Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pagan Theology & Ethics

In construction

Is it possibly to derive ethical views from pagan values?
Assuming we can use the term 'pagan' to capture a specific set of religious practitioners - it's unlikely they would be able to come up with an agreed list of values. Its the nature of paganism to be vague about these things. Even so here are are some possibilities.

pagan values
1. Cause no unneccessary harm
I've a feeling that might be a self-evident truth.
You have to be pretty bloody minded to think the opposite.
Can you think of a counter example?

2. The necessity of polytheism
Some would say monotheism is the only necessity.
But true monotheism is rare.
For example, Christianity is a good example of polytheism masquerading as monotheism. The complexity of nature implies a natural polytheism

3. The plurality of ultimate truth
A great deal of effort has been devoted to the discovery of one 'ultimate truth' or one 'Theory of Everything.' But theories such as Godel's Theorem of incompleteness surely imply this issue will always be unresolved. In which case ultimate reality is always plural - which is expressed in certain pagan mythology such as that the world comes into being from the interaction of a god and a goddess.

4. Tolerance

5. Principle of Honour

6. Compassion


Death and Burial
I take it Caliban's long comment is intended for the issue of 'Death & Burial'. He seems to be saying that the intellectual paganism of the classical period (Greeks and Romans) is responsible for a loss of the richer attitudes to death and the otherworld, traces of which are still discoverable in older cultures. It's an interesting idea and one that is evidenced in the literature. It maybe goes hand in hand with the idea that magicians of the period were such trouble makers that they provoked their own demise. Certainly it can't all be blamed on the Christians - bad as they were - the first laws against magick were enacted by Augustus way before the Christian hegemony.

The high culture of Egyptian had three classes of sentient being-

the ankhw, the akhw and the neterw -

the living, the spirits and the gods.

All that talk of 'spiritualism' is really about the Akhw - the spirits of departed who have some continued existence - sometimes in a way helpful to us sometimes not so. Death customs may be for the benefit of the deceased or serve some other aim - perhaps display or redistribution of wealth. Nothing so far implies an afterlife in some otherworld. The Akhw live amongst us not somewhere else, if they did maybe they would be less troublesome? Some death customs clearly do implie an otherworld - as for instance when someone is buried with a sword presumably to do some fighting on the other side. The death customs I like seek to return the body to the biosphere in respectful but also quick and efficient manner. The departed spirit is reborn or otherwise reintegrated into the living world of those that come after. That to me seems a more pagan way.

Drugs - use & abuse
Medicine & its limits
Sexual politics

A dialogue - please leave your feedback

Monday, December 25, 2006

Seidr & Seething - the saga continues

UK's Pentacle magazine issue 19 has a response to the updated chapter of Seidr from the new edition of Jan Fries, Helrunar: a manual of rune magick. An extract from the said chapter was reproduced in the Beltain edition of the same magazine. At the moment the pagan scene is gripped by 'academeitis' - that's when someone attempts to end an awkward argument by invoking some supposed academic authority. I say 'supposed' because those cited are often no more of an authority on the matter than us regular mortals. I've heard it several times now - 'academics say that whatever else seidr might be - it can't posssibly be seething'. Given the supposed impossibility of proving a negative - that seems a rather reckless statement from a supposed cooled headed scholar.

I'm still not quite sure why some people get so hot under the collar about Jan's interpretation of the mysterious seidr practice. Surely there is room for more than one view on what it might have been. Jan attempts through various arguments to link it to the universal phenonemon of the shaking trance. But some heathens will have none of it - pamphlets have been published in the vain attempt to repudiate Jan's view; he is accused of an unspecified eastern influence; speakers have been known to digress from their scripts in order to warn their audience of the dangers of following Jan's lead.

Jan's seething hypothesis is hardly that threatening. Afterall it's not as if Jan isn't also sympathetic to the new American style seidr. He may point out the uncertainty of its theoretical basis but recognises that authors such as Diana Paxson have developed a nice syncretistic divination ritual which works well and to which they have appended the classy, ancient name seidr. All Jan does it point out that this same title is also associated with lots of things they don't like. Perhaps this explains why they loathe his theories and try to argue Nordic literature away?

Jan Fries is very much in favour of people making up new things. Afterall there is no necessity for all good things to be ancient in order to be genuine. I'm sure he would want them to be proud of their new interpretation of seidr which now has an ethical frame it probably lacked in its historic version.

Alan Nash is the latest to enter the fray. The intentions of Alan's letter in Pentacle may have got a bit lost in 'translation' but I suspect his interest is to provoke discussion and see the arguments rehearsed. Alan questions why Jan's appears to deny that that the lady in Erik's Saga was doing seidr. Erik's Saga is one of the prime sources of information on Seidr, and in it there are details of a supposed seidr rite (see Jan Fries Seidways: shaking, swaying and serpent mysteries, for the full text). I'd say that Jan merely asks why, if this really is an account of Seidr, the priestess isn't referred to as a seidkona as one would expect, but is instead almost invariably called a spakona (seeress)?

Alan Nash also questions Jan's apparent characterisation of seidr as 'evil' - now things are really getting serious as that could be seen as an insult to the whole heathen tradition! What Jan says is that historically seidr did have such a reputation in Nordic literature. Like it or not - there is apparently not a single text in Nordic literature that says anything kind about the practice.

Finally - as has been common on this debate - which has rumbled on for a while now - Alan evokes the shade of Edred Thorson, who apparently has strong views on this issue. The great man may have spoken but whether what he says stands up is another matter: "One thing I must vigorously insist on is that the word seidr can in no way beconnected to the English word 'seethe'."(Witchdom Of The True: A Study of The Vana-Troth and the Practice Of Seidr, Runa-Raven Press, 1999).

As any student of logic knows, definition is supposed to explain what a term means, not what it does not mean. Irvin Copi once wrote: "to define the word 'couch' as meaning not a bed and not a chair is to fail miserably to explain the meaning of a word." But to be fair I've not been able to see the article and perhaps it has some stronger arguments. I'm told Edred is an expert on etymology - so presumably he meant to say "Old English word 'seethe' ", occuring as it does in citations before 1100 AD. According to the lexicographers at the Oxford University Press it is in fact an Old Teutonic word - infinative seothan* - with an obsolete form sod.

There is a related word in Gothic sauth* which brings out its ritual connotations - as a sacrifice - which as Jan says in Helrunar - has the literally meaning of 'boiled meat' - the sine qua non for a Nordic sacrifice. The Oxford Lexicographers explain the limits of the OED's remit in their introduction, thus it is true that they do not mention Seidr as one of its cognates. The connection between the two is thus still, AFAIK, an open question. They do however say that seething had certain figurative uses not found in later texts - meanings such as 'to try someone by fire' or 'to afflict with cares'.

I suppose I ask myself does the word seidr survive in any form in the languages of Europe. If it does, then Old English or Modern English Seething, being very similar in sound to Seidr, would be a far from ridiculous suggestion that might yet be proved correct. The connection between Seidr and Sauthr is not something Jan made up. It has been argued before in many academic tomes, including Jakob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie in the 1830s.

But as it happens, Jan's characterisation of Nordic Seidr as 'seething' was probably never really based on linguistics - his arguments are more about the nature of magick and trance activity. The English word he choose turned out to have a fortuitous and evocative history all its own. Seething takes us right back to the appropriate time and to the rich sacrifices that go into the steaming cauldron of magick.

Check it out for yourself. By all means let's debate the issues but let's also stick to the facts rather than spurious appeals to authority.

E&OE - comments welcome

Yvonne comments (probably tongue in cheek) that 'Seidr' might be related to 'Cider'.
Strangely enough if you check that in the OED - it turns out to be a very old loan word from
Old Testament Hebrew - 'Shekar*' meaning 'strong drink' ; )

I may be facilitating a workshop of this style of Seidr/Seething
at London's Beltain Bash, May 2007. A chance to meet other seethers,
talk about problems, exchange ideas and techniques.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Curse of Merlin IV - Magical Journey

I never did find out why it was that Newport's Reference & Lending Library acquired so many magical books. I spent such a lot of my time in that library it was just a matter of time before I read them all. Best of all was Aleister Crowley's masterpiece - Liber ABA - Magick in Theory and Practice. The reference library must have bought a copy almost as soon as it was published in an edition edited by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant in 1973. It's a lovely book with the most evocative of covers. It was kept in a special cupboard, along with the Kinsey Report and Masters & Johnson. If you wanted to read it, you had to ask and I did ask.

continued at: