Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

book review - The Nature of Asatru

 Time for another book review. This time I decided to update and share a review I did 5 years ago in the journal Idunna for a book by Mark Puryear called "The Nature of Asatru". If you have read and liked this book don't even bother reading this review, because I can summarize it concisely by saying that I feel this is the Asatru equivalent of the 21 Lessons of Merlin.
   Looking at the back of the book it seems like it should be an ideal beginner's book; Puryear has almost 20 years experience in Asatru and is a member of a group, the Asatru Nation, which is an American offshoot of Australia's Odinic Rite. The book is touted as an  introduction to the core values of Asatru, yet it quickly becomes apparent when reading the text that instead of describing widely held universal beliefs of Asatru the book is actually focused exclusively on the beliefs of Puryear's particular group, which are not in any way universal. Exactly the opposite in fact - the book is full of controversial theories, misinformation, and foreign elements. The author is also insistent that Asatru has no subgroups or denominations, despite the wide range of modern practices, and lumps all Asatruar in with the Asatru Nation/Odinic Rite. This by itself is a serious problem.
   The book's tone is both racist and homophobic, reinforcing the stereotype that Asatruar are all like this. Puryear blends a bizarre sort of political correctness in with his bigotry, encouraging tolerance of other people's choices while strongly condemning miscegeny and homosexuality. He describes children with mixed heritage as having no ancestral roots and miscegeny as genocide and stops just short of encouraging people of Northern European descent to breed together to save their "race". He does flatly state that the "white race" is failing due to being outbred and not keeping the bloodlines pure. The attempts to make this more palatable with politically correct buzz words fails, at least with me. Personally as someone of mixed heritage I found it repugnant and offensive, and his wife's essay in the appendices about a woman's place compounded it by adding misogyny into the mix, albeit cleverly disguised.
   The book includes many elements that seem to me to be foreign to Asatru, although I profess a very minimal knowledge of the Odinic Rite; it is possible that this is the norm for that group. Puryear says that the gods meet daily to judge the souls of the dead and assign them a place in the afterlife; not something I've heard anyone else supporting. He also very strongly divides Norse magic into "good" galdr and "evil" seidhr, going so far as to say that Gullveg was burned by the Aesir as a punishment for teaching evil seidhr to humanity. (Apperantly he ignores Freya teaching seidhr to Odin). He describes Helheim as a land of bliss. He adds nine vices to the accepted 9 noble virtues and these vices appear to be an odd mix of the Christian 10 commandments and deadly sins. He describes the Aesir and Vanir as nearly-archetypal deities of goodness, with Loki as the opposing force of pure evil He also inaccurately claims that there are no modern followers or cults to Loki. The author's ideas about orlag seem to me to be closer to the Wiccan concept of the law of 3 than the common heathen views, with his belief that orlag is about what we put out coming back to us. He also divides offerings into four catagories based on the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which struck me as being very odd.
   The book's mythology was heavily influenced by the writings of Viktor Rydburg, who attempted to homogenize all Norse and Germanic mythology into a single system, with predictable results. Rydburg is not widely accepted in mainstream heathenry, yet the book presents his theories as facts without any explanation of the source material or normal views. Puryear describes Frigga as the sister of Njordh and mother of Freya, Frey, and 8 others with him, for example, which is not a widely held belief in heathenry. He equates Gullveg to Angrboda and lists Gullveg as the mother of Loki's children; in turn he says that Hel is not Loki's daughter but rather that Urd rules Helheim with Loki's daughter, named Leiken, as a minor servant. He describes Baldr as the most popular heathen god and relegates Tyr to the role of warrior and son of Odin, while denying his role as god of justice and god of the Thing which are the widely accepted views of Tyr. He describes Skadi, who is normally viewed as giantess who married into the Aesir, as the daughter of Volund (the smith) and Idunna. In his book Sunna and Mani are alfs and their mother is Nott (or Nat) who he claims is actually Ostara. I could go on, but hopefully that is enough to demonstrate the odd material presented on the gods, the majority of which is not widely accepted by the larger community. I think presenting it as if it were fact or accepted lore does a great disservice to beginners who will not realize that these are not popular beliefs.
    Facts that should have been easily checked are wrong, such as the authors assertion that the most common modern and ancient method of humane animal sacrifice is beheading the animal - this statement is followed by a rambling discussion of the guillotine. The book itself is inly 127 pages long, follwed by an equally long appendices which include an essay by the author's wife about a heathen woman's place (in the home caring for her family) and a cobbled-together version of the Havamal.
    In short this book is the last thing a beginner should read as it is often off-putting, offensive, confusing, and factually incorrect. While it is always best to start with the myths themselves - the poetic and prose Eddas are generally recommended - both volumes of Our Troth and Diana Paxson's book Essential Asatru would also be good for those just developing an interest in Asatru.
   

Friday, August 17, 2012

Pregnancy folklore and traditions - Irish

   I decided it's time to blog about folklore and traditions relating to pregnancy, partially because I haven't had much luck finding any info online myself and I think it should be out there and partially because its an interesting topic. There is a plethora of available material on birth but pregnancy itself seems to be less often discussed. So I am going to do a series of posts on this, first Irish then Norse/Germanic, and then modern American.
    Pregnancy was strongly emphasized in old Irish culture with a trial marriage only becoming permanent if a child was produced, and several of the Brehon laws addressing conception. For example there were laws that allowed either partner to sue for divorce due to the infertility of the other partner, or in the same situation for a temporary seperation of the couple in order for the fertile partner to have a child with another person (Bital, 1996). Nonetheless I could find very little information relating to pregnancy folklore or folk practices besides those relating to conception and birth. The actual pregnancy itself is rarely discussed in sources.
   What I did find out was that there are a small selection of Irish superstitions relating to pregnancy. It was thought that if a pregnant woman had a hare run across her path her child would be born with a cleft lip unless she ripped the hem of her dress or skirt (O hOgain, 1995; O Suilleabhain, 1967). Similarly if a pregnant woman twisted her foot in a graveyard her child would be born with a twisted foot (O Suilleabhain, 1967). A pregnant woman should never help prepare a corpse or attend a wake, for fear of a similar fate befalling her unborn child (O hOgain, 1995; O Suilleabhain, 1967). Nor should an expectant mother attend a bride, although a pregnant woman was thought to be especially lucky for a blacksmith's forge and might be asked to grant that luck to the smith by pumping the bellows (O Suilleabhain, 1967).  Generally it seems that the belief was that an unborn baby was easily influenced by outside circumstances and powers and so needed special protections from interference.
   In contrast there are a multitude of beliefs and practices relating to the birth itself, which I may cover in a later blog. This at least forms a very basic idea of some of the popular beliefs about pregnancy in Ireland. As a modern polytheist I might make use of this information by using extra protections and prayers for my child's health and safety. I have also personally avoided any indepth spiritual journey work or any other intense spiritual work during pregnancy.
References:
O hOgain, D (1995) Irish Superstitions
O Suilleabhain, S., (1967) Nosanna agus Piseoga ne nGeal
Bitel, L., (1996). Land of Women

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book Review: The World of the Druids

  I haven't done a book review since last month so I thought it was about time to do another. This review will look at Miranda Green's book The World of the Druids, which was published in 1997. The book is divided into 10 sections that cover everything from what we know about ancient Druids to the Druidic revival and modern Druids. Of particular interest may be the sections on Celtic cosmology and theology, female Druids, and evidence of ritual sacrifice. At 192 pages the book is fairly short and very easy to read, with an impressive selection of images (291 to be exact) that support the text.
    Green's strength is archeology so it should come as no surprise that she spends more time discussing archeological evidence than many other similar books do. This is something of a catch-22 in a book on Druidism as there is very little definitvely "Druidic" material that can be identified from ancient sites, leaving much up to guess and supposition. The advantage to the reader however is the material covered that relates more broadly to Celtic culture and can provide insight into dress, jewelry, and lifestyle as well as religion (broadly) while remaining in an easily accessible format. Unlike books that are intended to focus on archeological evidence this book largely avoids being dry or overly complicated, and is fairly easy to read and follow.
     I also liked that Green is very clear about the difficulty with many of the sources, including archeology, before offering that material. She doesn't downplay the issues that we have with the sources available to us that provide the only real information we have about the Druids. She is also clear that even defining who was and wasn't "Celtic" historically is complicated, saying, "...defining the world of the ancient Celts depends upon three categories of evidence, all of which need to be used cautiously because they are incomplete and sometimes ambiguous." (Green, p 11, 1997). She does provide a solid amount of literary references from Greek and Roman writers, as well as native Celtic myth.
     Green approaches defining the historic Druids by establishing who the Celts were at that time and what their beliefs were, and then uses that context to describe the Druids and their role in soceity. She uses archeology, Greek and Roman writings, and Welsh and Irish myths to do this. I can appreciate the value of this approach as context is vital to understanding any group functioning within a larger society, such as the Druids. The book is honestly worth reading just for the insight into Celtic culture that Green provides, but she does do a fair job of explaining the Druids' place as well.
    The book finishes up with chapters on the Druid revivial and modern Druidism, both of which are fascinating. Although not nearly as in depth as other works, of course, it does provide a good overview of more recent Druidic history and would serve as a good introduction to the topic. The focus here is on Druids in England specifically, so anyone looking for information about the Druid revivals in other areas will have to look elsewhere.
     I think that as a book on Druids this one is of moderate value, but is a better resource on Celtic culture. I can think of other books on historical and modern Druids that I would recommend first, but this one is nice in its brevity and inclusion of both historic and modern practices. I would, however, recommend it more highly as an introduction to ancient Celtic culture and religion, which is more of the book's strength than strictly Druidism. For someone just venturing into this area of study this book is a good place to start.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Thoughts on the Colloquy of the Two Sages


     One of the most important texts for modern druids to study may be the Colloquy of the Two Sages, the tale of a confrontation between the esteemed Druid Ferchertne and the recently graduated student Nede. The tale, on its surface, is a simple story of a confrontation sown by Bricriu between the elder and the youth after Bricriu convinces Nede, who is returning from training over seas, to seize a rank beyond his experience. The two Druids face off over the literal seat of contention, engaging in a battle of words and wits to test who truly deserves to sit there. In the end Ferchertne emerges the victor, but Nede’s graceful defense earns him a place as Ferchertne’s student.
     Reading this story establishes a pattern of challenge and response that is useful for all modern Druids to study. Nede’s initial actions are bold, even arrogant, as he assumes the chair of the highest ranked Druid in the land and this can be seen as the opening challenge in the coming confrontation. Nede does not approach Ferchertne as a humble petitioner, but rather by declaring his own value and assuming a place as if it were already his own. In response we see the first of Ferchertne’s challenges, not only of words but of actions and attitude as he tests Nede’s resolve and temper by speaking angrily and insulting Nede’s experience and knowledge. Nede passes this challenge by responding calmly and proclaiming his own wisdom. This, then, sets the stage for the next phase of the testing the direct question, where Ferchertne asks Nede where he is from, what his name is, what art he practices, what his tasks are, by what path has he come, whose son he is, and what tidings there are. None of these are direct, literal questions, but all are allegorical and are responded to with poetry, and each question is answered and then turned back on the elder Druid. It is only after the final question, where each man is asked to prophecy, that Nede concedes to Ferchertne and willingly proclaims him the better poet and seer and kneels at Ferchertne’s feet, at which point the older Druid asks the younger to stay on as his student. From this we can see that the importance of the period of questioning and answering as a form of testing, as well as the importance of the final acknowledgements of the student’s true place.
     In modern Druidism this pattern of challenges could be used to model actual initiation rites on; it also illustrates the vital importance of two elements within modern traditions: the student-teacher relationship, and the hierarchy of wisdom. The traditional Druidic model of teaching, as illustrated in this Colloquy, shows a student petitioning to study with a teacher, studying with that person for as long as there is knowledge to be gained there, and then moving on to find a new teacher. This is illustrated in Nede’s studying at first with Eochaid in Scotland and when that teacher can teach him no further he is sent back to Ireland where the main action of the tale between Nede and Ferchertne occurs. This is a useful model to be used today as well. The story also illustrates the importance of understanding our individual place within the greater hierarchy of our fellow Druids and both respecting those above us as well as teaching those beneath us.
     I, personally, found a great deal of beauty and inspiration in this story. The question about what art they practice gives a list of the many skills the Druids claimed including satire, blessing, poetic inspiration, storytelling, peacemaking, and teaching wisdom. The tale also showed me something of the proper balance of attitude that Druids were expected to have, both proud and assertive but also respectful and quick-witted in the face of confrontation. Nede serves as a great model to meditate on as student who is well on the way to earning fame and a place of honor. I can hold Nede before me as an example of how to react to a challenge and how to carry myself with pride while still remaining respectful of those wiser than I.
     On a final note the Colloquy is also a treasure trove of cultural references and Druidic lore that anyone interested in Druidism should take the time to study. I favor Christian Guyonvarc’h’s book The Making of a Druid: Hidden Teachings from the Colloquy of the Two Sages because of the detailed and extensive introduction, notes, and appendices. Being able to study the story with the different translations and glosses included is very useful and illuminating and offers additional insight into some of the passages. These additions, such as the extensive discussion about the seven poetic grades, are an important aspect to understand for both Druids and Celticists, or anyone else interested in Irish culture. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Modern Ethics for a Modern Druid

   Recently the discussion had been brought up about modern Druidic ethics and how - or even if - the concept of "harm none" fits in to a Druid's ethics. Some people feel strongly that a modern Druid should adhere to an ethical view that avoids any harm to others, although it varies between avoiding all harm and avoiding harm to other people. In contrast other people feel that modern Druids should preserve the best of the ancient Celtic views, including ethics.
    My own opinion tends to agree with the second school of thought. I believe that as Druids in a modern world we are best served, and we best serve the ancient Druids memory, by learning what the ancient Druids, and to a greater degree the Celts, believed and finding the best ways to adapt that to our own time. Otherwise our ethics are not those of Celtic polytheists or Druids, but simply modern (or post modern) ethics; this is neither right nor wrong in itself, but as Druids I believe our ethics should be those of Druids.

  Let's begin by looking at some of what we know of the ancient Druids and of Celtic morality. There are several examples in Irish lore that support the idea that violence was seen as being a necessity at times. From the triads of Ireland: "Three deaths that are better than life: the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber" and: "Three bloodsheds that need not be impugned: the bloodshed of battle, of jealousy, of mediating". Although the Brehon laws emphasize compensation over corporal punishment, the death penalty was a reality in Ireland. In the case of a homicide, for example, if the person refused to go before a Brehon or if he could not or would not pay the levied fine then he could lawfully be killed (Joyce, 1908). No Brehon would ever order physical punishments, as paying a fine was the standard legal punishment for any crime, but nonetheless punishments including death and blinding were common (Joyce, 1908). What this tells us is that while the Druids themselves did not advocate violence in criminal cases, it was socially acceptable for such punishments to occur. The Druids also advised kings, and this included advising military actions from cattle raids in Ireland to rebelling against Rome in Gaul; and we know as well from Tacitus's account of the destruction of Anglesey that the Druids stood against the opposing army. Juxtaposing that we also know that a Druid could stop a battle by walking between the two forces. Druids were expected to be wise enough to know when to encourage teh action and when to stop it.

      In fact, rather than violence the main actions or traits that are condemned seem to be greed and lust. From the Triads of Ireland: "The three chief sins: avarice, gluttony, lust". A variety of the Brehon laws look at legislating states of marriage, sexual relations, and theft (I suggest reading Fergus Kelly's a Guide to Early Irish Law for more on this). According to Kelly's book theft could be punishable by hanging (Kelly, 1988). In some of the existing prophecies relating to the future or end of the world, such as the one given by Ferchetne in the Colloquy of Two Sages or the Morrigan's prophecy in the Cath Maige Tuired, a lot of emphasis is placed on the lack of honor, lack of modesty, false judgments, lack of truth, and a general going against the natural order of things that will occur. Similarly the Testament of Morann and the Instructions of King Cormac mac Airt emphasizes the importance of the king manifesting Truth, good judgment, generosity, and moderate behavior in order to uphold the bounty and prosperity of the land; this included being ambitious, invading neighbors, and punishing criminals. In Celtic thought there was clearly a link between correct ethics and behavior and the success or failure of life and the world itself, but those ethics, in general, seem to be directed at preserving the correct order of the world rather than improving it or idealizing it. People are not urged to abstain form alcohol or sex, or even violence, but to engage in those things in moderation and within the socially correct context; only when the actions exceed social acceptance or defy social order are there consequences.

    So how do I relate this to other pagan ethics? I think Druidism in general is closer ethically to other recon faiths such as Asatru which emphasizes many of the same values. Although modern Druidry and Wicca share a common root in the friendship of Gardner and Nichols, a Druidism based more in the Celtic culture would seem to reject the modern Wiccan ethic of the Rede; although I believe there is a valid argument for the similarity in spirit of the original Rede and Drudic ethics. The original Rede, after all, was not an absolute moral law but a guideline for behavior that was open to personal choice with an understanding of consequences (I highly recommend Peter Coughlin's book Ethics and the Craft for more on this subject, or his online segments here http://www.waningmoon.com/ethics/rede.shtml). In the same way Celtic ethics appear to be based on the idea of personal responsibility and accepting the consequences of any action. However the modern Rede as it is understood by many people is seen as less flexible and more absolute and would be difficult to harmonize with my understanding of Celtic ethics. The Celts seemed to have an understanding of harm as having a place within the greater workings and balance of the world, and I have a difficult time envisioning a Druidic ethic that advocates the lack of balance inherent in a path that rejects all harm. People are expected to accept the consequences of their own actions, even if that consequence is harmful to them. The natural world is expected to endure some harm in support of human life. Even nature itself includes a balance between harm and life that is normative; natural forest fires destroy yet also clear the way for new growth, and life is often predicated on some level of harm to other living things.
   How do I personally incorporate Celtic ethics into my practice of Druidism? I believe that the ultimate lessons of such ethics are Truth and moderation, and so this is what I seek in my life. Truth is an understanding of the nature of reality and of living in correct alignment with that reality; when I manifest Truth in my life then I also manifest positive qualities in the world around me. Another aspect of this is good judgment, since a person who is embracing Truth should consequently be able to correctly understand the nature of other things and reach correct judgments about them. Moderation is another key aspect, where a person should be generous without being careless, ambitious without being over-reaching, and brave without being foolish, for example. How does this relate to causing harm? Well, I see harm as sometimes necessary - there are times when a tree must be cut down for the good of the other trees, or for a need; there are times when a small pain is needed to prevent a greater one later. And there are times when violence is necessary as well. I know myself well enough to know that if my childrens' lives were threatened I would do whatever I had to in order to protect them, and knowing this I could never say that I live my life with the belief of never harming another person. I would be hypocritical to say such a thing. Although a great deal of my life is directed at preserving life and healing those who need healing, I know that sometimes we must defend ourselves. Sometimes we must bring harm, but I try to never do so without a reason. My ethic embraces harm only as it is absolutely necessary, creating a dynamic that nurtures life and healing but accepts the balance that nature requires. If I harvest a plant it is for food or another use; I have taught my children never to recklessly destroy plants for fun. When I eat meat I appreciate the sacrifice of the animal's life - truly when I eat anything I appreciate the living thing that died to feed me. And if I have to harm a person intentionally I see it as a last resort and do so only if it seems justified. This all applies equally to physical actions and to magic. I feel that this is most strongly in line with the ancient Celtic ethics and also is inline with the modern world.
     To me the most important part is being able to understand if there is a need for the harm, and being able to accept the consequences of my own actions. If I cause harm then I try to follow the old Brehon law consequence of making reparations; I acknowledge what I did or my part in what happened and seek to recompense the involved or effected person. I strive to preserve harmony and balance within my understanding of Truth.

References:
Joyce, P., (1908). a Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland. Retrieved from http://www.alia.ie/tirnanog/sochis/sochis01.html#iv
Kelly, F., (1988). a Guide to Early Irish Law
Meyers, K., (1906) the Triads of Ireland. Retrieved from  http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T103006.html

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Modern Lughnasa Prayer

This is a version of a prayer taken from volume one of the Carmina Gadelica, modernized in language and content and made pagan. I have modefied this one more than I usually do to make it applicable to anyone in an urban or suburban setting (as opposed to the normal agricultural focus of the Gadelica). It is based on Reaping Blessing #90

 A Modern Lughnasa Prayer

This morning at the first light of dawn
With the face of the sun rising in the east
I will go forth and celebrate Lughnasa
I will honor the harvest of my life

I will reflect on what I have sown
With the product of my effort around me
I will raise my eye upwards
I will turn in a sacred round

Rightway as travels the sun
From the airt of the east to the west
From the airt of the north, calmly turning,
To the very core of the airt of the south

I will give thanks to the Gods who bless me,
To the spirits that surround me,
To the ancestors who made me,
And I will make offerings to them.