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.