A few words about Polytheism

People who argue about the polytheistic gods, who they were, if they have evolved or whether they are just archetypes do not really understand the mythological worldview. The ancient world was not clearcut. Anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a romanticized fantasy world. There certainly was no concept of cultural appropriation or idea that the gods belonged to specific cultures. The idea that a god belongs to a specific culture is ridiculous to begin with. In the polytheistic tradition the natural thing would be to look for similarities between the gods and if they found some that were fairly similar then perhaps they would be merged. For example when Gaius Julius Caesar wrote down his accounts from the battles against the Celts he compared the Roman gods to theirs. He could easily have said that they worshipped false gods and that the Romans did not. That is not to be understood as that he accepted the Celts – they were still seen as a barbaric people by the Romans. The same thing happened when they encountered the Greeks.

Deities would have their local variations and perhaps their own rites related to a particular region even within their own culture group. I read in a book review that it was a ridiculous idea to celebrate the Celtic holiday Imbolc when worshipping Hekate (not saying you should, I do not), because she was a Greek goddess. Well, she was not Greek, and her origins were likely Near Eastern, but the Greek adopted her into their pantheon. When you look at the historical sources of Hekate (and particularly her) then the idea of any kind of “pure” goddess goes right out of the window. The sources do not agree with each other and over time she would evolve into a more sinister looking character. The fact is that none of that is present in either Hesiod’s Theogony or the Homeric Hymn to Demeter from the archaic period.

That means that worship has not been static and not only has her character evolved between cultures, but also within the same culture. There is no reason to think that this not also apply to other deities. And why wouldn’t it? Look at modern practice of witchcraft for instance and you probably find as many types of different practices as there are covens. Even in mainstream religion such as Christianity there are many different approaches to their religion.

I therefore find that idea that there is a thing such as a pure idea of a god or goddess that belongs to a specific culture to be quite ignorant. Why could the gods not have revealed themselves to different cultures with different names? Why are there so many similarities between different mythologies in different cultures? Then again, if you are looking for any kind of logical consistency within the realm of mythology you are on the wrong track, because you will not be able to find it – even within the same culture.

In Håvamål from the Norse culture there is also evidence for that culture sharing is a good idea: “Only he who has travelled far and wide and over mountains knows.”  In other words you do not learn anything if you just sit at home. If you travel, you are bound to meet new people and cultures to learn from.

The Night Spirit

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Understanding Myth

Just a bit over a week ago the Independent posted an article called “I spent a week becoming a witch and the results were worrying.” Obviously, and with good reason, it created quite a bit of a stir in the pagan communitiy. The article can be found here.

I do not wish to comment on that article directly as there are several other people who have done that already, but I do want to write a little about a subject that touch upon some of the points that some of the criticizers have pointed out.

As I have said in previous posts there is no kind of unison idea of what witchcraft is, which makes it quite complicated to dive into. I even think that some people who claim to be practicing witchcraft actually are doing something else. That alone makes it difficult to get a good overview within a short time period.

On top of that perhaps the most difficult thing about witchcraft or the reconstruction of ancient religious practices is understanding “myth”. To move away from our normally logical and organized modern worldview and into a mythical one is something that takes practice and a lot of effort. The reason for that is that becomes myths are anything but logical and organized. They can be quite irrational to our modern standards, there can be different version of myths and still they might be considered to be true even if they can be conflicting to one another.

To our modern minds things essentially need to be either right or wrong. If anything falls inbetween those two categories we find it disorganized and difficult to grasp. Often myths do exactly that. They claim to be true, but there is little or no evidence to prove their validity. A rational mind would then be inclined to disregard the story simply as false. Granted, according to scientific standards the tale of a myth does not hold up, but a myth is not something that only aims to describe events just as they happened. They are stories, but at the same time they are filled with information about our cultural heritage. In that sense they need to not to be true even if they claim to be. There may be elements in them that are true, but whether or not they were true may not have been that relevant to the ancients. It is us in the modern world who care about making that kind of distinction. In the mythical world they were still being treated as if they were true.

Perhaps the best example is the Trojan War. None knew exactly when this war had been fought, but it was commonly accepted in ancient times that this actually was a real event that happened even though none was sure of when exactly it took place. Today, none of us, would have accepted a tale about a war in the distant past without some kind of evidence of it. To the ancient Greeks though it was very real and the stories of heroic deeds from an ancient mythical era were used to educate and teach the desirable virtues.

My point here is that with myths the boundaries are often blurry. That is why they can be difficult to work with. I highly doubt that most modern day pagans would take the myths literally. I suppose even the same could be same of the Abrahamic myths. Although it is less common to talk about them as myths as in the western world those are the dominant religions. In fact, myth has been suggested to be “the religion of others”.

That kind of mindset which is required to understand and work with myths isn’t something that can be developed quickly. It requires practice, reading the myths and contemplating them. It requires the ability to shift the mind from being logical and rational to something that is more undefinable. Something that is not quite irrational either, but something that follows its own “inner kind of logic”. It is the understanding of the world inbetween the categories – the thinking outside of the box; beyond right or wrong and true or false.

-Thus spake the Night Spirit

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