Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections on "Southside With You" and Racism in Paganism

Tonight I saw "Southside With You," the film about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. It is a poignant study of the beginning of a relationship and an interesting time-capsule of American life 25 or so years ago, with the future Obamas going to see the Spike Lee film, "Do the Right Thing." At several points the two lead characters reflect on the divided, almost split-screen reality they live in, shuttling between the predominantly black American neighborhoods of the South Side of Chicago that they live in and the white-dominated corporate America in the downtown of the city that they go to work in each day. When the Michelle character reflects on how she has to continually perform and achieve at an extra-high level to win respect and status while being black and a woman in America, it made me think of how that has been true for Barack Obama as President. No white President was ever put through the kind of unrelenting scrutiny and vilification that he had to endure. Many people give him no credit at all for major achievements like stabilizing a downward-spiraling economy and not only restoring the stock market but bringing it to record heights, restoring economic growth and rising employment, putting in place regulations that will improve the safety of our air and water for generations to come, reorganizing Federal Student Loans to make it possible for borrowers to pay back on an income-contingent basis--truly a life-saver for those, like your author, with massive educational debt--and improving American's international reputation after the embarrassments of the Bush years. This is not to say the Obama record is perfect; far from it. In fact, I voted for the Green Party in 2012, but that does not mean I do not realize that things could have been much worse and that Obama did make many things better, despite incredible Republican obstruction. There are many disappointing things about his presidency, but to write it off as a nation-wrecking disaster when it was really more of a national Heimlich maneuver is to look at the last eight years through a terribly distorted lens.

Donald Trump is banking on millions of Americans endorsing that twisted view, and he may succeed. Why? There are multiple reasons, one of the foremost being that many economically struggling white Americans are responding to the old, old Pied Piper's tune of racial resentment, which provides scapegoats and rationalizations that many find comforting and reassuring. It is not the increasing power of global capitalism and massive, inhumane business corporations that are causing your declining income, status and job security; it is those nasty Mexicans and Muslims and Chinese. And all of this started when America went down the suicidal road of "political correctness" and voted a black man into the White House, a black man who is probably not even a real American, and who is probably a "Secret Muslim" though he claims to be a Christian. Don't forget that the Dunce-ald got his start in politics by gleefully endorsing the "birther" conspiracy theory that questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency by casting doubt on the authenticity of his birth certificate. The birther show was quite a media circus, for a time, but in the end it produced nothing of value and only wasted America's time and attention. If the Golden One were elected, I expect that his presidency would achieve similar results.

The longer I live, the more people I know, the more classes I teach and students I work with, the more clearly I see how the real "birther" problem of America is how this country was founded in racial hostility, economic exploitation and bitter injustice, a nightmarish and haunted legacy from the extermination to the enslavement to the continuing disadvantaging and disrespecting of non-white people, and the more this sickens, saddens and angers me. This is the "original sin" of American life, and it never goes away. It affects all of us who breathe the air and walk the streets and make our homes in America.

And to turn to my own chosen spiritual home in the evolving religious framework of contemporary Paganism, I see how this haunted legacy poisons modern American Paganism too. The recent controversy over statements made by the new leaders of the AFA, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, that suggest a desire to perpetuate Ásatrú/Heathenry/Norse Paganism for the sake of "our beautiful white children" is repugnant but unsurprising, as this has always been one of the threads women into contemporary Norse Paganism, especially, though not exclusively, in America. As I see it, the desire of these people to employ Norse spirituality in the service of creating a lovely all-white world for their darling pure-gene children is just the old racist American story all over again, if one that is charmingly decorated with runes and eddas.

I do believe that there are well-meaning, generally kind-hearted people who are not deeply or overtly racist who fall into this unawares, not realizing that lore is being used as a lure for the unwary, to gradually indoctrinate them with a racist view of the world. A deeper understanding of American history, including its ugly chapters of racial injustice and brutalized and terrorized populations, would serve them well, as would a visit to the cinema to see "Southside With You."

Hopefully, over time, as they explore more deeply and gain greater experience, at least some who have been lured into more racist forms of Heathenry will come to see that Yggdrasil, that mythical Ash tree that links together different worlds in Norse mythology, is the WORLD tree, not the WHITE tree! Hopefully, they will come to understand that just as the mythology envisions different "races" or types of beings living together in one interlinked universe, interacting and intermingling, combining and creating, so too can we humans of different ethnic hues and backgrounds, and that together, we can breathe new energy into originally Norse-based traditions to make them more vibrant and beautiful than ever.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

After the Republican Convention

The horrible freak show that was the Republican National Convention has now come to an end, with a red-faced candidate shouting at the faithful that America is on the edge of violent collapse and their only hope is to trust in Him as the Second Coming of Richard Nixon, or is it Mussolini? Thankfully, a more sunny scenario was offered today by the Democrats, when Hillary Clinton introduced Tim Kaine as her choice to be her Vice President, should they win the election. Finally, after days of gloom and doom and angry mobs shouting for blood, we saw two relaxed, very intelligent and very experienced public servants offering hope rather than hate, compassion rather than anger. I think Hillary summed it all up when she said, earlier in the day on Friday, "Love trumps hate." Kaine reached out to the growing numbers of Hispanic Americans by speaking Spanish...FLUENTLY.

For me, one of the most important issues here is experience. Hillary was a U.S. Senator for eight years and Secretary of State for four, not to mention eight years as First Lady. She can also boast of earlier years spent in advocating for children's issues. Kaine has been a city councilman, the mayor of Richmond, the governor of Virginia, and a U.S. Senator for three years. He also worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras when he was just out of college.

Trump has zero experience in public service and government, and his much-vaunted business experience is clouded by all those bankruptcies and law suits that seem to buzz around him like flies around, uh, food. All he does is shout about how great he is and how he can fix everything, without ever giving any details! At least his VP pick, Mike Pence, has some solid experience as a U.S. congressman and a governor.Though I do not agree with his political views, I appreciate that Pence has a calm and thoughtful temperament. Problem is, the experienced and thoughtful Pence is not at the top of the ticket. The very loud but completely inexperienced and unthoughtful Trump is the boss, and poor Pence is his "apprentice."

If you believe that important jobs, like President and Vice-President of the USA, should be done by experienced and intelligent people, the obvious choice is Clinton-Kaine. That is my view, anyway!

Reflections on violence and violent gods in Paganism still forthcoming....

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stop Feeding the Fire, Stop Romanticizing Guns: A Cry for Orlando

A week ago, on the early morning of June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen carried out his brutal rampage in the LBGT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, setting a new American record for number of people killed by one American gunman at one time. Though much attention has been paid to the killer's Muslim religious background and his claim of allegiance to the Islamic State, I find it more important to point out that this massacre was clearly motivated by intense homophobia. He could have gone anywhere to take innocent lives and make his point, but Mr. Mateen chose a place that was associated with the LBGT community. He made a conscious decision to target gays, lesbians and others of non-conventional sexual and gender preferences for his night of infamy. In deploring the killing, many politicians and media pundits have chosen to focus on his religious identity and his attempt to link himself with violent Islamic extremism, but fewer are the voices that have made as resounding a denunciation of anti-gay attitudes and violence as they have of Islamic extremism or terrorism.

This is quite ironic, considering that LBGTs are among the populations most prone to suffer persecution and violence--and thus live in terror--in America. One would think that those who denounce terrorism in broad, sweeping, flag-waving, moral-crusade terms would take note of how often LBGT Americans are terrorized, and bring this front and center in denouncing the Orlando rampage, but no. The reason is not difficult to surmise. Many right-wing politicians have made quite a point of vilifying LBGT people and rejecting their efforts to gain equal rights over the last several decades. In their demonization of gays, lesbians, transgender people and others, such politicians helped to set the stage for the Orlando massacre, for they have targeted LBGTs with their rhetoric and legislation as surely as the Orlando killer did with his assault rifle. And so, when this holocaust raged in the Orlando nightclub, the right-wing politicians and gay-haters found themselves in a quandary, and took the easy way out, focusing on the religious aspect to engage in some free and easy Muslim-bashing, to avoid the issue of how their words and actions have contributed to the beating and killing of LBGTs on many occasions including this horrific night in Florida. Sadly, their pointing to Islam, rather than homophobia, as the cause of the Orlando catastrophe is likely to lead to more Muslim-bashing around the USA and beyond. Of course, for those like Donald Trump, who depend on whipping racism and bigotry to a "white"-hot froth for their surest source of political support, this result will probably suit them just fine, regardless of how it traumatizes Muslim-American individuals and families, tears apart our society, and bolsters the anti-American sentiments and ideology of groups like ISIS.

Today, however, I want to call attention to another aspect of the Orlando shooting spree. Omar Mateem didn't just go to the Pulse nightclub armed to the teeth to kill others, but also to be killed himself in an orgy of violence, a ballet of bullets. In so doing, he was acting out a script that has been portrayed and played out all too many times in America, in both the fantasy life and the real lives of Americans. This is the tired but never retired old trope of the valiant, gunslinging hero who goes to fight against invincible odds and dies in a blaze of glory. Think of "Custer's Last Stand," fighting bravely against the "Injun" enemy. Think of all the movies and television shows, from "High Noon" to "Dirty Harry," from "Pulp Fiction" to "American Sniper" to (add your own), where soldiers or police or vigilante he-men or charismatic criminals end up fighting alone, one gun against a hundred or a thousand, to either die or miraculously triumph, or both.

All hail the lone male hero and his mighty gun, one brave penis against the world! If he dies, he dies happy in one last ejaculation of lead, blood and sperm! If he prevails, it is because of the magical power of a noble man and his majestic weapon!

I would go so far as to say that this scenario, this man-and-a-gun-against-the world script, has achieved a quasi-sacred status in the American imagination, particularly the American male imagination, helping to explain why guns are such a sensitive political issue in the USA. Any proposal to limit access to guns in the USA ignites such ferocious and irrational opposition, you would think that the proposed laws were aiming at castrating men rather than simply placing limits on gun access, use and purchase similar to those in other countries. Perhaps if more men played more with their penises and got their jollies that way, perhaps if our society were more open and accepting of sexuality, we would not have this problem. Perhaps if Omar Mateem had gone to that bar seeking an orgasm rather than a gun-gasm, this tragedy could have been avoided. Unfortunately, it would seem that gun play had become more satisfying, more meaningful, and more heroic than sex play for him. I fear, however, that he is not alone in this, shall we call it, "lifestyle preference," where aggression trumps eroticism and carnage is preferred to coitus.

This needs to change. I say that unequivocally, and I don't see how any sane person could disagree with the proposal that we need to completely reject and lay to rest the persistent, pernicious and tragically popular mass hallucination that teaches young men in America that the ultimate exercise of American male heroism is to die in a hail of gunfire, shooting and being shot, taking down as many others as possible before submitting to death oneself. John Wayne, RIP! Quentin Tarantino, please find something else to aim your camera at besides endless and repetitive displays of gunfire!

But it will not be enough to retire this script. It has to be replaced with cultural representations that are not only non-violent, but also attractive and inspirational. American boys and men--and boys and men in other countries who grow up to the sights and sounds of bullet-riddled American media, from police procedurals to war movies to gangster rap--need to be shown other models of heroism to aspire to, other ways of being fulfilled and proud as men without fetishizing guns and shooting to kill. We need a paradigm shift, in Thomas Kuhn's phrase.

We need a massive, all-hands-on-deck commitment to creating images and narratives that celebrate the value of peaceful pursuits and non-violent forms of achievement and heroism for American men. Instead of only glorifying policemen, soldiers and psychopathic killers ad infinitum and ad nauseum, we need to showcase the drama and significance of other occupations and situations. To a public trained to feel bored by any story that does not involve the firing of guns, and equates heroism with good guys with guns killing bad guys with guns, this is indeed a difficult task, but that does not mean it is an impossible one. Popular television programs have been built around the work-lives of lawyers and doctors, with the ethical dilemmas of law firms and the life-and-death drama of the operating room proving just as gripping and just as lucrative as battlefield heroics or the stereotyped shoot-out in the crime-den. The work of teachers, social workers, legislators and other public servants could also be converted into compelling dramas if the networks and movie studios were willing to take a chance, as they did with "Mad Men" and its portrayal of the advertising world, for example.

And then there are video games. Surely more could be done to create a wider range of alternatives to the kinds of single-shooter kill-fests that would almost seem to have been designed as how-to manuals for disturbed mass killers like Omar Mateem?

I know some who read this will object that there is no direct correlation between violent entertainment and gun violence in America. I would answer that while there may be no direct correlation, there is no escaping the fact that American gun violence in American life very much reflects the portrayals of gun violence in American popular culture, suggesting a kind of feedback-loop between what people see on screen and what they do in life. There may not be any one-to-one causal correspondence between any particular media display of gun-violence and any particular mass-shooting in a simplistic sense, but that does not mean there is NO influence on the American psyche from the constant screening of scenes of men with guns who shoot to kill and are killed by shooting. If images and narratives on the screen had no effect on us, billions of dollars would not be spent every week on television and internet advertising. What we see, what we hear in the media DOES affect us. Looked at in this way, the massive and ceaseless displays of gun violence are one long and unending advertisement for the glorification of guns and an equation of American masculinity with gun violence, an anti-public service announcement, you might say.

Women of course can play and slay with guns as much as men, and I would sadly predict that the rising number of films and programs with gun-toting females will eventually usher in a new phenomenon of female mass-shooters. I suppose this could be seen as a victory for gender equality, but this is one glass ceiling I would rather remain unbroken.

One more thing. I have noted for many years now that in many places in America, most public monuments are dedicated to soldiers and police. One could easily develop the impression, growing up in the average American town or city, that the only men who are real heroes in American life are those who brave danger with guns in their hands. Why are there so few memorials to people in other walks of life, to doctors, nurses, engineers and musicians, poets, artists, composers and playwrights? Many are the American highways and byways named for army regiments and state police officers; few are those named for teachers or writers or scientists. This is another area in which we can alter the atmosphere of our country to advance more peaceful values and images, and start reducing the amount of energy that our culture pumps into a misguided romance with guns and violence that may not directly cause events like the Orlando massacre, but which helps make them more imaginable, and thus more possible. We need to drain this swamp, whose polluted waters allow toxic tendencies to flourish...

I remember once reading a book called "Wisconsin Death Trip," a photographic journey through images of death and funerals in Wisconsin. I feel like our country has been on an "American Death Trip" for years. Let's get off this sad trajectory, PLEASE!

Next: Paganism and gun violence.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Children of Trump" in America: ugly racist attitudes showing

On the 30th of December, my very pleasant one-semester sojourn teaching in the Czech Republic, which had afforded me many wonderful opportunities to travel to other places in Europe from Stockholm to Zagreb, Vilnius to Istanbul, Kraków to Kiev, came to an end. I returned to my homeland, the United States of America, just in time to observe the Donald Trump phenomenon in full swing. I had already been somewhat aware of this while in Europe, while continually hoping that the bubble would burst and the American people grow tired of this mean-spirited charade, but being back in America has made the Trump juggernaut all the more vivid and distressing.

To me, this seems nothing short of the rise of an American form of Fascism, with a charismatic leader who promises to "make America great again," blames foreigners, immigrants and the president, whose American citizenship Trump once questioned as a ringleader of the "birther" movement, for the currently less-than-great state of the nation, and rouses wildly enthusiastic crowds of supporters with promises to ban Muslim migrants and deport Mexican ones, restore Bush-era "waterboarding" of Muslims under suspicion of terrorism, the "enhanced interrogation" program that many condemned as torture, and erect a huge wall on the US-Mexican border to keep out the dirty, criminal foreigners who keep America from being "great." Trump has also displayed an immense capacity for vitriol and vindictiveness by insulting and attacking rivals, protesters and journalists in cruel, petty and personal terms that have generally been understood as "un-presidential" in past electoral cycles, a single incidence of which would have been enough to cripple past presidential campaigns. Sadly, this sadism has not damaged Trump's standing, but only enhanced it, by appealing to what seems a bottomless thirst for sheer aggression among his followers.

Trump's policy proposals are laughably vague, but this does not seem to matter. What appeals most to his devotees is not what he is for--obviously, his goal is to "make American great again"--but who he is against--Mexicans, Muslims, liberals, elites. Considering that he receives his most thunderous applause for his anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim statements, and that his audience is mostly comprised of white Americans, it seems to me that the not-so-very well hidden inner meaning of Trump's "make America great again" slogan is a racist call to "make America white again." The revelation that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and other white supremacists have expressed their support for Trump bolsters this interpretation.

In this context, Trump's miscellaneous proposals for harsh actions from deportation to torture to mass bombing against racial, ethnic and religious Others become distressingly coherent, a politics of hate whose most skilled and successful past practitioner was none other than Adolf Hitler. It is not clear if Trump is fully conscious of the ugliness that he is tapping into and the dread spectres he is conjuring, or if he is simply an attention-craving opportunist eager to please his audiences with whatever they want to hear, but either way, the appeal of his message demonstrates how far America is from closing the door and healing the wounds of its history of violent racism. If the "Children of Odin" in Finland represent a right-wing response to the Muslim migration crisis in Europe, then surely the "Children of Trump" are the American counterpart.

Having recently finished an article on political viewpoints in Ásatrú, I am conscious of how the Trumpian call to "make America great [and white] again" has a certain echo in some ethnic-oriented forms of modern Paganism. To the extent that such Paganism may be fueled by a desire for ethnic validation among white Americans who feel threatened by the increasing acceptance of diversity in American society, the parallel is clear. AFA founder and prominent conservative Heathen Stephen McNalllen's past statements opposing Mexican immigration as a threat to white European social and political dominance would probably be very well-received at a Trump rally.

This raises the interesting question of how Pagans in America are responding to the political choices offered by the current presidential campaign in the USA. Are the more left-wing and universalist Pagans lining up behind the Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, and are the more right-wing and ethnically-focused Pagans leaning toward Trump? If anyone has seen information on this, please send links or reports to this blog through the comments section.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Children of Odin" in Finland: anti-Muslim hysteria growing.

Dear Readers,

A friend in Latvia just forwarded to me a most upsetting news story from a Finnish newspaper, about an anti-Muslim group in Finland calling itself "The Children of Odin." I equally regret their ignorant opposition to a people they seem to know nothing about but fear due to ill-informed but inflammatory stereotypes, and their usage of the name Odin, thus again tarring Norse Paganism with the old brush of Nazi-esque intolerance and thuggery. Notice that nothing bad has happened in this town as a result of the Muslim refugees' arrival, and yet a certain segment of the local people is already mobilizing anti-Muslim militias. I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg...

Here is the link, with the article copied below.

Friday's papers: "Soldiers of Odin" patrol Kemi streets, paper claims "100s of Muslim extremists in Turku," Finland to cut UNICEF funding by 75%
Friday’s newspapers wrote about a group that calls themselves the Soldiers of Odin who patrol the streets of Kemi to "increase people's feeling of security." One paper claims there are "several hundred" Muslim extremists in Turku. Government plans to cut funding to the UNICEF children's fund by 15 million euros.

Unicefin koulu Bekaan laaksossa Libanonissa
UNICEF worker and schoolgirl in undated picture taken in Lebanon. File photo. Image: Nabil Mounzer / EPA

Aamulehti posted a story Thursday about a group that started patrolling the streets of the northern town of Kemi.

The paper writes that starting a few days ago a group of dark-clothed men, who call themselves the Soldiers of Odin, were patrolling the streets of Kemi.

Aamulehti interviewed the patrol's organiser, Mika Ranta, who said the reason behind the patrols was to "increase people's feeling of security."

The paper asked Ranta why he started the group.

"We woke up to a situation where many different cultures met. It caused fear and concern in the community. We started to gather a bunch of people," the paper quoted Ranta saying.

"The biggest issue was when we learned from Facebook that new asylum seekers were peering through the gates of primary schools, looking at young girls," Ranta told Aamulehti.

There is an asylum seeker reception centre based in the northern town Kemi, a town just under 30 km from the border town of Tornio, where the majority of asylum seekers have been arriving to the country recently.

Ranta was quoted claiming that there are hundreds of Soldiers of Odin members across the country.

He said that while he describes himself as a National Socialist on his Facebook page, he claims his "opinions are his own" and that there are all kinds of people in the "family friendly" group.

Aamulehti also published a photo of some members of the group, which appears to consist mostly of men clad in dark nylon bomber jackets, many of which appear to be embroidered with an acronym of the group.

Most of the members did not consent to be photographed, and turned their backs for the snapshot. But the five members in the foreground who agreed to the photo were all listed as having Finnish names in the caption.

Finnish police told the paper that it does not recommend patrols or actions like these "under any circumstances."
TS claimed: "Hundreds of Muslim extremists in Turku"

A brief in Turku’s daily Turun Sanomat* made an unattributed and problematic claim that there are "several hundred" Muslim extremists living in the city.

The claims are unattributed to anyone but the articles' reporter, however there is no writer’s name attached to the piece. The photo attached to the article features Muslims praying at a Turku mosque, but was apparently photographed in 2009.

The first four paragraphs of the article claim that there are "several hundred Muslim extremists" in Turku and that "the number is growing all the time. They are deeply religious Muslims."

The following paragraph goes on to explain that these Muslims belong to the ultra-conservative Salafi movement of Islam, but gives no actual evidence backing up the statements.

"The group has a lot of supporters in Saudi Arabia, but now also in Turku," the paper wrote.

The article later quotes Åbo Akademi University's associate professor of religious studies Tuomas Martikainen explaining the history of arriving Muslims to the country. In his opinion their religious identities were strengthened as more Muslims arrived, and has led to conflicts within the Muslim community.

Martikainen does not, however, appear to defend or refute a claim that there is an increase in the number of Muslim extremists in the city.

*It has come to the attention of Yle News that the referenced Turun Sanomat article was published in August 2013, however the article remains in circulation on social media and a link to the article was featured on their current web pages.
Finland to cut UNICEF support by 75 percent

The Finnish government is proposing to cut funding toward the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, by about 15 million euros, Finland's biggest daily Helsingin Sanomat reports.

Next year the government proposes allocating some five to six million euros to the international children's fund, which amounts to a 75 percent decrease compared to past years, the paper writes.

"Finland has been the world's eighth largest donor of assistance to the UNICEF children's fund," UNICEF's programming and advocacy director in Finland Inka Hetemäki said.

"The cuts to aid will have dramatic consequences for the world’s children," the paper quoted her saying.

Additionally, the paper writes, the Foreign Ministry is also proposing international aid cuts of around 300 million euros - apart from the UNICEF funding.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Crossing Boundaries, Combining Deities, Creating My Own Tradition

Lately I have noted two different spiritual impulses in myself that cannot seem to be satisfied by recourse to a single ethnically-based Pagan tradition. Though I realize this is heresy to some of my Pagan friends, I am feeling like the solution to my spiritual dilemma is to combine deities of two different traditions. I know full well that this goes against the principle followed by many ethnic Pagans of ONLY orienting themselves to god/desses of ONE ethnic tradition, and not mixing this devotion with any involvement with any other deities drawn form other traditions of Pagan Europe or elsewhere. Yet I feel this impulse. Let me explain further, and I would be happy to hear from readers if they have had similar issues in their own spiritual development, and how they deal with them.

I am of mixed Baltic and Slavic descent, and since visiting Lithuania in 1996 I have felt myself very connected to the Baltic Pagan tradition, through almost two decades of contacts with the late Jonas Trinkūnas and his wife Inija Trinkūnienė, respectively the past and current leaders of the Lithuanian Pagan movement Romuva, and also with Pagan friends in Latvia, among other things. However, I have a fascination with Norse mythology that goes back to childhood that pulls me to the Norse Pagan world as well. My first fumblings into Paganism were discussions with fellow Norse enthusiasts in the Boston area in the early 1990s, and my real introduction to a spiritually vibrant Pagan practice came in Iceland a few yeas later. Since then, I have found myself always feeling connected to both traditions, the Norse and the Baltic, and unable to choose between them or fully commit myself either way. Now I am thinking that perhaps, I do not have to.

I have long felt, through dreams and other ways, that Odin was the most important god for me. As someone who has lived in different countries and been deeply affected by all of them without ever being able to really settle down anywhere with a sense of satisfied finality, I relate strongly to Odin's aspect as the ever-wandering seeker of wisdom whose travels lead to knowledge and power but not necessarily happiness or contentment. Thinking in a Baltic way, I have tried to harness this sense of connection and focus it onto the approximate Lithuanian equivalent of Odin, Velnias, but Velnias has never seemed as vivid to me as Odin. This is partly no doubt because I have long been aware of Odin's myths as recorded in the Eddas, which I have read and reread and reflected on for many years, and I know of no Lithuanian texts that give as compelling an account of Velnias, at least in English translation. And so, I see the need for Odin to play an important part in my personal worship practice.

But then there is another spiritual impulse that has been growing in me, a voice inside calling me to revere and offer devotion to the earth-goddess. More than twenty years ago, I studied Marija Gimbutas' theories of a "Goddess Civilization" in Neolithic "Old Europe" between approximately 7000-3500 BCE, as laid out in books like "The Language of the Goddess." Like many academics of the time, I tended to dismiss her idea of a goddess-centered culture complex because it seemed that she had exaggerated certain points and perhaps gone overboard with her enthusiasm, writing more emotionally than scientifically. And yet I had never been able to decisively conclude that Gimbutas was completely wrong. It has always seemed to me that she was certainly correct on a very interesting and meaningful point, that there is a strong feminine component in many European mythological traditions that creates strange tensions with the male gods of those same traditions, and that this definite feminine power in the Pagan European mythology that has come down to us could be a vestige of even older traditions.

And then this last spring, teaching a course on "Neo-Paganism" at a college in the northeastern United States, I found myself again re-examining Gimbutas' goddess and Old Europe theories, and I discovered them resonating with me more deeply than ever before. I did not suddenly forget about all the criticisms and reservations expressed by archaeologists, Indo-Europeanists and others about possible inaccuracies and overstatements in Marija's work, but I was aware of another point of view as well. Modern academia and science tend to be very narrowly-focused, delving deeply into the most minute data, rather than stepping back to allow contemplation and speculation of larger connections and meanings. In such a situation, Gimbutas could not but come off badly and be viewed as a nutty old lady who went over the edge of reason, science and academic respectability. However, the narrowly-focused super-specialists who tend to dominate today may simply not be temperamentally or professionally equipped to evaluate writing and thinking that is as broad and visionary as the work of Gimbutas.

(As an aside, let me note that I have the same perception about modern-day psychological researchers who have in some ways reduced psychology to a biologically reductive "brain science" and are thus quick to dismiss the broader, more speculative thinking of early giants of their field like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, because if you can't open a brain stem or a nerve cluster and find a mother-complex or an archetype there, than these are obviously false and meaningless constructs to be relegated to the psychiatric scrap heap. Hmm, this may require further discussion in the blog another day...)

Returning to Gimbutas, it strikes me that those who dismiss her later publications have not always taken seriously the fact that she came to her "extravagant" goddess theories after not just many years, but many decades of immersion in exactly the kind of fine-pointed archaeological data that are considered the proper stuff of archaeology by those who now disdain her later work as unscientific and unsupported. I don't know about you, but I tend to take seriously the opinions of those who have spent a long time, especially a life-time, on a particular subject or skill.

A computer program designed by a twenty-five year-old researcher might produce an analysis of classical music that "scientifically" ranks the great composers of the past in such a way that Beethoven is placed at #54, Mozart at #21 and Tchaikovsky at #88, according to some mathematical formula or algorithm, and this "brilliant scientific research" might be all the rage for a time, and certainly be attractive to corporations looking to classify and market music according to numerical values as with online services like Pandora, but I would be more inclined to listen to the views of a seasoned, dedicated 70 or 80 year old virtuoso musician or conductor who has been playing this music all their life and speaks from deep familiarity and personal experience. Similarly, it may be quite easy for someone with certain kinds of academic training to locate weaknesses or errors in Gimbutas' work and then proceed to rip down the whole edifice, thereby quickly advancing a few professional levels in the academic demolition-derby, but has that person actually spent as much time as Gimbutas did in working with the actual archaeological data and artifacts from Neolithic Europe? She may have been wrong on particular points, and even exaggerated or distorted this or that along the very long road that she traversed, but her overall thesis that there were very strong elements of feminine symbolism in Southeastern-Central Eastern Neolithic Europe that seem suggestive of goddess worship is something that I think must be taken seriously, and I do.

I have been finding that the kinds of Neolithic goddess images highlighted by Gimbutas, the "Venus of Willendorf" type figures of superabundant proportions with all feminine attributes heightened and magnified speak to me on some very deep level. The spiral motif often associated with these figures, which according to Gimbutas symbolizes not only the life and pleasure-giving contours of vulva, vagina and womb, but birth and death and infinite plenitude and regeneration as an all-encompassing feminine mystery, has also captivated me. Perhaps it is that I still feel the loss of my mother, who passed on some eleven years ago, or like most men, the need of a female partner in love and in life, that feed this fascination, but I don't think that this can be simply reduced to these personal, psychological factors. I interpret it as a need to be connected to the earth as mother, the ultimate feminine, and so I have been seeking a proper form through which to develop this devotion.

To complement Odin in my personal devotion, it would be convenient and culturally congruent to select a Norse goddess, but here I cannot seem to find the right fit. The fertility goddess from Norse myth that is most vivid to me is Freyja, but I am conscious that she is not specifically an EARTH goddess in the Norse tradition, but is just as much a warrior queen and a death-goddess. The "earth-mother" position in Norse myth is filled by the mother of Thor, Fjörgyn, also sometimes known as Jörð and described as Odin's partner. However, she is not well-represented in the surviving mythological texts, and I find my spiritual focus gravitating instead to the Lithuanian goddess of earth and fertility, Žemyna. I do not know any myths of Žemyna, but I know that she was worshipped in the past in a humble but evocative manner by offerings of drink poured onto the ground and that she is highly regarded in the Romuva movement. She has in these different ways been impressed on my psyche,and become a dear and familiar figure to me. And so, Žemyna it is.

I will now be groping and experimenting to find my own way to focus devotion onto these two figures, from separate Pagan traditions, who I now combine into a new Pagan tradition--my own. My first thought is that I should meditate on Odin at night, as I associate him with wisdom and mystery tinged with darkness, and focus on Žemyna in the morning, as the bearer of new life in each new day on this earth--HER earth. And so I begin.

As noted earlier, I am interested to hear from others who have similarly experimented with combining deities from different traditions and from across cultural and ethnic boundaries.
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