Friday, July 11, 2014

The Heretical Heathen presents at East Coast Thing and the Polytheist Leadership Conference

Here is the link to the handout which accompanied my presentation:

For those of you at home, this handout was elucidated by my spoken presentation, but it is filled with ideas, quotations, and sources, some of which have appeared in my blog posts before, and some of which have not.  So it might be worth a look even without the spoken component.

But stay tuned, I have some new essays in development that I am hoping to post soon.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Polytheist Parable: Hacker

Another polytheist parable, this one foreshadowing a new essay post to be published eventually...


I waited at a distance until the bowl had been replaced and only approached when the tremors had died down.

"Why'd you do it?" I asked him.
He turned his head toward the sound of my voice, but it was a few moments before he seemed to focus on me.
"Why?" he croaked, and a memory came alive in his bloodshot eyes and his scarred lips trembled. "Nobody's perfect."
I fled the broken sound of his laughter.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Polytheist Parables: Drinking with Odin

I am starting a new sort of post this month.  My longer, essay-style posts take time for research, contemplation and composition, so I am only able to do a few each year.  To balance out these long, analytic pieces, I have begun to write very short creative pieces I call "Polytheist Parables."  Some parables will be readable and understandable by anyone, others will requires some knowledge of Northern European lore, so a bit of research may be needed to unlock their full meaning.  All of them will have a riddle-like quality that may require contemplation, re-reading, and the consideration of multiple meanings.  I hope you enjoy these parables; if not, at least they are very short.

Drinking with Odin

By then I had a bit too much, and I turned to Odin and asked rather artlessly, "So are you real, or what?"
His single eye glittered flintily, and he did not smile.
So I just dropped it and we spoke of other things.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"Mother Earth" is No Mere Metaphor: Relation, Personification, and Survival

The polytheist/animist act of personifying phenomena is perhaps the hardest thing for many modern people to understand, and is thus often misunderstood in a simplistically literal way. I want to examine one such act that has great resonance across world cultures: the act of personifying the earth as a mother goddess. My hope is that if the rationale for seeing the earth as a goddess can be understood, this understanding could then be extended to illuminate the reasons for the personified forms of other gods and spirits.  I also hope to demonstrate how personification probably aided, and may yet still aid, in the survival of our species by comparing the consequences of personified vs. objectified relationships with the earth.
Hal wes þu folde, fira modor!
"Health and wholeness to you, earth, mother of men!"
(Anglo-Saxon Land Ceremonies Charm, early 11th century.)
Thus no clear criteria of evidence, logic, or certainty separate religion even from its supposed antithesis, science. Instead, they are separated most sharply by their attitude toward anthropomorphism: science tries to avoid it, while religions take it as foundation. (Guthrie 196.)

Earth as Mother

Gaia, the Greek Earth Goddess

"Mother Earth" is an expression that is common in modern times and also has an ancient history. Naming earth as a mother, for instance, can be traced back through the various Indo-European languages. West has identified various forms of the expression in the oldest linguistic forms of Hittite, Greek, Asia Minor, Armenian, Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic cultures. Variations of the idea can also be found in ancient non-Indo-European cultures on every continent. (Though many ancient religions have an earth mother goddess, it should also be noted there are many other gods and spirits connected with the earth in various ways, and that the theology of the earth is always more complex than just positing a single goddess. I will, however, be setting these complexities aside in this essay for the sake of the clarity of this example of personification.)

Most people in the modern west consider the expression "Mother Earth" to be only figurative: a metaphor expressing a poetic understanding that should not be taken literally. What I hope to show here is that this concept is in fact also very literal, and that the ancient sense of the poetic was not about dressing up reality in some sort of flowery fancy, but rather a method for drawing one's attention to the reality and meaning of human lived experience.

The earth is, of course, the source of all of our sustenance. Our food is grown from it or derived from animals who inhabit a food chain that traces back to the earth. The earth embraces us with a gravitational force which also holds the atmosphere we breathe. Water, the essential stuff of life, is drawn from the earth's surface and subsurface.

But the earth not only sustains us; it also provided the environment in which our species evolved. We are, in two senses, of the earth. Our physical being is not only constructed of and maintained by the fruits of the earth, but its form and functions were shaped by its interactions with the earth's environment.

From our essential relationship to the earth outlined above, it is obvious how the earth can be considered to be a mother. Though we are nurtured in the womb and born out of a human mother, the ultimate source of sustenance for both our human mothers and ourselves is the earth. Just as we take shape in the womb, the earth also shaped our species, including the process of growth in the womb. In this way the earth can be seen as the mother behind all mothers, not just of human beings, but of all life on earth. As we grow older, our reliance on our human mothers for supplying physical sustenance grows less and less, but our dependency on the sustenance of the earth remains unchanged. Thus the earth remains essential to our existence long after our dependency on our human mothers wanes.

It is perhaps becoming more and more apparent why it is quite rational to assert that the expression "Mother Earth" it is not only apt metaphor, but literal truth. Some, however, will still balk on the grounds that only living things can be considered true "mothers" and that to call the earth "mother" is still merely a metaphor comparing the common traits of two distinct phenomena.

This brings us to what I feel is the core misunderstanding modern people have in their ideas about the ancient habit of personifying non-human creatures and natural forces, which is to assume that it is a sort of categorical mistake where one object or entity is confused with another, or more specifically, a non-human or nonliving phenomenon is assumed to have a human-like mind and then rituals and prayers are created in devotion to this illusionary entity.

The distinction which is critical here is that between confusing phenomena for human-like beings vs. relating to them as persons.

The Process of Personification

In modern western cultures we like to think that we approach phenomena through a rational and empirical process of categorization. The logic of this approach demands that we consider a phenomenon a "true" instance of one sort of category and not a "false" instance of another. Operating under this assumption, when one encounters people speaking with the earth, showing it gratitude, asking it favors, offering gifts in the form of sacrifice, etc, one notices that this is behavior which appears to be modeled on behavior one would expect from one human being toward another. One then asks if the earth is a "true" instance of a human-like agent that can hear prayers and respond by granting favors, and finding this to be "false," the assumption is that the behavior is based on a categorical error where either the earth itself has been mistaken for a human-like agent, or there is an erroneous belief in some sort of invisible human-like agent dwelling within the earth. Since this behavior is based on error, it is then concluded, the behavior is itself erroneous and without practical value.

This assumption, that personification occurs when there is first an error of category, followed by erroneous behavior, underlies most of the theoretical models for trying to understand how the error of category occurs in the first place. One of these models of explanation which is popular right now is hypersensitive agent detection theory.
The idea makes a lot of sense: we see faces in the clouds, but never clouds in faces, because we have special cognitive modules for face detection. The face detector is on a hair trigger, and it makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction--false positives (seeing a face when no real face is present, e.g., :) ) rather than false negatives (failing to see a face that is really present.) Similarly, most animals confront the challenge of distinguishing events that are caused by the presence of another animal (an agent that can move under its own power) from those that are caused by the wind, or a pinecone falling, or anything that lacks agency.

The solution to this challenge is an agency detection module, and like the face detector, it's on a hair trigger. It makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction--false positives (detecting an agent where none is present), rather than false negatives (failing to detect the presence of a real agent). ... If you want to know why it is on a hair trigger, just think about what kind of error would be more costly the next time you are walking alone at night in a deep forest or a dark alley. The hypersensitive agency detection device is finely tuned to maximize survival, not accuracy.

But suppose that early humans, equipped with a hypersensitive agency detector, a new ability to engage in shared intentionality, and a love of stories, begins to talk about their many misperceptions. Suppose they begin attributing agency to the weather. (Thunder and lightning sure make it seem as though somebody up in the sky is angry at us.) Suppose a group of humans begins jointly creating a pantheon of invisible agents who cause the weather, and other assorted cases of good or bad fortune. Voila--the birth of supernatural agents, not as an adaption for anything, but as a by-product of a cognitive module that is otherwise highly adaptive. (Haidt, 252-253.)
In this theory, personification arose as an error of category in a particular sequence: first, phenomena is mistaken for an agent modeled on a human being, then erroneous behavior occurs when phenomena is treated like a human being.

This theory sounds very reasonable, but its assumption about how personification actually works, first detecting an agent and then building ritual behavior toward that agent, does not hold up when compared to ethnographic data from traditional cultures or even our own modern experience of personifying, which we do more often than we may notice.

Culturally categorizing something as a person is a much more fluid and subjective process than categorizing something objectively as a human being or a human-like entity. There can be vast differences in what is considered a person in different cultures, whereas there is a lot less room for interpretation when in comes to human beings. In modern western culture, for example, family pets are persons. They are treated like members of the family, spoken to, given treats, sometimes even clothed, and are mourned when they pass on. However, though they are clearly treated as persons, family pets are never mistaken for human beings. We also regularly personify a range of inanimate objects, such as cars and computers, which we encourage and chastise, sometimes vigorously. Yet we do not mistake these objects for human beings, nor do we assume that an invisible human-like entity is hidden within either our pets or our computers.

A native Inuit representation of personification. Clearly this
is not to be taken entirely literally, so why do theorists so
often interpret personification entirely literally?
What I wish to suggest, then, is that rather than an error of category, what is occurring in other cultures when they treat with gods and spirits is that they simply have a greater range of what they relate to as persons, made possible by a more metaphoric and less logical system of classification.  Thinking religiously probably always has the indeterminate quality that Winterbourne points out among the ancient Egyptians. "Indeed, they were capable of a subtlety of thinking that evades precise expression within the framework of our formalized logic systems, wherein there are the categories "true" and "false," with no space whatever between the two--where the logic-gate, in other words, is either open or closed." (Winterbourne, 2004)  Religion mixes literal and metaphoric elements; its assertions are neither entirely "true" nor entirely "false" in the terms of modern, western logic.

Furthermore, and this is the essential difference, the personification of phenomena occurs primarily through the classification of the relationship between humans and phenomena, and not primarily through a system of classification of phenomena as distinct agents or objects. We assume that cultures that personify gods and spirits are making a literal "true" statement about the existence of entities, when, in fact, they are not speaking our language of empirical logic at all, but their language which mixes metaphoric and literal elements to focus on the phenomenological relationship between things, not the things themselves. "When they pick up a relatively changing thing with their relatively changing selves--and, all the more, when it happens in a relatively unusual manner--they regard as devaru [spirit] this particular thing within this particular situation." (Bird-Davis, 74.) This is the critical mistake that is made by modern westerners when they try to explain gods and spirits. They assume that the posited existence of these entities is primary and the relationship is secondary, but "surely, one did not first encounter the divine and then cultivate contact with it." (Assmann, 2001, after Winterbourne, 2004.) I suggest that the relationship is primary, followed by a secondary personification.
We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize with them. Recognizing a 'conversation' with a counter-being--which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence--makes that being a self in relation with ourselves. (Bird-David, 78, italics in original)
Thus religious beliefs are primarily statements about social relationships, not empirical observations or categorical errors. "For example, faith, often thought the opposite of the scientific attitude, is an attitude primarily toward persons, not toward nature or even culture. It is an aspect of social relation. Because religion is an ostensible social relationship, it tends to be nonempircal, since openly testing a social relationship (unlike a relation to a car or a computer) undermines it." (Guthrie, 202.) You do not violate your tribe's sacred and sustaining relationship with Mother Earth any more than you test the loyalty of your friends by betraying them.

Furthermore, the theory of a categorical error of followed by erroneous behavior seems to assume that humans evolved first to have relationships with other humans and then applied this model to their environments. The reality is, however, that they evolved to have relationships with other humans and the non-human environment simultaneously
We may admit that humans are, indeed, just like other animals; not, however, insofar as they exist as organisms rather than persons, as constituent entities in an objective world of nature presented as a spectacle to detached scientific observation, but by virtue of their mutual involvement, as undivided centres of action and awareness, within a continuous life process. In this process, the relations that human beings have with one another form just one part of the total field of relations embracing all living things. There can, then, be no radical break between social and ecological relations; rather, the former constitute a subset of the latter. (Ingold, 59-60, italics in the original.)

Understanding the simultaneity of the evolution of human relationships to other humans and non-humans casts a new light on our understanding of kinship terms applied to non-human phenomena.
Classically anomalies of this kind have been dealt with by constructing a special category of 'fictive kinship' which is modeled on, but nevertheless fundamentally distinct from, the 'real' kinship founded on genealogical connection. But the people themselves, for whom there is no anomaly, are telling us something quite different. It is that the role of parents is not, as the genealogical model implies, to pass on to their offspring the essential specifications of personhood in advance of their entry into the lifeworld, but rather -- by their presence, their activities and the nururance they provide -- to establish the necessary conditions in the environment for their children's growth and development. This is what kinship is all about. And since the spirit inhabitants of the land contribute to human well-being equally, and on the same footing, as do human forbears, providing both food, guidance and security, they too can be 'big' fathers and mothers. (Ingold, 141.)
Thus, "personhood" arose primarily to classify kinds of relationships, not kinds of entities. To call the earth one's mother is not an anthropomorphic categorical error, mistaking the ground beneath one's feet for a human being to which one is related genealogically, rather it is the recognition of a category of personified relatedness that one has with non-humans as well as other human beings; "it is as entire persons, not as disembodied minds, that human beings engage with one another, and, moreover, with non-human beings as well." (Ingold, 47) To ask whether there is some invisible human-like entity within the earth, or to ask whether the earth itself has a human-like mind and is capable of thought, are questions which assume an objective categorical error and create supernatural assumptions and metaphysical models that may severely misrepresent non-western cultural concepts and unduly complicate the simple, natural and practical human process of personifying nonhuman relationships. Though it is undeniable that native superstitious assumptions regarding agency can and do develop from this basic recognition of personhood, I would suggest that they are not the driving force of its origin, and one must be cautious to make sure that one only asserts the existence of such superstitions when the evidence is explicitly in favor of such an interpretation and not merely assume their presence. There are fine but meaningful lines between cultural convention, metaphor and superstition.

We personify pets and computers because of our interactions with them, and in these cases mistaken agency does not appear to be necessary for personification to occur. We don't confuse them for human-like entities any more than other cultures necessarily confuse the phenomena they call gods and spirits for human-like entities. Though modern western conceptions of deity may focus on the truth or falsity of the existence of objective supernatural entities, this is not the way that other cultures understand gods and spirits. Though I don't rule out either a hypersensitive agent detection module or deny that personification can become highly superstitious, I do think that modern western people make a serious mistake when they assume, first, that gods and spirits result from a mistake in agency followed by a relationship, rather than a relationship that is understood in terms of a cultural category of personhood, and, second, that modern western people do not themselves regularly personify nonhuman phenomena on both the level of the individual and on the level of culture.

Personhood, Ecology, and Survival

In other writings I have discussed the necessity of personification for poetic expression and the preservation of knowledge, as well as the reasons why a person-like relationship is the most complex way humans have of relating to phenomena. Now we will consider how the complexity of a personified relationship affects human interaction with the natural environment and the potential for sustained survival within that environment.

Scott Atran and Douglas Medin decided to test how the spiritual beliefs of native peoples affected their conceptions of, and relations with, the ecosystem. What they discovered in their studies of the Itza' Maya, a South American native people, was that the Itza' personification of natural phenomena in the form of forest spirits directed their attention to natural phenomena in a way which created a better understanding of the inter-relatedness of local ecologies than other local cultural groups that personified less, and that these beliefs encouraged the Itza' to employ more sustainable and less competitive ways of exploiting these ecologies than those other groups.
To date, rational-decision and game-theoretic accounts involving human use of nonhuman resources generally have not considered nonhuman resources (e.g. the forest) and humans both as "players" in the same game, presumably because natural resources are assumed not to have motives, desires, beliefs, or strategies for cooperation or deception that would be sensitive, and systematically responsive to corresponding aspects of human intention. Money, trees, fish, and other resources are treated as inert objects in a game, not interacting agents. ... Our point is about practice, not possibility. People's conceptualization of resources may make a difference in how they play the game. For example, people's agroforestry behavior may differ as a function of whether they consider the forest to be an inert object or an actor that intentionally responds to their actions. Indeed, one claim for "animistic" and "anthropomorphic" interpretations of species in many small-scale societies is that the "intention gap" between humans and species is thus bridged (at least to human satisfaction) with outcomes mutually beneficial to the survival of species and of the human groups that live off of those species. ... This has intriguing implications for ecological decision theory and game theory in that individual Itza' may be basing their cognitive and behavioral strategies for sustaining the forest more by playing a game (i.e. negotiating costs and benefits of mutual cooperation) with spirits than by playing a game with other people. (Atran and Medin, 198-199.)
Again, the essence of this personification is relational. A belief in forest spirits arises in precisely the place where the Itza's livelihood is sustained, and it is conceived of as an social interaction.
Our tentative line of reasoning is that Itza', and perhaps other native peoples with a long history of ecological maintenance, might not treat resources as traditional decision and game theory suggests--that is as objects of a payoff matrix (extensional items substitutable along some metric, such as one that assigns monetary value to every object.) Instead, some people may treat resources, such as species, as intentional, relational entities, like friends or enemies. (Atran and Medin, 195-196)
The Itza' belief in forest spirits causes them to conceive of the forest and its species in terms of persons and not as objects, and this relationship, in turn, has affected the well-being and sustainability of the environment. The beliefs of the Itza' "not only predict behavioral tendencies and stated values, but also correlate reliably with the measurable consequences of those behaviors and values--even down to the level of soil composition and the number and variety of trees found on people's land." (Atran and Medin, 208.) Personification is thus not just a way that people relate to the land; it also creates the kind of land to which people relate.

If the fact that people naturally personify can help them survive, this would suggest that, rather than an evolutionary mechanism gone awry, such as a hypersensitive agent detection module, personification of nonhuman phenomena may actually have been a trait that was selected for itself instead of a side-effect or "spandrel" of another selected trait. Personification is certainly something that all humans do, as amply demonstrated by the existence of gods and spirits in every single ancient culture and our own relationship with our pets, cars and computers, and it appears to be done with or without recourse to concepts of agency.  Personification may not be so much a quirk as a critical survival trait.
Our indigenous ancestors, after all, had to survive and flourish without any of the technologies upon which we moderns have come to depend.  It seems unlikely that our ancestral lineages could have survived if the animistic sensibility were purely an illusion, if this experience of the sensible surroundings as sensitive and even sentient were a callow fantasy utterly at odds with the actual character of those surroundings.  The long survival of our species suggests that the instinctive expectation of animateness, of an interior spontaneity proper to all things, was a very practical way to encounter our environment--indeed, perhaps the most effective way to align our human organism with the shifting vicissitudes of a difficult, dangerous and capricious cosmos.  (Abram 43-44.)
 But is this sense of a living  world still important in modern times, or is it merely vestigial? How fares Mother Nature in the modern era?

I think even a cursory look at the modern relationship humans have with the earth shows the effects of abandoning personification for objectification. To make a very long story very short: from the rise of monotheisms which devalued the feminine, declared all relationships with local polytheistic gods and spirits false and/or evil, and changed the focus of meaningful interaction from the natural world to a supernatural otherworld; through the Age of Reason which valued disembodied theories and models of the natural world over the lived and embodied experience with and relationship to the living landscape; to modern day capitalism which commodifies all resources and often values short-term profit over long-term sustainability, Mother Nature, once seen as the Mother of Us All, has been whittled down to a dead metaphor referring to a natural resource which can be competed for, instead of a relationship with the cultural, nonhuman person who nurtures all life.  Bird-David points out how this change in status of Mother Earth is apparent when you compare how the Nayaka, hunter-gatherers in South India, personify the landscape, with conceptions of "Mother Earth" during the Renaissance when
[n]ature generally and earth particularly were personified as a woman and, furthermore, as a mother, but "mother" was used as a symbol, dissociated from interactive, dynamic social relationships. "Mother" was associated with attributes such as giving life and nurturing, which themselves were thought of in a social and historical vacuum, as consistent qualities transcending time, space and the dynamics of actual relationships. In the Nayaka case, hills were personified as grandparents. But "grandparents" were beings one socially interacted with, arguing, negotiating, etc. In the first case, "mother" was used as a metaphor, and the animistic project involved "a system of correspondences," parallels between humans and nonhumans, and therefore a heightened awareness of their separation. In the second case, "grandparent" was used as a synechdoche; the animistic project involved--and heightened--interconnectedness between humans and their environment. (Bird-David, 89.)
I disagree with Bird-David that metaphor, which understands one phenomena in light of the understanding of another, is a tool of separation as opposed to synecdoche, where the part stands for the whole, since metaphor, like synecdoche, is clearly a tool for highlighting the similarities between entities, not their differences, and synecdoche is usually considered a subclass of metaphor and not a completely distinct form of imagery.  However, this does not detract from her main point about how the Renaissance personification of Mother Earth, which is essentially the same as our own modern view, comes from a very different perspective from its ancient usage, and that the difference is essentially one of relationship. Keeping this in mind, it is interesting to note that the otherworldly focus of monotheism initially took root in cities, where the people no longer had a close relationship with the land. The last to covert were those living in the countryside, who were labeled pagani or "pagans" or haithno, "heathens." (Dowden, 3-4.)
Like the Itza', the way we relate to the land creates the land (and, in our case, entire planet) we relate to. Pollution, soil erosion, landfills, radioactive waste, climate change, strip mining, fraking, overfishing, deforestation, drillings and excavations of all kinds are done with an eye for profit and often with a disregard of consequences, much less a concern for a sacred and sustaining relationship with the land.

If the Itza' honor their forest spirits, what non-human persons do modern western cultures pay homage to through personification?
In 1886...the chief justice of the Supreme Court declared in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that a private corporation is a natural person under the U.S. Constitution--although...the Constitution makes no mention of corporations. Subsequent court decisions interpreted this to mean that corporations are entitled to the full protections of the Bill of Rights, including free speech and other constitutional protections extended to individuals. (Korten, 65-66.)
Since corporations supply both the means by which many of us earn our living and the products we purchase for our survival, comfort, entertainment, and convenience, it seems natural that we would personify the complex relationship we have with corporations in the same way that the Itza' personify their complex relationship with the source of their livelihood. However, there is one crucial difference. The Itza' personify the fundamental source of their sustenance, whereas we personify only the human institutional aspect of our survival while objectifying the fundamental source. In this way we bear some similarity to "cargo cults" which worship the means of material acquisition rather than its true source. Moreover, corporations often degrade the amount, variety, and sustainability of the natural resources they exploit. Despite many of the things they do which sustain and enrich our lives, they are changing the planet in ways that make it less habitable for all life, even human life, and that trade-off is not examined often or closely enough in the boardrooms, which are commonly at a great distance from where the ecological consequences of decisions will play out, and where immediate profit, and not long-term sustainability or survival, is always the primary consideration.

Pachamama, "Mother World"
Yet, some have indeed realized the necessity of a different sort of conception of the earth and have asked the question
Does Mother Nature deserve the same protection as your own mother?

Lawmakers in Bolivia think so. The South American country's leaders are on the brink of passing a revolutionary set of rules that would grant nature equal rights to humans--a first of its kind.

Known as the Law of Mother Earth ("Ley de Derechos de La Madre Tierra" in Spanish), the legislation will create 11 distinguished rights for the environment, as The Guardian outlines:
"They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered."
Bolivians have long revered the Pachamama, Andean goddess of Mother Earth, and the law is said to be greatly inspired by a resurgence in the indigenous belief that the deity is central to all life. As Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said when describing the measure, "Earth is the mother of all...the harmony [between man and nature] must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration." (The Huffington Post)
What is fascinating about this legislation, which was passed in December 2010, is that it not only grants rights, but also personhood to the earth, and does so not only using the ancient Mother Earth metaphor, but the specific indigenous understanding of that metaphor: the goddess Pachamama, whose name literally means "Mother World". What this implies is exactly what I feel Atran and Medin's study of the Itza' implies, that an intellectual understanding is sufficient to comprehend the consequences of our relationship to the environment, but it may only be personification--granting status and rights at the same level as that of human beings--which can actually change our behavior toward the environment. We simply do not pay as much attention to, or value as highly, inert objects or nonhuman organisms as we do to phenomena we accept culturally as persons.
The familiar discourse of "objects" and objective processes, for example, resolutely holds us aloof from the sustaining earth.  It forces us to disengage from our bodily senses and view this wild-flourishing world as though we were spectators coolly observing it from outside.  When we uncritically allude to material nature as a set of inert objects, or even as a clutch of determinate, mechanical processes, we block the perceptual interplay between ourselves and our surroundings. (Abram, 63.)
The empirical perspective leads us to objective understanding, but in doing so disembodies us and disconnects us from the feelings of (child-like) connection and dependence that might inspire in us a more appreciative and respectful attitude toward our daily personal consumption of resources. Once culture has personified such a relationship, however, empirical science will be an invaluable tool to help show us how to pay proper homage to our relationship to the land and the planet.

Gods and spirits, if conceived of not as some otherworldly entities, but as personified relationships to nonhuman phenomena, are not necessarily merely superstitious or romantic; reconceived with a modern understanding, as was done in Bolivia, they may be the key to our continued health, well-being, and survival. It is quite clear that knowledge alone cannot save our planet, only changes in our day-to-day living behavior can. Ancient peoples who lived sustainability over vast stretches of time found it useful and natural to personify their relationships with the ecologies that nourished them. These ancient cultures did not posses some mystic sense that we have lost, rather they simply granted the species and ecologies they depended upon a status similar to human beings, creating a respectful caution and reciprocity in their exploitation of resources. On the other hand, in a comparably very short amount of time the modern habit of objectifying nonhuman phenomena has done great, and in many cases irreparable, damage to our planet and its inhabitants, including ourselves. I believe any culture which allows human institutions which exploit natural resources, such as corporations, the status of persons, but denies this status and the rights that go with it to the natural resources which are the ultimate foundation of human existence, is on a road to self-destruction.

Just as ancient personification was not merely, or even essentially, superstitious, modern personification need not be grounded in the supernatural.  As a matter of fact, our understanding of the complexity of our inter-relatedness with the planet has only grown as our empirical understanding has grown, giving us more ways to see our kinship with nonhuman life and life processes.  Yet our cultural and legal institutions have not kept pace with this understanding or the urgency of its implications.  Furthermore, if corporations can be granted legal personhood and rights without recourse to the supernatural, then so can the natural environment.  It is past time we re-examine our cultural conceptions of personhood and formally accept our very real kinship and shared fate with the nonhuman persons of this living world, the Mother of Us All.
Sculpture in Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, England


Abrams, David, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2010

Atran, Scott and Medin, Douglas, The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature, 2008.

Bird-David, Nurit, "'Animism' Revisted: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistimology" in Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, Feb. 1999

Dowden, Ken, European Paganism, The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, 2000

Guthrie, Stewart, Faces in the Clouds: a New Theory of Religion, 1993

Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, 2012

The Huffington Post,"Bolivia's Law Of Mother Earth Would Give Nature And Humans Equal Protection," May, 13, 2011

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Korten, Daivd C., When Corporations Rule the World, 2001

West, M. L., Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007

Winterbourne, Anthony, When the Norns Have Spoken, Time and Fate in Germanic Paganism, 2004

Friday, September 30, 2011

Necessary Masks for the Larger Mysteries

This is part three of an ongoing series of posts on the nature of gods and spirits. Part one described the necessity of personifying experience in the medium of oral story and song. Part two concerned the different modes and purposes of empirical vs. religious modes of conceptualizing experience. In this part the two ideas are unified to discuss the reason that ancient cultures related to gods and spirits as if they were people.

Who are these creatures called the gods? They are dismissed as idle fictions by atheists and monotheists, capitalists and clergymen alike. But gods, in the plural, are found wherever human beings are found -- unless human beings claim exclusive rights, power and privilege, dispossessing the gods of their homes. Those who ask what a god is, like those have to ask what a mountain or an eagle or a forest is, will not learn the answer from a book. --Robert Bringhurst, The Tree of Meaning

Humans in every time and in every place in the world (besides, very arguably, the modern West) lived alongside a range of gods and spirits. The universality of this phenomena points to it as a basic human trait. Theories abound as to why humans should treat with these entities, and whether such beliefs constitute an adaptive trait or a mere “spandrel” or by-product of other adaptive mechanisms. One such theory posits that personification came about through the usefulness of a human template for understanding the complexity of non-human phenomena.
The most order is supplied by the highest organization, and the highest organization we know is that of human beings. Interpretations of the world based on experience of ourselves and other humans offer not only the significance of a powerful agent but also that of an organizing agent. Models based on humans account for a uniquely wide range of phenomena because humans, whom the models reflect, generate a uniquely wide range of phenomena. Anthropomorphizing the world at large therefore produces a world that is significant both practically and intellectually. (Guthrie, 89)
However, I believe that this is only half the story, told from a modern perspective which has limited an originally broad palate of personal relationships to only one kind: that with other humans. I believe our ancestors personified their experiences into "gods" and “spirits” not only because human beings evolved to have complex relationships with other humans, but that these relationships were simultaneously developed in response to interactions with the non-human world as well, making personification an overall adaptive strategy to both the human and nonhuman environment. Thus, seeing gods and spirits as “people” was as complex a relationship as humans could have with both other humans and non-humans, and was not originally a strategy reserved for only interacting with other humans beings.

Though we have obtained many very impressive understandings and abilities through the discipline of (imagined) objectivity, these scientific understandings do not provide us with an adequate model for actually embracing the full range of human experience and relationship with the nonhuman world because of the divisiveness and distancing of empiricism. A scientific worldview can create better theoretical understandings than a theistic one, and is thus extremely useful, but at the price of becoming distant from the experiences and phenomena under study, and thus removing a dimension of relatedness. This artificial disconnection from the world has been extremely damaging to our minds, bodies, societies, and planet through its insistence in seeing things as objects of study and exploitation instead of people worthy of respect. A dissected frog does indeed reveal the inner workings of the frog, but it is not the experience of the living, breathing frog, and, furthermore, it kills the frog.
Whatever a culture's vision of a world, the world at large remains our home, and that home embraces both the vision and it shadows. The world as our home is always multi-leveled. Like a house, it has many stories. We need to attend to this more holistic view of the world, to a view which embraces surface and depth, to a view which allows us to experience the world not just in terms of facts to be discovered and known, but also in terms of stories to be imagined and heard. Indeed, we need to do so not only because we live our lives through stories, but also because we need stories to make the living of life a human reality. (Romanyshyn, 183-184, italics in original.)
I believe that we have yet to discover a functional metaphor that accomplishes these things as well as personification.
Indeed anthropomorphism offers the greatest intellectual coherence possible. As humans are coherent yet uniquely diverse, so models based on them bring coherence to unique diversity. The point needs underscoring because the standard views of anthropomorphism...claim just the opposite: that anthropomorphism is oddly irrational and is based in confusion, in wishful thinking, or both. Once we see that anthropomorphism results from our most powerful model, we can see that we are bound to engage in it everywhere, not only inevitably but also reasonably. (Guthrie, 89-90)
The forces which animate the world are greater than us and the totality of their interactions is beyond our comprehension; the idea of phenomena as "people" is a strategy to create an understanding of experiences by embracing them in most complex sort of connection of which we are capable: a personal relationship. Despite critics of religion, this relationship does not preclude a simultaneous empirical understanding, any more than sympathizing with a friend’s troubles prevents us from also having a psychoanalytic understanding of the source of the troubles. In fact, I would argue that having the intimacy of a personal relationship with phenomena creates the kind of insight that is commonly used to improve empirical understandings and allow breakthroughs to new ones.

It is important to remember that personification was not a process in steps where first humans encountered phenomena, then anthropomorphized them into persons, and then established relationships with them. Rather the phenomena was approached using the familiar schema of personal relationship in order to create the initial understanding of phenomena.
We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize with them. Recognizing a 'conversation' with a counter-being--which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence--makes that being a self in relation with ourselves. (Bird-David, 78, italics in original)
This sort of human-to-nonhuman relationship may at first seem radically different from a human-to-human one, however, we must remember that "it is as entire persons, not as disembodied minds, that human beings engage with one another, and, moreover, with non-human beings as well." (Ingold, 47) Furthermore, it is not the case, as Guthrie seems to assert, that human beings first learned to have relationships with one another in some sort of vacuum, and then used this as a template to form relationships with non-human phenomena. Rather, these relationships evolved simultaneously and influenced one another.
In this process, the relations that human beings have with one another form just one part of the total field of relations embracing all living things. ... There can, then, be no radical break between social and ecological relations; rather the former constitute a subset of the latter." (Ingold, 59-60, italics in original)
Humans learned to have cultural relationships with one another at the same time they were learning to have adaptive relationships with their environment, and these were both based on a general model of relationship, not one modeled purely upon the other. A prime example of the reciprocal nature of the evolution of this understanding is the use of natural phenomena to classify tribal clans in terms of animal, plant, or meteorological totems. In totemism humans classify the nonhuman world in terms of themselves, and themselves in terms of the nonhuman world. For this reason spirits and gods are often spoken of in familial terms: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, sister, brother, etc. This is not a metaphor comparing human familial relationships to relationships with non-humans, but rather the use of terminology to identify the same sorts of relationship,
since the spirit inhabitants of the land contribute to human well-being equally, and on the same footing, as do human forebears, providing both food, guidance and security, they to can be ‘big’ fathers and mothers. As such, they are ancestors of a sort, albeit ones that are alive and active in the present. (Ingold, 141)
At the same time as they personified them, however, ancient peoples also realized that gods were not the same as human beings, as shown by the strong contrast that was made between gods and mortals across cultures. This contrast is apparent in roots of the words for "gods" and "men" in various Indo-European languages. "As the gods were *deiwos, the heavenly ones, man was 'the earthly', designated by a derivative of the old word for earth, *dheghom-/dhghm-." (West, 124) Though gods were imagined as being like humans, they were not seen as humans. The gods had greater scope and power, they could change their shapes, appear in different guises, manifest as natural forces or a human emotion; their boundaries and limits were less distinct, their motivations often unfathomable. Keeping the gods distinct is necessary to avoid the extremes of antrhopocentrism, where the projection of human relations onto the nonhuman is accompanied by the assumption that the non-human shares our perspective and concerns.
Without some kind of desire or attraction we would not be roused to the labor of knowledge in the first place; but to know truly, we must also seek to surmount the snares and ruses of desire as best we can. We must try not to disfigure what we strive to know through fantasy, or reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves." (Eagleton, 122)
If antrhopomorphism becomes antrhopocentrism, relatedness begins to break down because the human end of the relationship begins to overwhelm the phenomenology of the non-human. The objective of modern polytheistic personification should be neither to replace the empirical point-of-view when that view proves useful, nor for man to recast the world in his own image, but rather to maintain a human relatedness with the nonhuman world.
If others become too transcendent, they disappear off our radar screen and we lose all contact. We then not only stop seeing them directly but even stop seeing them indirectly as this or that other. The possibility of imagining, narrating, or interpreting alterity becomes impossible....
On the other hand, if others become too immanent, they become equally exempt from ethical relation. In this instance, they become indistinguishable from our own totalizing selves (conscious and unconscious). The trick is therefore, I suggest, not to let the foreign become too foreign or the familiar too familiar. (Kearny, 11, italics in orginal)
Keeping gods and spirits somewhat alien encourages us to try to understand them as phenomena that are ultimately unlike humans. Personification is still the best tool we have for maintaining the complexity of our relationship to the non-human world, and remains the most instinctual (as anyone who has yelled at a computer can testify,) but we must remember that it, like empiricism, also ultimately falls short of revealing the true nature of phenomena. I think the best we can do is to keep both personified, spiritual understandings and scientific, empirical understandings in the toolbox of human comprehension, each employed as needed, sometimes in concert (with empiricism as an anchoring screwdriver providing the unmoving pivot for the turning and tightening embrace of a spiritual wrench,) to make meaning of human existence in relation to both human and non-human existence in the fullest way possible.

Thus gods and spirits are indeed real, but not in a purely objective and literal sense where a supernatural explanation is required to validate their reality. The gods are not “Big People in the Sky;” however, seeing them as "people" allows us to establish the most complex and active relationship we are capable of with those forces which are larger than us. By having a relationship with these forces, we "hear" them and are "heard," but this does not mean a big hand is going to come down from the sky to do things for us. Rather by "listening" and "speaking" with gods and spirits, we stay in touch with these forces, which allows us to react to them in interactive and beneficial ways. I would argue that a ritual such as praying for the blessing of a plow does not directly affect those aspects of agriculture which we now understand scientifically, and it is certainly clear that a successful crop can be grown without such rituals; however, I would argue that successful farmers have an intimate understanding of, and relationship to, the land and its cycles of growth. Formalizing this relationship, speaking to the gods and spirits, and doing the ritual in their honor, can enhance this understanding and put us into the most complex relationship we are capable of having with very real forces of fertility, all the ones that science has classified and those it has not, while maintaining the totality of experience, thus allowing us a heightened sensitivity of perception and interaction with those forces, which can only benefit our attempts to grow crops, especially if this attempt is being made by a group of people united by the same cultural conception of deity.

Ultimately, gods and spirits are cultural masks which we place upon nexuses of experiences whose complexity is keenly felt, but never fully comprehended. The mask cannot be torn away, for what is underneath is too complex to be completely apprehended by the human mind. Thus, the purpose of these masks is not to conceal these nexuses, but rather to reveal them thorough a personified interface so that we might enter into a relationship to them, to give them eyes, ears and mouths so that we may not only see them, but be seen by them, hear them and be heard.
Far from dressing up a plain reality with layers of metaphor, or representing it, map-like, in the imagination, songs, stories and designs serve to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement. At its most intense, the boundaries between person and place, or self and the landscape, dissolve altogether. It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors, and discover the real meaning of things (Ingold 56, italics in original).
Telling stories about gods and worshiping them is not a fantasy that diverts one's attention from an objective, empirical world that is the one and only truth of human experience, rather it focuses attention on relation and interconnection and, through a nonanthropocentric sense of personhood, immerses one in an intimate understanding of the world, rather than creating distancing models of it which, despite their undeniable usefulness, should not be mistaken for the length and breadth of human experience of the world.

Over the years I have developed varying levels of relationships to gods and spirits, as have many other modern people, and, despite the many advantages of modernity, many traditional cultures have maintained these connections. I suspect that they have found, as I have, that the experience is fulfilling, practical, and very real. However, though I may sometimes treat gods as if they were "big people," I, like our ancestors, recognize that gods are not really persons in the same sense which human beings are, but rather forces greater than I with which it is healthy, and perhaps ultimately necessary, to have personal relationships. Neither supernaturalism nor pseudoscience is required to validate the reality of this experience. It is equally true that a modern, rational explanation, like the one I have laid out here, is also not necessary to validate the meaningfulness of this experience, but it allows me to reconcile the apparent contradictions of seeing myself as both a modern person who recognizes the explanatory power of science, and a heathen who feels compelled to honor the polytheistic gods and spirits of his ancient ancestors, without violating the essential premise of either worldview. Using the language of those ancestors, however, all I need say is: "Hail the gods!"

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the adaptive role of gods and spirits in helping to maintain sustainability in the human use of natural resources.

Copyright 2011 by The Heretical Heathen


1. Note that I prefer the term “personification” as in “making into a person,” to the term “anthropomorphizing” or “shaping into a man,” as I do not think having human-like relationships with non-humans means they should be treated as men, but rather they should be dealt with as their own kind of “person”. Though Guthrie hit upon the great practical importance of what he calls "anthropomorphism", he ultimately still saw it as false empirical reasoning which should be replaced by the "better" understanding of modern science. He, like Boyer who elaborated on his theories, does not seem to perceive the importance of personified relationships as a natural method of staying connected with the larger social and natural worlds, and thus its contribution to human well being and survival, even among modern people who also possess the ability to utilize an empirical worldview. Atran and Ingold, however, who, in my opinion, approached the topic with more breadth and rigor than either Guthrie or Boyer, do see this potential.


Bird-David, Nurit, "'Animism' Revisted: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistimology" in Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, Feb. 1999

Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009

Guthrie, Stewart, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, 1993

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Kearney, Richard, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 2003

Romanyshyn, Robert D., Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1999

West. M.L., Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gods as Experiences, Not Explanations

This is part two of an ongoing series of posts on the nature of gods and spirits.

The stories of gods and spirits, contrary to the supposed "just so" purpose of mythology, were never meant as a literal explanation for experiences of the real world. The question of the existence of gods would not be one that would have interested our ancient ancestors since gods were a cultural framework of meaning for holistically understanding phenomenological experiences, rather than empirical accounts of those experiences.

In the empirical/scientific paradigm, human experience is dissected into disciplines and aspects such as psychological, cognitive, emotional, sociological, cultural, natural, biological, metaphorical, etc., but our ancestors, not having many of these conceptual categories, do not appear to have differentiated them so precisely.
A god, so considered--more specifically, a potent and powerful god, one with a history--constitutes the manner in which a group or family of stimuli of isomorphic motivational significance reveals itself to or grips the collective (communicated) imagination of a given culture. Such a representation is a peculiar mix (from the later empirical viewpoint) of psychological and sociological phenomena and objective "fact"--an undifferentiated mix of subject and object (of emotion and sensory experience), transpersonal in nature (as it is historically elaborated "construction" and shared imaginative experience). The primitive deity nonetheless serves as an accurate representation of the ground of being, however, because it is affect and subjectivity as well as pure object (before the two are properly distilled or separated)--because it is primordial experience, rather than the mere primordial thing. (Peterson, 113)

Gods and spirits allowed our ancestors to categorize experienced phenomena in meaningful ways by formulating stories to direct attention to, and enhance participation with, meaningful aspects of those experiences.
Far from dressing up a plain reality with layers of metaphor, or representing it, map-like, in the imagination, songs, stories and designs serve to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement. At its most intense, the boundaries between person and place, or self and the landscape, dissolve altogether. It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors, and discover the real meaning of things. (Ingold 56)
This is quite a different enterprise from trying to accurately capture the empirical nature of experience by removing human participation as far as possible. "Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomena" (Peterson 9.) Our ancestors did not make a clear distinction between literal and metaphorical concepts;
the 'physical' and 'literal' themselves were not what the 'physical' and 'literal' are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we today find only in symbols. Accordingly the issue, in a given case, between a literal and a symbolic interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories." (Barfiled, 74)
After a storyteller had recited a sacred story or poem, or a priest or headman made a sacrifice, our ancestors would not ask "do we mean this literally or figuratively?" as they did not make this distinction as often or as definitively as we do today. They also probably didn't ask the question: "just what is a 'god' anyway?" since it was the immediate experience of gods that interested them, not their existential status. "The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive." (Peterson, 9) Thus while dealing with the question of the reality of gods in a modern context we must always keep in mind the difference in classifying and communicating experiences in ancient times verses now.
In mythtelling cultures, theorems that address the nature of the world are expressed in personified form. The grammatical statement made with personified elements is what we call a story. Where the languages of myth are displaced by those of mathematics, a different assumption is made. Even where we all know better, both the constants and the variables are treated as if they were dead. A grammatical statement made with depersonified, depersonalized elements is know by and large as an equation. We find them in music, abstract painting, and academic prose as well as mathematics. These are denatured forms of myths, in principle no better and in principle no worse. Tradition matters in both cases. But in both cases, who is doing the telling, and how, matters every bit as much. (Bringhurst, 104)
 Though the scientific worldview has indisputable explanatory and technological power, it is not an avenue to some kind of absolute truth. It is sometimes easy to forget that our modern separation of experiences into categories is artificial and
that the evolution of consciousness hitherto can best be understood as a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the 'meaning' of phenomena towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. The earlier awareness involved experiencing the the phenomena as representations; the later preoccupation involves experiencing them, non-representionally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness. (Barfield, 142)
An artificial and imagined distance is required to create the illusion of objectivity for the purpose of separating and examining experiences scientifically. "...whenever we attempt to explain this world conceptually, we seem to forget our participation within it. Striving to represent the world, we inevitable forfeit its direct presence." (Abram, 40-41) This distancing from immediate experience in favor of theoretical objects often causes us to forget that phenomenologically our immediate experience always remains an undifferentiated mass of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, sociological, cultural, natural, biological, and metaphorical "objects" we have created, and that "much of this mapping the world in the advance of our experience of it has meant the substitution of quantitative measures for the world's qualities" (Romanyshyn 51). imagines a universe divided into living subjects and dead objects. There is no space for anything intermediate, ambiguous, and metaphorical.
This is a restrictive perspective and it has led us to believe that entities, other than human beings, taking on interior subjective qualities are merely "anthropomorphized" or "personified" objects, not really persons in the accepted meaning of that word. If we find persons elsewhere than living in human bodies, we conclude that these persons have be transferred from "in here" to "out there." We believe we have unconsciously put our experiences into them; they are merely fictional or imaginary. We have made them up just as the persons in our dreams are supposedly made up out of the experiences of our ego. We do not believe that imaginary persons could possibly be as they present themselves, as valid psychological subjects with wills and feelings like ours but not reducible to ours. (Hillman 1-2)
 In reality there is no true objectivity. "All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment" (Eagleton 120). The moment our carefully trained rational minds lose the limited focus afforded by our prefrotal cortex, the illusion of objectivity evaporates and we realize that we, like our ancestors, are always immersed in our experiences.
It is not a private, but a collective dimension--the common field or our lives and the other lives with which ours are entwined--and yet it is profoundly ambiguous and indeterminate, since our experience of this field is always relative to our situation within it. The life-world is thus the world as we organically experience it in its enigmatic multiplicity and open-endedness, prior to conceptually freezing it into a static space of "facts" -- prior, indeed to conceptualizing it in any complete fashion. (Abram, 40)
 Our ancestors, immersed in these worlds and in participation within them, sought to represent the powers they felt all about them in terms of a multitude of gods and spirits. These polytheistic entities arose out of our ancestors’ experiences and their relationship to those experiences. Thus gods and spirits were not inspired by human minds in search of distanced explanations of phenomena as separate from the human experience, but by human minds actively immersed within phenomena and trying to represent the phenomenology of human experiences
...the existence of religion--indeed, of any cultural path--results from a confluence of cognitive, behavioral, bodily, and ecological constraints that neither reside wholly within minds nor are recognizable in a world without minds. Theories of religion that concentrate on only one of these factors, however correct or insightful in part, can never be thorough or comprehensive (Atran 11).
Gods and spirits were born not just from the human mind, nor can they be found in a theoretical, empirical world removed from human minds and experience, but exist within a creative union of both the human mind and its experience of the outer world.

In the next post in this series I will consider why meaningful experiences are inevitably personified, made into gods and spirits, in polytheistic cultures.

Copyright 2011 by The Heretical Heathen


Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1997

Atran, Scott, In Gods We Trust, 2002

Barfield, Own, Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry, 1988

Bringhurst, Robert, The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, 2008

Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009

Hillman, James, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1992

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Peterson, Jordan B., Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, 1999

Romanyshyn, Robert D., Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1999

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wyrd: The Tree, the Runes, and the Knot

"Wyrd bið ful aræd!"  Fate is utterly inexorable!  ("The Wanderer", 5, Tolkien trans.)

Try to imagine that there is no objective linear time, only concurrent processes and cycles of growth.  Our bodies grow and cycle through processes of respiration, digestion, etc.; the earth grows through its changes and circles the sun; the sun grows through the life cycle of a star and circles the galaxy; and so on.  These growings and cycles impact one another, but are also driven each by their own nature and impetus, like genetics and homeostasis in the case of living things, mass in the case of planets, or like clocks, which don't actually measure anything external but are driven by internal mechanisms. "Complex systems...tend to be nested, on within the other, and are separated by fuzzy boundaries.  These are boundaries which allow for the flow of energy, materials, and information between larger- and smaller-scale system, but maintain each system's integrity."  (Wessels, 12.)  Thus, smaller systems are embedded in larger systems, and though each maintains its own particular nature, each is also connected to, and dependent upon, the smaller systems it contains and the larger systems in which it is contained.

The collective interaction of all systems and cycles is what I feel is meant by Wyrd.
Verða [the root of "wyrd"] derives form the IE root *uert-, which denotes the kind of motion common to 'turn, spin, rotate.' ... The idea basic to verða contains this element of 'turning' and probably represents some kind of change of location or reorientation in space.  Its meaning evolves logically from 'turn (from one place or position to another)'; 'turn (into)'; 'become'. (Baushatz, 13.)
The Tree

  I know that an ash tree stands called Yggdrasil,
a high tree soaked with loam;
from there come the dews which fall into the valley,
ever green, it stands over the well of fate [Urd/Wyrd].

From there come three girls, knowing a great deal,
from the lake which stands under the tree;
Fated [Urth/Wyrd] one is called, Becoming [Verthandi] another,--
they carved on wooden slips--Must-be [Skuld] the third;
they set down laws, they chose lives,
for the sons of men the fates of men.  ("Volupsa", 19-20, Larrington trans.)
Urth reflects actions made manifest, brought to a full, clear, observable, fruition; they have 'become'; they are accomplished.  Verthandi clearly reflects the actually occurring process of all that Urth eventual expresses.  The two Norns are closely linked, with the influence of Verthandi flowing directly to Urth.  As actions pass from Verthandi to Urth, they move from 'becoming' to 'become'.  As Skuld is involved with necessary or obligatory action, she stands slightly apart from the other two Norns.  She seems to make reference to actions felt as somehow obliged or known to occur;that is the necessity of their 'becoming' is so strongly felt or clearly known that they present themselves as available to be incorporated into the realms of Verthandi and Urth. (Baushatz, 14.)
Wyrd is like a tree, like Yggdrasil.  The tree's genetic structure, its "skuld", is a "plan" for how the tree should grow.  But this is not a "future"; its genes are part of the tree's present structure.  As the tree follows this genetic growth plan, it is also affected by its environment, so the tree does not end up as a perfect manifestation of its genetic plan.  As the tree grows, it adds more rings of "urth", and people who know how can look at the rings and tell how much rainfall there was during that time, etc.  The history of the tree's experience is part of its present structure.  So the structure of the tree at a present moment, the "verthandi", is made up its past growth, its urth, and skuld is the plan for growing new structure, but this plan is not the future, for the future growth will be affected by variables which have not yet occurred and which will affect how this skuld "verthandi's" into urth, how what ought to happen encounters the phenomena of the present moment and thus becomes the structure of an irrevocable past.
The 'falling' of the dew reunites the waters from the tree with those of the well, into which the roots of the tree extend.  The cyclic nature of this process with the well as both source and goal, beginning and ending of the nutritive process, combines all of the structural semantic elements of brunn [wellspring, the well of fate/Urd/Wyrd], representing both an active, natural welling source and a collecting storing source.  The myth presents a continuous cycle of activity.  (Baushatz, 20.)
I know everything, Odin, where you hid your eye
in the famous well of Mimir.  ("Volupsa", 28, Larrington trans.)

This wellspring, this "welling" and "collecting, storing" source is also related to memory, which is itself something that both stores and wells up.  The meaning of the name "Mimir", the giant who guards the well, is related to "knowing" and "remembering".  Our genetic past is stored within our cells, much like the tree, but we also have our past stored within our minds as memory and knowledge.  But, again, this is not truly the past, for it is part of the structure of our present minds.
The human brain does not for the most part organize events according to the sequence in which they happened or were recorded.  Human memory is not a tape that we must rewind to get back to the desired spot.  When we go to a place and remember the last time we were in that place, we do not do so by rewinding our memory through the sequences of events between now and then.  Simple introspection shows that people cannot predict what thought will come to them  a minute from now: Pick up a pen, stub your toe, have a drink, eat a cookie, and "out of the blue" may come a memory from any time in your past, even early childhood.   “Just as physical space is suffused by culture and memory with blend-prompting powers, our brains, in a very different sense, but with equal powers, gives us imaginative compressions of things that we know are far apart in time and space.”~ (Fauconnier & Turner 317)
Likewise, knowledge and memory are our sources for making calculations about the future.  The future only exists for us as imagined possibilities in the present.  Our minds in the present moment, with their memories of the past and imaginings for the future all wound together are the wyrd of the psyche.  From this well Odin drank, giving an eye for the privilege--Odin, lord of fury, of losing oneself in the ecstasy of the moment, whether in battle frenzy or poetic reverie.  Two eyes become one.  Looking backwards to the past and looking forward to the future weave together into one single vision of the present.

[The ravens] Hugin and Munin ["Thinking" and "Remembering"] fly every day
over the wide world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
yet I tremble more for Munin. ("Grimnismal", 20, Larrington trans.)

We create memory and knowledge from sensory input which, in turn, is informed by other memory and knowledge, all processed in different parts of the brain and woven together into our experience of the present moment.  Sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee is a simple matter, yet this experience is the culmination of numerous sensory and meaning systems.
As neuroscience has shown, the many aspects of a cup of coffee--the color of the cup, the shape of the opening, the topography of the handle, the smell of the coffee, the texture of the surface of the cup, the dividing line between the coffee and the cup, the taste of the coffee, the heavy feel of the cup in the hand, the reaching for the cup, and so on and on--are apprehended and processed differently in anatomically different locations, and there is no single site in the brain where these various apprehensions are brought together.  (Fauconnier & Turner 7-8)
This multifaceted process is used not only to create experience from sensory stimulation, but it is also used to recreate these experiences as memories and to construct simulations of possibilities for future experiences.
Episodic memory's failure to provide exact replicas of experience appears to be not a limitation of memory but an adaptive design that helps us to retrieve and recombine memories in order to run vivid simulations of future experience. ...  Tellingly for this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, imagining the future recruits most of the same brain areas as recalling the past..." (Boyd, 157.)
Thus our ability to remember the past and imagine the future are both echoes of the stored experiences of the present.

But Wyrd was not only seen as manifesting in living systems, such as the growth of trees and the memories of people, but also in the nature of what we would call "inanimate" objects as
characterized by
the māðum, a valuable article, such as a sword or cup or piece of jewelry, which often has some intrinsic worth but greater symbolic value.  A sword may be valued as worth a fixed amount of gold, but as a māðumā its worth may be incalculable -- it is the stored up history of the object which gives it its power.  Every warrior who has used it, every battle it has been used in, every oath upon its naked edge, every feud it has caused or settled, all these past events have contributed to the tale of the sword, its 'worth' (but not its monetary value, necessarily) and meaning.  (Pollington 44-45.)
And, as an objects reflected the past deeds in which they were involved, so did places retain meaningful events which occurred there.
A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture,  just a passive or inert setting for human events that occur there.  It is an active participant in those occurrences.  Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there. ... experienced events remain rooted in the particular soils, the particular ecologies, the particular places that give rise to them.  (Abram, 162.)
Who has not had a rush of memory having returned to a place from one's past or coming across a forgotten memento stowed in an attic?  We visit special places such as gravesites and memorials to summon the "spirits" of the dead and we visit museums to see the personal artifacts of important people of the past.  We still recognize the wyrd of these places and objects.
This use of space as a prompt to blend events, intentionality, and times is a basic cultural instrument: We visit the graves of dead relatives, heroes, and martyrs; we visit the towns where Vermeer and Shakespeare were born; we return to our alma mater; we go to chapels or churches to pray even when there is no service, and of course the graves are either in the floor of the church or in the graveyard next to the church.  Part of the motivation for these visits is the sense that, if we actually inhabit them, we can more easily integrate our thinking and emotions with the people, cultures, and events associated with them, no matter how ancient.  Cultures organize these compressions by designating certain places (the cemetery, the churchyard, the Vietnam Memorial) as calling for special attention to associated compressions across times and events for the purposes of remembrance.  Physical spaces are already attached by memory to sensations and events in our past.  A culture does enormous additional work to load these physical spaces with material anchors for memorial purposes (gravestones, relics, plaques).  Many other material anchors incidentally become prompts for memory and time compression (such as our personal effects, rooms in a house we once inhabited or inhabit now, cars we have owned)  (Fauconnier & Turner 316.)
Special objects and sacred places hold the past immanent in the present moment and influence future events and actions.  They have their own wyrd.

Polytheists see things in terms of multiple, interacting aspects personified by gods and spirits who have their own domains and story cycles.  Wyrd is the sum total of all of these domains, all individual processes and cycles and their interactions.  Wyrd is above the gods because they only have sway over their domains, not the domains of other gods, so they cannot affect the totality of process and cycle, but are merely a part of it.  The Greek concept of Moira, meaning "fate" or "destiny," has a similar meaning.
Moira simply means 'part,' 'allotted portion'; from that primary meaning it is agreed that the meaning 'destiny' is derived. ... Each God has his own allotted portion or province--a certain department of nature or field of activity.  This may also be regarded as his status; it gives him a determined position in the social system.  Within his own domain his supremacy is not to be challenged; but he must not transgress its frontiers, and he will feel resentment at any encroachment by another. ... It is this conception, not that of the individual human fate, that is generalized in Destiny, Moira.  She represents the apportionment to each God of his province, status or privilege.  It is at once plain why she is above any or all of the Gods, and how the limits she sets to their powers can be thought of as moral limits. ... The original conception of Moira thus turns out to be spatial, rather than temporal.  We are to think of a system of provinces, coexisting side by side, with clearly marked boundaries.  The conception has been obscured by the--in our opinion, later--mode of conceiving of the three Fates as corresponding to divisions of time--Past, Present and Future. (Cornford, 16-17.)
This "system of provinces," is the same as the systems within systems of Wyrd.  Wyrd is also spatial rather than temporal because it is not a timeline of past, present and future, but rather the immediate simultaneity of interactions among the structures of the past as existing in the present moment, which already contains the trajectory of the future.

The Runes

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.  (Havamal 138-139, Larrington trans.)

Odin discovered the runes among the roots of Yggdrasil.  The runes are an alphabet, basic letter units that can be combined to form a myriad of meanings.  The runes were also thought to be magical--to carve them meant to make something happen, to bring something into being.  Of course, no magic is needed for this to be true.  What someone writes may be read by another, and this may have an effect on that person.  In this way ideas come into being and reproduce themselves.  Richard Dawkins compares transmissible ideas to genetic code, coining the word "meme" for an idea transmitted and preserved by a culture.  The Norns "carved on wooden slips" and "set down the laws."  They use combinations of runes to write out the fates of gods and men.  Like the three Fates which personified the Goddess Moria, the established order of all things, the three Norns personify Wyrd, the being of all things.

In ancient Northern European cultures, as in other oral cultures worldwide, cultural knowledge, what we now call "myth", was disseminated over distances and passed down the generations in song.  These songs were created through a process of memorized "genetic" tropes which were combined in each performance depending on the the taste of the audience and the current political situation.
 ...we know how the bards learn: by listening for months and years to other bards who never sing a narrative the same way twice but who use over and over again the standard formulas in connection with the standard themes.  Formulas are of course somewhat variable, as are themes, and a given poet's rhapsodizing or 'stitching together' of narrative will differ recognizably from another's.  Certain turns of phrases will by idiosyncratic.  But essentially, the materials, themes and formulas, and their use belong in a clearly identifiable tradition.  Originality consists not in the introduction of new materials but in fitting the traditional materials effectively into each individual, unique situation and/or audience.  (Ong, 59.)
The versions of "Volupsa" and "Havamal" and "Grimnismal" quoted above are not the "true" versions, but simply three of many varying versions which simply happened to be recorded.  In a living polytheism these tropes would continue to recombine, giving birth to new songs which would tell new versions of the stories in ever-evolving cycles of "truth."  A living lore as opposed to fossilized scripture.  The sum total of these stories, the collective myths and legends of the cultures of the world, which is greater than the ego of any individual or traditions of any one culture, gives us a glimpse of the archetypal foundations of the collective human experience.  These archetypes, are, in turn, the "genetic code" of gods and spirits, which recombines in different times and cultures to produce different varieties of deities and supernatural beings.  These beings are products of their culture and time, yet their foundational building blocks are universal and unchanging, like the fixed alphabet of runes which can combine to form multitudinous words and meanings.

The monotheist big "g" god, on the other hand, is omnipotent and omniscient.   His plans cannot be thwarted and no fate reigns over him.  He tells but one story which proceeds cleanly from creation through judgment and into eternity, which could be one of bliss or punishment for us lowly mortals.  This is not a cycle, but a straight line.  The concept of time is also a straight line, (despite the fact that clocks are circular) like the "timeline" diagrams found in most history textbooks.  But the truth, according to the growth and cycle model, is that the "past" part of the line has not been left behind.  It is woven into the structure of the "present" and sets the course for the "future", and thus it is not a line at all, or, if it is, it is a spiral, an unfolding of cycles, each based on the same prototype, but each unfolding in new and unique ways.  Not time, but pattern, cycle, spiral--the plan for the future directing the unfolding of the present which contains the structure of the past.

The Knot
The sign known as the "valknut" or "knot of the slain" is three interlocking triangles.  "The form is tripartite and interwoven; the context is mortuary, Odinic and Otherworldly and it has both equine and feminine associations. This set of conditions is peculiar to the mythology of the World Tree and can be related to certain beings associated with it. The World Tree is Yggdrasill or "The Steed of the Fearful One", which makes it a doublet of Sleipnir [Odin's horse]. It has three roots which link the worlds together. According to Snorri Sturlson, each root leads to ... the Well at which the three Nornir gather to decide the fates of humans and gods alike."  (Stone.)
The valknut is an ideal representation of Wyrd, since it has the three aspects of 'becoming', 'become' and 'should become', united as one, first in the form of a triangle, and then in the form of three triangles interlocked.  Three times three is nine, and nine were the nights that Odin hung on the tree to discover the runes.  Three is a significant number in many cultures, and the "number nine, or by augmentation, thrice nine, occurs often enough in Indo-European religious contexts to suggest that it was a traditional sacral quantity."  (West, 329)  Some suggest that the valknut is a symbol for Odin, but this greatly limits and simplifies its meaning.  "If the valknut symbolizes anything then, it is probably either wyrd, death, or perhaps even the Nornir themselves, who are more or less the same as wyrd anyway." (Stone)  Odin, in his relentless pursuit of knowledge of Wyrd, sacrificed himself to both the well and the tree.  Through Odin's gifts of ecstatic vision: breath, which controls consciousness and creates speech, and alphabetic writing, by the use of which an infinity of stories can be created, he is the conduit through which mortals may also gain and communicate knowledge of Wyrd.  The valknut is a symbol of this knowledge, and thus encompasses both Odin and that which is greater than him--the knowable and unknowable aspects of Wyrd.

"Wyrd is over us, each shall meet/His doom ordained at the dragon-cliff!"  (Beowulf, trans. J. Duncan Spaeth.)
For all men, clearly, the most significant moment of existence comes at the instant of death, the point at which man joins existence beyond this world.  The wise man prepares himself for this instant when his individual life and the power of wyrd will be in closest conjunction; he attempts to place his life most directly in the main current of the flow of wyrd.  He must act in accordance with prescribed codes of conduct received from the past; by so doing, he will protect his reputation and insure himself good fame.  His actions will be governed by what he knows; therefore, the wise man seeks to discover all he can.  The force of past events, which surges so meaningfully into present life, offers him some information about the nature of wyrd itself, but man, as he lives within the realm of the tree, fails in knowing the past fully.  As he values himself, however, he will strive to learn.  He will attempt to associate himself directly with all he knows to be good and wise.  By so doing, he will place himself in the most auspicious light so that he will die well; the moment of death is the moment of greatest significance in all of ordinary life. (Baushatz 28-29.)
Wyrd is associated with death because, as far as our consolidated egos are concerned, the end of our process is death and the dissolution of the mind/body system we call "me".  The runes of our doom are written in our genes and woven through our bodies.  Our behavior, outcomes of the wyrd of the psyche, can also help bring on our end. Yet, that which was our bodies is absorbed back into the earth to feed the growth of other living things, as happened to our ancestors when they were buried long ago.  In this way we do truly join our ancestors when we die.  And some of us lives on in the genes which we pass to our decedents, and our words and deeds which live on as memories and, perhaps, stories told by those whose lives we have touched.  "I know one thing that never dies: the reputation of a good man."  (Havamal 77, Larrington trans.)  Wyrd takes on a special meaning for us when we die because the moment of death is the culmination of a lifetime of our fated growth, the weave of our thought and memory and our interaction with the larger systems of the world.

The Northern Europeans were fond of stories about deaths that occurred to achieve some larger purpose--heroic deaths--because this helped make the meaning of this culmination vividly apparent.  Yet they also believed in the power of the individual to continue to influence events after death in the form of ancestor spirits, alfar and disir, and the passing down of the maegen or "ability" of renown ancestors to their decedents, or through the significant objects, māðum, that had been used by that person.  This was their understanding of the legacy of a life, how the past continues to reverberate in the present.

I think if there is one lesson to be learned from Wyrd, it is that there is always only here and now.  "Past" and "future" only exist as part of the weave of the present moment, which flows continuously in cycles of growth and decay and growth.  Each of our acts adds a layer to our own foundations, and that of our families, communities, nations, and the world itself.  The Old Norse word for this legacy was örlog, which literally translates as "that which was first laid down".  Each of our deeds resonates endlessly as ripples in the waters of the well of memory.  For this reason we, like our Northern Europeans ancestors, should strive to live our lives well and fill our present moments with deeds both bold and good.

Copyright 2011 The Heretical Heathen


Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996

Baushatz, The Well and the Tree, 1982

Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, 2009

Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, 1912

Fauconnier, Gilles & Turner, Mark, The Way We Think, 2002

Larrington, trans. The Poetic Edda

Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy, 1982

Pollington, The English Warrior, 2002

Beowulf, trans. Spaeth, Duncan J.,

Stone, Alby, "Knots of Death",

Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. "The Wanderer", 5.

Wessels, Tom, The Myth of Progress, 2006

West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007