Of clapboard dogs and pita cows

Lately, I’ve been reading Ceisiwr Serith’s latest work: Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

It is a fascinating read, I must say. Perhaps owing to my long years in ADF and deep love of ancient history, I’m intrigued by his ideas — the PIE pantheon, ritual elements such as soma/haoma, etc. I love thought experiments, and prefer reading this text as such. As a thought experiment and exploration of an imagined proto-religion, it’s wonderful.

… but as a ritual system, it’s ridiculous. PIE religion, as constructed, relies heavily on animal sacrifice — expected due to the times and circumstances of the people. As quasi-nomadic people of the steppes, they likely made temporary altars of turf and had few ritual implements. All this I understand and accept.

The reconstructed rituals also revolve around animal sacrifice — except that pita bread is substituted for the animal, called by the name of the animal and even tied to the ritual stake before it is “slain” by an ax-bearing champion. The altar is made of turf and a set of ritual poles is pounded into the ground, a ditch dug, etc. Two pieces of leather take the place of actual cattle and are addressed as such. The liturgy is in reconstructed PIE, which largely looks like gobbledygook without vowels. Only the gods know how it’s pronounced, pronunciation key in the appendix notwithstanding.

And soma/nektar? Mead with powdered barley and ghee. A waste of good mead, that.

My favorite part so far was the horse sacrifice, which involves a stripped-down pinata with a bottle of soma/nektar/mead inside; the severed pinata head is put on a stake. The ritual also involves a dog sacrifice — in the form of a clapboard cut-out dog that’s ritually bisected with an ax and then either buried or sunk in water. Burying or sinking ritual implements is mentioned in several places in the book, which doesn’t quite seem eco-friendly.

The ritual format prizes form over function. Serith readily admits that no one really knows why the dog is ritually killed and cut in two, for example. Maintaining the rudiments of the reconstructed ritual is more important than, say, understanding why such actions are done or even the spirit in which said actions are performed. (This is one of my big beefs with ADF as a whole, cow pun intended.)

At the end of the day, our world no longer resembles the supposed world of the PIE people. And I say supposed because, in the end, it’s a linguistic theory. Scholars are still arguing over the purported people’s homeland, for example; we truly don’t know who these people were, or if our reconstructions are especially close to their lived reality. In some senses, it’s an ancient version of Esperanto, expanded to religion and culture.

We no longer live in a world where our food is kept on the hoof for preservation and transportation purposes. Cows are no longer a measure of wealth, and we no longer migrate from pasture to pasture. We have few ax-wielding champions and no bona fide kings. To enact such things in ritual is akin to playing dress-up: form before function. Ritual substitution makes sense if you usually have a sacrificial animal for a rite, and cannot due to (temporary) circumstances under your control. To always have bread instead of an animal truly requires a ritual revision. In a non-herding culture, why isn’t, say, homemade bread a worthy sacrifice? (I’m starting to sound like Cain and Abel!)

In the end, the Gods don’t need our cows or our pita bread; they need our love, attention and respect. The relationship should be about love — the Hindu bhakti or devotion — not “I’ll give you this so you give me that.” Our physical offerings are piddling things to the divine; it is the act of giving with the whole heart that counts, the acts of praise, love — the treatment as family and friend.

And while I was especially fascinated by the PIE gods, I can’t imagine worshiping them. Why worship Westya, when you can worship Brighid, Hestia, Vesta — hearth-goddesses whose names, rituals and meanings are known, even in part? Why worship Perkwunos instead of Thor, Taranis, Perun, Dagda? Dyaus Pter instead of Jupiter, Zeus, Tyr, Nuada? In other words, why go for the reconstruction when you could go for the attested “real deal”?

I suppose the fact that I consider historical deities the “real deal” and reconstructed ones as, well, reconstructed is part of my failure to make the cognitive leap. I’m quite simply an unbeliever when it comes to the PIE experiment and happy with Brighid, Morrigan, Aonghus and the whole Celtic crew, as well as the non-Celtic deities I worship (Ganesha, Hera, etc.) I love the history that comes with the Gods, the unity — perhaps imagined — with worshipers in other times and places. Perhaps some folks get that with PIE gods; I don’t, although I love reading about them.

In the end, I do highly recommend the book, although I’m not quite finished with it yet (I’ve a third to go). It’s a fascinating thought experiment.


About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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5 Responses to Of clapboard dogs and pita cows

  1. Briar says:

    I think what I appreciate most in this book is that by trying to figure out the principles of the PIE religion, what he is also doing is figuring out the principles that underlie Paganism in general, especially IE Paganism. That’s what I always appreciate about his work. I’ve always agreed with the importance he places on Xartus (or Rta). I really do see it as a key to understanding the pattern of Pagan thought.

    As you, I look at the Deities and rituals he proposes as a thought experiment. At the same time, my personal view on Deities is on the fluid side… I can see worshipping Westya, for instance, but, at the same time, what I would be worshipping is an entity that is also represented by Brighid, Vesta, etc. I am not convinced that these are separate beings, as we understand separateness… Cei himself talks of the “Divine Continuum” out of which various personal Deities arise, so I suppose on a mystical level, what exactly we call Them, or what mythos specifically we use is not of fundamental importance to me personally. Though I can see how it can be important to people.

    I do agree that we are too far culturally removed from what hypothetical PIEs might have practiced. At some point, pita cows are indeed silly, and frankly the idea of sacrificing even cardboard dogs makes me sick to my stomach.

    The entire life-sacrifice complex is no longer meaningful in our culture, imho. Nor, for that matter, ethically acceptable. I understand the principles behind it, but there are other ways to “re-create” the Kosmos, and other mythological models that may be followed.

    I prefer the “offering” model, to the “sacrifice” model, myself – which doesn’t take anything away from the idea of the “exchange”, as such. Giving a gift as part of ritual is important in Pagan tradition, but what is valued, and what is acceptable, as a gift, changes from culture to culture and from era to era.

    And, personally, I believe that religion is meant to be a part of the living culture, not a reconstruction of the hypothetical ancient one. In fact, that’s part of the reason the bunch of us “ran away” from ADF in the first place. Much as I occasionally like dressing up and pretending to live in other times and places ( I used to be into role-playing games and such), that’s not necessarily a healthy way to do one’s religion… lol

    But, yeah, I’d recommend this book as well. There is lots of interesting insight in there that can be applied without necessarily reconstructing the entire caboodle.


  2. ChrisG says:

    Perversly, I want to try the horse sacrifice. I think having a pinata head on a pole would be nice. I’m just odd that way.

    • Briar says:

      As long as it doesn’t involve dogs or cats! Though, I’m pretty fond of horses, too.

      Hey, Jenne, didn’t GOG do something horsy for Beltaine? Or am I misremembering?

      Does it have to be severed head? Can we do a whole horse on a pole? Or, hey, we can hit the pinata with one of those pool noodle thingies. Why be unnecessarily violent? lol

  3. tressabelle says:

    I heard about that book when it came out, but never was interested enough to go out and get it. It’s something about having to learn a whole new set of pronunciations and such- I’ve barely gotten into learning Gaeilge, I can hardly wrap my mind around the idea of learing a hypothetical ancient PIE tongue.
    You are right- the mock sacrifices you describe from the book do sound rediculous. Perhaps instead of looking so much to the ancient past, it would be good to also look to the more recent- survivals of Paganism into the Christian era. The benefit in doing so is to give us a clue as to how Pagan rituals evolved over time within the culture. Not long ago I found a good source for this: in “Survivals in Belief Among the Celts” by George Henderson ( http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sbc/index.htm ). I haven’t read it in it’s entirety, but have used some info from it for informing my own ritual practices.

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