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Archive for the ‘Norse culture’ Category

Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick.  A History of Pagan Europe.  New York: Barnes & Noble,

1995.

 

A side of history that has remained silent for many years is finally revealed in Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick’s work A History of Pagan Europe.  Through exploring the tomes of history, lore, and archaeology, the authors have put together an impeccable overview of the various ancient people of Europe.  In doing so, they exhibit not only how Europe became Europe, but how modern Paganism came to be.  A History of Pagan Europe is an excellent source for Pagan students.  What I found most fascinating were the similarities shared by the various cultures discussed.

Many people of European descent know very little about their ancestors.  The authors begin their work by stating that most people “are more familiar with native traditions from outside Europe than with their own spiritual heritage” (1).  This is sad, particularly so because many European descendants vehemently distance themselves from Paganism even though it has always been there and continues to exist, as Jones and Pennick argue, within our modern society, intertwined in some of our most seemingly secular institutions (1) such as democracy the celebration of Christmas.  The authors set out to debunk the misconceptions about Paganism held by society and show that we really aren’t so different from our ancestors.

The authors attempt to define what Paganism actually is.  I’ve found that it’s difficult to do so in this modern age because so many people, in particular Pagans themselves, refuse to be defined.  I feel that Jones and Pennick come to a satisfying conclusion.  If Paganism is ever to become unified (even though, again, some modern Pagans would argue against this notion), we have to unite under a name and group definition.  The authors first describe how people have defined Pagans in the past.  From country bumpkins to “non-combatants” (as opposed to the “soldiers of Christ”), the word “Pagan” has had a more or less pejorative meaning for the past few hundred years (1).  Jones and Pennick then look at the modern, spiritual definition and conclude that Pagan religions, past and present, share some common traits: polytheism (or some form of worshiping more than one deity), the view of nature as a theophany, and the recognition of Goddesses as well as Gods.  While some Pagans will argue with this, I feel that it covers many of our past and present traditions.  In my opinion, the authors do Paganism at large a service by providing a positive and academic definition.

We then delve into the history of the Greeks and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Romans and the Western Mediterranean, the Celts, the Germanic people, the Baltic people, and the Slavic people.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these different cultures.  For instance, sacred trees kept revealing themselves in each culture.  The authors explain that in Greece “[m]any sanctuaries in later Greek culture centered on a sacred tree…”(6).  Later they explain that “[n]o temple was dedicated unless there was a holy tree associated with it” (20).  The Celts were said to worship in groves of trees (81) and some Germanic tribes also met in such places (116).  The Baltic people had celebrations revolving around ritualized trees that Pennick and Jones argue represented the “axis of the Earth’s rotation” (174).  In Lithuania, there were also sacred groves that were not to be cut  (176).  Everyone seems to have had a sense of the importance of the forest.  I was surprised, however, that the authors did not discuss the world tree of Norse tradition.

Nature was repeatedly venerated in some way from culture to culture. Sacred springs or wells played central roles to many of the old religions.  Slavic Pagans had rituals in which ceremonial dancers “undertook a nine-day ceremony [in which they] visited nine boundary-points, filled a ceremonial vessel with water from nine springs, and prayed to their patron goddess Irondeasa” (190).  The Celtic tribes felt that springs were sacred places as well.  There were springs at Bath associated with the Goddess Sul and “[s]sometimes these springs were thought to cure eye diseases, bringing the light of the Sun to the eye of the sufferer” (88).  In Ireland, “well-worship continues in a modern form, sometimes as a local folk-observance but more often by adoption into Christianity in the form of ‘well-dressing’” in which the well is decorated by the community and then blessed by a local priest (83-84).  The Greeks also recognized sacred springs (10).  The various cultures covered also had strong beliefs associated with fire and/or solar powers, nature spirits, agricultural festivals, and honoring the Earth.  It was interesting to see that, although the cultures venerated nature, they also exploited it. Unlike our modern world, however, our ancestors were very aware of the balance and the need to give back to nature and the Gods.

The dead and the Otherworld were also a common theme.  In Rome, “the remains of the dead were elaborately honored and they were housed in elaborate necropolises…” (26).  Obviously, there existed a concern with the afterlife. We know from Celtic lore that there were times of the year when the dead and other beings of the Otherworld could commune with the world of the living (90).  We know of some Germanic funeral traditions, some from direct observation.  While we may not know the meaning behind the traditions, it is, again, obvious that the dead were being taken care of and that they seem to have been sent into the Otherworld fully prepared for renewed life (138).  In addition, Pennick and Jones point out that the Germans were a bit different from other European Pagans in that they actually felt that their tribal ancestors were Gods (116).  In my opinion, this adds a whole new layer of sacredness to ancestor worship.

There were so many common themes that it would take pages and pages to discuss them all.  Reading about the various similarities helped to reinforce the customs of Ár nDraíocht Féin.   The creation of our altars and what goes on them makes more sense when viewed as a continuation of our ancestral religious traditions.  The tree represents the sacred tree that reveals itself again and again throughout the pages of the book.  The well represents the many sacred springs.  The cauldron represents the sacred fire.  We give offerings to the nature spirits because, like our ancestors, we believe that we need to give back to nature in thanks for what it gives us.  We honor our ancestors like our forefathers and mothers did.  We set up temples and worship in or around sacred trees.  Having read A History of Pagan Europe, I’m filled with a more academic understanding for all that we do in our tradition and it fills me with pride. It almost seems that through practicing as my ancestors did I am honoring them.

Reading the book hasn’t really changed how I practice my religion.  I’ve been recognizing the importance of the sacred tree, well, and fire for awhile now, and have been observing the other customs of ADF because they felt right. Reading about the historical background of everything only reinforces my spiritual practices and gives me a better understanding for other cultures that I may otherwise have never read about.  As someone who has clergy aspirations, it is useful to know that many of our practices are universal throughout Europe.  If I was required to do a Norse ritual, for instance, I wouldn’t feel too out of place after doing the appropriate amount of research on the pantheon.

The book ends by discussing how Paganism has been reestablishing itself, first through the Renaissance, and finally through the various modern movements.  The authors briefly touch on Druidry and Ásatrú, however I felt that they were more favorable of Wicca.  While Ásatrú has more of an honorable mention, Druidry is made to look like a fantasy-based fraternity (211).  Some of the first modern Druids do have Masonic roots, but the authors have failed to take note of other viable Celtic-inspired traditions that do more research and rely less on romantic fancy.  Perhaps it’s because the book was written before Ár nDraíocht Féin and Celtic Reconstructionism were as known as they are now. Meanwhile, Wicca is praised as the “kind of Paganism [that] looks ahead, offering a new philosophy, more strongly than it looks to its roots in the past” (220).  While I’ll never condemn Wicca, I do think that the authors have ignored the fact that many groups, including Ásatrú groups, take on the Reconstructionist principal that religions should be updated for our modern world while holding onto those traditions that are still applicable.  Meanwhile, many branches of Wicca have become just as fantasy-driven as the old Druidic orders.  I believe that having an understanding of history is very important, especially where religion is concerned.

A History of Pagan Europe should be read by every Pagan and history student alike.  Modern Pagans should have a firm understanding of where their traditions have evolved from.  Even Pagans who do not have European ancestry should give the book a try, especially if they live in a Euro-centric country like America or Canada. It can give a lot of perspective on our culture, especially where holidays and our calendar are concerned. Meanwhile, history students should appreciate the other side of the story and see the many examples of how Paganism was not necessarily stamped out, but rather absorbed into our modern world.

 

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Dilemma

Next weekend, Pagan pride descends on North-Western NY in the form of the Central NY Pagan Pride Festival in Liverpool, NY (near Syracuse).  I’m really excited about the keynote speaker, Patti Lafayllve.  She’s a practicing heathen devoted to Freyja and seidh work.  Even though I follow an Irish-inspired path, I do have Norse blood in me and know that the Celtic nations often interacted with them (hence my mixed ancestry!).  I feel that I could learn a lot from seidh.  Really, I think any trance-related workshops would be greatly beneficial to my spiritual growth*.

I was delighted to hear that Lafayllve is performing a rite using oracular seidh.  Unfortunately it’s the night before Pagan Pride Day…  And I live an hour and a half away.  Now it wouldn’t have been an issue if things had gone according to plan.  My husband now has to go into work Saturday morning for a meeting that he cannot get out of.  We didn’t anticipate this and had been talking about going to Syracuse Friday for the rite, getting a hotel, and staying for Pagan Pride.   Bugger!  A part of me really wants to go to the rite anyway.  It’s something I’ve never seen before and I want to learn more about it!  Yet the driving…  An hour and a half down, an hour and a half back.  Then the next day we would do the same thing!

“But Grey,” you chime in, “don’t you deserve to go?  Don’t you have every right to further your knowledge?  It’s not that bad of a drive.”

Yes, I know…  But there’s a part of me that would feel like a huge hypocrite.  Druidism, to me, is very Earth-centric.  I work so hard to make sustainable choices.  If I do so much driving for selfish reasons, it seems spiritually counter-productive.  It practically negates everything else I do…  We recently figured out how many miles my husband drives to work every week and it’s depressing.  We really need to move between our two places of employment.

It’s not that bad if I miss the rite…  I’m hopeful that I’ll get the opportunity to see something like it in the future and learn more then.  And as long as Weretoad’s meeting gets done in time, I should be able to make the two workshops Lafayllve is giving then – one on Ásatrú and the other on deepening relationships with Goddesses – in her case, Freyja.  It just stinks.  I’m so often faced with these transportation dilemmas.  I’m hoping to get a second car soon so that I have more freedom – freedom to pursue grad school and other areas of interest.  Even so…  it’s so much pollution and so much driving…

I’m so ready for mass public transportation in the US now.

*Well…almost any…

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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The sky is overcast and it’s a little windy out.  It rained earlier.  I wish it would storm.  I haven’t experienced a good storm in I don’t know how long.  You know?  The loud kind that causes lights to go out and everyone gathers in one room to cuddle in blankets while listening to the majesty of nature?  I’d love one of those…

Now if it were to happen tonight, I would like my husband to be home from work so I can cuddle with him under a blanket.

I love storms but I don’t feel like I have any real connection to storm spirits or Gods*.  At least not in my hearth culture.  Whenever I hear thunder, my thoughts first turn to Thor – not to Taranis.  I don’t feel any pull to the Gaulish deities, actually.  My husband has this “thing” with Thor.  I say it like that because he doesn’t worship him or necessarily consider him real**.  To Weretoad, Thor is an entity (mythical, fictional, or real) to be admired.  He bonds with him through comics like Marvel’s “Thor” or Eric Evensen’s “Gods of Asgard***.”  My husband thinks Thor is “cool” but in a distant way and I so dig it.

Weretoad is agnostic but we actually have more spiritually in common than most think.  For example, I’m pretty agnostic about some things – like the afterlife – and we are both animistic to some degree (although he doesn’t label himself as such).  Needless to say, my agnostic, semi-animistic Thor fanboy gets along quite well with myself and other ADFers most of the time.

There was a time I worried about our religious differences.  I wish I could go back and whisper in my younger self’s ear about how compatible we really are, how we’re happily married, and how I can’t wait for a thunderstorm so that the two of us can cuddle up and think about the amazing Thor throwing Mjöllnir around****.

*Really, my life is more consumed in art and study, so the patrons I have are very fitting!  I’m not complaining at all. 🙂


**Nor does he consider him unreal.


*** “Gods of Asgard” is very good.  I’m not as well-read on Norse mythology, but from what I know it seems in tune with the lore.




**** We both grinned giddily when Mjöllnir appeared after the credits ran for Ironman 2.  😛

[ For my LJ friends, please visit me at: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ ]

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As I said in my last entry, my husband and I saw “How to Train Your Dragon” this afternoon.  After that we went to the Watertown Great Outdoor Expo.*  The entrance fee was only $3 per person so I figured it would be a fun thing to check out.  It’s true that my husband and I are both vegetarians and not hunters, but we have an interest in other outdoor activities.  My husband has also become quite interested in (and good at) target practice after going a few times with other family members and friends.

There were a lot of interesting things to see: animal calls (an old interest of mine), baby ducks, a giant, hand-carved chess set, rock climbing demonstrations, some small animals from the local zoo, and even a scuba pool!  My husband took scuba classes several years ago in Syracuse but was never certified.  It’s something we’d both like to do one day.  I tried to convince him to try the scuba gear with me but he didn’t feel like it and I didn’t want to do it alone.  I got some information, though.  I would love to take a class.  The North Country is a good place for scuba diving so we should take advantage of that sometime!  I also got information about white water rafting, another activity to try on the local Black River.  Any of my friends want to try it out?

There was also a chiropractic table set up and I was asked if I wanted a free screening.  I basically said, “oh what the heck, why not?” and the lady said I had some problems, including swelling in my lower back.  I do get a lot of aches there.  They were offering a low price for further consultations, but I decided that I want to go in to the local doctor for a full check-up first and see what he or she says.  It is discouraging to think I have some back problems that could become more serious as I age…  When I went to the reiki workshop last week, a lot of people who practiced on me said they felt a weird energy around my lower abdomen but I don’t recall anything specific about my back.  Hmmm…  I’ll have to see what another doctor says and then I’ll consider a regime of chiropractic consultations, massage, and reiki.

In other news, a new blog I’ve been following, Flame in Bloom, has a great post about ancestor veneration among heathens and what that means when you have little respect for recent ancestors.  It’s a perspective I’ve not thought much about.  Ancestors are just as important in Druidism and Celtic Reconstructionism, and I’ve been blessed with a family I feel close to despite their idiosyncrasies.  Those who have passed are still cherished for the lessons learned and the positive impact they had on me.  Michelle Daw, an ADF member and practicing stoic, kind of touched on this is his recent video chat on stoicism.  I remember him discussing family members who were not very kind or responsible.  They taught him how not to behave.  The lessons may have been painful, but they were important and he thanks them for that.  Anyone having difficulty forming a relationship with their ancestors should definitely check out Flame in Bloom’s most recent post** and/or start a conversation with Daw.  He’s very approachable and willing to help.

That’s all I have for today!  Again, I’m working on some book reviews which I should post soon.  Remember Earth Hour tonight!  Turn your lights off from 8:30 to 9:30!

*For my lj friends: http://www.greatoutdoorexpo.com/

** For my lj friends: http://flameinbloom.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/on-ancestors-and-our-bodies/

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"How to Train Your Dragon"

The following is my attempt at a review of “How to Train Your Dragon.”  There may be some spoilers between the stars.

***

Hubby and I went to see “How to Train Your Dragon” this afternoon.  We both enjoyed it a lot.  Now, part of this is because I’ve always liked dragons.  I’ve also always found Vikings to be incredibly fascinating.  So I’m a little biased!  But in addition to dragons and Vikings, the story and animation was spectacular!  Rather than relying on goofy pop culture references that will lose their humor generations later, “Dragon” had a timeless quality and lovable, organically humorous characters.  The environment was so lush, and Toothless, the dragon, was adorable.  I’m aware that such an adjective is a little strange to use with a dragon, but it’s the best word.  He reminded me of one of our cats; hilarious and feisty at the same time.

Although the portrayal of Viking life was probably quite inaccurate* (it’s not my area of specialty), I thought it was a positive portrayal of polytheism.  The Vikings said little prayers to Odin and I think I even heard Thor’s name.  Hiccup, the protagonist, said something about “Gods.”  It’s nice that the creators showed the Vikings as regular Pagans just trying to live and maintain the security of their little island – decent Pagans rather than the shifty, unscrupulous Pagans presented in the 3D version of “Beowulf.”

There was also, I will argue, a subtle environmental theme.  The the beginning, the Vikings conquered the wilds which were the dragons.  In the end, the road to peace for everyone was through an intimate, symbiotic relationship.  The dragons were occasionally referred to as pets, but they were really treated as friends and equals in the end.  Relationships like that are possible with horses, cows, and the very Earth Mother herself.  We need to return to that or else our own dragons, in the form of environmental change, will threaten us further.

***

I highly recommend the film.  It’s quickly become one of my favorites.  I give this movie five out of five prosthetic dragon fins!

* I have recently learned that Vikings probably didn’t wear horned helmets, for instance.  I’m also very curious how accurate the runes in the story were!

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