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.

1 comment:

Pitch313 said...

We human devotees and Pagan participants do not exclusively find this Deity, that Power, this Pantheon, but never that one. We have discovered or devised many, and many from diverse origins and cultures is who we might find.

What's more, Deities, Powers, pantheons, energies, and spiritual insights may track us down and guide us where they will.

Sometimes I think that ethnic or historical cultures are too limited for us these days. We probably ought to be practicing on a planetary scale.

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