“In the religion of the Teutons, such terms as worship and adore, atone and propitiate in the Jewish and Christian sense are empty words, they slip powerlessly aside; the discrepancy between the fundamental need of religion and their meaning makes them empty and superficial. The worshipper went to his grove and to his gods in search of strength, and he would not have to go in vain; but it was no use his constantly presenting himself as receptive, and quietly waiting to be filled with all good gifts. It was his business to make the gods human, in the old, profound sense of the word, where the emphasis lies on an identification and consequent conjunction of soul with soul. Without mingling mind there was no possibility of union here in Middle-garth, he who could not inspire his neighbor with himself never became his friend, and no will could reach from the one to the other. The gods themselves could do nothing then, nay willed nothing before those who invoked them had rendered them living, as Floki blóted the ravens. It was men who rendered the gods gracious, not by awakening their sympathy, but by inspiring them with frith of their frith. This active co-operation is the origin of those epithets ‘gentle,’ ‘mild,’ ‘good to the people’ which we find in the Nordic as used of the gods, praises which are therefore at root different from the thoughts which ascend towards our gods borne by these words. But even more was expected of a man when he blóted — he made the gods great and strong. It called for more than manly courage, and more than common siegecraft to assail a city known to be a ‘great blótstead’ or a place where powerful blóts were commonly held. The gods who were much blóted were – according to Christian authors – worse to deal with than ordinary supernatural beings.”-Vilhelm Grönbech, The Culture of the Teutons (Volume II)
The Masks of God
In the first of his amazing “Masks of God” series, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of shamans and their theatrics. For all intents and purposes, he painted a picture of these most ancient of spiritual leaders as being part illusionist (in the modern sense of the term), deliberately manufacturing a little hocus-pocus in order to better captivate and engage his or her audience.
He does not, however, suggest that these shamans of old we akin, say, to the modern evangelical faith healer who cold-reads his (or her) audience in order to trick the desperate and gullible into heaping cash into offering plates. Instead he proposes that the audiences were savvy to the shaman’s tricks, but suspended their disbelief intentionally for the benefits brought about by the rites themselves.
This seems to be a difficult concept for modern folk, in spite of the fact that we do it so often in the context of entertainment. Many years ago, when I had an interest in writing fiction, I learned of the concept of “suspension of disbelief;” it is that which creators of movies, books, and television seek to achieve when they wish to fully engage an audience in productions that feature vampires, zombies, and such lot. Knowing that most of us do not believe in the literal, material existence of, say, werewolves, authors must walk a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime, drawing us into plot and character to such a degree that we can forget for a time that their fantasy worlds are not objectively “real.” Given the success of the television and movie industries, one must conclude that we humans are generally satisfied by the experiences that entertainment mediums provide, and thus we see that the suspension of disbelief has its merits.
As someone who was once aggressively atheist – and who has only managed to soften to the point of agnosticism – it is doubtless beyond understanding to many how it came to be that I developed an affinity for paganism. I can only say that I have benefitted greatly from my period of atheism, for it completely broke me from any chance of literal interpretations of myth.
“…a functioning mythology can be defined as a corpus of culturally maintained sign stimuli fostering the development and activation of a specific type, or constellation of types, of human life.”-Joseph Campbell
Nothing is real
Somehow we humans have arrived at a point in which we seem to have only two extreme choices: that our gods are “real” or that there are no gods. Both camps, in my opinion, miss the point horrendously. “Real” is a pointless term, for we humans, living inside of our own universe, have no possibility of obtaining an empirical understanding of reality. We are enclosed in a box – albeit an unfathomably enormous box – from which we have no capacity to look beyond; our universe could be a single cell in some incomprehensible entity, a small part or the whole of a living thing. It could be one of billions, and in all likelihood it is beyond time and space as we think we know it. In all likelihood consciousness gives rise to matter – rather than the scientific-materialist idea that matter spawns consciousness – and thus the pool in which our thoughts swim may well be more “real” than the couch upon which I sit as I write these words and the laptop upon which I record them.
As I, along with many other well-studied pagans and heathens are wont to point out, paganism has always been orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic; it is about what we do rather than about what we believe. It is in our actions – our traditions and our rituals – that we find ourselves and in which we experience divinity. And these rituals – and their benefits – are wrought only when we are willing to dismiss “real” with the same enthusiasm as we eschew “not real,” standing firmly in the middle ground between the extremes, accepting that we cannot “know” that which is unknowable and offering the benefit of the doubt to the shaman’s production.