(excerpt) TruE TO THE EARTH: Pagan Political Theology
Below is an excerpt from True To The Earth: Pagan Political Theology, by Kadmus. True To The Earth is due for release 15 October, 2018, and can be pre-ordered for $12.50 ($3.50 below the release price of $16).
(From Chapter 4: The Honesty of Impurity: Remainders, Monsters, and Incompleteness)
When your metaphysics is based upon unity, reduction, totalizing, and Oneness, your approach to the world will be shaped by it. Your approach to the world will focus on perfection, purity, and the one narrow path to the only acceptable goal. In such a view, each thing has an essence that it either fulfills or betrays. Likewise, each thing has a purpose that it either serves or neglects. Oneness is purity, multiplicity is sin.
This basic point dominates our modern thinking and can be seen in the bones of our languages. Consider, for example, our use of the term “integrity.” To have integrity, which nationalism and general ethics alike consistently demand, is to be integrated, to be unified and ruled by the One: to be pure.
The pagan world was not devoid of concepts of purity, but these concepts were contextual and specific, similar to the way we distinguish a dirty dish from a clean one. Absolute purity was meaningless until the rise of Platonism and the idea of the purifying ascent to the One, the kalos kai agathos, “the Beautiful and the Good in itself by itself.” Before the idea of the immaterial purity of the One, there was no concept of an absolute metaphysical purity. There was also no idea of a purity achievable by a metaphysically singular thing, a thing with a given purpose and essence. The rise of Platonism began the rule of purity and order.
The Politics of Purity
When Platonism became preeminent, and pagan religion in Greece (including the old Greek mystery cults) and elsewhere was reinterpreted in terms of it, distinctions built upon the idea of transcendence dominated and continue to dominate now. These distinctions include that between the Celestial and Chthonic and between Theurgy and Goetia.
What is now a distinction between the purity of the non-material and the impurity of the earthly and physical was originally a distinction between different worldly realms: the sky/Olympus, the earth and sea, and the Underworld. For example, the earliest generations of the gods of Greece, including Gaia and her children the Titans, were associated with the earth and Underworld. The children of Kronos and Zeus’ own children, on the other hand, were largely associated with Zeus’ rule over the skies from Olympus. These two sets of associations seemed to create a tension between the skies and the earth.
This distinction, however, is as often inaccurate as it is useful. While it represents a cultural tendency to understand older forces in terms of the earth and newer orders in terms of the heavens, this distinction doesn’t apply in many other cases (for instance, Poseidon, Demeter, Artemis, Dionysus). Further, this distinction is still this-worldly; that is, the idea of transcendence that arose from abstract thinking (made possible by writing) is utterly absent from this older distinction.
The ancients often understood the stars and constellations as maps of the Underworld, a fact which undermines our current conceptions of heaven and the heavenly. The sun, identified with Helios, was understood as both heavenly and Underwordly: it passed through the Underworld at night and thus shared its power with both realms. Only with the later rise of Apollo (understood as a sun god rather than his original identification with war and disease) do the sun and Apollo take on a more exclusively heavenly meaning.
The changes in these traditions corresponded with a consolidation of state power through the enforcement of various state religions in an attempt to undermine the power and authority of local cults and magical practitioners. The period of high pagan Archaic Greece, as well as other similar cultures elsewhere in the Mediterranean and Middle East, ended with a collapse of the highly multicultural and interconnected Archaic world and the beginning of a wide spread “dark age.” Greece, in particular, faced total political disintegration from about the time of the fall of Troy (likely in 1184 BC) until the rise of writing and the city-state in the eighth century.
During this dark age, social organization was exceptionally tentative, and what we might call religious practice was local and diverse. Those who led those local religious practices fit into something like a natural priesthood: those with natural magical and mystical capabilities, along with those possessing inherited knowledge of healing, herbs, and various charms and magic. Some of these functions would also have been handled by traveling goets, something like a cross between a folk healer, magician, and priest. Except in extreme situations, the religious practices of each person fell more on their individual shoulders than those of anyone with a socially recognized religious role.
With the rise of writing and the city state, Greek religion becomes increasingly codified for political purposes. Official priesthoods and cults both arose, and they were protected by the force of law. In order to maintain official priestly classes and cliques, ideas like purity are very useful. Insisting upon various rules of cleanliness, and then extreme taboos against various common behaviors, allows for the majority of people to be kept out of the realm of divine power. This favors those able to explicitly commit their entire lives solely to the pursuit of purity. The most obvious example in the contemporary world involves the rule against Catholic priests marrying or engaging in sexual activity. This largely frees Catholic priests from the threat that everyday people will take up the types of practices over which the Church wishes to maintain a monopoly.
Metaphysical purity based on the immaterial nature of the One had more than religious significance. With its rise came the idea of an order for all of life and society, an order based upon the perfect structure ordained and established by the One. If the universe is seen to be governed by spiritually perfect unity, society becomes seen as either ordered and tyrannically ruled by the divine One’s intentions, or diverse and multiple in a manner that can only be viewed as unclean, sinful, and chaotic. We see this in the Christian idea of the divine right of kings, and also the Platonic city with its sharp social classes (each meant to mimic the purity of a virtuous soul and the cosmic order of perfect Forms). Since the rise of monotheistic metaphysics, politics has mostly been the politics of purity: one of the most murderous and disastrous ideas in the history of human existence.
In our contemporary world, we are familiar with the presence and increasing rise of the politics of purity. Nationalism, for instance, defines itself in terms of various national characteristics (often racial-ethnic characteristics, but also linguistic and cultural ones) that capture a national essence. Only “true” members of the nation have these characteristic, and only having these characteristics includes a person as part of the collective. Nationalism also requires its pure members to avoid and reject contamination from extra-national influences and ways of life.
Gender and the Foreign
Unfortunately, pagan cultural and religious aspects have also been used by state forces to help define the national essence they would enforce. Thus, there is a poisonous tendency for those with pagan interests and leanings to commit themselves to nationalist and racist movements, as well as to views of religious and cultural supremacy. The idea becomes that being Greek is important to Greek paganism, or being white to the Norse religion, or being one form or another of British is important to practicing Celtic religion, and so on. But though it is easy enough to find colonial, racist, tyrannical pagan states in history (the Roman Empire is an easy example, as is the slave-state of Sparta or the Athenian Empire), the metaphysics of the cultures within which these governments and nations arose opposed these developments.
Let us return to some basics. There is nothing pure about pagan cosmologies and theologies, and this is true in every possible sphere in which we might discuss purity. The gods are never racially pure, pure in terms of sex or gender, pure in their national or cultural identities, or otherwise.
First, let's consider the Norse pantheon. The rule of Odin and his fellow gods was largely predicated on the outcome of an early war between two different families of gods: the Aesir and Vanir. We know sadly little about this war and the original identity of either the Aesir and Vanir, but what we do know is informative. The Vanir seem to have been largely identified with fertility, the earth and sea, and magic. The Aesir are largely seen as more warlike, and have less immediate identification with natural characteristics. Thus, the conflict between the two families has often been interpreted in terms of a war between different cultures.
Looking at a common term for contemporary practitioners of old Norse paganism, the “Asatru” which denotes one who is committed and true to the Aesir, one would think that the Norse pantheon was based on the triumph of the Aesir over the Vanir. This is not the case. However, the actual war ended, the outcome of it was the intermarrying of Aesir and Vanir and the exchange of gods from one family to another. In fact, the ability of the gods to work magic, compose poetry, partake in prophecy and generally experience the power associated with wisdom all largely derive from the peaceful intermingling of Vanir and Aesir. This is to say nothing of the frequent intermixing of the Norse gods with giants, elves, and the like, producing important and powerful children. Indeed, Odin himself is the child of a giant. You would be hard-pressed to find a less racially or culturally pure community than that of the Norse gods, and yet many followers of the Norse overtly commit themselves to racism and some to fascism.
Archeologically, what we find when we look to high pagan oral cultures is that they existed during periods of difficult and complex cultural sharing. Their religious understanding and its underlying metaphysics is informed by this ability to come to terms with difference and otherness through compromise, alliance, intermixing, partial or complete adoption, and so on. There is not, and has never been, a pure culture or race; pagan cultures, unlike many of our own, were overtly aware of this and made it a major theme of their myths and wisdom traditions.
The most fundamental ethical code of Archaic and Classical Greek culture was Greece’s “guest code” and the practice of “guest-friendship.” In Greece, guests were holy, and anyone seeking hospitality had to safely and graciously be granted it. Zeus was understood to rule over these guest practices and to be a patron god of the stranger.
It bears repeating: strangers and especially foreigners were considered holy and personally protected by Zeus. In fact, the entire Odyssey can be interpreted as being about the concept of this guest code by showing different ways in which this code is either respected or broken (for example, by the monstrous Cyclops who rather than feed his guests eats them). Similarly, the most common justification for the Trojan War is not that Paris stole Helen from her husband, but rather that he did so while a guest in the husband’s house.
We see the same type of guest-code in Norse religion. The wisdom sayings of the Havamal are mostly about the necessity of treating guests well and behaving well as a guest. Many of the legends about Odin, like many of the gods, involve him disguising himself as a stranger and traveling about the worlds. One must be careful of foreigners and strangers, for any one of them might be a god, and so the foreigner was to be respected with great care.
We have already mentioned the rather striking point that the Greeks had a god overtly identified with the foreign, with the very concept of Otherness: Dionysus. But here our discussion goes beyond merely the foreign in terms of other cultures and communities, though that is clearly intended in Dionysus’ identification as a foreign god by the Greeks (despite his actual historical origins in Greek culture). Dionysus, as a god of intoxication, is the god of our own foreignness, of those moments when we become foreign to ourselves and to those who know us most. When we are not ourselves, when we are out of ourselves in mania, inspiration, intoxication, and madness, we are under the influence of Dionysus. He is the god of the Other, and the god that makes Other.
This otherness even goes so far as to undermine any concept of purity in gender or species. One need only recall Euripides’ play The Bacchae, in which Dionysus comes as a foreigner to Thebes and inspires the women to run off to the mountain to practice his sacred rites. There the women cross over the lines between the genders and also those between the human and animal, inspired and pushed beyond the limits of their usual social position. This same thing happens when Dionysus, in disguise, inspires the king of Thebes (who opposes the new religious practices) to dress as a woman to go spy on the religious bacchanal. Once dressed as a woman, the king himself begins to feel the madness inspired by Dionysus and begins to perceive that it is the god himself with whom he is speaking. Despite this, the king is unable to sufficiently become one with the ritual to pass over his own limits; instead he is torn apart by the women, including his own mother. His mother remains convinced for a long while that her son was actually a mountain lion, thus underscoring the way in which Dionysus causes the crossing of boundaries. Since the king couldn’t become other than himself in the ritual, he becomes other than himself in his death.
Dionysus, like Athena, carries within his own story the undermining of gender distinctions. Athena is born from Zeus’ head after Zeus devoured her mother Metis. The ability to take on the characteristic powers of a woman is what allows Zeus to avoid the fate of his father and grandfather, to be overthrown by his son. Instead, Athena, who was meant to be born as a man, is born as a woman with male characteristics because Zeus himself became female to give birth to her. In a similar manner, Zeus gives birth to Dionysus because his mother’s request to see Zeus’ true form destroys her in the burst of a lightning flash, leaving the premature child in need of being carried within Zeus’ own thigh. Athena and Dionysus alike represent the permeability of gender distinctions within the Greek world, and the power that comes from sexual impurity and the ability to pass through the apparent boundaries between the sexes.
From the very beginning the lines between genders are clearly permeable: some of the oldest gods give birth without sexual reproduction. In this regard, it is worth meditating upon the striking description of Hekate, in the Greek Magical Papyri, as “self-gendered,” while also remembering the instability of both gender and species in the poetry of the Celts. We also shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming the dual gender conceptual schema, even with all its permeability, is universally the rule for pagan cultures. There are divinities who fit into neither or both, as well as numerous other ways in which these modes of existence have been understood and divided in non-dualistic ways. Like all other dualisms, this is ultimately more deceptive than informative.
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