Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In which I get all universal and sycretistic

So, yesterday I was sitting in my kitchen, drinking a glass of wine and reading the Kabbalah—

Why are you looking at me like that?

Anyway, I’m reading Daniel Matt’s “The Essential Kabbalah”, because I want to read it from an actual Kabbalah scholar before I tackle Dion Fortune’s take on it.  I’m Asatru, but my first mature investigations into “other religions” were through British occultism.  (Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance” when I was a teenager doesn’t count.)  It’s really reminding me of something that’s been bugging me for a while.

Asatru’s theology is really underdeveloped.

This is difficult for me, because I’m a theologian from a religion with a highly developed theology.  I could chew up texts for breakfast and spit out exegeses that would make you weep at their complexity.  Now I have texts written by detractors, or people who just wanted to preserve stories, and not a lot of what believers actually believed.  We know more and more about how they practiced, at least in the upper classes, but not what was going on in their minds and spirits when they engaged with the gods.  The Kabbalah is giving me some insight into what could be or might have been if Asatru theology hadn’t been stomped out by Christianity before the Scandinavians could write down any of their own thoughts.

I’m heavily influenced by Jung, so I believe very much in archetypes that are universal.  Some of these archetypes are inevitable; if you speak an Indo-European language, the common concepts are going to occur and recur.  I’ve had a joke for a long time that when we uncover the human ur-religion, it’s going to involve a mandala and a dying god.  To that I would now add a sun goddess and a World Tree.

Above my desk at work, I have a small prayer rug that I bought in Kuwait.  I was looking for a nice one as a souvenir, much as non-Catholics buy rosaries as souvenirs when in Mexico.  I found a design that intrigued me and the shop owner, a fixture at the PX complex who I thought of as Tragic Rug Merchant because of his hangdog demeanor, told me, “It’s the Tree of Life.”

“I’ll take it,” I said, and didn’t haggle about the price.

As anyone who’s been reading my blog for any length of time knows, I am very into Yggdrasil.  As the World Tree, Yggdrasil carries in her branches the Nine Worlds.  I saw on my rug that the Tree had ten flowers on it:


The Kabbalistic Tree of Life has ten Sephiroth, and SHUT UP THAT FINAL FANTASY COMMENT BEFORE I SHUT IT FOR YOU.  Note, however, that one of them, “Tipharet”, is the trunk of the Tree.  The trunk of the Tree is Beauty.  So there are nine others.

Now I have to back this truck up to 2008.  I had just spent three months at paralegal school in Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.  My barracks had been old and literally rotting around us, full of black mold and roaches the size of my thumb.  We were crowded in like cattle and I got pneumonia.  During my time there, I had been trying to balance my Catholicism and my Asatru, knowing that Icelanders did it for a couple of centuries before Christianity fully took hold.  As I got sicker, I started leaning harder on the Catholicism because, well, I knew how to engage with it in times of difficulty. 

I got out of Ft. Jackson by the skin of my teeth.  I graduated with honours, but I firmly believe that if I hadn’t gotten out the night I did, I would have died. 

Fast forward a couple of weeks.  I had found a little part-time work with a company that was making calls on behalf of the Democrats.  I was ready to go, until the script they handed me was one urging voters to vote for a candidate because he supported funding abortion clinics.  That was against my religion and I believe in doing the right thing, so I was fired.

As I walked out, I thought to myself, “It’s all right.  My reward will be great in Heaven.”

Then I thought, “No it won’t.  There’s no reward, and there isn’t any Heaven.

“There isn’t any Heaven because there is no God.”

I went home, boxed up my prayer books and statues and put them away.  I felt a weird liberation, because the Big Sky Daddy of my childhood had just disappeared in a puff of nothingness. 

“What about the gods?” Sven asked.  I told him that he and I existed and that our cat existed, so I had no problem believing that the gods exist too.  After all, the Norse gods are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent.  They are mortal.  They get hungry, thirsty, cold, sleepy, etc.  I could completely grasp that.

But what was it that made them gods?  I’ve read everything from ancient aliens to deified ancestors.  Since Asatru is so intensely about the Ancestors, I can deal with that second possibility.  Still, what made them deity?  What is the sacred?

I’m going to jump over a lot of writings by the Dalai Lama and Mircea Eliade here, right back to the Tree of Life.  In the Eddas, it says that no one knows the roots of the World Tree.  In Kabbalah, the Tree has its roots in Ayin Sof, the unknowable.

My theological hypothesis, drawing from everything I’ve read in my lifetime, which is a lot, is this.  “God”, or “The Sacred” or “The Numinous” is like water.  We are made of water, we are surrounded by the water in the air.  If we do not have water, we will die.  That which has a concentration of this Numinous manifests the Sacred.  In his book The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade described the feeling one gets in the presence of such an item as “mysterium tremendum”.  He gave the image of a “primitive man” looking up at a mighty oak tree that’s been struck by lightning and getting a feeling of this mysterium.    The Ayin Sof is the Hebrew for this unknowable, ungraspable, Sacred.  The Tree is the emanation of the Sacred, the part that can be knowable.  The oak tree of the “primitive man” is a further expression of the Tree.  As above, so below.

The gods are, to me, beings that are more fully permeated in the Sacred than we humans are.  When a human is deified, like many of the Ancestors or heroes (the Romans were particularly interested in deified humans), that human has come to be more fully permeated in the Sacred as well.

This leaves room for lots more theologizing.  What does it mean when Odin is speared to the Tree, offering Himself to Himself?  What are the roles of the nissemen we find in nature?   Do non-Norse gods exist, and if so, what is Their relationship with the Aesir and Vanir?  What about the Runes?  I’m working on this, and when I think of more, I’ll share it. 

Hail to the Gods!  Hail to the Goddesses!
Hail to the bounteous Earth!
With wit and wisdom grant us,
And healing hands, besides!
Hail the Tree!

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