Our Ancestors. These Gods. This Place.

Our Ancestors. These Gods. This Place. October 6, 2015

Danu and Cernunnos 06.28.14 02Our expectations for Paganism and polytheism are colored by our experiences in and with Christianity, which has been the dominate religion in the West for the past 1500 years or so.  In particular, many of us carry the idea of the “church universal” into our Paganism.  While we understand that Druidry and Wicca and Kemetic polytheism (to pick three examples) are different, we reflexively expect that each will be the same no matter where they’re practiced.  We expect our own beliefs, practices, and experiences to be the same in Texas as they are in California as they are in Ireland.

We already have hints that this isn’t a realistic expectation.  The Wheel of the Year is about as close to a truly universal practice as there is in modern Paganism.  But even there some of us wonder about the usefulness of celebrating Western European Iron Age agricultural festivals in contemporary urban and suburban North America.

Ancient polytheism was not universal.  Even within Hellenic culture, Zeus Olympios was understood and worshipped differently from Zeus Chthonios and from Zeus Aetnaeus.  Indigenous tribal religions were different from place to place and they still are, in those areas where they haven’t been overrun by Christian or Muslim missionaries.

So as we begin our own Pagan and polytheist practices, we build on the foundations of our ancient ancestors and our contemporary co-religionists, but what we end up with is our own unique creation.  It is a product of our ancestors, the Gods we honor, and the place where we live and worship.

I got a taste of this last year in Wales.  Part of it was feeling how the land was both similar to and different from the land in Tennessee (and much different from the land in Texas), but a bigger part was listening to Kristoffer Hughes talk about how his Gods are always present there.  Kris’ Druidry is influenced by Anglesey in a way that mine can never be, even though I’ve read his books and experienced his land.  My Druidry was born in Tennessee and came of age in Texas – it is necessarily different.

Kristoffer Hughes - Wales - 2014
Kristoffer Hughes – Wales – 2014

Our Ancestors. These Gods. This Place.

Our Ancestors.  We begin with our ancestors.  We are here because of them, and their blood flows in our veins.  Few of us have recent ancestors who were Pagan, but they left us more than their religion.  What journeys did they take?  What tragedies did they endure?  What obstacles did they overcome?  What stories did they tell?  What did they build that we inherited?

Most importantly, who are we because of them?  Through one line of ancestors, I’m six generations removed from County Antrim in what’s now Northern Ireland.  I’ve continued the westward movement from Ireland to North Carolina to Tennessee and now to Texas.  That tradition of migration brings a different approach to my religion than does Kristoffer Hughes’ millennia-long tradition of rootedness in Wales.  My recent ancestors were Protestant Christians, they were farmers, and they were far from wealthy.  All of that affects me and influences my religious beliefs, practices, and experiences, even though I practice a very different religion from my ancestors.

These Gods.  One of the foundational principles of polytheism is that the many Gods each have their own goals, desires, areas of responsibility, and personalities.  They were worshiped in different ways in ancient times.  The Gods you choose – or who choose you – will have a strong effect on the form and function of your worship and on your entire practice.

I am pledged to Cernunnos and to Danu, two very old Celtic Gods who are closely associated with Nature.  I have close relationships with Morrigan and Brighid, working acquaintances with numerous other deities, and I’m part of Denton CUUPS’ 12-year association with the Gods of Egypt.  My prayers, meditations, public worship, and other acts of devotion are centered around Them, Their attributes, how They were worshiped in ancient times, and how contemporary polytheists relate to Them.

If I was working with the Gods of, say, Lithuania or of ancient Canaan, my practice would look and feel different, subtly in some areas and dramatically in others.  When we treat the Gods as differentiated individuals, our practices become differentiated.

This Place.  For many of us, Paganism is a Nature religion, a practice intimately tied to the land, the sky, and the sea.  Even those of us who are more Deity-centered, Self-centered, or Community-centered have experienced the differences of place.  The terrain, vegetation, and climate vary widely across this country and across the world.  Even the sky is different – the relative position of the sun, moon, and stars vary based on latitude.

The Nature spirits also differ from place to place.  As you might imagine, you will encounter very different spirits in the desert than you will in the forest.  And so the way you relate to the Nature spirits will be different – you’ll make different offerings, listen for different messages, and perhaps most importantly, be aware of and concerned with different issues.  Water is a constant source of concern in arid regions, not so much in wetter climates – except when there’s too much of it.  Fire must be respected at all times, but especially in dry forests where wildfires can start in a moment.

Our lives, our experiences, and our practices will change based on where we are.

Commonalities and Overlap.  Modern Paganism consists of many religions, but it is not merely a consortium of individual Pagans.  There are whole traditions within Paganism and polytheism, and across traditions there are common elements.  We are reviving, reinventing, and discovering “religious tech” that works in many situations.  Galina Krasskova’s book Devotional Polytheism – An Introduction is written from a Heathen perspective, but most of the practices she describes can be used in any polytheist tradition.

Beyond that, it’s important to remember that not anything goes – the openness and anti-dogmatism of Paganism and polytheism is not a license to do whatever you like.  Be respectful.  Listen.  Read scholarly works – the Gods do change over time, but if your experience of a deity is at great odds with how that deity was understood in ancient times, you’re probably misinterpreting your experience.

Cycles of Intersections.  Examine a religion – including the monotheistic religions – and you can see how each expression is an intersection of ancestors, Gods, and place.  The Southern evangelical Protestantism of my youth was very different from, say, the Roman Catholicism of New York or the Unitarianism of Boston.  Each had different ancestors and different places, even if they shared the same God.  Classical Hellenism is a product of earlier residents of the Mediterranean region, the Gods of Olympus, and the warm arid coastal environment that is much of Greece.

In time, each expression becomes the religious ancestor of what comes after it.  Efforts to freeze a religion with sacred texts and creeds ultimately fail to one degree or another, either because they’re ignored or because they kill the very thing they were intended to preserve.

Our Ancestors. These Gods. This Place.  Few of us are able to walk into a fully functioning temple or grove and start practicing the religion that calls to us.  We must create them – and we are doing just that.

As we do, let us remember that while we can and should draw from the experience and wisdom of others, ultimately our particular set of beliefs, practices, and the experiences they facilitate will be the distinct product of our ancestors, the Gods we worship, and the place where we live and work.

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