I am back to musing about roots; namely, getting to mine as a pagan. I had thought to write a blog post on my ancestor work, which amps up tremendously this time of year, but every time I turn around the notion of world view, and what it means to BE pagan, is in my face. When a thought rabbit continues leading me down its hole, I take it as sign and tend to follow them. So here goes.
Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, was a life changing book for me. I highly recommend it, especially if you are practicing a pagan path of ANY sort ….Heck, all thinking humans living in modern culture should read it! In it, he says this:
Yet I remained puzzled by my hostess’s assertion that these were gifts “for the spirits.” To be sure, there has always been some confusion between our Western notion of “spirit” (which so often is defined in contrast to matter or “flesh”), and the mysterious presences to which tribal and indigenous cultures pay so much respect. I have already alluded to the gross misunderstandings arising from the circumstance that many of the earliest Western students of these other customs were Christian missionaries all too ready to see occult ghosts and immaterial phantoms where the tribe speople were simply offering their respect to the local winds. While the notion of “spirit” has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the “spirits” of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.
After being reminded of this recently, I read this:
The first pitfall: the Norse sál or sala, “soul” is borrowed from the Old Saxon sala (German, seele; English, soul). This term did not exist in the Norse language, just as, incidentally, the word religion replaced custom (sidr).
Claude Lecouteux (former professor of medieval literature and civilization)
The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind
Then I stumble upon this:
The worship of water, as represented in the wells, is often mentioned. The Tripartite Life, and Tirechan, in the Book of Armagh, relate how St. Patrick, in his journey through Connaught, came to a well called Slán, which the heathens worshipped as a god, believing that a certain ‘prophet’ [ancestor] had caused himself to be buried under it in a stone coffin to keep his bones cool; for ‘he adored water as a god.” More than a century later, in the time of St. Columba, there was a well in Scotland which the pagan people “worshipped as a divinity.” These healing wells were generally called by the appropriate name of Slán [slaun], which means ‘healing.’ It is to be observed that well-worship was not peculiar to Ireland: at one time it prevailed all over Europe.
A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland
While I am again musing on how our pagan ancestors viewed the water, the winds, and the other-than-human persons living near them as deserving of acknowledgement and communication, my mind alights on an idea widespread in pre-christian Europe: “good” ancestors became the tutelary spirits of the land. It is understood that tutelary spirits are specific to a defined geographic area (hence the name), and in Ireland (as I have read was true in Rome and elsewhere) they were associated with boundary markers (standing stones).
Pillar-stones were worshipped in other parts of Ireland as well as at Moy-Slecht and Clogher. The Dinnsenchus, after speaking of Cromm Cruach and the other twelve, remarks that from the time of Heremon to the coming of the good Patrick of Armagh, there was adoration of pillar-stones in Ireland: a statement which we find also in other old authorities. In the Brehon Laws, one of the objects used for marking the boundaries of land is stated to be “a stone of worship.” This interesting record at once connects the Irish custom with the Roman worship of the god Terminus, which god was merely a pillar-stone placed standing in the ground to mark the boundary of two adjacent properties – exactly as in Ireland. Even to this day some of these old idols or oracle-stones are known; and the memory of the rites performed at them is preserved in popular legend.
A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland
Back to Lecouteux. Toward the end of his scholarly work on the subject of the dead, he expounds on the idea held in the ancient world that the soil was made sacred (sanctified) by the ancestors. Most people were buried within the home and remained an active part of the family. Especially potent leaders were placed within special burial spaces (pit or mound). Boundary markers, whether a pillar stone or a grove of trees, acted both as contact points between the ‘living’ family and their ‘living’ ancestor, as well as markers indicating the ‘bounds’ or limits of that ancestral spirits’ domain. If you think of the Irish oath, “I swear by the gods my people swear by”, you get a real sense of the prominence of living ancestor customs. Each tutelary spirit (ancestral protector) presided over the tribal lands UP TO the boundary markers. If you were from one tuath, going along your merry way, and come across another tuath’s pillar-stone…you might be concerned about their tutelary spirit taking you out. In fact, the mythologies mention a few of these encounters.
All this to say what? Our modern ideas of worship, devotion, gods, spirits….are just that – Modern. The ancient world seemed to view things much more pragmatically. Yea, there is a numinous world out there (though they clearly had VERY different ideas of what that meant, and what the human obligations toward it were). You scratch my back, and I’ll remember you. You fail to provide peace and prosperity, we are moving on. They DID make offerings though. They kept their ancestors fed – and now I have come full circle, because that is what I initially thought I would ramble about….