We are called to belong. Humans evolved from communally living apes, our closest relatives in the Earth Mother’s family are the chimpanzees and the bonobos of the African continent. We live, love, eat, and sleep in groups. We tend to congregate in villages and cities. But no matter how we live, or where we go, we have one thing in common. The Earth. The land we walk on, the food grown from her. Except for the astronauts we fling from the earth into the vast and hazardous reaches of space, we all live here.
In my last post on the importance of European Indigenous Religions (yes, plural, thanks to those who commented and gave me feedback.) I spoke about how those of us who check the “White” box on the race question need to both develop those spiritualities that come from “White” culture while making sure to be clear that anyone of any color or creed is welcome to participate in that process. There’s been a lively conversation in the comments about this idea, both from those who have decided to scrap cultural history altogether and start fresh, and a gratifying number of people who are aware of the issues of cultural appropriation.
There was a question underlying a number of well thought out and earnest responses: how do we practice European Indigenous Spiritualities when we don’t live in Europe?
The shape of the land forms the shape of the spirits and the relationships we have with them. The smell of the sea or the dry wind off the mesas will inform the texture of our vision. What does it mean when we call to Brighid away from the moist mossy earth of a land dotted with sacred wells?
Would it not be easier to call out to the land in the shape and form that it is used to?
My answer is, “Yes, it would be easier,” but my question in turn would be, “Is it the most correct option?”
I would say no. Sometimes the right answer isn’t the easiest answer.
And this is where knowing your ancient lore can be incredibly useful, because even though the ancients didn’t always have calculus (though they came a long way with mathematics) they did have a lot of experience with moving to new places and learning how to interact successfully with them. In fact, that’s one of the things that the Proto-Indo-Europeans did really well.
It’s clear those ancient people knew something about how to get around. The Proto-Indo Europeans spoke the language that would eventually split off into English, Spanish, Greek, Danish, German and even Sanskrit. There’s this idea that they did that by wreaking havoc and destroying matriarchal cultures. Frankly, the research doesn’t really pan out. There’s a ton a books about this stuff, one of my faves is The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. It’s pretty clear that the Indo-Europeans did fight, but they also made friends, and sometimes came upon giant empty cities where the previous civilization had just disappeared into the ether. So, if it wasn’t that they were the baddest asses around, what made them so wildly successful?
They had the best travel technology. They had horses and spoked wheels first.
That’s right, the answer wasn’t the best weapons or tactics. It was the fact that they were travelers. But we know they honored the Earth Mother everywhere they went, We see variations on the theme all over, Aine and Eire in Ireland, Gaia, Rhea, and Demeter in the Greek, Nerthus, Zemenya, Hannahannas and Sarasvati. There are river goddesses, mountain goddesses, goddesses of grain, land, and peace. The Bee, the Swan, and the Black Sow are some of their symbols.
We know that the sacred pillar was how they marked their home. We do that still with flagpoles. But the tradition goes back a very long time indeed. Research laid out in a long and somewhat tedious book called Indo-European Sacred Space: Vedic and Roman Cult, shows that both the Romans and the pre-Hindu peoples had sacred poles. Basically they moved with their poles. When the Romans stopped moving and settled down in Rome they kept their sacred pole in one place. (Go ahead, make a sacred pole joke in your brain. I won’t stop you. I did too.)
The sacred pole was everywhere. There was this Icelandic guy, his name was Thorulf Mostrarskegg (which translates as “That guy from Most with a beard”). He was a super religious pagan dude from an island called Most off of Norway. Because the king, Harald Fairhair was a jerk, Thorulf decided, after taking an omen, to leave for Iceland. He packed up his household and his shrine of Thor including the “high seat pillars” timber, and soil from beneath the timbers. When his ship got close to Iceland he tossed the sacred poles overboard and followed them to shore. He built his home where they came to land.
There are a lot of great stories from the immigration to Iceland about how people related to this new land and slowly became indigenous. Because Icelanders are a people now, but long ago, there were no people there. Long ago, there were no Celts in Ireland. No Swedes in Sweden. Long ago those people slowly, over time, learned how to be indigenous to those places. We can learn those lessons here too.
In many ways these European Indegenous Religions that are being practiced far from the lands of their origin are only doing what religions have always done, because religions are tied to people, language, and culture. They move, flow, and ebb. They change. We change.
I am convinced that practicing a new version of the ancient religions of the Eurasian continent is an honorable path for me and for others. I believe in our ability to come into a true reciprocity with the land and build relationships with the spirits that live where we are without taking anything else from the native peoples of the lands we have found ourselves in. I hope that by doing so we might be able to come into a better, more even relationship with those people, and with other people who have been marginalized in the name of progress. Certainly there are flaws within this method. Ancient people didn’t know a damn thing about post-industrial feminist ethics, peak oil, or the information age. I believe that it’s worth the work of learning our history so that we may improve upon the mistakes they made and use the hard won knowledge of our religious forebears in order to live better.
So, to answer the question: “How do we practice European Indigenous Spiritualities when we don’t live in Europe?”
We build new practices slowly and with persistence. We keep an open and scholarly mind, learning from the best of what archeology, linguistics, anthropology, and sociology have to offer. We learn about the land we find ourselves in: the climate, the flora and fauna, the geology and water patterns. We ask the gods and spirits to reveal themselves in this new land, with new stories, and new ways to give and accept offerings. We record all this and share it with each other, and slowly we build a new way with echoes of the old resonating through us and through the land.
Because this is home, wherever we are. We can’t go back, and we can’t change history. All we can do is live here and now the best way we can and hope to give those who come after us what we have learned so that they might do better yet.