Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Heathenism : An Earth-Centered Religion

It has recently come to my attention that there are some heathens who believe that our ancestral religion has little to do with ecology or reverence for the earth. Such colossal and inexcusable ignorance on the part of people who ought to know better requires a response. Reverence for the numinosity of nature was so pronounced that worship itself was centered in sacred groves. In addition to quoting classical sources as well as native heathen sources, I will be extensively citing from modern studies of sacred groves in India which underline their religious and ecological importance, for this is the material which amplifies and brings into both focus and significance the former sources.


Sacred Groves in Germania, According to Tacitus


[L]uco reverentia ... potestatem numinis prae se ferens (Germania 39), "They pay reverence to a sacred grove, ... where they bring themselves before the power of divinity."

Nature is infused with numinosity. God is in the grove.

[L]ucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident (Germania 9), "They consecrate sacred groves and forests to the Gods, and invoke them with secret names, because they consider that alone to be respectful." Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur (Ibid), "Moreover, they neither restrain the Gods within walls nor imitate them with any kind of human countenance, because of their belief in the majesty of the heavenly Gods."

Stato tempore in silvan auguriis patrum et prisca formidine sacram omnes eiusdem sanguini populi legationibus coeunt (Germania 39), "At appointed times in a forest, by ancestral divination [ie., communion with the disir], and out of ancient and sacred religious awe, all people of the same family, and the deputies of the people, gather in the forest."

Eoque omnis superstitio respicit, tamquam inde initia gentis, ibi regnator omnium deus, cetera subiecta atque parentia (Germania 39), "And everyone gazes upon it, respecting and caring for it [the grove] with such overwhelming awe, as if in that very place the people first emerged, for there is the God who Rules All, all the rest being subject to him and heeding him." Deorum maxime Mercurium colunt (Germania 9), "They worship Mercury [Odin] as the highest and greatest of the Gods."

All-Father is in the Woods. The wind blowing through the trees manifests the holy presence of his thoughts. "Weather" and "wind" are all from the same Proto-Indo-European root from which the name Vata/Votan/Odin emerge. Wodan in Anglo-Saxon refers to someone possessed by a spirit, raving, running wild, full of fury and bacchic ecstasy, roaring, growling, murmuring, roaming, blustering, wild, and of the woods. The homonymic relationship between wod and wood draws the two concepts together, as one goes to the woods to go wild.



Heathen Sources on the Numinosity of Nature and Sacred Groves

Vilhelm Gronbech, drawing upon his extensive depth studies of the Icelandic Sagas, summarizes the heathen approach to the sacred groves, as evidenced in the Sagas : "...[M]en would point to a stone, a waterfall, a meadow, a mountain, as the holiest of holy things, the true source whence all luck, all honour, all frith flowed out to pulse through the veins of kinsmen. Thorolf's family had their spiritual home in the mountain that stood above the homestead --- Helgafell (the holy mountain) it was naturally called. One of Thorolf's contemporaries, the settler Thorir Snepil, lived at Lund, and he "worshipped the grove" (lund) ; another, Lodin, acquired the Flatey valley right up as far as Gunnsteinar, and he worshipped the rocks there. Hrolf lived at Fors, and his son Thorstein worshipped the waterfall (foss), and all the leavings of the house were thrown into the rapids. Helgafell was fenced off from daily life by a holy silence ; nothing, neither man nor beast, was suffered to perish there, no blood was suffered to flow, no dirt to defile. But it was not only a place inviolable ; it was the place whence luck was brought. When it was a case of hitting upon the right decision in a difficult matter, the discussion was adjourned to the holy place ... [P]lans made on Helgafell were more likely to succeed than all others. From the foss came inspiration to the seer Thorstein Raudnef, so that he could always see, in the autumn, which of the cattle would not live through the winter and therefore should be chosen for slaughter. The power of holiness is the same as that which Tacitus heard spoken of among the southern Germanic tribes ; in the land of Hermundures there lay a salt spring, where the gods were to be found, and where men could have their wishes fulfilled. He knew too, that the Batavians assembled in a sacred grove to make plans against the Romans ... On the island of Fositeland ... two features stand out distinctly : the blessing in that spring which was in the grove -- for there the inhabitants procured their water -- and the peace and solemnity of holiness which marked the resting place of luck. The animals grazed there, sacredly inviolable, all that was found within the boundaries lay undisturbed in its place, while men came and went, the people moved in silence towards the spring in the middle, drew their water, and moved silently away." (Vilhelm Gronbech, The Culture of the Teutons, Volume II, "Holiness", pp. 112 - 113.) The groves were places of inviolability, where no blood was to be shed, and where animals and trees were left in their wild, self-willed place.

Indeed, the entire universe was visualized as a tree whose well-being the All-Father worried over, and for whom he urged human beings to be thoughtful. In Grimnismal 35, he says, Askr Yggdrasils drýgir erfiði meira en menn um viti: hjörtr bítr ofan, en á hliðu fúnar, skerðir Niðhöggr neðan, "The ash-tree Yggdrasil suffers great hardship, more than men know about : the harts bite from above, and the side [bark] is rotting, Nidhogg diminishes from beneath." Since the Tree is under such stress, we ought be healing rather than scathing influences. After all, we are trees ourselves. Not only were human beings drawn out of trees in the yoredays, but poets commonly refer to people as trees.

As far as the overwhelming evidence that Jord/Nerthus, "Earth", was also "Frigga", "beloved", in other words, "Beloved Mother Earth", I will refer the reader to William Reaves' excellent essay, "Odin's Wife : Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology". A religion where Mother Earth is the wife of the chief God is without any question an "earth-centered religion".



The Ecological Importance of the Sacred Groves

The sacred grove is an Indo-European wide (and beyond!) institution. "The protection of patches of forest as sacred groves and of several tree species as sacred trees belong to the religion-based conservation ethos of ancient people all over the world." (M.D. Subash Chandran and Madhav Gadgil, "Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada", in Baidyanath Saraswati, ed., Lifestyle and Ecology, D.K. Printworld Ltd., New Delhi, 1998, p. 85.) The institute of the sacred grove is not a mere matter of speculation, because the institution, while under attack under globalism, still persists in India, where it has been studied. "Although such practices became extinct in most parts of the world, basically due to changes in religion, and during recent times due to changes in resource use patterns, sacred groves and sacred trees continue to be of much importance in religion, culture and resource use systems in many parts of India. ... [T]he scientific study of them was initiated by Gadgil and Vartak (1975, 1976, 1981). Gadgil (1985) pioneered the view that sacred groves and sacred trees belong to a variety of cultural practices which helped Indian society to maintain an ecologically steady state with wild living resources. This view has been fortified by many later studies..." (Ibid.) Addressing Indo-European wide practice, they say, "...[E]ach community had its own sacred grove. Especially worshipped were sanctuaries built among anormous age-old trees which were never to be cut down ... Sacred enclosures formed one of the major categories of land use. These usually contained groves of trees and springs of water ; within them the environment was preserved, as a rule, in its natural state ... Aquelus spoke of travellers praying under the trees on "a little sacred hill fenced all around". But the grove of Daphne was ten miles in circumference. A grove near Lerna stretched all the way down to a mountainside by the sea. Alexander the Great found an entire island dedicated to a goddess identified as Artemis ... ". (Ibid, pp. 86 - 87.)

There is a fundamental reason such "religious conservation" has passed out of existence amongst Europeans. "Due mainly to the rise of dogmatic religions like Christianity and Islam, which advocated faith in one god and were explicitly for the eradication of 'pagan' practices, the tradition of maintaining sacred groves and sacred trees vanished from most countries." (Ibid, p. 89.)

"Religious conservation" is an apt term, because such groves are ecological sanctuaries. "Studies on sacred groves reveal that they are priceless treasures of great ecological, biological, cultural and historical value." (Ibid, p. 90.) The authors quote D. Brandis, "The first Inspector General of Forests in India ... "... These sacred forests, as a rule, are never touched by the axe, except when wood is wanted for the repair of religious buildings, or in special cases for other purposes..." ... The forest was in good condition and well protected. Nothing was allowed to be cut except wood to feed the sacred fire and "this required the cutting annually of a small number of trees which were carefully selected among those that showed signs of age and decay." (Ibid, pp. 90 - 91.) Although precise regulations may have differed from nation to nation, in general, a pattern of strict conservatism of the wild resources of the grove prevailed. In general, these were "sacred places where trees and plants were allowed to grow undisturbed and where reptiles, birds and animals could have free living without fear of poaching or interference by man." (Ibid, p. 91.) Medieval laws in Germany show that cutting down sacred trees carried extreme penalties, and the Greek story of Erisychthon demonstrates that amongst the Greeks such an act was considered a crime as well.

Today, in the midst of widespread disruption of natural areas, the practice of sacred groves gives nature a resting area from which to regenerate. Such areas allow scientists to study flora and fauna not found elsewhere. "Ramakrishnan (1992) observes that the climax vegetation at higher elevations in Meghalaya, as at Cherrapunji, is today represented only by sacred groves. According to A.S. Chauhan of the Botanical Survey of India, the sacred groves of Meghalaya, totalling about 1000 km2 of undisturbed natural vegetation, are found scattered in small pockets all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. With heavy pressure of population on the land, these groves remain the last refugia for 700 rare plant species (Down to Earth, 1994). ... Such groves and forests are often the only remains of the original vegetation ..." (Ibid, p. 92). "Early travellers like Hunter in 1879 nad Gurdon in 1914 made frequent mention of the very conspicuous groves of evergreen forests on the Khasi plateau in Meghalaya (Rodgers, unpublished). Bor (1942) stated that all evergreen forest patches on the Khasi plateau were either sacred groves or land unfit for cultivation." (Ibid.) The authors list 107 rare birds catalogued by scientists in sacred groves.

"Evaluating the small-scale refugia of peasant societies, Joshi and Gadgil (1993) argue that such a system may permit biological resource use at near maximal sustainable level, while keeping the risk of resource extermination low. Such an interpretation is consistent with the fact that in the tribal state of Mizoram, the village woodlot subject to regulated use is termed the supply forest, while the adjacent sacred grove is called the safety forest (Malhotra, 1990)." (Ibid, p. 97.) The authors argue that the emergence of the institution of the sacred grove was in part a response by agriculturalists to their disruption of the habitat, and thus represents a learning curve in response to resource depletion, and therefore "sheltered the community of early peasants from this impoverishment [of biodiversity]." (Ibid, p. 112.) Thus, there were both pragmatic and spiritual reasons for early agriculturalists to institutionalize the sacred grove. These groves were distinguished from woodlots "where people gathered their regular necessities of fuel, leaf manure, minor timber, etc." (Ibid, p. 99.), and often had taboos not only on cutting down trees, but hunting within them, which ensured a "richness of wildlife" (Ibid) in the area. Consequently, these groves, "... in addition to acting as sanctums for wildlife, would also have provided ample food especially for frugiverous animals." (Ibid.) Various forest officials in India have noted that the sacred groves are "of "great economic and climatic importance. They favour the existence of springs, and perennial streams ..."" (Ibid.) Subrash Chandran and Gadgil concluded in 1993 that the sacred groves, "being mostly patches of climax evergreen forest, played an important role in the conservation of biodiversity and helped in the regeneration and restoration of degraded forests around."

Under the British regime in India, many sacred groves were seized by the government, and local ecologies "were subjected to unregulated exploitation" (Ibid, p. 101). This constituted "a major intervention in the traditional resource management systems of the region with ravaging consequences for the landscape. Timber became the major commodity for sale. ... The local peasants in most places forfeited their traditional hold over the forests, including the sacred groves." Nevertheless, religion provides at least a basis for resistance, and significantly, the groves have managed to survive mainly in areas where "Christianity and Islam have had practically no impact on the religion of the people."

Studies show that even heavily stressed peasants maintained up to 6% of their land base as sacred groves, with supply forests and other areas adding another 30 - 40% of their land. When we consider that these were modern studies conducted on peasants living subsistence lifestyles, and that sacred groves in general represented no utilitarian function, this is quite remarkable. Even at these lower percentages, the authors conclude that "the sacred groves have found to be sheltering several plant specis which have mostly vanished from areas in between", constituting "centres of plant diversity, harbouring even rare and threatened plant species", and "may be considered the best samples of the climax evergreen forest of the region" (Ibid, p. 112.) Additionally, sacred groves were "haven[s] for wildlife" (Ibid, p. 113) and a rich variety of fauna. Taking into account the integration of sacred groves into the entire resource management system of the land base, the traditional system was found to be "surprisingly similar" to "alternative agricultural systems ... based on ecological principles of sustainability and stability" (Ibid.).

Chandran and Gadgil emphasize that the spiritual traditions immanent in the sacred groves are "strongly cosmocentric, where man lives as part of a system in which everything is related to everything else", but warn that, "today, rapidly drifting from our traditions of sustainable use and coexistence, we seem to be entering a man-centred world that implies the decimation of nature."

Germania, too, where "nothing was more powerful than Wyrd", was cosmocentric as well, where humans fulfilled their needs within a larger context of respect for the natural world and the Gods who infused that world with life and spirit.

In conclusion, heathenism is, has been, and must be an earth-centered religion if it is to remain true to its roots. The material presented here in support of this conclusion is but the tip of the iceberg. Care for the Living Cosmos (Yggdrasil) is part and parcel of the religious ethos itself, and this includes setting aside and caring for sacred groves where the wild flora and fauna is free from human interference and destruction.

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to get back to their roots.




All translations copyright 2010 by Siegfried Goodfellow.

6 Comments:

Blogger Robert Shawn Rowland said...

Bravo! Well said!

4:47 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Thank you! In the comments section of another post, we're debating the implications of this, which I will probably take and develop into a new post. I think I'd like to explore the "learning curve" theory again, one which dovetails with the idea that human evolution doesn't start out evolved but must experiment it's way over time to something sustainable, as it is tested by the elements and centuries. Our often typical shortsidedness clashes up against the tides of time. Through what survives and what doesn't, people learn what is precious. This then becomes "sacred". The equilibrium of heathen days, and the learning curve it carried, perhaps from the Bronze Age itself or before, has been long disrupted. Most power brokers in the present do not find nature to be sacred, and while there may bean inchoate sense of this amongst the people (otherwise ecology and conservation would have no constituency), it is not developed and articulated enough to form a stronger force. The very act of sacrifice means choosing what we will and will not sacrifice. Heathens must urge the learning curve onwards. Much that is precious is being lost. Our teachings and our heart tell us that holy, numinous places in the world must be set aside, because not only ate they places that preserve nature, but wellsprings if spirituality as well, for there the Gods speak to us moreclearly in the awe and silence, and thus we find there regeneration for our soul.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

This is such an essential discussion and really Heathenry needs to heed your words! If we are to be "of the heath" in more than just name then the nascent contemporary Heathen culture really needs to adopt the ecological perspective of ancient times.

Thanks for your wisdom and research!

11:10 PM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Yes! We need to be "of the heath"! Let us return to our roots. We needn't mindlessly ape how our ancestors developed their roots, but we must connect to the same root as we develop ourselves.

The research and whatever wisdom I am capable of channeling are all made worthwhile by the thoughtfulness and discussion they can generate. With hope, we are part of a larger movement here, a development that will help grow a culture heading towards, rather than away from, Old Growth.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Tracie H said...

See? Just what I was talking about.

Since when did we have a pagan pope who said "it's THIS and NOTHING ELSE and it NEVER CAN BE ANYTHING ELSE and if this isn't what you're doing, YOU ARE NOT A REAL PAGAN! HERETIC! You should be BURNED for DARING TO THINK OUTSIDE THIS BOX! HERETIC!! HERETIC!! HERETIC!"

If I wanted to be yelled at and called a heretic, I'd go be Catholic.

You aren't the pagan pope. Stop trying to be.

11:18 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Hey! Easy now! I'm just a lonesome fellow from Tovangar's no-man's-lands trying to speak my heart forth as I see it. When I donned the mitre is beyond me ; you might be mistaking it for my Robin Hood with feathered lincoln-green yarmulke! What specifically bothered you about what I said? I quoted from the classical sources about heathen culture ; I quoted from the sagas ; I made available rare and important research about ancient religious practice and its ecological ramifications. What was it about that that made you fear heresy-hunts? I don't think that assertion and difference amounts to any kind of persecution. It's called "boldness" in our tradition!

I didn't say that the holding of sacred groves, and the keeping close to Mother Earth's values was the ALL and ALL of heathenism, but I did assert, boldly and with confidence, that it is a necessary PART of the larger whole. I didn't say that the entire responsibility for setting up and caring for nature preserves rested on your shoulders, did I? But heck, would it kill you if you had a spare buck to donate it to some nature trust? I'm not saying you must ; I've already said that each heathen must form his or her own relationship to Mother Earth, and decide what they must do from that basis.

But what would be your counter-assertion? That a heathen has absolutely no obligation whatsoever to form a relationship with Mother Earth? That she may be discluded from our honors? That she ought be ousted from the circle of reverence we owe all the Gods?

I haven't called anyone a heretic! I haven't said anyone should be burned. I've encouraged people to incorporate into their modern practice something that was an integral part of the practice of our ancestors. It's food for thought, not fuel for a flame! I celebrate people's freedom. I also admire the bold.

2:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home