(Originally published in Druid’s Progress 14)
While some ADF groves have a single cultural focus, with all of the members dedicated to the sane pantheon of gods, others display a wider spectrum of the I-E cultures, both in their public rituals and in their members’ personal devotion. But can a single grove keep religious continuity if it doesn’t regularly worship the same gods, either as a collection or as individuals? Or, on a broader scale, even if all of the groves are particular in their own focus, is what unites us a religion we share, or a mere umbrella of perceived similarities?
Put more simply, is religion based on the deities we worship? If so, in order for us all to be worshipping the deities of the same religion, one of two things must be true. Either the gods we are worshipping are literally the same deities known by different names to different cultures, or our religion encompasses all of the deities of all of the I-E cultures. Many interpret the Dumezilian thesis to claim the former: that there is a similar structure to all of the I-E mythologies pointing to a proto-I-E religion which manned differently in the different cultures depending on their unique circumstances. The ADF liturgy would lend some credence to the notion that our religion is based on this hypothesis, for the gods fit into slots assigned to them as they fill universal I-E functions: the earth mother, the gatekeeper, the bardic deity, the guardians of the fire and the well, the outdwellers, etc.
But many of us are unsettled at the thought of a religion based on generic roles of proto-I-E gods about whom we know nothing. While we are struck by the similarities between the mythologies, we also note the defining features which make each unique. Also, although there may be gods to fill the I-E functions, they are often relatively obscure, while the gods who are more prominent in the mythology may not fit neatly into our Dumezilian cubbyholes. Further, the gods who best fill a particular function may have little else in common with other gods filling the same function. What does Apollo have in common with Braggi besides their both being bardic deities? When we fill the generic roles, the gods from culture to culture don’t seem like the same gods at all, and if we choose to keep only the skeleton of true similarity, our religion has no flesh and bones – nothing to make it a living tradition.
The other alternative for an I-E religion worshipping the same set of gods is to simply include all of the gods in one huge pantheon. Each of us would worship in the cults of the gods to whom we were called. While this syncretism has historical precedence in the Mediterranean, it presents its own problems.
First, there are many gods who are in charge of the same thing, or who have similar characteristics. In the syncretism of the Hellenistic period, this led back to equating gods, or calling on the ‘same’ god by different names: e.g. Selene, Hecate, Artemis; or the Romans identifying Odin as Mercury, Tyr as Mars, etc. Secondly, in an individual culture the pantheon of gods was relatively exhaustive; the gods in a single pantheon could account for all of the aspects of the lives of their worshippers. Each pantheon divided the world somewhat differently, and these divisions were significant to the wheel of the year and the myths associated with it. In a giant pantheon with more than one god being in charge of the same thing we lose both the exhaustiveness of the division and the significance of dividing things in that particular way. Instead of the gods explaining the order of the cosmos, we end up with a disorderly mob.
If both of these solutions are unsatisfactory, then either when we worship different gods, we practice different religions, or the gods we worship are not the defining feature of our religion. If the latter is the case, what is the characteristic feature which could unite us? I argued in ‘Fiction as Reality‘ that the appropriate criteria for good religious fiction should be the attributes of the gods, what they demand of us, and how we know those demands. Using these criteria our religion would be one rather than many just because our different gods have very similar attributes and demands, and we have similar ways of communicating with them.
On the surface it appears that our different pantheons, as members of the same I-E family, are strikingly similar. They not only divide the world in similar ways, as Dumezil’s tripartite division attests, but they have quite similar personal characteristics. Their codes of honour, sense of justice, and other values can often be substituted for one another without any significant difference. Further, the central demand each pantheon made on its worshippers was sacrifice, though what was sacrificed did vary. And all of the cultures listened to the gods through various means of divination, whether extispicy, augury, casting of runes or ogham, oracles, etc.
When we look more closely at any individual holiday, however, we discover that there is little continuity from culture to culture, especially between the northern and southern cultures. While the Celts and Norse are harvesting and dealing with death and rebirth, the Greeks are planting and having fertility festivals. If religion is dependent on our cyclical obligations, or the rites we hold depend on what point we are in the wheel then if the different gods are making very different demands, our practices can hardly be considered the same religion.
One might argue that if the cycles are the same, (if we rotated them so they all coincided), then the religion is still the same. First, the differences in the cycles are significant enough that even if we rotated them, I doubt the wheels would ever coincide closely enough to have the same thematic progression throughout the year. But even if they did, we still couldn’t worship together and keep the cohesion of our individual cycles. In one version some would be forced to worship in a cycle which no longer corresponded with their cultural year. (i.e., some have done versions of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the spring, since it is a planting festival, when in fact it was held traditionally around Sept/Oct.) In another version we keep the integrity of each cycle, but if different cultures attempt to worship together, at least one will be out of sync. While they could attend as guests, it isn’t their own cycle, which marks it as their own religion.
One could object that while these difficulties are apparent over very different climates, that there is much more continuity when in more similar climates, as are the Celts and the Norse. If we assume for the moment that this is the case, then a grove could alternate Celtic and Norse holidays without losing religious continuity. While this may be more difficult than one or the other, since it involves learning about more gods and developing relationships with them, since when does that kind of challenge make for bad religion? The extra effort and energy may make religion more difficult at first, but as the relationships are developed, the better an understanding one has of the gods and his relationship with them. One who learns two languages understands his first better than the one who speaks only his native tongue.
But, even if the pantheons of similar climates are ‘the same,’ that isn’t sufficient for a pan-Indo-European religion. In attempting to define us as a single religion, in my opinion, we lose too much of what makes religion valuable. Others may disagree that the objections we raised aren’t significant enough: that, for example, our cycles should be made to fit whatever climate we live in, regardless of the culture, and this ‘rotating’ of the wheel is not problematic. The stakes are high in this question, for if most agree with me, then ADF is not a single religion, but an umbrella of similar religions. Where do we go from there? What is our common interest which unites us under this umbrella?