Confession: I follow reconstructionist lists and sites not because I consider myself a recon, but because I enjoy learning things. They often have links to articles on various archaeological topics, among other things. Sometimes the discussions are interesting. Other times, it’s akin to running a cheesegrater made of self-righteous judgment against my synapses.
Recons, as I have mused before, are sometimes — and too often — fundamentalists that cannot accept cultural change. The “lore” — traditional stories preserved in archaic languages — is seen as the arbiter of all truth. There is a patina of purity, of a desire to get back to an essential unchangingness in which the Gods were always known by this set of names, with this set of attributes, and honored with this set of particular practices.
If you’ve followed my blog with any regularity, you’ll know that I consider myself an enemy of purity, and that I consider purity a dangerous myth. This may seem to go against the grain in an avowed polytheist who is decidedly not Wiccan, but I don’t think polytheism is threatened by Wicca. Rather, purity — the obsession with differentiation from others, and the subsequent devaluing of others’ views and experiences — is the true danger, whether you’re considering polytheistic/Pagan practices and philosophies, or any other philosophy you care to name.
At its core, the lore is unreliable. In the case of Celtic myth, the scribes were Christian monks, penning myths several hundred years after the land converted to the new paradigm. The Eddas, too, were written down by a Christian, although Snorri Sturluson was closer in time to his Pagan forebears. In short, the lore was never intended to be holy writ by the folks writing it down, and probably not by the folks passing it down as stories, either.
Let’s hop to another part of the continent and consider the Iliad and the Odyssey. These stories were created in a polytheistic culture and passed down by bards before being committed to writing. How much do you think that the stories of the Gods therein reflected their actual worship? Their meaning to devotees?
Let’s pick one of the best-known goddesses today: Aphrodite, who is portrayed as frivolous and silly in the Iliad. It’s a view that is culturally familiar to us. Remember how she is depicted in the television series Xena: a flaky blonde in a frilly pink bathrobe, obsessed with love and romance. When we refer to certain buxom blondes as “sex goddesses,” it is Aphrodite that is most often in our minds, albeit unnamed.
Her actual worship, however, was far more complex. Yes, she is the goddess of love, sex and fertility. But in Corinth, she was shown with a spear and shield, as the protector of the city; she also bore arms in Sparta. She was honored as a goddess of spiritual matters as Aphrodite Urania; she also was invoked as a goddess of the sea and celestial navigation. As Aphrodite Pandemos, she is the goddess of both sex and political persuasion, that which unites disparate elements into a single people (and forces some folks to resign public office, at least in these times). In another form, she is associated with bees. Another epithet describes her as melaina, or black, quite a different image than the ditzy blonde.
In short, she was — and is — a complex goddess whose identity depended in large measure on where you were and how the community honored her. And her origins are complicated, too; there are competing myths, which likely come from different areas and defy attempts to reconcile them into one truth. On a more scholarly level, she may derive from the Phoenician Astarte, the Babylonian Ishtar and the Indo-European dawn goddess Ushas.
Which, then, is the pure Aphrodite? Do we name her the goddess of love, and reject the Spartan matron of war, the Corinthian protector of the city, the Milesian sea goddess invoked by mariners? Do we reject her entirely because she may in fact be of Middle Eastern origin, even though she was considered one of the Olympian Twelve? Do we consider her the flaky goddess of the Iliad, who throws a hissy fit after receiving a cut, or a force that is deeper and more profound?
I picked Aphrodite as an example because this is a goddess who is well-documented and part of a literate polytheistic culture. You can visit the remains of her temples, as well as her icons in museums. You can read the hymns written to her and the stories written about her. She is vastly complicated — and this for a goddess usually pigeon-holed as love and beauty! Myths, such as that of Adonis, certainly were referenced in her worship, but they weren’t the sole arbiter of her meaning to devotees or the experiences of those devotees. As an open system, polytheism permitted a wide range of experiences and interpretations, even those that may seem mutually exclusive to those on the outside.
In short, Aphrodite was not consigned to one particular thematic “slot,” nor was she defined solely by the stories passed down in literature. When we assign categories to the Gods, we are limiting our own perceptions of them, and not the larger reality of the Gods themselves.
This isn’t to say we should reject the lore, as scant and insufficient as it truly is, in the interpretation of Celtic deities. It’s a great guide, but that is all; ultimately, it is the devotee’s own experiences that determine her view of the Gods.
I try to keep this in mind myself. Sometimes it’s a struggle, because like anyone else I have my preconceived views. I inwardly cringe when people speak of Brighid as a moon goddess, for example. But if she truly appears to them as the moon, who am I to say they’re wrong? If they see the moon and are reminded of Brighid, if they make offerings and prayers to her in its pale light, whom am I to say that she isn’t honored?