Monday, July 06, 2009

Gnostic Themes in Heathen Myths

Thomas Taylor, the famous English Platonist who was contemporaneous with William Blake, was one of the first in the English world to reintroduce the idea in his work on Bacchus that the descent of Persephone into Hades was in fact the descent of the Godhead into this world, which is in fact a kind of death-camp, a prison or hell, which transforms the familiar Catholic idea of the harrowing of hell whereby Jesus descends to free the good souls into a Gnostic myth, which can be paralleled by Hercules' descent into the underworld and tassling with the dog of death, Cerebus ; Odin descending into the mountain to retrieve the mead from the giants, and so forth.

The idea is one of a divine or heroic spirit descending into a world of monsters and of death to either liberate it or to retrieve something of value hidden within it. One finds a Neoplatonic and quasi-Gnostic flavor in many tribal mythologies. Indeed, a recent study of Chumash mythology, originated by the tribes along the Ventura and Santa Barbara coastlines of California, written by one of the Santa Barbara Museum's foremost experts on Chumash culture, has seen it as a largely Neoplatonic structure, and there is no inroads for even the wildest of conspiracy theories to suggest that any form of Mediterranean Neoplatonism could even potentially have ended up affecting old Chumash mythology. It is likely that a study of other tribal mythologies around the world would yield a similar Neoplatonic and quasi-Gnostic flavor as well.

We can find several examples of Gnostic-style myths in the Norse lore, the most obvious of which is Odin descending into the mountain to retrieve the mead of wisdom, but there is also prominently the descent of Freyr as Frodi into this world to help overcome the slave-system the giants had set up, and Saxo, defensively calling upon Jesus, makes reference to a narrative whereby at that time God descended into human flesh with which he clothed himself in order to bring about blessings.

We can find traces of a Gnostic-style myth when Freya's husband Odr goes astray and being led by things of this world, comes back into the strife of this world after peace has been declared by the Gods. After he has been exiled, and transformed into a beast, Freya descends into the world as she wanders about diverse lands taking on many names, searching for her lover. Since Odr is equivalent to the poetic capacity of imagination and soul in human beings, the ascent of Odr into the heavenly realm and then being dragged back down by issues of generation and strife in this world (his mortal son being endangered) definitely has a Gnostic flavor to it. There is a fall of the soul depicted there, with Freya, Love, going out to search for Soul in this world, wandering in many forms, finally discovering him in bestial form, and then bringing him back up into the heavens, after he has found his true genealogy, for he has lost knowledge of who he actually is. I don't know how we could get a more Gnostic myth than this! To find his hidden genealogy, of which he was unaware, Freya must take him down into the underworld itself, into the cavern of monsters, where She who Deludes and Hides Information will share with him the knowledge that he is related to all beings in the cosmos! The incredible genealogy reproduced in Hyndluljod shows him to be related to giants, elves, Vanir, men, and the Aesir! I don't believe there is any mention of dwarves but they may be included as well. The point is, he is related to every being in the cosmos, and when he gains this information he is able to ascend into Valhall to spend his days in Folkvang, the Meadow of the Folk in Sessrumnir, the Roomy Benches of Freya's Hall, with her.

The Gnostic themes don't end with these three very prominent examples. There is a famous story of Thor's hammer, that which gives him his might and power to fight off the monsters, being stolen, and ending up deep in the earth in the land of the monsters, and he having to feminize himself, go into the world of the monsters, and there, in a sort of comedic parody of the hieros gamos or sacred marriage, reclaim the hammer through which he has his might. There is also the story of Thor descending down into the Lair of Illusion, and having to tassle with illusions. This, again, is a very Gnostic theme. And so we have many deities of the pantheon, and major ones at that --- Odin, Thor, Freya, Frey --- participating in what the Gnostics of the Mediterranean would have found to be stunningly Gnostic myths.

Now Gnostic myths always admit of creativity, and Gnostic themselves often encouraged people to write their own variations of the Gnostic myth, but the basic essence of the Gnostic myth is that there is something corrupt about this world, a corrupt element has woven its way into its world, or that this particular world itself in fact began with corruption, and that there is an attempt on the part of the beneficent beings to themselves infiltrate this world with elements of good that can help redeem nature from its monstrous qualities. This features prominently in Norse cosmology, where in the beginning of time we find the emergence of matter as a giant, roaring monster, out of which the Gods try to make lemonade out of some lemons by killing this monster and reshaping its forms to create a living world. Now it's fairly clear that there were worlds outside of this, because both Niflheim and Muspelheim are mentioned, with a gap between them, and of course, the World-Tree has ever existed, and thus it would appear that the emergence of Ymir marks the possibility of a new world emerging on the World Tree, one quite monstrous in form, an alchemical discard of poison, fire, and ice, and that the Gods reform this monstrosity into Midgard, a realm with good chances for its beings to make good and refind the circle of life. It is by no means perfect, and full of pitfalls, its very substance being "monster corpse", as it were, but it has its possibilities. The world is fallen, but not entirely so. It is in the process of being repaired. The Gods are a part of that long repair project, and they have placed essences or gifts within us as human beings that allow us to participate in that renewal process.

Unfortunately this is a process of repeated trial and error, there having been continual falls that have followed the original fall. When many of the elves left the divine order and fell into darkness, a great deal of the forces that tend to the world of nature and allow divine essence to be infused into the monstrous matrix disappeared, allowing for darker and more monstrous forces to remain intact in this world, leaving a gap that perhaps might be filled by enlightened human beings, although we have yet, at least most of us, to find the elvish powers that would allow us to actually penetrate into the heart of nature itself with our will and song as elves do (although perhaps this is the very science after which the alchemists sought). In this find I find an intriguing parallel to the Christian myth in Revelations of the 144,000 souls of the elect who will be able to take positions of divine governance as saints over the renewed world, presumably in place of a similar number of angelic souls that fell ; the common idea here being of a split in the process of creation that can be filled by people enlightening themselves and joining the Gods in their work of repair and mending.

The struggle of the Gods against the monstrous elements of this world were often visualized in terms of battle, which is a kind of natural image of such struggle, as well as a creative coopting for the good of those unfortunate elements of strife that often appear in human society as well as the world, and the old societies were not naive about the presence of evil in this world, and therefore the necessity to defend oneself from those ills. In fact, in the Teutonic lore, one of the foremost patriarchs, the first Judge and Jarl of the folk, and Lawgiver, was named Scyld, as well as "Borgar", which can also mean "protector" or "saviour", both concepts of protection being necessary in a world where large numbers of people have fallen into corruption and greed. This necessity to be ready for attack, and the images of warfare against powers of ill were ready at hand when Germania had to confront Rome as a "civilized" empire, but as Tacitus indicates, they had already had several tassles with the Celts in Gaul, who themselves had begun their if not ascent, at least assimilation of several aspects of empire. Caesar makes it very clear that for all the enlightenment of the Druids, the common people were treated almost as mere serfs in Gaulish society, which demonstrates at least the emergence of terrifically unfree forms of hierarchy. These were formidable enemies against which the German peoples had to defend themselves, and eventually became proud of their ability to preserve their freedom with arms. The problem is, of course, as Teutonic society became more and more militarized in its intergenerational wars with the Roman Empire, and then later, as its northern Scandinavian branches tassled with the Roman Catholic Empire, these images of warfare originally intended to invoke the Gnostic struggle were more and more transformed into vulgar glorifications of war by those who had become rigidly armored in Reichian terms. This is no surprise. Whenever there are good runes, Gullveig is quick to come up with corruptions of those into bad runes. That process seems very clear in the myths. The Hindus for their part understand very well that in the Kali Yuga, tools originally channeled by loving shamanic priests to help human beings love each other and learn their good nature themselves can become tools of domination and enslavement, and thus innovative approaches become necessary.

Now some might fear that this Gnostic approach veers heathenism dangerously close to a Christianity which they had longed to leave, but many people having come under the spell of Christianity's attempted monopoly of perennial themes do not realize that Christianity took up many, many themes of prior pagan and paganesque societies, but, like Yaldabaoth, the evil creator-god in the Mediterranean Gnostic mythos, Christianity has thought itself to be the only revelation, the one and only, and is not aware of all of its fellow divine possibilities. This exposition of heathen myth indeed enables to have interesting dialogues with Christian mythologists, and I'll put an emphasis on that last term, as that would enable them to have rational discussions with us, rather than hysterical discussions ; but in fact, it is more akin to Zoroastrianism, a clearly Gnosticized Iranian heathenism, as well as Orphism, which having a Dionysian emphasis, still clearly invokes the Greek pantheon. Zoroastrianism itself, of course, produces an offshoot, Mithraism, which again, had a very Gnostic or Mystery Religion flavor to it, was a competitor with Christianity, and indeed from which Catholicism derived many of its rituals. It would not be too farfetched to suggest that Jews at the turn of the millenium between B.C. and A.D., having been exposed to Zoroastrian ideas during their stay in Babylon and their liberation by Cyrus, the Persian hailed as a messiah in Isaiah, and then more proximately during the time of the Maccabees and thenon, being familiarized with the Dionysian mysteries, saw an opportunity to do Philo-in-reverse, as it were. Philo was the great Jewish mystic who translated Old Testament stories in terms of the Mysteries, while instead, this Jewish community sought to translate the Mysteries into a kind of Old Testament language, which was easily done by drawing on the great prophetic literature. The Jews were no strangers to perception of evil in this world, as well as hopes for redemption from that evil, and they were able to take the themes of Osiris, available to them from Egypt, and Dionysus, available in the Greek culture which surrounded them, midrash these clearly pagan and slightly Gnosticized models through Old Testament prophecies and create the Christian literature which has since become literalized. Now, we aren't prevented by any of this, by any means, in postulating a Jewish rabbi familiar with Hillel, familiar with the Essenes, familiar with Greek Mysteries, from having incorporated all of these into his teachings, although I find Earl Doherty's suggestion that there was an entire Christian community that came up with these teachings and blended pagan themes into Jewish prophetic language to be a little more exciting. The point here is that we are discussing a common language that became literalized, then monopolized, then hystericized, then shoved down everyone's throat until no variations were allowed. Heathenism always pushes off such arrogant domination.

The problem is, of course, a misperception that paganism is simply a simplistic affirmation of nature, as well as the fact that our invocation of that concept of nature is a confused and muddled idea that doesn't allow us to confront the nuances of existence or its contradictions. This can degenerate into a vulgar "what exists is good, simply because it exists" stance, which is a stance that every status quo loves to reinforce. "Nature" is one of the most pernicious, and indeed, regressive concepts, utilized by tyrants all over the world to reinforce their status quo, and those possessed by empire love to see empire reflected in nature. Now, I don't doubt that there are such corrupted elements to be found in nature, but the extent of this may be rightfully doubted. Indeed, even the idea of a "pecking order" as such has only been around for a hundred years or so, and recent studies both of wolves and of dogs, which for a long time had presumed the existence of dominance hierarchies, have now been demonstrated to be false, and to be results of captivity. It would appear in both wolf and dog societies it is the elders who are given deference, and these elders have been given the name of "alphas" by human researchers, where what we find is a simple family structure. However, we are told a hundred times daily in myriad forms in our hierarchical society that such hierarchies are natural and therefore, of course, we ought to accept them. There are those who would invoke the Lay of Rig to justify this through calling up the "three classes" of Teutonic society, but let us make this clear : the Lay of Rig makes it painfully obvious to those who read it carefully that if there is a hierarchy, it is of those who are enlightened, who have opened themselves to the mysteries of existence, and since those mysteries are primarily revealed in myths which we have already demonstrated to be Gnostic in flavor, presenting the drama of a monstrous world being struggled against by divine powers which are in process of mending it by interweaving divine elements, but which struggle against human beings who become subject to the sorceries of negative powers, we can see that this is a very different kind of hierarchy than is usually propagated.

The naive "paganism = veneration of nature" equation becomes further corrupted in modern times into a "Social Darwinist Paganism", that, seeing nature solely through Social Darwinist eyes, meaning projecting empire and tyranny's worst characteristics onto nature, then seeks to worship that sociological model that has been projected into nature, a kind of vile heresy if I may so call it.

Nature as Zoroastrians have seen it has become a battleground between Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda, and thus from a Zoroastrian perspective, we would expect to see a mixture of tendencies in nature, with both hierarchical and anti-hierarchical, good and evil, natures in struggle. Imperialists glorify when they find hierarchical tendencies and hypostatize them to the detriment of perceiving anti-hierarchical tendencies. The point in all this being that as pagans or heathens, we are not required to uncritically affirm everything in nature, and especially not that which our scientists, engaged in a cultural practice called "science", tell us is "nature", a highly mediated, academically sealed and approved, nature, since they are often, and I am sorry to say this, feeding back to us their own preconceptions projected into nature. Many scientists will take umbrage to this, but it has been demonstrated time and again.

But that there is an experience of sacred nature that is essential to heathenism is without question. There is a numinosity found in the deepest forests that teaches us the nature of the Gods. Here the Gods have hidden themselves, as it were, providing opportunities for revelation through epiphany. The reality of epiphanous nature does not, however, mean, that everything in the world is sacred, and that there has been nothing touched by the giants. There is in fact a great drama going on, and a drama which it is important to perceive because the true function of warriors is to defend that realm which has been reclaimed from the giants and allows the world to be an epiphany of the good Gods, and keep it from being seized back by the monstrous forces. Thus when it comes to nature, heathenism is both neither-nor and both-and. It is a very complex and subtle doctrine not easily sloganized nor understood in simplistic binary terms.

My love of heathenism stems in large part, in fact, from its ability to embrace such complexity and enfold within itself sophisticated dialectics that can encompass many other spiritual movements, such as the Gnostic tendencies I've explored here ; when we consider that it was the spirituality of an entire "civilization" as it were, if we use that word to mean the accumulated culture of a nation of interrelated tribes, this complexity should come as no surprise.


Anonymous Lara said...

This was very interesting with lots of food for thought - thankyou! It's refreshing to see Heathens exploring such concepts in a bold and unembarassed way. There seems to be an awful lot of what I'd call "spiritual fascists" (or at least "Peddlars of the True Heathenry"/Lore-mongering Busybodies etc) out there who want to drain any mystical aspects or interpretations of Heathenry away so they can have an "authentic folkway" left over which they see as "pure" and untainted by "foreign" influences (in my mind, rather as Nazi volkish race theorists wanted to do genetically with the German people. I think there's something rather sad and sick about it!)
You're quite right about Christianity having been influenced in many ways by pre-exisitng Pagan/Indo-european themes - something many people either aren't aware of, have forgotten, or choose to overlook. I haven't enjoyed reading a blog post quite so much in a long while!

8:12 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Awesome! I'm glad this was good food for thought -- the chef spent some time preparing it! I think that the purification process you're talking about might be called "bleaching", and it drains out the color and blood from good things. And as far as people utilizing lore to close the gates rather than open them, I'd reckon I could "lore-monger" with the best of 'em. I think both Christians and pagans might be horrified, but in many ways, I see Christianity as a kind of "New Recension" of very old pagan themes melded in an age with some uptight expressions of morality quite reactive sexually speaking. We've been trained into wholesale acceptance or rejection -- and Christian preachers often explicitly encourage this, you either accept the whole thing, or it's all bunk -- when in fact, textual criticism ought to have taught us to be able to find constituent motifs in spiritual texts that can be examined in their own light and compared with similar motifs elsewhere. It kind of rips the "TM" off a given Spiritual Proprietorship and reminds us that we're all Plagiarizing basic, common motifs and giving them individual and tribal spin.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Lara said...

"It kind of rips the "TM" off a given Spiritual Proprietorship and reminds us that we're all Plagiarizing basic, common motifs and giving them individual and tribal spin."

My feelings exactly! I've long been a believer in basic, objective truths behind everything which can be approached or described in myriad ways.

2:20 PM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

It does seem a kind of polytheistic basic : many ways of describing the universe.

4:49 PM  

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