What are Ancient Pre-Christian myths and Sacred Lore really derived from?


For the serious seeker of Indo-European spiritual practices, within the pursuit of searching out anthropology based historical accuracy required to fill in some of the gaps behind them; one can began to assuredly start heading down a seemingly wide open road on a subject topic, only to quickly hit a blind turn, some gravel, and be jetted off the main highway onto a unused dirt road of subject matter, which then makes the search quickly take sharp off road detours, and leads us again, to another hidden cobbled road not seen on the map!

That happened to me today when in search of a theory I will present in a later post about our whom I view the Norse Gods really might have been, I got sidetracked on this fascinating by-way into a Pagan mythologies sort of route mapping GPS…

From the Book More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions By Nordic Academic Press, I came across a few paragraphs that really accentuated what I was feeling about the mistaken mind set so many people bring to the reconstructing of 21st century heathenry and seiðr: for some reason the majority of Heathens seeking authentic pre Christian Scandinavian spiritual tradtions and practice believe that somehow the few manuscripts penned down in the 11-13th centuries are THE only source of infallible information that is capable and trustworthy in giving us clear insight to what and how our ancestors (performed and even thought about) their (then living) ‘common place” pagan spiritual lifestyles.

What grabbed me was the opening chapter, AFTER I had just finished reading a paper about ancient pagan Rituals and Worship (which I will share below) is this piece written by Neil Price:

~Where Does a Mythology Come From? CHAPTER 2Mythic Acts: Material Narratives of the Dead in Viking Age Scandinavia, by Neil Price

“This is an obviously daunting question, but an equally obvious answer is that any mythology as we have it today is an organic thing, something that has evolved over a long period. The stories have been told and re-told on countless occasions, elements have been added or fallen away, details have been changed or embellished, probably thousands of times. Sometimes several versions are in circulation at once.

Many mythologies contain internal contradictions, and that of the Scandinavians is certainly no exception. There is also the factor of transmission to consider, all the copyists’ errors and biases over the centuries, as well as the deliberate distortions and suppressions.

Finally, there are the simple vagaries of preservation. Simultaneously we must acknowledge that in its twenty-first century form any mythology deriving from a culture of the past is now something artificial, a construct. In a sense, the slow process of accretion and redaction has now ceased, and the tales have solidified into something that they never really were from the beginning –dead, static texts, very different from the dynamics of true narrative and storytelling.

In this light we perhaps need to remind ourselves that the Norse did not know about ‘the Norse myths. These are things that we have created for them through academic endeavour, condensing and compiling tales into the illusory canon of the critical and popular editions that pack our bookshops (and the same of course is true for the ‘mythologies’ of the Greeks, the Romans and any other ancient people, even when–as with Classical Antiquity–we raise them up as supposed cornerstones of our intellectual culture).

Behind all this, though, there is also a basic truth so fundamental that it sometimes tends to get lost in the minutiae of scholarly analysis. At some point, or rather at a succession of such points, each individual element of these stories was invented. Whether it is Óðinn giving up his eye, or Þórr losing his hammer, or the binding of Fenrir, somebody made them up. Even if we acknowledge the unfolding creation of tales within the framework of centuries-old traditions, or if we trace millennia of myth-making across the arguable Indo-European paradigm, the precise detail of each story within its own cultural context nonetheless must have had a specific moment of germination.

But what was it? Who shaped these tales, and in what circumstances? What were they originally for, and what did they mean? In this paper I shall make the risky proposition that we might be able to tentatively find out, at least for the Viking peoples, at least for some of the time.

Before beginning, however, if we are to contemplate a serious expedition into Viking minds and mythologies, as manifested in behavior that leaves a material trace, then we must at least briefly address the question of sources. It is now some four decades or more since archaeologists awoke to the problems of inevitably subjective interpretation, contemporary political situation and general bias in the process of understanding the past through its physical remains. Links to textual scholarship have always been part of this process and central to the debate,¹ and it is no accident that one of the key archaeological works from this period was called specifically Reading the Past.²

When these perspectives are brought to the Old Norse texts, in combination with the much more direct work upon them undertaken by philologists and literary scholars, we enter a realm of great potential but also with a number of pitfalls. In all our analyses of saga narratives, their motifs and characters, and similar dissections of Eddic and skaldic poetry, we must be acutely aware of context: put simply, what exactly are we talking about when we discuss the content of the texts? We know that they do not date from the Viking Age in any direct sense, just as we can date their manuscripts with approximate accuracy, argue about when and by whom they were composed in the form that we have them, and debate whatever oral tradition lay behind that process.

This is central to a fundamental but rarely remarked upon difference between overtly textual scholars and archaeologists, in that the latter are without question concerned with the Viking Age when it happened, not as re-imagined in subsequent centuries. While often wonderful as literature, in terms of source material the medieval texts are, for archaeologists, a means to an end, not objects of study in their own right (unless they are concerned with medieval mentalities rather than those of the Viking Age). Historians of religion often span this divide, while philologists and literary scholars tend to work on the other side of it. Since the late 1980s, great progress has been made in bridging this gap in perceptions, building on earlier dialogue.³

Many historians of religion such as Jens Peter Schjødt⁴ and folklorists such as Terry Gunnell⁵ are now eroding the definitions and terminological boundaries that have previously kept the disciplines apart; archaeologists including myself ⁶ have also made a similar attempt. Following this approach, it may be seen that world-views, belief systems, knowledge and custom may all be brought together not in ‘religion’–a concept that no longer seems to work at all for the Viking Age–but in what Schjødt has called a ‘pagan discursive space’ that permeated not only all of life but also what was thought to come after .⁷ In this context several key components of the early medieval mind can be found together in burial ritual–dealing with the dead in every sense–and this will be a focus here. I make an especial link to the significant role played by storytelling and dramatization in Viking society. We shall juxtapose the ubiquity of narrative in both life and death with what the funerary process actually involved, and in so doing attempt to illuminate the nature of Norse ‘mythology’.”

To back this up, we then find in: SACRED TEXTS; Rituals and Worship, ORIGINS by: Carl McColman;

“Unlike religions where a sacred text (such as the Bible, the Quran, or the Bhagavadgita) is accepted by adherents as a source of authority, Pagan communities generally not only have no sacred text, but often are suspicious of the very idea of “scripture.” The idea that final or absolute truth could be contained within a written text or series of texts has no support within the Pagan community. This is not to say that the written word is always rejected out of hand; [even when]some writings are held in esteem by various groups. One example is Charge of the Goddess, originally written by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, which functions as an important instructional and devotional text within many forms of Wicca. {Another is what is sometimes called the Norse “Lore” known as the Eddas and the Sagas, held by heathens to be THE sacred script of the Norse gods]

However, no text has any sort of “canonical” status; in other words, no text is regarded as authoritative or absolute. Inspired writings, like all other forms of human culture, are regarded by Pagans as expressions of humanity’s experience as part of the overall cosmos, and therefore may have relative merit, but not absolute authority. Generally speaking, Pagans treat all sacred writings from other religious traditions in a similar way: no text is above criticism, but any text may be respected or even revered for whatever wisdom it might contain.

Likewise, some Pagans may embrace texts that are not generally regarded as “sacred,” nevertheless finding inspiration in such writings because of their inherent beauty or wisdom. An example of this besides the Prose and Poetic Edda’s of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, is W. Y. Evan-Wentz’ The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, an early 20th-centurycompendium of fairy lore that some Pagans embrace as containing evidence of vestigial pre-Christian beliefs.

Many forms of Paganism foster a deep appreciation for mythology, particularly polytheistic or shamanistic tales and folklore. Thus, anthologies of myths and legends – or interpretations and commentaries on mythology – are essential texts for many practitioners.

This includes primary texts(such as the Irish Book of Invasions or the writings of Hesiod) as well as later retellings of myth(Bullfinch’s Mythology or Evangeline Walton’s novellas based on the Welsh myths of the Mabinogion)and even popular spiritual or psychological commentaries on the myths (such as Jean Shinoda Bolen’sGoddesses in Every Woman).

Myths are important for creating a shared identity among contemporary Pagans, as well as creating a common language for shared ritual practices or even shared cosmological beliefs. Likewise, the Pagan movement that emerged in the late 20th century featured a large number of writers whose works have been accepted as authoritative expressions of the beliefs and practices of various forms of nature veneration, modern polytheism, goddess spirituality, and other types of contemporary Paganism. Some of these authors include Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Raymond Buckland, Starhawk, Scott Cunningham, Diane Stein, Isaac Bonewits, Patricia Monaghan, Kveldulf Gundarsson, Emma Restall Orr, Ronald Hutton, and Marija Gimbutas, among many others.

None of these writers commands anywhere near universal authority within the Pagan community – each has his or her own following, as well as others who criticize or reject their work. Rather than coalescing around one particular teacher or tradition and demanding conformity to the same, Paganism thrives in its own “bio-diversity,” which means no writing (or authority) is universally accepted.

Ultimately, practitioners of nature religion generally assert that nature (as encountered or understood through personal experience) is the final “authority” that trumps the opinion or wisdom of any other human being. “Nature,” it might added, can be encountered on three levels: as the human body, as the external world of non-human nature, and finally as the cosmos itself expressed through the solar and lunar cycles of the year. “When in doubt, consult your nearest tree,” says Isaac Bonewits, in regard to the question of how to determine the merit of books on druidism. This comment, while flippant, reveals a typical perspective in the nature religion community – that nature, which includes one’s own intuition and personal preferences and values, is always to be preferred over “dogma,” which in this context means the codified beliefs or teachings of someone else, especially as found in a book.

While this leads to a degree of anti-authoritarianism and individualism within the Pagan world, the consensus is that the Pagan community as a whole is self-correcting in terms of rejecting beliefs, practices, and values that are harmful or useless. Similar to how practitioners of other faiths will appeal to passages in their sacred texts to justify their beliefs or actions, adherents of many Pagan traditions will often appeal to natural phenomena, science, personal experience, or (the closest thing to sacred scripture) mythology. For example, nearly all Pagans reject the idea of belief in a single, masculine deity, by pointing to the simple fact that nearly all animals include two genders, male and female, which would then necessitate that God(or the gods) could never be limited to just one sex. “Reading” nature (or science or personal experience), therefore, is a tool for cultivating one’s own individual spiritual wisdom, similar to how adherents of other faiths will read their sacred texts for inspiration.

Historical Perspectives

With no single sacred text, no unifying teacher, avatar, or prophet, and no pilgrimage site revered by practitioners the world over, Paganism – as a type of human spiritual activity – is as diverse and varied as the biosphere itself. While most Pagans regard this decentralized diversity as a strength, it leads to significant problems for anyone wishing to understand Paganism as a whole. These problems include two key contested issues: the question of identity (what separates “Pagan” religion from all other expressions of religion or spirituality) and the question of historicity (what is the difference between the Paganism of the distant past, and similar religious activity today?).The question of identity begins with controversy concerning the concepts of nature and of religion. Does, Paganism, as a “Nature Religion,” include any practice that reveres the physical world in any form, or is it more properly understood in a more exclusionary way – only consisting of religions with clear ties to agricultural, fertility, polytheism, goddess worship, or prehistoric practices? Contemporary Pagans see divinity as able to manifest both in the “natural” and “supernatural” realms and able to take many forms, which may be acknowledged by either an individual or a community. Some of today’s Pagans do reject the term “nature religion,” choosing to emphasize the historic or ethnic roots of their religious practice. Equally contested is the use of the world “religion” to describe the practices typically included under the aegis of Paganism. Some of these practices are explicitly magical rather than devotional or ceremonial in their orientation. Since Pagans have no central authority, no sacred text, no uniform ethical code, no systematic beliefs, and not even a consensus regarding cosmology and theology/thealogy, perhaps a descriptor other than “religion” would be more accurate: spirituality, spiritual practice, magical practice, or something along those lines.

In other words, so-called Pagan Religions might exhibit some qualities normally associated with religion, but in other important ways might more properly be seen as something fundamentally different from religion as it is generally understood. All this is to say that part of the challenge in understanding Paganism is deciding if, in fact, Paganism is a religion. If Paganism is not a “religion” int he sense that Christianity or Buddhism is, then does Paganism deserve the same protections afforded to all religions by the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Part of the challenge in studying Pagan identity is trying to understand and respect the diversity within the Pagan community. Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, Druidism, Shamanism, Hellenic or Egyptian Religion, Asatru, Odinism, Heathenism – each of these concepts are understood in many different ways, by practitioners, outside observers, and detractors. For example, many practitioners have strong (and varied) beliefs regarding the difference between Wicca and Witchcraft – some regard Wicca as a dilution of “true” Witchcraft, while others see Wicca as a religion whereas Witchcraft is limited to magical practice. Similar tensions exist between the understanding of Paganism and Witchcraft, or between Paganism and Heathenism.

This leads to a number of important questions about the relationships between religion, folk practices, and the validity of new spiritualities. When no verifiable lineage or tradition exists, is it valid to speak of a “spiritual” or symbolic tradition (as Philip Carr-Gomm, the current chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, claims is the case for the relationship between the druids of antiquity and their modern imitators)?Because of the diversity within the Pagan communities, these kinds of reflections find no consensus even among the practitioners, let alone outside observers. Due to this wide variety of beliefs and viewpoints regarding questions of identity and authority, contemporary Paganism – regardless of its relationship to the past – qualifies as a “post-modern” religion in the sense that, as a whole, it eschews any claims for overall or objective truth, in favor of “truth” as residing only in personal experience or in socially constructed contexts (which for most Pagan are local and small-scale).For the outside observer wishing to learn more about Paganism, the most fruitful approach may well be simply to embrace the ambiguities and paradoxes found within the community, basically doing what practitioners themselves do: learn all that one can about the varieties of Pagan belief and practice, recognizing that just about any statement that can be made about this religious path as a whole is subject to interpretation and rebuttal by at least some segments of the community.

HISTORY Early Developments

Sketching the historical development of Paganism, in its many forms, would require an encyclopedia of the religious history of humankind. This is because Paganism refers not only to a particular religious tradition, but also to a particular religious type. The Pagan “type” involves religions that are magical, polytheistic, and/or animistic, and often anchored in agricultural or fertility rituals. In this sense, every culture has some form of “Pagan” religion in its background, although such primal Paganism in many cases occurred in prehistoric times – in other words, prior to the onset of written records. While the Pagan religious type can be found around the world, this essay will concentrate on the history of a particular Pagan religious tradition-specifically, the traditions of Indo-European (and, to a lesser extent, Egyptian) polytheism. The modern Pagan movement-the recreation/revival of Paganism that emerged in Europe and in the English-speaking world in the mid-20th century-draws largely(although not exclusively) from Indo-European and Egyptian religions, particularly as those spiritualities shaped the religious life in Europe up until the arrival of Christianity (and, in hidden ways, even into the Christian era).

The Indo-Europeans were the ancestors of virtually all European cultures, as attested by the many European languages that belong to the Indo-European family. But not only did the earliest Indo-Europeans (or “Proto-Indo-Europeans”) bequeath a common root language, but they also generated common religious practices, which can be pieced together through the study of language, archaeology, and comparative mythology. Such efforts are highly speculative, and as such scholars vary widely in terms of what is accepted as likely fact versus what is regarded as theory. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were polytheists, worshiping a variety of gods, such as a father-god of the sky (who eventually emerged as the Greek god Zeus or the Roman god Jupiter); a god of abundance and wealth (who became the Irish god Dagda); a goddess of love (the Greek Aphrodite or the Norse Freya); a river goddess (who emerged as the Irish goddess Danu, but for whom the Danube river is named); a water or sea god (the Irish Nechtan or the Roman Neptune); as well as many others. Comparative mythologists have speculated that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had a foundational creation myth that may have involved the creation of the cosmos from the body of a giant. Another myth suggests the slaying of a dragon or serpent by a god or a hero; the dragon represented chaos and/or the underworld, while the god or hero represented cosmic order and well-being. Many myths also hint at conflict between the gods (or between two families or tribes of gods) that took place at a central tree, representing the axis of the cosmos, which survived as Yggdrasil (the Great World Tree)of Norse mythology or the Banyan Tree within Hinduism or the Oak Tree within Celtic mythology, all emblematic of a sacred center around which the cosmos revolves. Like the gods and the myths, our knowledge of the ritual practices of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is sketchy. Scholars cannot identify words for “religion” or “temple” within Proto-European language, but words do exist for concepts such as prayer, holiness, cosmic order, consecration, sacred meals and libations, and sacred groves or enclosures. Meanwhile, archaeological evidence suggests ceremonial practices particularly associated with burial and with astronomical observances. For example, one of the most impressive of prehistoric ceremonial sites, Stonehenge, is built according to astronomical alignments. The evidence suggests that the ancient forebears of European Paganism had a clear understanding of gods and goddesses, generally aligned with aspects of the natural world, to whom they would offer sacrifices, pour libations, and conduct ceremonies, presumably to curry the favor of the gods. It is out of this mysterious matrix of ancient, largely unknown religious practices that the classical Paganism of mythology emerges.

Schisms and Sects

While prehistoric religion will always have a shroud of mystery about it, the knowledge of ancient Paganism is immeasurably enhanced by the cultures that adopted literacy. With the advent of writing came the preservation of myths, prayers, hymns, devotional practices, cultic and votive inscriptions, and engraved statues or other ceremonial objects, all of which contribute to an understanding of ancient religious practices. Literacy spread over Europe unevenly, shaped by cultural circumstances. For example, the Celts did not generally adopt writing until they were Romanized (or Christianized).But when written records do appear in a European culture, they reveal not a unified religious practice, but rather the persistence of many different religious and cultic activities. Unlike religions that were literary from their beginning (such as Christianity or Islam), questions of “schisms” or “sects” in Paganism are basically meaningless. European Pagans never had a common or universal belief system from which schismatic or sectarian groups could break away. On the contrary, ancient Paganism was, according to most scholars, never a dogmatic religion with a unified, core body of teachings or beliefs. Rather than schisms or sects, a more helpful way to think about Paganism is in terms of natural diversity. Just as there are countless myths and supernatural folktales that appear to have their roots in Pagan spirituality, so Paganism thrived in an innumerable variety of ways. The easiest way to understand this is to consider that different types of mythology come from different regions of Europe. Celtic mythology and Norse mythology were preserved among the people of northern Europe, many of whom lived in regions that never fell under Roman rule. Meanwhile Greek and Roman mythology represent two other forms of myth, in some ways closely related but nevertheless distinct. Various other mythologies were found in Europe, including those of the Baltic, Slavic, Balkan, and other regions (some of these myths having survived only in fragmentary or folkloric forms).Egyptian religion, while technically not of Indo-European origin, spread to southern Europe so that some in pagan Greece and Rome practiced the worship of Isis and other Egyptian deities. But it is misleading to speak of “Greek religion” and “Roman religion” as if these were two monolithic entities. Not only were the religious practices within each culture varied, but even the mythology itself was unsystematic. Rather than think in terms of “Celtic myth,” it would be more accurate to speak of Celtic myths, in the plural, for the written records suggest that different regions in the Celtic world had their own myths, their own cultic practices, and their own local deities. While some deities may have achieved sufficient renown to be worshipped throughout the Celtic world, these would have been the exceptions rather than the rule; most gods and goddesses were local, anchored to a specific location or a specific feature in the natural world. A British Pagan and a Scottish Pagan from 2,000 years ago may have worshiped completely different gods with distinctive ritual or ceremonial practices, even though they were both Celts and lived in relatively close geographic proximity. This was true throughout Europe. Only with the arrival of writing – as in the case of classical Greece and Rome – did mythologies begin to be recorded, and therefore, to be systematized. The diversity of ancient Paganism meant that many different gods and goddesses were revered, each with his or her unique sacred stories, unique sacred sites where prayer or sacrifices occurred, and unique holy or festival days. As the evidence from Proto-Indo-European language indicates, different gods from different mythologies may have emerged from common Indo-European religious practices. For example, the Roman sea god Neptune and Nechtan, an Irish god associated with a sacred well, may both have originated in a Proto-Indo-European water deity. But just as the root language of the Indo-Europeans evolved into many languages, so too the mythologies (and religious practices associated with them) of the various Indo-Europeans evolved over time. Geographical differences ensured that Pagan spirituality would evolve in a diversity of ways, even with common ancestral roots”

~No citations or notes given*

NOTES ON EXCERPT FROM piece written by Neil Price: 1 E.g. Archaeology as Long-Term History, ed. by Ian Hodder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Anders Andrén, Mellan ting och text: en introduktion till de historiska arkeologierna (Stockholm: Brutus Östlings bokförlag Symposion, 1997); Bjørnar Olsen, Fra ting til tekst: teoretiske perspektiv i arkeologisk forskning (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1997); John Moreland, Archaeology and Text (London: Duck- worth, 2001). 2 Ian Hodder, Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). 3 E.g. Words and Objects: Towards a Dialogue between Archaeology and History of Reli- gion, ed. by Gro Steinsland (Oslo: Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning, 1986). 4 E.g. Jens P. Schjødt, ‘Contemporary Research into Old Norse Mythology’, in Re- flections on Old Norse Myths, ed. by Pernille Hermann, Jens P. Schjødt & Rasmus T. Kristensen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 1–16; Jens P. Schjødt, ‘Hvad er det i grunden, vi rekonstruerer?’, Religionsvidenskapeligt Tidsskrift, 50 (2007), pp. 33–45; Jens P. Schjødt, ‘Diversity and its Consequences for the Study of Old Norse Reli- gion’, in Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, ed. by Leszek P. Słupeki

& Jakub M. Slupecki (Rzeszow: Wydawnictwo Universytetu Rzeszowskiego, 2009), pp. 9–22; Jens P. Schjødt, ‘Kan myten være virkelighed?’, in Fornal- darsagaerne, myter og virkelighed, studier i de oldislandske fornaldarsögur Norður- landa, ed. by Agneta Ney, Ármann Jakobsson & Annette Larsen (København: Mu- seum Tusculanums Forlag, 2009), pp. 167–80.
5 E.g. Terry Gunnell, ‘Hof, Halls, Goð(ar) and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall’, Cosmos, 17,1 (2005), pp. 3–36; Terry Gunnell, ‘How High was the High One? The Role of Óðinn in Pre-Christian Icelandic Soci- ety’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. In press. 6 Neil S. Price, ‘Cognition, Culture and Context: Observations on the “New” Viking Archaeology’, in Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic, ed. by Andras Mortensen & Símun Arge (Tórshavn: Føroya Fróðskaparfelag, 2005), pp. 375–82. 7 Cf. Neil S. Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Uppsala: Uppsala University Press, 2002), ch. 2. Russia-Neopaganism.jpg

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