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Whose Ancestors?

EDITED, 9/11/2013: In the days since I originally published the post below on 8/29/2013, there have been a couple of developments I wish to acknowledge.

–This post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization.

–In discussions in the comments both here and at the PaganSquare site (before it was removed), several people have pointed out that I went too far in over-interpreting the implications of the DNA research referenced in the original post. They’re correct, and I appreciate the feedback. I think that the research still supports the overall point of my post, which is that at a surprisingly recent point in the past, all of us are related, and that there is no biological or anthropological basis for racial separatism in religion.

Here follows the original post, unedited:

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Issues of race and Eurocentrism in religion have been increasingly on my mind recently, and the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech seems a good day to write about them.

This came up for me when I found out that a favorite Nordic folk band, Wardruna, would be performing in the US for the first time this fall. I got all excited about this until friends pointed out that the event at which they will be performing, Stella Natura, is sponsored by the unabashedly racist Heathen organization AFA, and is also featuring several performers with strong links to white-supremacist, racist ideologies.

So I ditched my plans of attending. And I feel like talking about this publicly because I think part of the reason racism continues to haunt European polytheism is because we let it. Too many of us take a policy of uneasily gritting our teeth and putting up with our intellectual proximity to racists. It’d have been more convenient and more fun for me to buy the ticket, go to the event and try to ignore the racism so that I could get the chance to enjoy one of my favorite bands. But I’d be supporting the inclusion of these racist elements within the fold of European polytheism, and I can’t stomach it. Instead, I’m refusing to participate. Wardruna, we love you, but if you want me to buy a ticket to your show, don’t sign on with racists as your event sponsors.

It comes to me that practitioners of European polytheist traditions have a duty on us to take a clear stance against racism in our religious communities. Not to do so, I think, inevitably leads us into tacitly condoning racism, because of its ubiquity in the overculture and its history as an undercurrent within European polytheism.

So here’s my stance: Though the form of religious practice I choose to espouse is largely based on Celtic traditions, I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

Now, here are some facts you can arm yourself with to help put down racist logic when it is presented to you.

Racism in European polytheism is often veiled under language that claims to celebrate cultural and religious diversity. You will need to be aware of this and learn to recognize it for what it is. The argument goes something like this: a) Cultural and religious diversity is good; b) religious traditions arise from and are dependent on the unique ethnic identity of a people; c) therefore to fully realize our spiritual potential we should practice the religious traditions of our ethnic ancestry; d) because of the link between culture and ethnicity, to preserve cultural and religious traditions we also need to preserve the distinct identities of peoples. If you read between the lines (e.g. read “people” as “race”) you can see that by this train of logic, the conclusion arrived at is that races should not intermingle because that will dilute the purity of the European race and its native religious traditions.

This is nothing more than the Separate-But-Equal doctrine of racial politics. “We aren’t denigrating other races and their associated religions, we just don’t want them getting mixed up with ours.” In the name of celebrating cultural diversity, of course. If you think this claim isn’t being made, go look at the AFA website – it’s right there in their statement of purpose:

All native religions spring from the unique collective soul of a particular people. Religions are not arbitrary or accidental; body, mind and spirit are all shaped by the evolutionary history of the group and are thus interrelated. Asatru is not just what we believe, it is what we are. Therefore, the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.

The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic.

Just so long as you keep your non-European uniqueness over there and don’t get any on us.

This isn’t just nasty racial politics, it’s also utter bullshit. Here’s why.

This entire argument is predicated on the idea that race and religion are tied, that traditions are native to and transmitted by ancestral links. The traditions of our ancestors and all that. OK, but whose ancestors?

Guess what: Your ancestors are everyone’s ancestors. We are all related. No really, that’s not a kumbaya hippie truism, it’s a documented mathematical and biological reality.

“The fact that everyone has two parents means that the number of ancestors for each individual doubles every generation… By using basic mathematics, we can calculate that ten generations ago each individual had a thousand ancestors, and 20 generations ago they had a million and so on.”

By the time you count back to 40 generations, the number of ancestors each person has far outstrips the number of people alive at that time. That means between 30 and 40 generations back, all human beings share ancestry. That’s somewhere shy of 800 years ago. This mathematical modeling has now been confirmed by DNA evidence. Here’s a handy graphic that’s been making its way around the web illustrating this new research:

ancestors

I haven’t verified the specific dates and figures in the graphic, but the principle is clear as an illustration of the research.

Think about what this means: The historical time frame within which the Nordic and Germanic cultural lore on which Asatru is built includes, roughly speaking, the Iron Age up through the Viking era – that is, a few centuries BCE up through about 800-1200 CE. A similar time frame is the basis for much of what now constitutes Celtic polytheism.

In other words, when the Hávamál was created, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. When the legends of Cú Chulainn and the heroes of the Red Branch were being developed, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. So was everyone alive in the ancient Somali states. The Etruscans, the Mycenaeans, the Thracians, the Kushites. The people of Catal Huyuk, the ancient steppe tribes of Eurasia, the forefathers and foremothers of the Khans, the people who settled the Polynesian islands, the tribes who crossed the land bridge to the New World. They are all of them, all of them, your personal blood ancestors.

So cultural traditions can’t be inherently dependent on race or ancestry, because race and the purity of ancestral lineage are fictions. You personally are the blood lineage inheritor of every human cultural tradition on the planet.

The truth is, cultural purity also a fiction. People have been traveling all over the globe trading with each other since time began. The ancients were in contact with each other across enormous distances via trade routes and migrations. The skull of a Moroccan Barbary ape was found in an Iron Age royal site at Navan Fort, Ireland. The famous Viking swords were made from steel sourced from Afghanistan. Iron age mummies with red hair and Hallstatt material culture have been found in the deserts of China. I could go on all day with examples like this. And in every case where there is evidence of contact between peoples, there was cultural exchange. Culture is a social disease – it is transmitted on contact. There has always been sharing, borrowing, and synergizing between cultures.

This is an important point, because it proves that distinct cultural traditions do not require racial or cultural separation to preserve them. If the mingling of peoples led to dissolution of all cultural boundaries, we’d long ago have been one big mishmash of culture. Because the mingling has been happening for millenia, as demonstrated above. What the racists claim to be protecting against would have happened long ago if racial purity had anything at all to do with the integrity of cultural traditions. Cultures arise from shared language and shared experience – DNA doesn’t come into it. The varieties of human experience will always tend toward a diversity of cultures regardless of ancestry or cross-cultural contact. Any argument for separatism in the name of cultural diversity is just a cover for racism.

So by all means, celebrate the ancestral traditions that move you and touch your soul. That is what I do. Let us just remember whose ancestors they are: the ancestors of humanity.

Courage in Kinship

I’m settling back in following my adventures at PantheaCon and reflecting on my experiences there. It was the first Con we in the Coru attended as a priesthood, so we were kept very busy with lots of introductions and questions about who we are and what we do. We also had given ourselves a packed schedule of workshops, rituals, and other activities that didn’t leave much room to breathe. (If anyone in my readership felt you were getting the brush-off from me at any point, please accept my apologies. I really did want to talk to you, I just was overscheduled and couldn’t stop to talk.)

One of the big themes for me this Con was kinship. Naturally, since this was a central focus both of our Morrigan devotional ritual and of the blood drive. But it was also borne out in more personal ways. We shared our suite with some allies of the priesthood, new friends from up north whom we met during our trip to the Western Gate festival last October. We began the Con as new friends and allies, but after spending days eating, laughing, working, and doing deep ritual together they all felt like deep kin. There it is – kinship through shared devotion. What so many people have been saying they felt after the Heart is Our Nation ritual.

The heart is the only nation, we sang. Our voices lifted upward to the Morrígan, and we made an affirmation of our sovereignty. (Teo Bishop)

We called upon kinship and sovereignty, and over the last few days I find myself feeling and becoming more aware of the threads that tie us all together. (Stephanie Woodfield)

I heard stories starting the next day of people who, inspired by the depth of kinship that they felt, took courage to begin conversations with others who they hadn’t spoken with in years. I hear stories of people moved by the strength of kinship to take on greater challenges, take a stand, fight for something. Acts of courage.

This is what kinship means.

Because these acts of courage aren’t only supported by the strength that we feel when we know we are not alone. I can do this, because I’m not alone here. What I also see is that acts of courage are driven, are made necessary by the reality of kinship. I must do this, because I’m not alone here. Kinship brings the recognition that whatever we face, we are in it together; we, this species somewhere between ape and angel, hearts pumping blood, souls always seeking a place; we, born from stars and mud and hunger, the inheritors of the whole human legacy of beauty, wonder, and violence, and the endless longing for liberty. We have Gods to inspire us, spirits to aid us, but who will save us but ourselves? All our human kin need us each to find the courage that is in us, stand forth and give our best. That courage is kinship.

As we readied ourselves for the ritual, we painted each other’s limbs and faces with blue paint.

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Spirals, meanders, stripes, claw marks. The idea had come to me a few weeks earlier to paint ourselves for the ritual, as some of the old Celtic and Pictish tribes were said to have done. To evoke a sense of kinship with tribal marks, though I meant something different by it than my ancestors did, surely. A dream came back to me, forgotten for some time. Last summer, the night before we planned this ritual, I’d had a dream.

The Coru were performing an invocation in tribute for an old man of our community who had died as a result of mistreatment by an abusive police or security authority. We were chanting to the Morrigan at his memorial. Then one of the other priestesses turned to me and gave me a message from Her. “The Queen says it is time to resist.” And she handed me a pot of woad paint. I saw the people gathered, the community coming together, speaking words of courage to act in defense of the human rights of the community. We painted our feet blue with the woad and they called us the Blue Heels. The blue-painted feet were meant to show our fighting spirit, and our motto was “We stand fast,” as was said by the Morrigan in the Second Battle of Maige Tuiredh.

I’d forgotten this dream once we got into the planning of the ritual, but remembering it while we painted each other, something came to me: this truth that kinship itself is resistance. In a civilization that strives to divide us, to alienate us from each other and even from ourselves; in times of drone warfare, economic feudalism, class warfare, and the national security state, any act of courage and kinship is a form of resistance. Kinship does not just give us the strength we need to resist these forces. It is in fact the key to our survival and overcoming. In such a world, kinship itself is heroic.

I must do this, because I’m not alone here. For the kinship that I bear you, I will do this thing. I will act like I care. I will stand for something. I will give of myself. I will take a risk. These are the words of heroes. Heroism is love in action.

Do you stand in kinship? What will you stand for?

Blood Sacrifice

Yes, the topic I’m writing about today is blood sacrifice. Do I have your attention?

First, I have this to share with you. The Coru Cathubodua (the Morrigan priesthood I serve with) has joined forces with Solar Cross Temple to organize a blood donation effort for the upcoming PantheaCon 2013 Pagan convention, in connection with our Morrigan devotional ritual also planned there. We are encouraging convention participants who are able, to donate blood in the Morrigan’s name as an offering to Her and an act of kinship with our fellow humans who need blood donations. (Or, if you happen not to want to give in Her name, feel free to give in the name of your own deities, or just give.) Blood donors at the convention will receive special badge ribbons so you can proudly display your heroic gift and encourage others to do likewise, such as: “I GAVE HERO’S BLOOD” and “I GAVE BLOOD FOR THE MORRIGAN”.

We are working with Blood Centers of the Pacific as our blood collection agency. For Saturday and Sunday of the convention, a bloodmobile will be on site receiving blood donations raised by this effort. In order to ensure that the Blood Center can allocate enough staff to serve the need, it’s best if donors can sign up in advance for their blood donation appointment. You can sign up online, even with a guess as to what time you want to donate – it’s easy to reschedule your appointment online if you should need to do so when the PantheaCon schedule is announced.

The website is bloodheroes.com. To sign up for a donation appointment for the PantheaCon drive, go to the website and register yourself as a donor. Then go to the ‘Donate Blood’ page, and enter our sponsor code ‘PCon’. You can then select your preferred appointment time for Saturday or Sunday during the Con.

The earlier folks sign up to donate, the more staff capacity the Blood Center will be able to allocate, so please sign up early, even if you expect to have to change your appointment.

Why do this? The simple answer is that blood donation is a medical necessity, and countless lives are saved by donated blood every single day. You may not have money to donate to causes, but you can help your human kin immensely by donating blood.

To delve a little more into the subject of this post, there is a spiritual basis for the act as well. Our initial inspiration for this blood drive came during a creative meeting when the group of us (the Coru Priesthood and Thorn of Solar Cross) were meditating on our theme for the Morrigan devotional ritual at the con. In meditation, the images that kept coming up for me and others were blood and kinship. The Morrigan wants blood, I thought to myself. Surprise, surprise.

Blood and kinship. In some contexts, the two are synonymous. We say that we share blood with someone if we are familially related to them, if we are ‘blood kin’. Sharing blood is also understood as a way to establish kinship where it does not exist from birth: the old blood brotherhood or sisterhood. Why does this work (or to look at it another way), why is it believed to work? Because our blood is the essence of our life – it is the vehicle and condensed liquid form of life force. To share that is to be kin.

In ancient times, blood was also understood by many peoples as the ultimate gift to the Gods. Because, again, blood is life force, and many ancient peoples believed that the Gods needed to be fed life force in order to maintain the kinship bond between human and divine. Thus we see substantial evidence that the Pagan Celts practiced blood sacrifice through the sacralized killing of human and animal victims and offering their life force to the Gods. We moderns like to avert our gaze from this, and often prefer to skim over that aspect of Celtic culture, but it is there. Bodies preserved in peat bogs showing every sign of ritual killing. Altars with traces of blood remaining embedded in the stone. Contemporary accounts by observers pervasively describing the sacrifices.

I feel it’s important to tease out the threads here. I think it is right and good that we have abandoned human sacrifice, but I also think that these ancient religious practices still show us something important about how to feed our kinship with the Gods. Undoubtedly, there are many ways to feed that kinship without spilling blood: libations, prayer and praise, food offerings, acts of dedication, effort in Their names; and endlessly more. And yet, undoubtedly the most intimate of offerings must be the life force of the body. That is the powerful truth I’d like to bring forward from the ancient practice.

We can offer life force to the Gods directly and intimately, without ending the life that gives it, and while upholding our modern ethic that says only the owner of that blood has the right to shed it. And here is one way. Offering your own blood in Her name (or in the name of your own Gods) while giving it to sustain the life of the people. To sacrifice means, literally, ‘to make sacred’. And it also makes kinship.

Note: There are eligibility restrictions on who can give blood. Here is a link to find out if you are eligible. As you may note, there is a very severe restriction listed prohibiting any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood. As I understand it, that rule has been applied to anyone who has had sex with such a man as well. Many people feel this is a homophobic and excessive restriction, and a petition will be on site at the donor information table, along with information about how you can help in the effort to change this ruling.