we have to build a connection to Them.)
To come back to Eostre: as a pagan, I’d also rather have a long-standing tradition that relates back to pre-Christian times. But we cannot prove such a tradition exists, or rather, with the sources available it does seem very unlikely.
However, and this is what I find important: we can still celebrate spring using symbols such as the hare if it reminds us of spring and new life. Even if another tradition uses the same symbols, where’s the problem? Cultures have always borrowed from one-another when they lived in close proximity. So instead of trying to establish whose tradition was here first (which, with the way the sources are, is not possible in most cases anyway), shouldn’t we rather aim at finding common ground and reducing friction between the faiths?
So maybe we cannot prove that there was a Goddess named Eostre. But with scepticism and UPG we can still build a meaningful celebration of spring. Spring is a natural phenomenon, and since we celebrate and venerate nature, we should rejoice in the coming of spring, whether there is a Goddess associated with it or not.

* Note: I’m writing ‘facts’ here as I do not see the Bible as God’s own word, but as a man-made and therefore fallible creation. 

Blessed be, 

Llewellyn's 2013 Spell-A-Day Almanac: Holidays and Lore. 2012. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
Bott, Adrian. 2011. “The modern myth of the Easter bunny” (article on guardian.co.uk; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/23/easter-pagan-roots)
Eostre image: http://n.nshrine.com/233/iconurl.jpg 

Montag, 21. Januar 2013

Balder's Death

Welcome to the third post of the Pagan Blog Project. I’m posting a tad late this week, as I’m currently acting in a wonderful play and spending all my free time in the theatre.
As promised, the first “B” post will be on a Norse topic: Balder’s death.*

The lore – in this case, the Prose Edda – tells us that Balder (Whose name is also written Baldr or Baldur), the fairest amongst the Gods, dreamed about His own death, which depressed Him greatly. As dreams were seen as prophetic, His mother Frigg proceeded to ask everything on earth not to do any harm to Her son – well, all things except the mistletoe (which, according to different accounts, She found either too unimportant or too young to swear the oath).
Odin, meanwhile, rode to Hel and questions a völva (a seeress), who told Him Hödur will kill Baldr but that Vali will avenge Him.

All Gods now made it a sport to throw all kinds of things at Balder, as nothing can hurt Him. Only the blind Hödur wasn’t allowed to join in (a children’s book I read claimed it was because the other Gods were afraid that He’d hurt Himself).
Loki, gaining knowledge of these events, then prepared a spear (alternatively an arrow) made of mistletoe, which He then gave to Hödur to throw at Balder.
The spear killed Balder, Who died and went to Helheim together with His wife. As the Aesir were inconsolable about the loss of Balder, Hel agreed to let Him return to Asgard if everything on earth wept for Him. All things, even stones, did, apart from one old woman named Thökk – this is Loki in disguise – so Balder remains in Helheim.


Modern Heathens now blame Loki for His role in Balder’s demise. A commenter on a Loki post on Heksebua summarizes the attitude towards Him as follows:

Us Heathens also have a certain resentment to him out of respect to our Aesir – He did a great wrong to the son of Odin, Baldur. As I’ve sworn an oath to the Allfather, out of mere kinship it makes sense not to deal with him. He was ONCE the blood brother of Odin, yes. They ONCE accepted offerings together, yes. Loki did ONCE travel with Thor and help the Nine Worlds, but he stepped over the line.

I don’t claim to have any definite answers on the matter. However, I’d like to raise some questions that came to me when I tried to wrap my head around the matter.

First of all, Loki is only culpable in one account of Balder’s death. In the Gesta Danorum, Balder and Hödur aren’t brothers, but rivals who both want to marry Nanna. In a battle between the two, Balder was killed with a magic sword named Mistletoe. Loki doesn’t enter the picture at all.

Also, for me the story as told in the Prose Edda has some implications that don’t seem to be addressed very often:  
First, let’s consider Frigg’s role in the events. After all, She didn’t ask all things to protect Balder, but left out one, which – despite its potential weakness and/or youth – could be turned into a deadly weapon. However, this aspect of the tale is hardly ever talked about; instead, all attention (and blame, I might say) is focussed on the one crafting the mistletoe weapon. If this were a contemporary murder, wouldn’t you also wonder why somebody left weapons lying about for anyone to take? This does by no means imply that the one actually leading the weapon is not guilty of a crime. I’m just wondering that if you want to prevent an event such as Balder’s death, shouldn’t one make it extra sure that there is absolutely nothing that can endanger Him?

a twig of mistletoe

Second, I wonder if Balder’s death wasn’t part of a plan. After all, Balder doesn’t fall in Ragnarök, but survives in Helheim. Was he killed for safekeeping, so to speak? I don’t know whether you agree with this line of thought, but it’s an interesting thing to think about, as it at least puts Loki in quite a different light.

What is your opinion on the death of Balder? Were you familiar with the second account at all, and do you find it convincing?

Blessed be,

*Note: This is a pro-Loki blog. I’m looking forward to polite discussions about your differing beliefs. However, hateful comments which don’t in any way contribute to a civilized discussion will be deleted. 

The Prose Edda. 


Freitag, 11. Januar 2013

Altars 101

For the second “A” of this year’s Pagan Blog Project, I decided to write about altars, since quite a few introductory books on diverse pagan paths tell you to build an altar, but some don’t seem to mention what you should do with your altar once you have it. So today, I’m going to give a short and not-too-serious introduction to altars!

First, let’s start with a definition. My trusted Oxford English Dictionary defines altars as:
1. A block, table, stand, or other raised structure with a flat top used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a god or gods.
b. A similar structure placed before a shrine or sacred image, or in a private or side chapel.
Most of  us are familiar with structures like these from, for example, attending Christian services, thus we know that an altar is something a priest engages with during Mass. However, an altar sitting in one’s home is, I guess, something that is uncommon to most people. So, in the following, I’m going to address the function of an altar, where it can and/or should sit, what goes on your altar and what you can do with it.

1) Invite your deity into your home!
Building a home altar for a certain God or Goddess is a “statement that you are consciously inviting Deity into your life” (Krasskova 2005: 175). Ideally, an altar should be a place of worship, meditation and focus on your deity, and, depending on where you decide to place your altar, it can become the spiritual focal point of your room, flat or house.
It’s a bit like inviting a friend over for dinner; for the sake of brevity, let’s call this friend Bob. You put out an invitation and hope that Bob, who you’d really like to get to know better, accepts. Likewise, in my view, the main function of an altar is to give the practitioner a medium which helps to develop a closer relationship with deity.

2) Find a good place for your altar!
Consider that your friend Bob has accepted your invitation. Once he enters your home, you wouldn’t ask Bob to have dinner in a spare room that you hardly ever use, nor would you make him sit next to your mutual acquaintance Linda, who you know Bob doesn’t get along with at all.
Always assuming that you’ve got the means and the acceptance of your potential housemates, your altar could potentially sit anywhere. However, I would encourage you to place your altar where you’re sure to engage with it. Mine used to sit in my bedroom for quite a while before I noticed that apart from sleeping, I hardly ever spend any time there and thus don’t do any work on my altar.  
My new altar for Loki now sits on the window sill in the living room – this is the room where I spend most of my time at home, where I work, write poetry, and enjoy my free time. Having an altar where I can see it all the time thus makes it far more easy for lazy me to integrate Loki into my life, to light a candle and give thanks or focus on Loki than if I have to go to another room where I wouldn’t normally be staying. 
Others, however, might prefer to have their altar in a place that is sacred and set apart, where they can go to calm down and meditate and/or do serious (magical) work.
Which of the two options you choose is eventually one of preference; both can give nice results for your work with deity.
One thing you shouldn’t do, however, is to place altars of deities Who dislike each other next to one another. I’m assuming that Loki wouldn’t be all too pleased to find an altar to Skadhi next to His one, considering that it was Skadhi Who fixed a snake above bound Loki that dripped venom on His face. 

 my living room altar to Loki - the snake represents Jörmungandr 
I'm planning on adding figurines of His other children

3) Place things on your altar that your deity will enjoy!
So now that we’ve sat Bob down in our preferred room, it’s getting serious. I hope that, when you invited him, you made sure that you know what Bob likes and dislikes for dinner. You’d make sure that he’s not allergic to any of the food you’re planning on serving (or that he simply hates, say, asparagus), you’d perhaps ask whether he’d prefer wine or whiskey, and you’d consider his taste of music when compiling the playlist for the evening.
When you’re inviting deity into your home, you should be equally respectful of Their preferences. If you’re familiar with the Norse tradition, you’d agree that it would be very unwise to place an image of Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent, on Thor’s altar.*
Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera in their book Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner give quite an extensive list of correspondences for the Aesir, the Vanir and the Rökkr, that is, a list of which foodstuffs and items are preferred or commonly associated with specific deities. Alternatively, or if such a book isn’t available for your tradition or your deity, you might ask other practitioners what they found your deity likes, just as you might ask a mutual friend whether Bob would like vanilla or chocolate ice-cream better for dessert if you can’t get hold of Bob yourself.
In general, common items that go on most altars are candles, incense holders, images and/or effigies of the deity, and bowl that holds libations, as well as whatever else your tradition requires that you have – consider these the analogy to glasses, tableware and your preferred knickknacks you’d place on the table to make Bob feel at home.  
In addition, items you deeply associate with your deity can go on your altar, as well (as these might facilitate getting yourself into the right mindset to get in touch with your deity).
But in the end: don’t be too formal about it. If you think that Loki will enjoy the tiny Lego Avengers version of Himself, then by all means ask Him and place it on the altar if He agrees. 

 Ask your deity whether They'd enjoy representations like this one of Loki.

* for those unfamiliar with the Norse deities: Thor hates the Midgard Serpent with a passion, and in the final battle at Ragnarök, they will kill each-other.

4) Engage with your altar!
When you’re having dinner with Bob, you wouldn’t sit there, eat in silence and completely ignore him. Instead, you might discuss that film you saw that made you both laugh, talk about your friends, or how your parents don’t ever answer the phone. Cause if you don’t want to engage with somebody, you usually don’t invite them to your home in the first place.
Likewise, your altar shouldn’t just sit somewhere and gather dust; this is not respectful to the deity you’ve spoken the invitation to. Instead, work with your altar and engage with it. Use your altar for meditating, for doing magical work if you feel so inclined or your tradition requires it, for giving offerings of food or incense, or simply for sharing your thoughts with deity in a place that you feel close to Them. By “engage with your altar” I don’t mean just going over there and dusting it every so often, but using the altar as a place where you engage with your deity, cause that’s why you built the altar in the first place.

5) What if I find myself not doing any work with my altar?
And, finally, a ‘what if’ – what if we suddenly find that, halfway through our dinner with Bob, we don’t know what to say to each other anymore? We can’t just ask him to leave while he hasn’t even finished the main course (of course assuming that we’re polite people). So ideally we’d have to figure out why there’s this sudden lull in the conversation and find out what we can do about it.
Similarly, you might find that you’ve built your altar and done all of the above – you’ve made it a nice ‘home’ for your deity, you’ve kept it clean and did a lot of work on your altar, but for some reason you don’t go there as often as you used to, or not at all. Obviously, as altars themselves aren’t sentient beings – contrary to our friend Bob – you could just decide that altars aren’t for you, after all, and dissemble it. If you still engage with your deity after that, I guess it’s fine; not everyone *has* to maintain an altar, after all.
However, if you find that your worship of your deity declined along with your altar work, you might want to consider delving deeper and finding the reasons for your sudden lack of devotion. Obviously, these reasons can be manifold, but you could think about the following:

  • Have there been any changes in your (private or working) life lately? When you’re very stressed out, you tend to do less spiritual work, just as you would perhaps not go out drinking with Bob during stressful times. You might want to ask yourseif if there is anything you could do to relax and find some spare time.

  • Review your expectations and be honest with yourself when you do. Why did you build your altar – because the books said so, because you thought it might look fancy or because you had a desire to connect to your deity? As I said, not everyone needs to have an altar, and if you find it’s not for you, do take it down and find some other, meaningful way of engaging with deity. For example, going out to pray in nature might come more naturally to you than sitting inside in front of an altar. Experiment and see what works for you.

  • Is there a spiritual crisis of some sort? Do you feel like deity isn’t listening anymore? I’m afraid I can’t offer any patent remedy here, but talking to others, e.g. on forums, might help as you can share experiences.

I’m interested in how you use your altars. What do you place on them? Who do you honour at your altars? Does your tradition require you have one? And what do you do when you feel your worship on your altar lacking?

Blessed be, 

Oxford English Dictionary (online edition)
Krasskova, Galina and Raven Kaldera. 2009. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner. A Book of Prayer, Devotional Practice, and the Nine Worlds of Spirit. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.
Krasskova, Galina. 2005. Exploring the Northern Tradition. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.