Friday, August 21, 2009

War and Peace in Paganism

As a dedicated peacenik and staunch foe of militarism, which I consider one of the greatest curses of modern life, but also a Pagan, I have often pondered how the ancient European Pagan traditions had gods of both war and of peace. Obviously, then as well as now, war was sometimes an unavoidable necessity, and then as now, it had an economic dimension as well, in that "to the victors go the spoils," to which we might add modern-day reflections on the military industrial complex and how much profit and employment is wrapped up in the war biz. The greater the number of people who depend on the military-industrial complex for their employment, education, housing, health insurance etc., the harder it becomes to cut back any aspect of the military, as it has become an ever-expanding social welfare program for soldiers and their families as well as all the people who work in military-related industries.

In the Pagan religious traditions I am closest to, the Norse-Germanic Asatru/Heathen tradition and the Baltic-Lithuanian Romuva movement, I have seen that what often seems to attract a certain number of men to these religious movements dealing with the Pagan past is the opportunity to play and pose with swords and other medieval weapons and imagine themselves great warriors of the distant past. A lot of this is just testosterone bluster in honor of the Gods of War, but I worry about how this kind of thing may drown out an appreciation of the Gods of Peace.

I cannot help but relate this to modern American culture, with its endless images of war and violence that are drilled into our heads 24 hours a day. I do understand that boys will be boys, and that they often do love to play with war toys. I had my toy soldiers as a boy too, and enjoyed my share of make-believe combat. But I do worry at how this ties in with our modern, post-9/11 military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because it seems to me that in this last decade, war and the military have gained a sort of sacrosanct status, as something sacred that cannot be questioned but must only and always be obeyed. We are all pressured to "support the troops" rather than to THINK about what these wars are based upon and what they are actually achieving or not achieving.

I find the Gods of War a pretty scary lot. Even Odin, one of my favorite Pagan deities, is described as sometimes being untrustworthy in his aspect as a war god, giving victory to the undeserving and sacrificing his own followers on the battlefield for his own mysterious purposes, including drafting them into the elite force that will battle frost giants and fire demons in the final battle of Ragnarok, which, according to the Eddic poem "Voluspa," will plunge the whole world into fiery chaos, prior to an eventual regeneration of the cosmos after its total destruction. I think that for many in the Heathen or Asatru community, the mythology of Odin, Valhalla and Ragnarok is seen as a straightforward glorification of war and warriors. I see darker, more ambiguous meanings here. Odin's shiftiness on the field of battle seems a perfect metaphor for the horrible uncertainty of war; the destruction on both sides, never knowing who will live or die, and in the aftermath, the grieving for the dead and the wounds both psychological and physical, the broken limbs and shattered minds that even the victors will carry home from the battle, and the possibility of renewed war in the near or distant future as the losing side nurses grievances and dreams of vengeance. Not exactly a good time for all. Not the great fun of "The World of Warfare" video game.

And, Ragnarok is a failure, an absolute disaster for the gods. All the combined efforts of Odin and the other great gods like Thor and Freyr to protect the worlds of gods and of men are all in vain. Odin is swallowed by the great wolf Fenrir; Thor is slain by the Midgard Serpent. The other gods go down in defeat as well, and the fire-demon Surt runs wild, in what seems a medieval version of a nuclear holocaust. There are obviously different ways to interpret this, and my thoughts here are strictly my own. I read this as actually suggesting a weariness with war, a sense that war only leads to greater and greater destruction. Others may view this as prophesizing that some kind of all-destroying conflict (Israel versus Iran in the Middle East? India vs Pakistan? Yankees versus Red Sox? soccer versus football?) is inevitable, and that we should all sharpen our axes, shine our shields and prepare to go down fighting.

However, the peacenik in me finds other threads to follow in the Norse myths. When Odin gains mastery of the magical runes in the poem Havamal, one of the abilities he acquires is the ability to make peace. So he is not a 24/7, bloodthirsty war god who only knows how to rhyme "war" with "more." He knows the value of peace, when possible. There is also the tale of the battle between two families or tribes of divine beings, the Aesir (including Odin and Thor) and the Vanir (fertility gods all, sea-god Njord, brother and sister fertility deities Freyr and Freyja). It was the "first war in the world," and neither side could win. So they arranged a truce, exchanged prisoners, and Freyr and Freyja came to dwell among the Aesir. This truce, unlike the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok, was a success. Peace worked, at least in this case.

Elsewhere in the mythology, a minor episode that I also find significant is that Freyr, in the course of wooing a maiden of interest, gives away his sword, and when the battle of Ragarok comes, he is without a proper weapon, and has to make do with the horn of a stag; we might jokingly say, Freyr has to "go stag" at the worst possible moment. He gave up his weapon for love. Now, this didn't end so well for Freyr, so it is not necessarily an argument that this was the best move to have made, but I find it expressive of Freyr's primary nature as a fertility god, who was often worshipped in the form of a giant phallus. He seems to have been a "make love not war" kind of god.

Therefore, I think that a cogent case can be made that the Norse tradition is not wholeheartedly pro-war or pro-military. There are also anti-military, pro-peace dimensions that deserve contemplation. Stepping back to our modern society, I think that pro-peace voices need to be bolder and louder. For too long now, the worship of the war god has dominated our political discourse. To be anti-war is seen as wimpy, traitorous, un-American. On the conservative side of politics, there is the strange, ironic coincidence of "pro-life" and pro-war points of view. I think that being truly pro-life should extend to opposing war, or at least being very cautious and reserved about the hellish mass murder that war is, and not celebrating it as if it were a big happy football game for the whole family to watch and cheer. In the Pagan world, I would personally like to join forces with other Pagans who feel that their spirituality calls them to promote peace and denounce war. I will stand with you. There was once a "Pagans for Peace" organization in the late 1990s, but I don't think it survived the Bush years. Perhaps it is time to try again?


Matt BP said...

For Pagans the Goddess is multi-faceted, as is the Cymric equivalent of Odin, Gwyddion. The Goddess, as Danu, loves and tends, but then as the Morrigan she destroys and lusts. Gwyddion helped his cousin rape Pryderi's foot-maiden and caused Dyfed and Gwynedd to go to war, so that he could capture Pryderi's pigs. Pigs, of course, are animals that represent the Goddess in her multi-faceted guise of mother/death crone.
I sometimes wonder if Americans are so trigger-happy with sallying off to war because they are largely insulated from its repercussions. 911 was important because it has showed Americans that they are not completely immune to the direct and horrible effects of war, otherwise unseen since the Civil War and without foreign influence behind it since they lost 1812.
Peace is good, peace is great, but peace is not the foundation of America, a nation founded on exploitation and expansion, so how can its population know that peace is the way?
I thank the Gods that King Bush II is gone and hopefully colouring in something nice with his retired-presidential crayola set. What amazing colours! Anyway...
The Gods of the Americans are war gods at the moment.... but that can change as the Goddess shows her other face, as Gwyddion creates Blodeuwedd out of flowers rather than stealing Pryderi's Pigs, as Morrigan puts her crows away and gets happy and naked and full of breast milk as Danu. Then who knows? Maybe peace will find a way.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Bluster indeed. For those of us who are actual vets, this is an unattractive display of ignorance, and boasting {but not the kind of boasting they say they mean}.

There are lots of things going on. War between the Gods is over. Or seems to be, when they exchanged hostages and some took spouses or partners of Giant Stock.

That leaves Men.

The Wolf Fenrir eating the sun and the moon--could be an ancient reference to an eclipse, but that seems overly simplistic of a culture who understood and could calculate equinoxes.

As our culture reproduces uncontrollably, we consumers, create so much pollution that this could block out the sun and the moon. If we could utilize these astronomical bodies, even if it meant their demise, no doubt American Republicans would be all for it. Already Surt rages across Australia, and the Americas, the end result of prolonged, widespread drought due to shifting climate and unwise use/waste of natural resources. Golf Lawn Today= depleted Aquifers tomorrow.
States are suing each other for access to fresh water. Texas Vs Oklahoma, California against all comers, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, etc.,

Its Human Kind releasing primal forces on the face of the planet via their own effects through Global Warming.

Its people wishing for an Apocalypse--a part suicide wish, and part testosterone bluster with medieval or stone age weapons, so they can lime their hair and run about taking heads and women. Even though most would be too fat and incapacitated and stupid to succeed at much more than adding to someone's collection of heads.

Peace happens for two reasons. Conscious effort to maintain it for a desired outcome, or, a lack of opportunity or resources to make successful war. At least that is how it seems now. I have yet to see a peace that was forged out of wisdom or for the sake of peace only. Enter Frith.

Many times those who claim to be foe peace have in my experience been masters at Passive Aggression. That is no less destructive than just straight aggression. Freyr's fecundity as a male fertilizing principle is about sustaining life in the midst of death in this context. Many must fight, but others must keep the daily grind going, animal husbandry, the preservation of our pollinators, growing crops and making babies. His is a fight of a different kind. Its not the direct crossing of swords, it is the insurance that humans just might have something to start over with, when this whirlwind of idiocy has finally lost its momentum.

Most of mankinds biggest problems are largely self inflicted.

Maelstrom said...

Dear Seeing Eye Chick: I have posted your comment to the "War and Peace" topic, as I find it extremely interesting and provocative. However, I have the sense you wrote in a heated rush of emotion. The result is very fine, but I wanted to ask if you could revisit your first paragraph about "bluster" and expand on your meaning there, as I feel it is unclear. Perhaps you could begin by noting what part of my posting you are responding to? Sorry to be pedantic--it's the college professor in me! MS

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Being in the military is more than going to war. Going to War is more than fighting. The depiction of battles and war as a singular moment in time that only involves victory or defeat is unrealistic and it displays an immature understanding of the consequences of violent action, and of the preparations needed to make a violent assault of any kind successful.

It is an inauthentic depiction of War and ignores all the issues that surround war.

Some people act as if the fighting were the sole focus, completely ignoring the circumstances that bring leaders to declare or inciting war. Ignoring the violence that is visited upon civilians inevitably when war happens. All of that is ignored for a short lived, orgasmic rush of violence, and the imagined "glory" victory will bring.{War is not flag football or a video game.}
Once again, totally ignoring things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for both soldiers, and civilians. Crippled people, lost loved ones, as if the dead in stories are so unreal they are only props, because they are dead. It doesn't do justice to true loss. It doesn't do justice to wounded families limping along for generations in poverty, sickness, and injury, and loss--on both sides, because that happens to the people who loose the war, as well as vets on the side who won.

The reason War is hell, is that the echoes of its misery do not end with the immediate fighting. They go on and on, regurgitating into reality like a bad flashback, tainting everything with a bitterness that cannot be hidden.

In Addition: How many of these individuals could follow orders? Who have the discipline to do whatever is necessary to ensure the success of their unit. Whether its working the buffers for an inspection, or fixing and maintaining equipment, or going into a hot zone? Being in a military unit is a lot more than just hanging out with your "Gun" waiting for bad guys to strike.

Its months of maintainence, hours of training, endless watches, and inspections, and being away from loved ones on major holidays, being separated from spouses and children--even in times of relative peace. And you can still get injured during these times too or killed.

That bluster is just a turn off for me personally for the reasons above. Its hard thankless work in the best of times, much more than that in the worst. Or just ask some of our wounded vets coming back and waiting for months for VA benefits, some wait for years. Some die before they get those benefits or become so incpacitated and ill, that all the money is good for is hospice.

That is why what you describe/what I have witnessed, annoys me.

Pitch313 said...

I think that political questions about war, the military, and the role they play and should play in a society do not match up very well with war in Pagan lore. Or with Neo-Paganism as a spiritual movement.

It may be that we find in Neo-Paganism lore and guidance that matches our overall outlook on war and the military developed via secular expereince rather than the other way around. I mean, Neo-Paganism is not anti-war, non-violent, or pacifistic at its core, no matter hwo many adherents may espouse those views.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

A long time ago, Isaac Bonewits brought up a similar discussion for Paganism in general. He or someone in his camp made an interesting statement about the difference between a Warrior Code, as opposed to "simply following Order" {shades of the Nazi Trials at the Hague}.

A Warrior Code for an individual is also an ethical code and a moral code for the craftsmanship of war.

Many Pagan Gods are of a Martial Nature, but I have noted that there seems to be some distinctions made between simply exhibiting the essence of violence for the sake of violence, as opposed to being wise in the act of planning and executing a military operation.

Matt BP said...

I would like to apologise to Seeing Eye Chick if I made any insult to her as a soldier or former-soldier. Sorry, SEC, so I see, as they say. One thing too - Surt has had a home here for 40,000 years, fires are part of what define Australians as a culture. The recent bushfires of Black Saturday were a result of people in Victoria not cutting their fire breaks regularly enough and letting trees overhang their roofs.
I think that perhaps you reacted strongly because Maelstrom said that he is a Peacenik, which automatically implies in a world of black & white morality that he is anti soldiers. I read the post in a different way, that he is anti-senseless violence or wasted lives, while understanding the necessity of war and brave and disciplined and very much human soldiers (such as yourself).
I am not so concerned with the gritty face to face aspect of war, because as Western Countries we have managed to put an end to wars being declared, fought and concluded by small bands of people. I would attack the governments for their failure NOT to waste their soldiers lives when there is almost always another option. When Bush gave his With us or Against us speech, he made it clear that this was not an invasion that the people had any say in. People and governments supported the war in Afghanistan, but the one with Iraq was utter bollocks and THAT is a waste of lives. 3 million people in Australia marched against getting into that war, out of only 20 million, and the government here said it was unclear what their demands were and followed America. What is the point of Democracy, Liberty and Freedom, if they are only to be done so long as they are in keeping with the wishes of a foreign and overarching power?
Of course the Gods, Heathen or Pagan, go off to war for all sorts of foolish, vainglorious or just plain vain reasons. The Heathen War of the Gods started because Odin tried to kill a hag who was really Freya and so the Vanir went to war with the Aesir. I have already mentioned about Gwydion's starting of war between Gwynedd and Dyfed because Gwynedd sought to control the Goddess. The most famous and earliest Irish epic is the Tain Bo Cualigne, where Medb wars against her own husband because he has a better bull.
It is interesting that none of these really touch much on the human and everyday suffering at the hands of idiot dictators, beyond the usual and still repeated a 1000 years later "there was much wailing by the women and pulling of hair".
To cap it all, there was a famous person, whose name escapes me, who said; a people have the government they deserve. Maybe the same goes for the Gods?

Maelstrom said...

Though I generally prefer to stay out of the comments, to let "a thousand flowers blossom" in the words of Chairman Mao, I will take a moment to respond to Pitch313. I think Pitch's point is well-made that there is no inherent support for either a pro- or anti-war position in the old European lore and mythology. Rich religious texts are always multivalent and multifaceted, with many rivers of meaning flowing in different directions. However, I would point out that every religious tradition on earth is a combination of original lore/scriptures plus later commentary and interpretation. I believe it is perfectly reasonable, indeed quite natural, to advance our own schools of interpretation that apply myth and lore to contemporary issues according to our intelligence and perception. Does any particular interpretation have any inherent, absolute authority? No, of course not. But that does not mean it is meaningless or useless. Just as people are drawn to different traditions and gods, so are they also drawn to different interpretations, to eventually form communities of common interest based on shared values and perceptions. This Blog is offered in that spirit for any to use or dispense with, commend or shake their fist at, as they see fit.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Matt BP--I saw no insult. I was simply offering my perspectives on these subjects.

I am not thin skinned. So dont worry about that. I am enjoying this and the other discussions in the comment section--a lot!

Bush was Nuttier than Squirrel Pants. After reading and blogging about his call to the French President in 2003--and Bush trying to convince France to ally with America because the "Forces of Gog and Magog" were afoot in Iraq---jeez, I knew it was bad, but reading that caused me to 'bout shit myself with horrified disbelief. The war in Iraq was so much more dumber than I ever imagined. I too am against senseless wars and loss of life. I am also against Religious Extremists--specifically under the Bush Administration, Christian Supremacists, turning my beloved Democratic Republic, into a Theocracy. Anyone reading about Eric Prince of XE [formerly Blackwater will know what I speak of}

There were nights where I was literally frightened of my own Government because I could sense the mental dysfunction eminating from the top down at all nonChristians, at women, gays, and anyone else who didn't fit the template of godly-perfection.

I am glad that part is over. But I would state--and this is my own personal observation, that the corporatist powers are the ones that are funding and riling these extremists up in this country. They lost a lot when McCain threw the election to Obama. And now they are trying to keep themselves relevant through naked threats--carrying guns to public healthcare meetings, and the like and some really aggressive chatter on the internet about revolution via Hannity and Limbaugh and other hate-jocks.

Its still a scary time and America is not out of the woods yet. We could still loose it all to Theocratists who are owned by big money that are all for deregulation, end all anti-trust laws and the complete dismantling of the New Deal and the gutting of Civil Rights, esp workers rights, and the destruction of the Middle Class. Case in point--Medical Reform in the states would stop Wealth Extraction of the Middle Class and the Poor. Second only to Wealth extraction of the poor via predatory lending. Medical costs are the third leading reason for people to declare bankruptcy in this country, and quality of care has gone wayyyyy down hill.

War, and Peace, and Communication, and Education are all very much at the forefront right now for Americans. We have been dumbed down, pissed on, pissed off, and all within our own borders and often by our own leaders and people.

My true anger and passion resides there right now. Not at Peaceniks or any of that.

Matt BP said...

I have often described Australia as a Totalitarian Democracy. Every few years we figure out who will rule with an iron fist. Of course some states are worse than others. I like exhibiting in Victoria but they shoot first there.

My greatest fear for the future of Paganism and Heathenism is that it will gain such a population of fundamentalists as American Christianity or Islam. That being said, I don't think that the risk is as likely as our faiths are largely open to interpretation. However, Christianity wasn't put into writing until 300AD, and it was put into writing by a Pagan, so what can actually be guessed of the future?

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Fundy Pagans.

Been There Seen That, Burned the Tacky Tee Shirt.

Anything is possible Matt, esp here and now. The West is in a weird liminal state and people are weirding out accordingly.

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