Month: May 2015

On forswearing, Hild and conversion by the sword

Lately, I’ve been enraptured by Nicola Griffith’s Hild — a novel I would describe tongue-in-cheek as visionary, since it’s about a seer who later becomes a Christian saint. Of course, part of me does regret reading it, at least at this moment since the sequel hasn’t yet been penned. If George R.R. Martin taught me anything, it’s “don’t start a series until all the books have been written.” Or in the case of Patrick Rothfuss, published.

One of the qualities I appreciate about Hild is the more nuanced view of conversion. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Pagan-authored novels — of which I’m quite fond, I must add — depict Christians as a force of unabashed misogyny and evil. Not all such novels, certainly, but that tenor is frequently there. Often, they’ll throw in a token “good” Christian to show that they’re not all a bunch of haters.

In Hild, conversion is done not for the love of God or gods, but for political power. And that’s essentially reality. For those in power, exchanging one God for another means little; kings are — certainly in Griffith’s depiction and borne out by historical record — profoundly amoral creatures. Faith becomes another tool for control — carrot or stick, depending.

As a polytheist, however, I can relate to the confusion evinced by Paganii at the time. New gods are added to the pantheon alongside the old, and their mythology is often integrated; Buddha, for example, is interpreted as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism, and Jesus as Vishnu’s devotee. And what’s the big deal about having two altars and offering sacrifices to both? From a polytheistic standpoint, that’s a wise practice, not apostasy. Polytheism relies on orthopraxy, or correct practice, and not orthodoxy. Beliefs are personal and nobody’s business.

The idea of forswearing the gods, however, sends shivers up the polytheistic spine. The word essentially means “to swear falsely.” In a tradition that holds honor as the paramount value, breaking one’s word and bond, abandoning one’s oath, is anathema. The Old English term for someone who breaks an oath is nithing. Despite the similarities, nithing is not the same as nothing. There is absence in the word, yes: an absence of good qualities, but more than that. When you’re nithing, you are a cowardly, malicious piece of shit. It was the ultimate insult back in the day.

In the polytheistic view, adding a god to the pantheon is all well and good. The idea, for example, that you must worship only Germanic gods or only Irish gods, for example, is a relatively modern one, likely influenced by monotheism. Ancient polytheists — a few groups, such as the Scythians in Herodotus, notwithstanding — did adopt the deities of other cultures. Witness the popularity of the Gaulish Epona among the Romans, or the worship of Isis and Cybele in Rome proper. Polytheistic people often interpreted the gods of their neighbors through their own gods, as seen with the interpretio romana/graeca. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is a one-to-one correlation between Brighid and Roman Minerva (in fact, Brighid may be seen in some aspects as more similar to Vesta). Overall, however, polytheism is an inclusive system that embraces multi-faceted and even contradictory images of divinity. It’s an open system.

Forswearing — willingly becoming a nithing — is something else entirely. I can say quite honestly that I would rather die than forswear my Gods, and can’t imagine a circumstance — save dementia, mental illness, or a surface lie prompted by a weapon to my head — in which I would do so. In the last instance, it wouldn’t even be true; conversion by sword is threat, not conversion. It changes nothing in the worshiper’s heart and mind, just as slavery cannot truly turn a man into an object even if he is made so by law.

I seem to remember old Christian texts that profess bewilderment over “backsliding” by polytheists. Simply put, why should a conversion by force or coercion hold once that opposing force is removed? Do we expect enslaved peoples to keep themselves as slaves even when their masters die?

Just some thoughts for a rainy afternoon.