Thursday, July 09, 2009

Heathenism : A Tradition of Freedom

Arminius, hailed as the "Liberator" of Germania, repeatedly calls upon the ancestral freedom of the Germanic peoples, granted and preserved by the ancestors, and explicitly states that the Roman rod, axe, and toga will never be accepted within German territory. The rod symbolizes Rome's imperial power of authority as well as their tendency to punish. Romans whipped slaves and prisoners with the rod. The axe not only symbolizes their power of capital punishment, but also the axes which would fell their great forests, and the toga the sign of Roman citizenship and colonialism. These are very clear statements. Arminius and other Germans continually becry how everywhere the Romans went, they laid waste and devastated the soil of the earth, clearing forests out of their greed, and that the Gods of the Germanic people did not support such imperious tyranny.

The people themselves made it clear that they would not accept anyone trying to rule it over them, but rather that leaders rule by example and by boldness, and indeed, the people drove out and ejected any leader who fell into arrogance. The qualities they admired in a leader was someone was a good host, who welcomed all the people regardless of any factions, to come to the sacred banquets where the Gods were toasted and meals were shared, and all discourse was put aside, and the leader would meet with all people regardless of who they were, demonstrating that he could not show preference to the nobility, but had to show a general sociability, and that the three qualities desired above all in a leader were generosity, kindness, and moderation, as positive qualities. In addition, a leader was to reject envy. This is very important given the corruption that Heid had mythologically propagated. A leader gathers the folk together so that they may go beyond any internal divisions, and discover their internal concord. The leader is thus a bold servant of the people who defends their freedom and rights.

Neither rod nor axe nor participation in empire, submitting not to rule by force, nor threat of violence and environmental degradation, nor by the toga trying to derive benefits through a rapacious empire. Again and again it is made clear that these are the values that the tribes of Germania were fighting for. They were fighting for their freedom and the integrity of their homelands, their odal lands, whose heaths and sacred groves they were to steward. They distrusted those who were used to being waited upon by slaves, and corrupted by foreign ideas of power. They hated people who thought the whole world was their jurisdiction and that there should be no other judges but them.

Literally, historically, were it not for their brave struggles and victories, the English language would not be being spoken today, nor would juries exist, nor the idea of limited governments meant to protect the rights of the people and the law of the land. Now, these customary practices may have become very watered-down in days of late, but they still contain the kernal of a great deal of popular sovereignty. Thomas Jefferson himself acknowledged that the fundamental ideals of the American Revolution --- the ideals of liberty and popular sovereignty --- stemmed in large part from the values and practices of the Germanic tribespeople, who managed to resist and ward off Rome's imperium from their homelands.

So the traditions of these folk hold a place of prominence in their particular hatred of tyrannical power, celebration of freedom, and, most pointedly, their insight that bribery and benefits taken from those in power is often more destructive to liberty than conquest by warfare itself. The tradition thus has an essential relationship to both the celebration of liberty and the defiance of arrogant authority. Leaders were chosen out of families renowned for their education, knowledge of law, keeping of the sacred songs, and proven valor in protecting the land-rights, but they were chosen nonetheless by the popular assemblies, which were not arbitrary legislatures constantly creating new laws to impose upon the people, but the gatherings of the families and clans themselves in tribal council to protect their rights from such arbitrary interventionism.

This is not to say that there have been no other tribes or traditions in history that have championed liberty and pushed off invaders. Far from it. We can find examples of this all over the world, from ancient Britons to Native Americans, and so forth. It is simply to emphasize that the tradition embodied within the English language as a mother-tongue, by all those who speak it, holds a history of dogged determination to retain rights and fiercely fight for freedom, which, while not unique, is therefore exceptional amongst many other traditions, many of which unfortunately accomodated to a much greater degree arbitrary power and class division.

The central institution or right that helped the folk to avoid such a fate was the before amentioned land redistribution customs, which as a kind of sacred lottery constitutes not only a reflection of Wyrd in all its aleatory fecundity, but also that game of chess-and-dice once played by the Gods in the beginning of time. So long as they played that game of dice, they were happy, and the world was happy, but when the three Giant maidens come and stir up a greed for gold, the downfall is set into motion, and the game-pieces are lost until the restoration. Similarly, once the Germanic people had put aside their sacred lottery that regularly redistributed the land, giving over to the love of riches and individual Roman-style private property, that gave way to severe class divisions, they lost their happiness as well. Yet even when they shed practices, they remembered, and they kept the memories alive, even if at times in fragments, for us, their descendants, to piece back together, and restore.

This is not just a spirituality, although it is that in full. It is a heritage of freedom and how to stay free. It thus holds all the veneration for nature which we so understandably admire in ancient pagan societies, but without the fall into empire that unfortunately came to characterize many of them. Notable in this regard is the fact that the taking of interest was unknown amongst the ancient Germans.

Their myths demonstrate a continual disdain for, and resistance to, imposition by brutal force, cruelty, stupidity, and avarice ; and favor wisdom, enlightenment, and the pleasures of conviviality, with the gathering of folk in consensus, be that in the festive and sacred gatherings themselves, or the popular assemblies, being the key institution of popular sovereignty and individual and tribal freedom. Since the Germanic Gods are explicitly portrayed by the prophetic sages as warning against slavery and reminding that the practices which they have taught are guardians against such servitude, and keeping in mind that the Germanic people themselves did not tolerate arbitrary leaders, it follows that the nature of their worship is not a submission to Gods seen as arbitrary authorities, but again, admiration and loyalty to those who granted estates and rights to the people through their creative powers of sharing and bold example. Our modern society has for too long faltered between a theism in subjection to divinity envisioned as a tyrant before whom one must submit, and an atheism which understandably wanting to push away such submission, throws the baby of spirituality out with the bathwater.

This is a different way of worship : a celebration of blossoming, of coming into one's own, so that one may oneself fructify one's native land and people, rounds of toasts and voluntary gifts of showing loyalty and worship to the creative powers of the cosmos. It consists neither in an anonymous, bewildering, and overwhelming mass of conflicting and often amoral deities, nor a unity which banishes diversity, but a wholeness that represents a balance of land and sky, male and female. It is neither ethically relativist, equalizing all values and abolishing the distinction between right and wrong, nor imposing a monopolistic, rigid, and monolithic set of values that does not allow for the diversity of nuances, conditions,and preferences amongst people. Divinity is neither conceived of as a quarrel of divisive powers who competitively pull us into conflict and division, nor as a monarch who holds sole and arbitrary power. It is not the institutions of civil war nor monarchy that represent divinity in this tradition, but rather the central institution of the family, of home and of elders of that beloved ancestry and circle of love stretching back into the generations to the beginning of time itself. Divinity is a family which comes together to ward off the monstrous potentials in the world, and to lead us by example. They are not tyrants who force us to do anything. There are consequences to every action, but those are natural consequences that unfold out of the nature of Wyrd or the universe itself.

They lead by example, and they tell us that if we will take their advice, it would be good for us. The telling of the stories, and the gatherings remind us of that good advice that helps us preserve our freedom and the plentiful abundance of the world. We have lost sight of those examples, and the world has to a large degree fallen into decay and tyranny, where it might, with all the creative powers which we have managed to develop and harness, be a strong circle of fellows in mutual aid. One might ask why do the Gods allow all this, and that is in a sense to ask a question of an arbitrary ruler towards his subjects, a relationship which does not apply in this tradition. Rather, all along, the Gods have been there, setting the example for us, but we have lost the poets, who, enlightened through their inspiration, had chanted and taught the stories of that bold example. This is the heritage we have to recover and with which increasingly and collectively practiced can begin to restore the world place by place, gathering by gathering, deed by deed, life by life. Such a task may seem hopeless. We may indeed seem to be surrounded by giants before whom our influence and power is dwarfed, but it must always be remembered that in this tradition, the Gods, and their example of enlightenment and freedom, is always on the side of those against the giants.

Religion is, in the end, a very serious matter, not to be taken flippantly, for going beyond theatre, fiction, and liturgy, it is a basic declaration of allegiance to the powers and values which one testifies have worth in life. When you think about it in that way, that is something not to take lightly, and the character of those candidates placed before us by the world's religions and imagination as representatives of deity ought to be scrutinized quite carefully for the values they represent and the traditions they carry. In a very significant sense, when one chooses one's deity or deities, one is choosing those one will be judged by. There is a spectrum, of course, but at the end-points along that spectrum, we must ask ourselves : do we choose tyrants and ill-mongerers, or elders who treat us as younger peers and wish both our benefit and our blossoming?

There are many, many good traditions in the world, many beautiful ways of envisioning the cosmos and deity, just as there are many who, through human error, have fallen into servitude and unwholeness. But within the diversity of good and beautiful options which as a tradition of tolerance the Scandinavian heathen tradition always celebrates, I believe that it remains competitive in its appeal, in its breadth and reach, in its poetic profundity, in its ability to accomodate diversity, and in its no-nonsense approach to right and wrong that still allows us to be wonderfully human and celebrate our good lusts and longings in life. It is a tradition to be proud of because it supports freedom.


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