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IPVBM 2: The Spiritual Value of Authenticity - Ekklesia Antinoou [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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IPVBM 2: The Spiritual Value of Authenticity [Jun. 16th, 2010|05:42 pm]
Ekklesia Antinoou


The wonderful bearfairie prompted me with the following question/suggestion for a post in International Pagan Values Blogging Month:

B/c I'm nosy like that, I'd be fascinated to hear how you navigate being multi-trad in terms of ethics & values. Are there places where you find conflict (one trad says values look like x while other trad says differently)? If so, how do you navigate that? I know for me being multi-trad, I sometimes come up against this in really subtle ways (mild variations in how a trad understands the way to have a respectful relationship with deity, for example - Santeria is a bit different than Heathenry with regards to how we understand who our powers are, what to expect from them, what to ask for and how to ask respectfully, etc). I'm always interested to hear how different folks navigate multiple traditions with honor and integrity (which I know you do!).

I think I need to lead into a more specific answer to that question with some initial thoughts on the subject of autheticity, because this is an issue that seems--implicitly, if not explicitly--at the heart of a great deal of critical evaluations of reconstructionism, as well as any attempts to be "true" to a particular cultural tradition which is not one's own by birth. And, in the process, I probably won't exactly answer the question directly (which I may rectify in a future post). So, off we go...

Let's begin with a specific case-study, if you will. Many of you who are perceptive will note that I've used a different icon for the present post: the most well-known statue of the late antique Graeco-Roman deity Glykon. The case-study of Glykon will prove to be most interesting for the purposes of the present inquiry. We know of Glykon through two primary source types (which tends to be the case for any/every deity from the ancient world): literature and archaeology. In the archaeological category, we have the statue above, as well as a number of other smaller statues in bronze; we have a wide variety of numismatic examples of Glykon issued by various emperors, including Lucius Verus (co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius in the mid-2nd c. CE), Clodius Albinus (a usurper in the late 2nd c. CE who lost out to Septimius Severus), and the later emperor Gordian in the 3rd century (there are others as well...); we have inscriptions which record that a variety of people counted themselves as sons or daughters of Glykon; and, we have evidence that people seemed to have found cultus to Glykon useful in being saved from certain illnesses. On the literary side, things are much more difficult. There is really only one literary treatment (of any length) of the cult of Glykon, that of Lukian of Samosata, which is called Alexander the False Prophet. This describes the background of the first "prophet" of Glykon's cult, Alexander of Abunoteichos, and how he essentially created the entire cultus with fake miracles, ventriloquism, puppetry, and pseudo-mysticism, in order to gain money, fame, and to shroud his sexual escapades in a cloud of religious mystery. (But, things like that don't ever happen in the modern world...oh no, never!) Various gullible Romans, including Marcus Aurelius himself, are shown to follow the engineered prophecies of Glykon, and to find themselves in ruin and disaster. On the one hand, it was a successful cult that spanned much of the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries, and enjoyed direct imperial favor on several occasions; on the other, the literary revelation of the machinations of the pseudo-prophet in charge of the cultic operations also seem to be practically irrefutable without further ancient evidence (or at least they have been taken as such by most scholars), which might undermine one's entire view of this particular religious cult as an example of charlatanry rather than "actual religion."

As people are often prone to ask, as equally when they find out about some of the sleight-of-hand employed in various cultures' shamanic ceremonial performances as they are at the antics of megachurch pastors and Benny Hinn faith-healers, "Were people really that stupid?" Or, was there some awareness that the entire "show" was smoke and mirrors, and yet there was also some core of, for lack of a better term, gnosis at the heart of the entire cultus, and that even though the prophet of the god was largely a self-interested fraud, the god itself was a genuine new epiphany of divinity in the second century? This is a large question, and one that branches into issues of process theology, and the fact that divinities and their particular epiphanies are as mutable as the times in which they appear...but we'll leave that off for the moment.

Now, taking all of this into account, what if someone were to decide to be a cultist to Glykon in the modern world? Many of the things which are true of general religious cultus in the second century Mediterranean world would be true for Glykon as well, so devotional activities could be carried out as expected. The sources on Glykon could be studied, images could be produced, prayers could be composed. And, as is the case with a great deal of religious reconstruction in the late antique and medieval contexts, the words of critics (in this case, Lukian; in the cases of other Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cults, as well as many Germanic and Celtic cults, those of Christians) can be studied and critically evaluated to see if there is genuine useful information to be discovered amidst their skepticism and derogatory comments. There are also known to be further folktales, existing into the twentieth century, of legendary snakes existing in the area of Abunoteichos (along the eastern Black Sea in modern Turkey), which add further weight to the testimony from ancient sources, and should therefore be taken into account. Would it be possible to be a Glykonic reconstructionist, then?

And, if that is the case, then is Alan Moore, the most prominent person in the modern world who can be said to "follow" the "religion" of Glykon, also a reconstructionist?

I employ the example of Glykon here to force the question of authenticity. What does it take for something to be considered genuinely authentic? By all standards generally agreed upon within reconstructionist forms of polytheism in the modern world, archaeological, literary, critical, and folkloric sources should all be examined in order to get a picture of what a particular form of religious devotion or a particular theological idea or a particular deity was like, and then this picture should be adapted to the modern needs, interests, and legal and cultural limitations of people who wish to engage in such spiritual activities. Whatever we can say about the "authenticity" of the cultus of Glykon and its particular divine epiphany, we can certainly say that for many in the ancient world, it "worked," and likewise, that there are people in the modern world for whom Glykon has appeared and has become inspirational in many ways (like Alan Moore, whether or not he's done everything according to the ideal reconstructionist template).

To use the term coined by Stephen Colbert, the truthiness of the cultus of Glykon is perhaps more important than the actual "truth" that may or may not have been inherent in its particular revelations. (Can we say any less for any religious idea, ever?)

But, to get back to an issue I briefly touched upon above, there is the matter of the continuously unfolding process of divine interaction with humans. People in the paleolithic era didn't have Vishnu or Asklepios or Squat, and yet we know that if we look at the development of religions amidst different cultures over great spans of time, the earliest stages of Vedic religion also didn't have Vishnu, the earliest stages of Greek religion didn't seem to have Asklepios, and the earliest stages of modern pagan and polytheist religious revival did not have Squat. We can thus see that these deities have emerged over time, and are no less effective or useful or "authentic" for having arrived later rather than earlier. Over the three thousand years that Egyptian religion existed in more or less unbroken practice, the view of religion generally changed a great deal, as did the views of particular deities (often surprisingly so); the same is true of Hinduism, Shinto, and any number of other polytheistic religions.

This is something that both some self-identified reconstructionists, as well as a number of other pagans, often don't seem to understand or acknowledge about the entire reconstructionist project. Religion is not, and never has been (except in a few cases--usually within creedal monotheistic religions), a "closed book" in which revelation, epiphany, gnosis, divine inspiration, or direct experience has been ended or finished or is no longer subject to interpretation. It is often said that the various pagan religions don't have a holy book or specific scriptures in the way that other religions do, because (I think) we're aware that such writings are always products of their time, and that the great revealed truths of two millennia past may still have some relevance, but are not free from cultural bias, nor do they have predictive power over how society and general life circumstances will change from generation to generation. How many sacred texts in worldwide religions have any useful and specific suggestions on how to live a responsible life, for example, in light of global climate change, or economic disasters like those of the last two years, or the BP oil catastrophe? While they may have some general guidelines that can be made relevant to these things, no religion predicted them, nor has given specific instructions on how to best live a good life amidst these realities. And that is why not having a closed canon of scripture is very useful for our religious viewpoint, because the world itself, our experiences in it, and the divine inspirations that emerge from these, will be our guides.

Too often, some reconstructionists draw lines and say that nothing past a particular temporal or geographical focus "counts" as valid reconstructionist religion within a certain tradition--Hellenic pagans who do not like anything that emerges from any period after Alexander the Great, for example. Other non-reconstructionist pagans likewise often deride reconstructionists for the perception that they must have some ancient practice to nail a modern idea down to in order to justify doing it. Both of these, I would suggest, are flawed notions which ignore the nature of religion, and the intended nature of reconstructionism. If a religion is dormant for a generation or two, it can be restored, and a restoration movement can take place--indeed, this has occurred on a number of occasions in history when a certain dynasty or ruler rose to power, fell, and then in the aftermath another leader reinstated practices or ideas from before. But for modern western pagans, this is not possible; our religions have been suppressed actively for centuries, and the materials from which we attempt reconstruction are often scant and written from an exterior viewpoint. (Imagine, to use the case study above, trying to recreate all of late antique Mediterranean religion only with reference to Lukian's Alexander the False Prophet!) We have to take what scraps we can find, and breathe new life into them. But how?

Knowledge of boundaries is useful to mention at this point. Peoples and cultures have always had boundaries which define them, if not in opposition to their neighbors and various other cultures, then at least in order to differentiate them--Scythians are not Thracians, Spartans are not Athenians, Egyptians are not Nubians, Bretons are not French, and Cork men are not Kerry men. ;) Languages are also similar: at a certain point, Middle Irish is no longer Middle Irish, it's Scots Gaelic or Classical Modern Irish. History also has its boundaries--Classical Greece is not the same as Hellenistic Greece (to pick up from the example in the last paragraph)--and realizing these differences across time is important for contextual purposes, and to ensure that one doesn't give the impression that all ancient cultures, being "conservative," were unchanging from start to finish. But, even if there are shared similarities and practices and features across such boundaries, there are usually things within each boundary that are unique to that particular group, and will continue to be despite changes in time and often geography. We can still identify what is Archaic and Classical and Hellenistic Greek as Greek--so, what unites these things? Locating these characteristics and focusing upon them is one of the basic tasks, I would suggest, of any attempt at reconstructionist religion in the modern world. What makes something in the realm of religion Roman rather than Greek, and what is shared between them that can be considered Graeco-Roman? What makes a cultural idea Welsh rather than Irish, and what might be shared between them that can be considered Insular Celtic? Identifying a number of key concepts of this type is an excellent first step.

If it is possible to stay true to these characteristics, then external influences and ideas from beyond the boundaries of the specific cultures involved can be explored, experimented with, and integrated. And if you don't think this can be done, then all one needs to do is look at medieval Irish literature. Most of what is called "Celtic reconstructionism" in the modern world comes from Irish sources, and far too often (by scholars as well as by spiritual practitioners), whatever is Irish is automatically understood as "Celtic" and becomes normalized and assumed to be such--this is a tendency which should be curtailed whenever possible, but that's another topic. The Irish materials drawn upon are specifically medieval sources (from the 6th-15th centuries, generally, but possibly up to the the 17th century), ranging from the great prose epics Táin Bó Cúailnge, Cath Maige Tuired and Acallam na Senórach, to learned texts and lists like the Triads of Ireland, Auraicept na nÉces, the various collections of Dindshenchas, and Cóir Anmann, to bits of Christian hagiography and theological literature such as Patrick's Confessio, the various lives of Brigid, Augustinus Hibernicus' De Mirabilibus Sacrae Scripturae, In Tenga Bithnua, and the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. But, another "genre" (as it were) of literature that has been almost wholly ignored in the context of reconstructionism is the large numbers of adaptations into Irish of classical texts. These cannot be considered "translations," as such, because they often contain stories and interpolations, incidents and interpretations, which are so divergent from the source texts that, despite a demonstrable derivation from those texts, are an entirely different literary product in the end (in the same way that the film Troy is not Homer's Iliad--even though that comparison would seem to demean the efforts of the Irish here, but go with me for a moment!). In the Irish version of the story of Odysseus, Merugud Uilixis meic Leirtís, the title character encounters the "Judge of Truth," who seems to be a composite of several characters from the original epic, but who is here uniquely interpreted as both a jurist (brithem, an important functionary in medieval Irish society) and as someone with a unique insight into fír, which is not just "truth" and "justice," but a greater sense of cosmic unity and balance. The maenadic love-madness of Dido in Virgil's Aeneid becomes, in the Irish Imtheachta Aeniasa, the madness of a geilt. Any number of further examples could be added from the Irish versions of Statius' Thebaid and Achilleid, the Irish saga of Troy (Togail Troí), and a variety of shorter texts that deal with topics from Romulus and Remus to Ianus to the Minotaur. The medieval Irish actively saw themselves as heirs to the great literatures of classical culture, and by making them Irish, they partook of a culture that they admired and found inspiring. We should be able, as reconstructionists, to do likewise.

So, by identifying these core characteristics and methodologies, and working with and within them, it is possible to engage with other cultures and other practices, and even adapt them to new uses in modern polytheist spirituality, while still being authentic to the traditions involved. One may not end up with a perfect Old Irish rosc at the end of an imbas forosnai ritual, but because the parameters and the understandings behind the ritual, and the adaptations of practice involved in creating such a ritual in the modern American Northwest (for example) will be different, the result will be within the boundaries of the tradition, and in fact will expand those boundaries, in the same way that incorporation of classical literature expanded the boundaries of medieval Irish culture.

Getting back to bearfairie's original question, then, how does one negotiate several different cultural-spiritual traditions without encountering difficulties? Part of it is attempting to be, at all times, as close to those authentic core characteristics (and, if you like, "values") as possible when working within that particular culture. The other part, which is far more obvious, is just an awareness of "where one is" at a given point. If I'm visiting a Japanese friend, I know I will have to take my shoes off at the front door, and I come prepared to do that and to respect that expectation. Or, I know that some friends of mine don't like to watch comedy films, or don't like to eat Thai food, so I'll be certain never to suggest we do those things when I get together with them. The same is true of religious activities. There will be occasions on which rules and expectations are absolute, and others in which there is room for negotiation. And, at other times, there will be no precedent for a particular matter, and then one must proceed with all of the "definite" matters in mind, but as best as one can figure otherwise, and not be afraid to make a mistake or be corrected or find that things aren't working as well.

We do bring our entire being, which includes our experiences, our thoughts, our ideas, and our cultural baggage (whether from our birth culture or our culture by adoption, as is the case with many reconstructionists), into our spiritual lives, and so it would not be unheard of for something from one religious culture with which one is involved to become part of or influenced or inspired by another, if one is working within several such religious cultures. As long as one admits that is the case, and has enough self-consciousness (in the positive sense) to realize when that is occurring, and that furthermore nothing negative results from it, then there is no difficulty in doing such a thing.

So, this is a rather long-winded answer to what really boils down to a few things to keep in mind if authenticity to a particular culture is a value for one's spiritual practice: 1) sufficient knowledge of the core values of a particular culture, usually resulting from a great deal of study and reflection; 2) an awareness of "where one is" at a given moment, whether religiously or culturally or physically, in relation to the religious practices concerned; 3) remembering that divine realities are in a continuous process of unfolding, which runs in parallel with how the world and its peoples have changed over history; 4) the courage to not be afraid to make a mistake, get bored, or "sink in order to swim"--which in a certain sense goes to the very heart of another very common understanding of what "authenticity" happens to be (cue Sinatra here!); 5) the willingness to label what is directly from traditions accurately as such, and what is innovation equally accurately (and this is the point which most often gets ignored); and finally 6) always retain the ability to be surprised by what might end up happening. Innovation by its very nature is a process of being surprised, and this is true as much within a spiritual context as it is in any other endeavor. But, even with a regular practice of any kind, whether one that one is continuing and with which one has been engaged for years, or something which one is trying for the first time, the ability to be surprised by what one experiences (which fits in with the many ideas of not having expectations, preconceptions, judgements, and the like and cluttering one's mind with such things) is something that cannot be underestimated.

At the "Earth-Centered: Are We Really?" panel at the 2010 PantheaCon in San Jose (sponsored by Weiser Books, and organized by T. Thorn Coyle), Orion Foxwood remarked that if we (the conference attendees) thought we were the only ones having gatherings like this to share knowledge and collaborate on various issues and to redefine our purposes and clarify our understandings, then we were wrong, because similar things are occurring on the level of divine realities as well. To think that the gods sat down, once and for all, at some point way back in the times outside of time (!?!), and that was the end of things, is inaccurate in this view. Like any governing body, the parliament of the gods meets on a regular basis. And, if we take this image a bit further, I'm sure there is a sort of U.N. of the gods as well, where Quetzlcouatl and Ahura Mazda are rubbing shoulders now, even though no one in ancient Central America nor Persia would have conceived such a thing was possible. A new worldwide culture has not been created by this increased global interconnection and communication, and the same is true of different religions. However, it is still possible to have respectful relationships across these cultures, and to participate in several of them, whether as a visitor or as a resident alien or a naturalized citizen. As with nearly everything in modern polytheist practice, the options are far more numerous than they are limited, if only we are able to have as expansive a view on the matters as possible for ourselves in our present circumstances.

But, really, does this answer the question? Let me know if not!