Faith and Mystery

A few years ago, I picked up a fascinating (and often frustrating) book called The Shark God, by Charles Montgomery- a man who discovered that his great-grandfather had been a missionary in the South Pacific, and who decided to go there to retrace some of the stories he’d heard, and seek out the magic that might remain there.  Fascinating, because of the sympathetic depiction of a pre-Christian culture struggling (sometimes more successfully than not) with Christianization and Westernization, and also because of the real spiritual mystery that Montgomery sometimes found there (including an enigmatic encounter with the titular being).  Frustrating because of the narrator’s bumptiousness and occasional insensitivity, and because of the sense of so much lost to time and missionarial depredation.

But the author also was forced to do some deep thinking about the nature of myth, faith and mystery, and (although his brain was being periodically boiled by malaria… he never once mentions taking antimalarial drugs either, the twit), he comes up with some points well worth considering:

As soon as you stand apart from myths, divorce them from faith, pick apart their function and their origins, you become like an anthropologist, like Frazer peering through his ancient texts.  You may be fascinated and amused, but you will never see ghosts, or magic, or the hand of God, because you have stepped outside the realm of faith.  People say that religious fanatics are blinded by their faith.  Evans-Pritchard asserted that there is something just as blinding in rationalism.  You must make room for mystery before you can reach for it. [p100]

He sighed.  “Look, our knowledge of truth, the truth about that which is life-giving and eternal, it exists beyond the bounds of rationalism.  Faith carries us closer, but in the end we can’t describe it.  We just don’t have words for it.  At the end of the day, we are reduced to telling stories about that mystery.  That’s what I know.”[p305]

Faith, mystery, the Gods- we must be humble if we are to approach them successfully.

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Myths and the gods

The Shakespeare Theater is doing an adaption of the Oresteia (compressing it to one play of three acts) this season, and reading the notes on it in the season guide got me to musing about the nature of myth, especially in regards to the mythic portrayal of the gods. It’s fashionable these days to comb through (for example) the Greek myths and point out (with an odd combination of salacious humor and prim outrage) the “awful behavior” of Zeus.  And too much of the urban fantasy these days portrays the gods and spirits as just people with powers (if not spoiled superchildren or divine vending machines), and treats them flippantly or disrespectfully.

I think a lot of modern Western humanity’s arch snarking about the subject (and an underlying discomfort that causes it) comes from a number of modern, Western ideas:  1) that the gods and their motivations and plans are entirely knowable by and comprehensible to humanity; 2) that every situation allows us to make the right choice that leads to a good outcome or the wrong choice that leads to a bad outcome; 3) that we are capable of judging the gods and their actions as much as if not more so than vice versa; 4) that humanity is the crown of creation, the apex of evolution, and the master of its own fate…

All of these ideas are false from the polytheistic point of view.  Yes, myths can be re-interpreted (with respect), and the gods change the way they work with us as we change and are changed.  One real change about the modern era- it seems to be possible (though not for everyone) to ignore the gods… but if you choose to interact with them, and also try to hold onto any of those ideas, you’re in for a rude surprise.

Myths changing over time

I was just thinking about the modern re-working of the Persephone myth… the one where She and Hades are actually in love and elope instead of Him abducting Her.  I’m not going to bother digging up references- it’s all over the Pagan community, and even outside it (Messner-Loebs and Keith’s Epicurus the Sage has an amusing example…).  I’ve heard a few polytheists grousing about such modernizations, claiming that they are disrespectful to the Gods involved, and constitute a “politically correct” whitewashing of the truth.

I don’t agree.  Myths are sourced in the Gods and the holy, but they were given form by human minds and human culture.  Whether you think that the Gods change or not (I have my thoughts on the matter, which I may touch on at a later date), human thinking and culture do change, and have changed quite radically since the time the Greek myths were formulated.  Marriage by capture was widely practiced in the ancient Mediterranean, but it’s no longer something considered acceptable in the cultures that formed modern Paganism.  The lens changes, the image changes – even though the source of light remains the same.

This doesn’t mean that I can go around changing myths just because they make me feel uncomfortable or unhappy.  The Gods have the last word on Their stories, and should always be consulted.  I can’t speak for practitioners of Hellenismos or other Greek reconstructionist Pagan traditions, but I know that my group has sung songs for Persephone that use the modern form of the myth- and She was pleased.

The so-called “Maxims of the Fianna” (pt. 2)

As promised in my last post on the subject (long ago and far away though it is now), I’m finally getting around to the so-called “Maxims” themselves.  It’s Samhain night, a good night for tales of Fionn and the Fianna… As I mentioned before, they’re not identified in that way in the text (Rolleston appears to have inserted that subtitle himself, since it doesn’t appear in the translations… or in Lady Gregory’s version, FWIW).

They are, instead, a set of guidelines for a young warrior in service in a noble household. One could argue that this is not a situation that is likely to happen in the modern world, but they are instructions from Fionn himself, and so I feel they should be taken seriously. So, let’s see what we have here (using the Dooley and Roe translation); all of the comments are my own thoughts for modern application- I’m thinking out my own virtue system, so the ones mentioned are my thoughts (and perhaps some UPG), not meant to correspond to any existing set:

“Be peaceable in a great man’s house” If you’ve been given hospitality, don’t get rowdy or start fights with other guests. Virtue: Hospitality.

“Be hardy in the wilderness” Have some basic survival knowledge. Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Do not beat your hound without cause, nor libel your wife without proof” Virtue: Temperance.

“Avoid the fool in battle, though he be frenzied.” Choose your fights. Virtue: Temperance

“Do not mock the holy man” Virtue: Piety

“Nor be involved in quarrels” This may seem like an impossible task in this day and age, but perhaps it could be applied this kind of situation. Virtue: Temperance

“Keep well away from these two, the witch and the evil man” In context, I take “witch” to mean “worker of bad magic”… ‘ all apologies to modern-day Pagans… So, basically, “you’re known by the company you keep”. Virtue: Integrity

“Two thirds of your courtesy to women and the household servants” In the context of the text, this seems to be noblesse oblige; I can interpret this as being good to those who might be taken for granted. Virtue: Kindness

“Be kind to poets, the makers of art, and the common soldiery” You could make a triad of these, naming them as supports of freedom. Also, more practically, three groups of people you don’t want to have mad at you… Virtues: Kindness, Piety (especially towards the first two)

“Do not take the best seat away from friends and advisers” Be good to those close to you. Virtue: Loyalty

“Avoid false and crooked oaths” Virtue: Honesty

“Do not welcome everybody” This may seem to go against hospitality, but if you know someone is bad… Virtue: Integrity

“Do not boast overmuch, nor offer what you cannot rightly give;
For grand words are shameful if nothing result.” Virtue: Temperance

“Do not forsake your overlord for as long as you live,
For gold, silver, or wealth do not betray your guarantor.” Virtue: Loyalty

“Avoid blustering complaint to a lord about his household;
A good man has no business libelling retainers to their lord.” Nobody likes a complainer and a tale-teller. Virtue: Integrity

“Keep from constant gossip and lies, and from impetuous speech;
Though you be generous, deride none in public.” Nobody likes a gossip, either. Virtue: Integrity

“Do not frequent ale-houses” Virtue: Temperance

“Nor be unkind to an old man” Virtue: Kindness

“Listen to words of good counsel” This will be what you get from the friends and advisors mentioned above, if you treat them well. Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Have no truck with the rabble” Choose your company and your inputs well (e.g. don’t read forum comments on YouTube 😉 ) Virtue: Temperance

“Be a listener in the forest, a watcher on the plain;
For you do not know – this matters – if your enemy lies in wait for you.” Always be on the look-out for good intel; it’s worth its weight in gold. Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Do not be mean with provisions, or be a miser’s friend” Virtues: Generosity, Hospitality

“Do not impose yourself on a great lord” Don’t be a suck-up or a parasite. Virtue: Integrity

“Do not speak ill of great men” If they’re truly great, that is… Virtue: Integrity

“Have your armor and weapons ready for the outbreak of sudden battle” Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Do not be mean with your wealth” Virtue: Generosity

“Be constant with your courtliness” It never hurts to be polite. Virtue: Kindness

So, even taking into account my disclaimers at the beginning of this post, you can extract the following virtues from the “Maxims”: Hospitality, Temperance, Resourcefulness, Piety, Honesty, Loyalty, Kindness, Generosity. Not bad…

 

Sometimes we’re living in science fiction. Sometimes it’s more like a Borges story.

[I used to publish my non-devotional poetry on my LiveJournal account, but their recent TOS changes make me unwilling to do so.  Until I figure out whether I’m going to bother with Dreamwidth for anything other than reading others’ journals, I’m going to post it here when I feel so moved.  Honestly, since I dedicate all my poetry to Brigid, none of it is actually non-devotional…]

Inspired by this article from Atlas Obscura, I give you:

Uncharted

In some wind of internet terrain,
A program waits, patient, bits
Ticking over.  The glass turns, algorithms wake-
Random bumps appear, are eroded;
Meticulous calculations churn for
Ninety seconds (geologic ages in server time),
And maps emerge- mountains looming over valleys,
Coastlines carved in with bays and capes,
Islands jewel-scattered across oceans.
All this done in hand-drawn style,
Fantasy-labeled with names hinting of
History and deep language, fit for the
Endpapers of novels.  An atlas
Building itself from water and topography
Every hour- and the rivers always reach the sea.

The So-called “Maxims of the Fianna”, (pt. 1)

Several weeks ago, both sides in one of the many recent polytheistic scuffles tried to make their points using a bit of Irish myth/story called The Maxims of the Fianna.  Once again, my Fionn mac Cumhaill senses started tingling, especially since I didn’t need a thumb of wisdom to be suspicious…  The original source of this material is the 12th-century work known as Acallam na Senórach (“Colloquy of the Ancients”),  the most important text of the Fenian cycle.  Rolleston seems to be drawing from the O’Grady translation of 1892, which is outdated in many ways; he also interpolates the title “Maxims of the Fianna”- this designation isn’t in the O’Grady translation or the adaption by Lady Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (a much more faithful and readable adaption, IMHO).

Any excuse to go and do some research!  Full disclosure-  I don’t have any appreciable Old or Middle Irish skills.  But it turns out that there is a much more recent translation available- Tales of the Elders of Ireland, by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe, so I snapped that up.  It’s a very good translation- flowing, almost terse, with vivid description that doesn’t founder in the purple prose of its Victorian predecessors.  The poetry is all translated, too (a lot of 19th and early 20th century translations of Irish material omit the poetry), albeit with no attempt to capture the meter and alliteration of the original.

Not that I didn’t have my problems with this edition- the translators chose to translate most of the names and titles out of the original Irish, rather than leave them in; I understand the reason for this but I’d have preferred them to be glossed.  The introduction basically ignores the mythic value of the tales to focus on history and politics, but this ends up being useful in its own way.  You have to strip away several layers of Christianity, Irish Church politics, and contemporary historical context to get at the meat of these tales, and the introduction helps.

And boy, do you need to strip away- there’s just so much Christian triumphalism and sanctimonious Patrick hagiography in it, as well as a fair bit of disrespectful treatment of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  That being said, there are some lovely stories here, and some of the most lovely praises of Fionn in the Fenian material.

Which gets us to the so-called “maxims”.  To make a long story short, Fionn’s grandson, Mac Lugach, is being a jerk to the rest of the Fianna, and they pressure Fionn to get him under control.  So Fionn sits the lad down and gives him some sage advice.  It’s not presented as a series of “maxims” or general rules for the Fianna- it’s personal advice.  Dooley and Roe place it in the “advice to princes” category of medieval Irish literature, and further point out that it’s specifically focused on the proper behavior of a young man in military service in a king’s household.  Thus, it’s not necessarily of relevance to a civilian (and seems a little… hierarchical… to be important to an anarchist activist) or even to a modern day soldier.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it.  In my next post on the subject, I’ll cover that.

The Problem of Diarmuid and Grainne

As a devotee of Fionn MacCumhaill, I’m always happy to find books dealing with his legends (and those of the Fianna in general).  So I was very happy the other day when Monster Alice pointed out a lovely book to me in a used book store:  Dermot of the Bright Weapons.  It’s about Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of the most famous of Fionn’s Fianna.  The illustrations were just beautiful, and it was in decent shape for something published over 75 years ago, so I snapped it up.

Half the book is devoted to possibly the most famous story of Diarmuid, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (“The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne”).  In short, it goes like this:  Gráinne is betrothed to Fionn.  She doesn’t want to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, so puts Diarmuid under geasa to elope with her.  Fionn pursues them, although the sentiments of the Fianna are more inclined to the eloped couple.  Lots of adventures happen, then Aenghus Og (Diarmuid’s foster father) intercedes and makes peace.  But some years later, Fionn and Diarmuid are on a boar hunt, and when the boar gores Diarmuid, Fionn refuses to heal him and lets him die.

I’ve never been happy with this story.  It casts Fionn as the villain- he acts completely inconsistently with his character in other stories.  I have to remind myself that I’m looking at these stories as myth- and in myths, gods and heroes and other Powers often act in ways that aren’t right by human standards.  Myths aren’t about us, they’re about the Powers, so our values don’t necessarily apply.

A lot of the literary use of this story frustrates me, though.  It got sentimentalized  by a number of the “Celtic Twilight” authors;  the retellings of the story have a tendency to focus on the romantic love aspects, an anachronism at least, and make Fionn out to be some sort of vengeful ogre.   Gráinne tends to come out looking pretty bad, too. But if you remember some other aspects of Diarmuid’s background, the bones of the story become a spare, harsh, but beautifully complete tragedy:

  1. Diarmuid is under a divine curse that he will be killed by a magical boar.
  2. He has a “love spot” which makes him irresistible to women who see it.
  3. Gráinne is fine with being betrothed to Fionn (a grandfather back then wouldn’t necessarily be all that old… and remember what Kissinger said about power).
  4. But she sees Diarmuid’s love spot and falls for him.
  5. She puts him under geasa to elope with her.
  6. Fionn quite justifiably pursues them.
  7. Aonghus Og makes peace, but Fionn still bears a grudge (understandable).
  8. Fionn tries to keep Diarmuid from going on the boar hunt by telling him about the divine curse.
  9. Diarmuid ignores the warning (hubris, a classic tragic flaw) and is gored by the magical boar.
  10. Fionn’s grudge and the curse combine and Diarmuid dies.
  11. In some versions of the story, Gráinne forgives Fionn and ends up back with him.  If she was under an enchantment (from the “love spot”) all along, this makes a lot more sense.

Stripped of all the nonsense, this is a compelling and heartrending story, and works much better as a myth.  It’s not a happy story, but that’s not what myths are for.