Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 5

Belief is personal, ritual is traditional and morality is social: that’s my threefold division! Of course, it’s simplistic and there are a lot grey areas where the practical sense comes into play, with some things being toned down and others highlighted.

There’s a grey area between ritual and belief, in that what you believe to be the role, powers and nature of a deity influences the rituals you perform. For instance, if you consider Frey to be a God linked to the sun – even if not the sun Herself – you may celebrate the Lord’s birth at Midwinter; or if you see Him as the annual harvest sacrifice in August, you’ll perform a ritual accordingly at that time of the year. Likewise, personal experience with a deity may cause you to worship Him/Her in an more unusual role: imagine, for instance, that you believe Hercules to have at one occasion protected the gates of your property and, therefore, you end up worshipping Him side by side with Terminus or Janus as a guardian of boundaries and doorways. In fact, an Ancient Roman tradition says that the two-faced God was called upon to help Rome in times of war, not because He was traditionally associated with bellic activities, but apparently due to a legend that said that Janus had once helped to defend the city by causing a water spring to burst. For that reason, Romans kept the gates of Janus’ temple open in times of war, should the God wish to help once more. Finally, you may also highlight a traditional role of a deity due to your personal dealings with Him/Her and therefore honour Him/Her in that particular guise more often.

There’s another grey area between belief and morality, in that your faith on a particular deity, especially a patron or favourite God/dess, has an influence on your rules of conduct. Not every deity has the same code of ethics; They share a common ground that allows for the existence of a divine community, yes, but when it comes to specifics, I wouldn’t expect any sort of uniformity. And that’s only natural once you take the existence of different Gods with different “areas of intervention”, agendas, natures and, as such, with different rules of conduct. Odin’s ethos is not Frey’s, Heimdall’s is not Loki’s, Freya’s is not Thor’s. They think and act differently, since They’re interested in diverse things and will therefore weight the same values and actions differently on Their individual ethical scales. And this tends to pass on to Their dedicated worshippers and influence their opinions on behaviour or other topics. Take sexual matters, for instance: if you feel particularly close to Frey or Freya, chances are you’ll have a more tolerant view of homosexuality, given the Vanir’s own loose sexual morality; on the other hand, if you’re a Thorsman or woman, you’re likely to feel differently on the matter. There are of course exceptions, as in pretty much everything, but there are also trends set by a God’s own ethos. It’s not by chance that a lot of gay men get drawn into Frey’s and Vanir ranks and it’s not simply the appeal of a big cock 🙂

Finally, there’s a third and important grey area between ritual and morality, for no matter how orthopraxic a religion is, no rite can exist outside its social context. When the cult of the Great Mother, AKA the Goddess Cybele, was brought to Rome somewhere around 204 BC, Her rituals as originally performed in modern day Turkey suffered several restrictions: there were, for instance, limitations with it came to public worship and, because they would have to be castrated, Roman citizens were not allowed to enter the priestly group known as the galli (emperor Claudius ended up lifting this ban). Equally illustrative is the suppression of the Bacchanalia by order of the Senate in 186 BC, for fear of social unrest. This means that, even for an orthopraxic religion as the Religio Romana, traditional rite had to respect social morality: if the former conflicted with the latter, a comprise or a ban would follow. So Roman citizens could not become castrated priests of Cybele, but foreigners could, and so the galli were for a time imported as part of a middle way solution.

How does this translate into our modern world? To put it simply: reconstructed pre-Christian traditional ritual must conform to modern social morality. It has to respond to and respect today’s reality, so that it will neither be an empty ritual nor a crime. For instance, human sacrifice was known and practiced in the Ancient world, regardless of how often, but today’s social morality does not allow it, and so traditional ritual must either suppress that element or find a solution like the symbolic sacrifice of an effigy. The same goes for animal sacrifice if you do not wish to or do not have the means to perform it according to today’s legal requisites. And there are practices like the ritual cutting down of a tree that may be problematic today if that specific type of tree is in danger of extinction or the area where you can find it faces serious deforestation; or the pouring of certain beverages in small rivers and springs may have a detrimental effect on its ecosystem and another offering should be found, even if that means adapting or dropping the correct historical version.

Even in orthopraxic religions, ritual is not static. It mutates once it’s social context mutates too, it changes when in contact with other material cultures and it reacts to the social morality of a given time. What’s important to keep in mind is that it doesn’t mutate out of hand and it always keeps as a reference the traditional way, even if only to adapt it in a larger or smaller scale. After all, Romans didn’t replace the galli with a flower festival or a juvenile party on the beach.

3 thoughts on “Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 5

  1. I am enjoying this series of posts and think you raise a number of excellent points.

    I definitely agree that whatever Deity you follow will colour your worldview and ethics/morality. As a Frey’s woman, I am indeed very accepting of homosexuality and see it as natural in human and animal populations. And I think the Vanic POV is there is little enough love in the world to scorn it when it comes. Conversely, I’ve known a fair few Thorsmen who are homophobic (putting it mildly), so there seems to be something to that.

    I also agree that a lot of modifications need to be made for modern practice based on what is legal, ethical/healthy, and practical. I am, for example, carrying on the tradition of a yearly wain procession for Frey, but rather than driving it around the countryside and blessing villages and individual homesteads, I am going to a designated location so people can meet me there – it’s just more practical. 🙂

    Anyway… thank you, a lot of people need to see this post in particular, it raises many good points that need to be thought of/discussed more.

  2. Well inspired by your texts in your website and book, Svartesol, I’ve been planing a wain procession for Frey myself 😉 But given that I’m solitary, it will be inside my parent’s apartament and for the family only, moving the wain with the image from one room to another to either have Frey at our table or entertain Him with some games.

    It’s still in project, but it will happen one midsummer and it will be determined by a pratical sense.

    And I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts. There will be one final text with loose notes to tie loose ends, like the matter of the traditional basic ritual structure for modern times, which I think should be better explained in case people misunderstand me and take it as meaning that everything outside a traditional ritual is wrong.

    Reader’s input is always important!

  3. Oh, yay! I’m so glad you’re going to do the wain procession 🙂

    I think anything that’s done has to be determined by practicality, honestly. I think the Gods honour critical thinking skills. Religious practices changed and evolved over time as people’s lifestyles changed, and will continue to do so.

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