Over the years, I’ve seen a number of explosions in the Pagan blogosphere (also Facebook, Tumblr, etc)…explosions that tend to be discussed in much quieter and compassionate ways in real life and on close-knit internet forums. Debates which have turned ugly over things like worshiping superheroes, whether or not a literary figure can be worshiped (I know/know of a number of folks that have adopted the pantheon from the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey), the role and context of “invented” or modern deities, and which (possible) historical mythological figures really are gods (or just worth worship) or not. Debates which, at the heart of them, seek to establish whose worship is authentic or valid.
I was reminded of debates like this in a conversation that came up on Pagan Forum recently(some of you may know that I am an admin/moderator and co-owner over there, even longer than I’ve been blogging). The subject itself wasn’t contentious (though I could see it perhaps going that way on other platforms), it was just a discussion asking for information about Cernunnos. If you are familiar with Cernunnos, you are probably aware of the dearth of information that is available regarding him (if you aren’t, you can glean quite a bit from this post). Cernunnos aside, I was reminded of a wider and recurring theme in Pagan debates, the problem of validity and authenticity.
About 10 years ago (when The Hubby still considered himself a Druid and I dabbled in that direction) I ran across an essay on the ADF website comparing OBOD and ADF which introduced me to this problem of validity vs. authenticity (in an admittedly ADF and OBOD context) that I’d been aware of, but not really known how to address:
In a study of the remarkable shamanic forgeries of Carlos Castaneda, anthropologist Richard de Mille has pointed out that there are at least two different kinds of truth at work in discussions of spiritual traditions. First is authenticity: does the tradition come from where the author or teacher says it comes from? Are the claims the author or teacher makes historically or anthropologically accurate? This is one obvious form of truth, yet as de Mille points out, it must not be mistaken for the whole. There is also validity: is the tradition effective? Does it accomplish what it says it can accomplish? Are the claims the author or teacher makes spiritually accurate?
A tradition can be authentic but not valid, and it can also be valid but not authentic. Much of the material in OBOD these days is valid but not authentic. There’s no good evidence that the ancient Druids had anything to do with Stonehenge, for example, but OBOD still does summer solstice rituals there. I can testify from personal experience that those rituals can be overwhelmingly powerful.
To OBOD members, the validity is justification enough for the practice, and some OBOD members make the mistake—a very common mistake in alternative spirituality, as it happens—of assuming that validity is evidence of authenticity, that the rituals must be historically accurate because they are spiritually powerful. Meanwhile people critical of OBOD—and this has included some ADF members—fall into the opposite mistake of assuming that inauthenticity is evidence of invalidity, that the rituals must be spiritually ineffective because they are historically inaccurate.
To some Pagans, validity is justification enough. To others, authenticity is the only justification. People on both sides forget that validity and authenticity are not two sides of the same coin, but completely and utterly different coins all together. One could, of course argue that validity and authenticity together would be best…but what may be historically authentic isn’t necessarily universally valid. And then there is the problem of determining authenticity in the first place…
I’ll admit my bias. I like authenticity, but I don’t require something to be historically authentic for it to be valid. I do require it to be honest though–lying about the authenticity of a practice or belief is just plain shitty. How accurate information is about the historical context of a deity has absolutely and utterly nothing to do with the validity of the worship of that deity or the experiences that the practitioner has. Or, put more bluntly, whether or not a god is “real” doesn’t impact how “real” the religious experience of that god is (unless you have a hang-up on the matter).
Lets be honest here….complete disclosure. A good chunk of the “historical information” we have about ancient cultures (particularly those without a written record) is woefully incomplete, filled with conjecture, and riddled with giant gaps. I say that because I know it is true on a smaller scale about the fossil record, and biology gets *way* more funding than anthropology and archaeology–societies of people are tons more complicated and nuanced in terms of behavior and motivation and their internal monologue and motivation than dinosaurs and Precambrian whatnot.
Time only preserves a smattering of that which is preservable. Worship doesn’t keep. The gods don’t make good fossils. Ideas erode when the people that have them die, and when the people that came after them change their ideas.
Archaeology gives us insight into what ancient people may have done. Mythology (when its been written down) can offer us a culture’s snapshot in time about the relationships between the gods and between men and gods. Anthropology can teach us what cultures living in similar states and environments do and believe to make parallels between disparate peoples.
But at the end of the day, we don’t know what ancient Pagans (whether they be Greek or Roman, from whom we have comparably tons of written accounts, to the Picts or the Celts, from whom we have relatively nothing) actually did, what they actually thought, how they actually worshiped, or what they actually believed. We have ideas about these things–in some cases, great ideas that are well researched and supported by data (one might even call them theories, lol)… in other cases, we have unverified personal gnosis–opinions that have been developed by personal experiences.
And unverified personal gnosis (UPG) is something that often gets a lot of flack in the Pagan community. Your personal experience of *enter god here* can’t possible be as valid as that of the person whose experience of *enter god here* because theirs matches the historically authentic references. Poppycock!
Gnosis is not better simply because it is shared (sometimes called shared personal gnosis, or SPG) or because it has been confirmed or conforms with history. Certainly one might look for and desire confirmation–either historical confirmation or peer corroboration. Yes, take that UPG with a grain of salt! Yes, compare it with other practitioners! Yes, doubt and question your beliefs and experiences! But don’t let historical authenticity be the defining context for your spiritual experiences (as opposed to informing and shaping them) because it will end up restricting them.
Religion is a language, a set of symbols (regardless of how “real” one feels they may be) that is culturally derived and interpreted. Cultures are not static–they evolve because the conditions of a society (and how it interplays with other societies and its environment) evolve. Religion is a part of culture that also evolves, and the gods evolve (or at least our interpretation and understanding and interaction with them) evolves because we are evolving culturally and religiously (and at an exponentially speedier speed than we are biologically!).
The gods aren’t static, they aren’t still, they aren’t unchanging. The gods exist because (whether we are talking about historically authentic ones or newly valid ones) people believe in them, they worship them, they experience them…whether they actually “exist” (in some sort of literal/physical form, on this planet or some other universe or dimension or whatever) or not. If you want to know the gods, sure, you can start by looking to the people that do worship them (today or yesterday)…or better yet, go forth and worship. Exprience it for yourself. If the god cares, if you are “doing it wrong”, they are capable of letting you know (I’ve yet to have this crop up as an issue in worship).
I think that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether or not a particular deity was worshiped by the ancient whomever. We don’t even know if the gods really exist–we have opinions on whether they exist or not (and for the past few years, its been my opinions that “real is irrelevant”). Even if we work under the assumption that they do exist (because we’ve “experienced them”–goddess knows the human brain isn’t capable of fooling itself, lol), we certainly don’t know where they come from or how they arose or formed in the first place. Heck, we can’t even agree if there are one, two, or two million of them. Never mind trying to agree on things like the best way to interact with them or anything.
The human experience of deity is infinite….or at least as vast and varied of every single person that has ever walked upon this Earth (then again, I’ve been biased on this matter for a while). Why choose any god to worship? I can’t see any reason that some guy 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years ago’s experience of the divine is any more accurate or valid for being old. Appeal to antiquity (or appeal to tradition) is still a logical fallacy. There must be something else to it, something besides plain old authenticity.