Why I'm a believer 1

7.11.10 § 4 commentarii

I suppose most people following “alternative faiths” have experienced it. There’s always a trigger that causes people to ask the religion question: in my case it’s a bangle which I’ve worn constantly since I was fifteen. It no longer physically fits over my hand, and so cannot be removed without being consequently destroyed. Working in the food and hospitality business, it’s standard procedure for the only permitted jewellery to be a plain wedding band[1]: for hygiene purposes, of course. Generally, when I’ve been asked to remove it I’ve just said “it’s religious” and that’s been that. It helps that plain non-reactive material with no decoration, moving parts or convenient bacterial hiding places is easy enough to sanitise.

On the odd occasion, though, somebody enquires further and asks “what religion’s that then?” Unlike Wicca or even Asatru, as a name “Brythonic reconstructionist polytheism” doesn’t really trip off the tongue, so I generally say “polytheist” and leave it at that. Sometimes I get asked to explain what I mean, which generally leaves people with a look of bemused yet benign look of disinterest.

On the even odder occasion, I’ve been asked why. I frequently fire back a question like "why are you a Christian?" (or whatever), and never actually give a reasoned, er, reason.

So here’s why. First, I’ll talk about why I believe in a general sense, and in my next post I’ll address the question of why I’m a follower of Brythonic reconstructionism in particular.

Why I believe (in general)

I like to think of myself as a rational man, with a healthily sceptical turn of mind. In fact, I’ve often described myself as “agnostic by nature, religious by circumstance”. This, of course, is rather at odds with my sometimes embarrassingly intense religious beliefs[2]. Why then, do I believe?

Quite simply, because I believe that the Gods speak to me. Given that when a man talks to God it can be classified as prayer, but when God talks back it’s a species of psychosis, this might not be the most firm foundation to start from. Medication and a course of therapy might be more appropriate responses than ritual. However, against all the odds I do seem to be reasonably psychologically healthy (Bipolar II aside, natch), with no history of psychotic or delusional episodes. While I do not exclude the possibility that these experiences of what I perceive as the Gods talking to me might have other causes, psychological or somatic as they may be, positing that I’m right and that the Gods are talking to me seems to be the simplest explanation which fits the facts.

I realise that the above essentially boils down to “because the little voices in my head tell me to.”

Nevertheless, let us accept this as our first principle. Given that I believe the Gods talk to me, what should I do about it? It would not be entirely unreasonable to suggest “nothing”- just as most people who are awakened by a noise in the night are content to roll over and go back to sleep, thinking “cats or foxes” rather than feeling it necessary to go and investigate. However, I’m the kind of person who grabs a knife and creeps downstairs hunting for burglars. It is not within my nature to believe something and not act upon it: it would be a violation of my personal integrity to do nothing.

Of course, it is not unfair to ask why I believe that it’s the Brythonic deities who are speaking to me. After all, I’m Welsh, I have a healthy interest in both mythology and history: am I sure it’s not the case that I’ve simply ended up believing in the deities I’ve been reading about? Yes, I am reasonably sure. The direction of causation is actually the other way around: the interest in my family and ethnic heritage, the interest in history, comparative mythology and historical linguistics all stem from my conviction that the Gods are speaking to me. The Gods came first, and it took me a lot of research to determine their identities[3]. There were also not a few false turnings along the way: when all this started, back when I was eleven, my only frame of reference for pagan divinities was the Greco-Roman pantheon I knew from Latin classes. For years I assumed that it was the Roman deities who were speaking to me, and that any discrepancies were simply due to my lack of knowledge and inability to hear correctly. It was only seeing a statue of Taranis while doing a project on Roman Gaul that it all began to make sense.

I do not deny, however, that my ethnic heritage might well have a great deal to do with it. I don’t mean that in the sense of “Brythonic gods calling to Brythonic blood”- rather I mean that the milieu in which I have grown up, the cultural baggage that comes with it, probably leaves me predisposed to assume that the Gods I hear are Brythonic Gods. Had I been born in Lagos, I dare say I would have assumed that Shango was talking to me rather than Taranis.

~~~~

1) This is why the new-ish BBC comedy Whites bugs me: while generally a not inaccurate portrait of what happens in a professional kitchen, the chefs are always shown wearing watches. In a real kitchen, wristwatches are strengst verboten.

2) Although some might argue that my particular brand of Brythonic reconstructionism is suitably donnish a pursuit to be wholly unsurprising. they might have a point: evangelical Christianity or fundamentalist Mormonism might be rather more incongruous.

3) In general neopagan circles, which borrow much of the idiom of wishy-washy romanticism, “soul-searching” would probably be the accepted term, rather than “research”. See the note above.

4) In fact, I find translations of divine names into English to be quite evocative. “Father of Riches” for Dis Pater, “Brightest High One” Brigantī Belisamā and so on. It is instructive to sometimes be reminded that divine names were frequently meaningful for their original worshippers. In some cases, of course, theonyms were just as unanalysable to the ancients: what on earth does Noudons mean, for example?

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§ 4 Response to “Why I'm a believer 1”

  • Bo says:

    Lovely piece. Noudons is a mystery. You don't think old JRRT was on the right line then?

  • Deiniol says:

    Oh, on the contrary, I think Tolkien's etymology is the most convincing that's been offered so far. But ultimately, what significance does an underlying etymology of "grasper" actually have? Arthuriana aside, I'm not convinced that there's much to recommend the fisherman aspect. On the other hand, it is rather tempting to connect "taking, grasping" with Varuna's snares, isn't it? Either way, I doubt if the name would have been any more transparent to 1st century Britons than it is to us.

    I actually picked Noudons as an example rather at random, but on reflection there are masses of Celtic deities without transparently etymologisable names. Just to take some of the more prominent: Grannos, Ogmios, Sequana, Lenus, and even Andraste of Boudicca fame. Instinct drives me towards the dreadfully 19th century appeal to substratum argument, but that's just plain lazy.

  • Frenchie says:

    'agnostic by nature, religious by circumstance' *nods in recognition*

    It takes some of us a lot longer than you to realise which gods it is that resonate with us, and not all of us can explain it by ethnicity.

  • Hmm... for 'what to do about it', I would opt for 'the opposite of whatever the voices say to do, unless you think they're expecting that...'. I think that medically and pragmatically speaking ignoring the little voices is wisest... but I freely admit that my reaction is probably based more on obsessive antiauthoritarianism and bloody-mindedness than on wisdom. For me, I suppose that if I believed that "higher" (ie more politically advantaged) beings than humanity existed, opposing those being would be the only reasonable choice.

    If I may ask, what form do the voices take? Actual audible voices?

    [Personally, the nearest I come to pantheons and mythology is my copy of the Silmarillion and my knowledge of the great composers.]

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