Does it Matter What Our Ancestors Would Do?

There is a difference between exhaustively researching the past to find out how our ancestors lived and what they believed, and exhaustively researching the past so that we can live how they lived and believe what they believed. This is a critical difference and for one reason: the past is gone. We are solidly in the present.

Yet the attitude of WWOAD (what would our ancestors do?) is also solidly with us in the 21st century:  What Would the Founding Fathers Do? has become as important as What Would Jesus Do? (and conservatives often assure us on the basis of American Exceptionalism that the questions are identical).

Recently, it’s even been asked what Thomas Jefferson would do to fix the problems being experienced by the university he founded. I have covered these exhaustively as they pertain to the First Amendment, over at PoliticusUSA.

We all want approval from the past for our present; for our own views to be legitimized by a time that in many ways is no longer relevant. The world of Jesus (first century Galilee) is long gone, as is the world of our Founding Fathers (the 18th century Eastern American Seaboard). So too, significantly, is the Heathen world (pre-Christian Northern Europe).

An industry has sprung up around answering all these questions, generally tending to cherry-pick and selectively quote (often times out of context) things said by long-dead people. Dismayingly, modern day Pagans have done it too in search of a historical Paganism most congenial to their preconceptions. That is how we ended up with an Old Religion that is anything but.

We have ended up with monstrosities: Paganisms which, rather than reflecting historical Paganism reflect Christian ideas about what Paganism was, and Paganisms where the sublime (sacrifice) is replaced by the wretched (magic). We have ended up with reconstructed ancient religion more influenced by the nineteenth century romanticism than by first-century realities.

But the spatial and temporal should never be dismissed from our thinking.  Cultures are very time and space specific. So are religions. Religions reflect culture and geography. And because time flows and is not static, religions also flow. They change over time, just as do cultures. If they did not change, we would not have conservatism, which is all about maintaining the status quo even as it dissipates into the mists of the past. If things never changed, people would need to worry about them changing.

One of my problems with religious reconstructionism is that if you are reconstructing an ancient religion you have to decide on what exact period you are talking about, because the same religion is going to be different in 500BCE and a thousand years later in 500CE and at most every point in between. Factor in syncretism; no religion and no culture escape outside influences.

The thing is, in real life – that is, history – religions and cultures evolved. Sure, there was a specific point in 500BCE where say, Heathenry, was one thing. The people alive at that time probably did not even know anything about what it might have been in 1000BCE.  What they lived seemed, in all likelihood, timeless to them – they ways of their ancestors; what the religiously conservative Romans called mos maiorum. Things were just the way things were and had always been.

But time rolled on. Five hundred years down the road, that Heathenry was just a memory, and it was something different again from place to place. There was never a monolithic Heathenism, something that was the same all over and at all times.

Along the way, Heathenism and all those other Paganisms were destroyed. By the time another five hundred years had passed, Heathen religion(s) was on its way out, being persecuted out of existence by the followers of the White Christ. Little was handed down to us and none of it by Heathens. I have examined that problem here many times.

And now we dig into the past, trying to discover what we can, sometimes in exhaustive detail. Some, when they find what they are looking for, say, that is Heathenism. But it is the Heathenism of a specific time, sometimes of several specific times and several different places. It is a far from complete picture of any one of those places, let alone of the whole patchwork that was ancient Heathendom.

Added to our problem is the passage of time and the change of place. This isn’t Norway, or Iceland, or Sweden, or Germany. This is the United States. Some of us live in areas that look a bit like the old country. Some of us live in deserts or near tropical beaches and some of us live on a great flat plain. Others live among towering steel and glass towers never imagined by previous generations. And we do it in an entirely different culture, speaking an entirely different language than Old Norse or Old Saxon.

Concepts are different. Languages are expressions of a culture and most of us don’t speak the language even while we argue its minutiae.

I am not arguing against the effort: I am arguing against the purpose.

I guess you can call me a progressive Heathen. If there are progressive Christians and conservative Christians, then there must be progressive and conservative Heathens, because the question is the same: should a religion be backward looking or forward looking, or live in the present? Should a religion express and embody the outlook of modern society or embrace a thinking that is sometimes wholly out of place in the modern world?

To be more pointed: should Jews still be stoning people? Should Heathens still offer up human sacrifices in trees to the High One? They are both deeds our ancestors embraced; they are both devoted expressions of religion.

But we don’t do that anymore, do we? Nobody, so far as I know, even suggests that we should do those things. And if blood sacrifice, important in both Judaism and Heathenry as the highest expression of devotion to God or the gods, is so critical, what of today’s vegetarians and Vegans? Are we saying that if you don’t eat meat, if you abhor the slaughter of animals, that you cannot worship our gods and that if you do, you are not really a Heathen?

I’ll use another example: what about attitudes toward homosexuality? First off, this is problematic because the term itself is representative of 19th century pathology, and not ancient thinking. Secondly, our Heathen religion had nothing to say about it: ancient attitudes toward same-sex relationships were not religious but cultural.

Significantly, we are of a different culture.

Now I went to some lengths here to illustrate ancient Heathen attitudes toward same-sex relationships, trying to show that stigma did not attach to the penetrator regardless the sex of the penetrated, and that disapproval was directed only at men who allowed themselves to be penetrated because this was a woman’s role as the submissive gender.

Gender was more fluid in the ancient Heathen mind. A woman could render herself a man through her behavior and a man render himself a woman through his. A woman who acted like a man could be admired but no man who acted the part of a woman could be.

The modern mind does not differentiate between the aggressive and submissive partner in same-sex relationships – both partners are ether gay or lesbian.

I did not argue that we should adopt those ancient Heathen attitudes: I made the comparison solely to point out that modern Heathens (and other Pagans) who claim being homophobic is part of their religious identity are full of shit. It is not. First of all, it is culture, and secondly, it is apples and oranges.

My answer is this: we should not view same-sex relationships as our ancestors did. We should view them as modern science tells us to view them; that same-sex attraction is natural, exhibited in thousands of animal species besides humans. We should be tolerant of what is natural simply because it makes no sense to be intolerant of nature. We should think in terms not of clear-cut gender lines and roles but of fluidity, because science teaches us that sexual fluidity is a fact.

There is nothing wrong with tradition. Tradition is important. But falling too in love with tradition can be a bad thing. The Romans, for example, were so wedded to the idea that what is old is good that they tended to disregard new, updated and far more accurate knowledge in favor of information 500 or a thousand years out of date. The old was more congenial; it was also much less helpful.

And that makes no sense. We must be cognizant of the world we live in. Our beliefs if they are to live, must reflect these spatial and temporal realities. A religion centered on the Heathenism of 500CE is an unnatural construct, a static image of a thing that was both alive and vibrant – and ever changing. Just as a photograph of a Dakota village in 1870 does not represent centuries of Dakota life, so a “snapshot” of Heathenism in 500CE cannot represent centuries of Heathenry.

And we must keep this warning in mind: that modern Heathens living in 500CE are just as much Heathens living in 1000CE or those living somewhere in between. Heathens who look backward are Heathens just as those Heathens who look forward, reconstructionists, revivalists, and every other “ist” we might imagine.

What makes us Heathens is the troth we have pledged to our gods. We should leave it to monotheists to argue over who is a “real” Christian or Jew or Muslim. But they are prisoners of revealed religion, of a book. God, in the Bible, left commands. Odin, in the Hávamál, left advice.

And that is another lesson for us: they are also prisoners and of an arcane and convoluted doctrine that is tied to that book and to a specific time. They are the ultimate prisoners of tradition; anchored to it by the supposed command of God not to deviate from what was the perceived wisdom of a time long past and a view of the world and of nature long proven to be false.

If there is not a lesson there for modern Heathens, I do not know where one is to be found: that the past and what our ancestors did should inform our present; it should not dictate it.

Author: Hrafnkell

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  1. WEll, the Jews still practice blood sacrifice: circumcision.

    Great article. Thank you

  2. BRAVO! This is one of the best little articles I have read in my almost 40 years of actively practicing first Paganism, now Heathenism. Thank you for bringing some sense to these matters in such a concise and articulate manner :)

  3. Great insight for the holiday season. Thanks.

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