(Warning: I use the term “arch-Heathen” in this post. It refers to the “original Heathens” from back when Europe was a pre-modern, pre-Christian place. I don’t know who first coined this term).
I’ve found myself at a strange loose end these last few days, following the dismantling/collapse of one of the most important things in my life. Consequently I’ve been staying at the home of my band mates, and because of the time of year the world around me rather reflects the limbo I have entered.
Today more than most I knew that I needed to move, evolve, shift my consciousness. I found myself alone, in solitude, and while there was a temptation to raid my band mates’ disgustingly huge CD collections, I know myself. I had to get the blood moving through my limbs and brain.
Uncertain where to head, particularly on a glaring and disgusting Sydney summer day, I called on Woden as the Wanderer and invited him to set my feet on the correct path. He responded; my journey took me into the city, then had me roam in a seemingly accidental spiral, which tightened and tightened around the New South Wales Art Gallery.
I love the NSW Art Gallery. I love visiting the old statuary of Hindu gods, today pausing in particular to acknowledge an image of Vishnu surrounded by his many avatars. I wondered idly if Woden is not in fact an avatar of Vishnu, and I an avatar of Woden – an avatar of an avatar! I love the Hindu gods – they’re like friendly and well-known cousins to my own Indo-European spiritual forebears.
I love staring into the infinity of Aboriginal dot art. These huge canvasses seem at first to have little merit, being covered in uniform rows of white dots. The magic lies in staring at them for an extended period of time. Only machines make perfectly uniform lines, and so the slight variations in the arrangement of the dots create visual illusions and beautiful trance states.
Folk glance at these images for but a handful of seconds and then wander off, thinking Aboriginal art to be little more than primitive splotches. If they exhibited even a little depth or patience, they’d discover whole universes.
But the reason Woden led me to the Art Gallery was that, although I did not know it, the current feature exhibition was on Impressionism, with Monet in the starring role.
“All I have ever done is try to convey my experience before nature” – Claude Monet, 1912.
I love Monet. He is my favourite painter. He paints with light. His work does not represent reality; it presents for you the thing itself, the very experience and spirit of the thing or place that he has painted. Look too close and you’ll fall in. When I behold his paintings I smell the grass or the snow, feel the wind, the taste of dawn light or afternoon shadow. My understanding of the natural world was grossly incomplete before I encountered his work.
I was fortunate enough to see a major Monet exhibition a few years ago and in the final room was a massive water lily painting. It literally filled the entire room with colour and radiance and it took me some 15 minutes acclimatising before I could bring myself to even look at it, let alone really engage with it.
The waterlilies were produced in the final years of Monet’s life, and they represent the pinnacle of his work. Vast multiverses await anyone brave enough to really gaze into these images. From the pond in his own back yard Monet presented the whole fabric of Being for all to see. What artist could ever even dream of competing with that?
It doesn’t work with the prints you can buy of his work, either. Mass-production ruins the spell. Only the actual works by the actual artist can take you into the magic.
Seeing these marvellous images, being thrown into deeply altered states of consciousness by these paintings, caused me to reflect on something I read recently in an article that touched on the “folkish versus universalist” debate in Heathenry.
Regular readers will know that I consider this debate to be a barren waste of time, and will also know that I happily incorporate elements of both points of view into my own – which to me just demonstrates how vacuous the argument is.
This particular article argued that extremely strict and rigourous historical reconstruction is needed for modern Heathenry and that anything less is a deep affront and offence to the gods. The worst of the lot, the argument went, were those bloody universalists, off syncretising Heathenry with other traditions.
Of course many universalists are not in fact syncretists, so this particular person was obviously a bit of an expert at executing straw men.
And of course, there is a logical flaw in arguing that the gods would be offended if we’re not strict reconstructionists – because from what I can see that view could only be supported by Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, and is therefore an example of the kind of creative license this article regarded as anathema.
There is of course the passage in Havamal that asks if you know how to carve, stain, offer, sacrifice, etc. But there is no passage in that poem that runs “and if you don’t reconstruct exactly how we did these things then we’ll get pissed at you”.
There is also an emphasis on doing things the “right” way – but again I can’t see any historical basis for equating this with hard reconstructionism, though it seems likely that being familiar with history would rather be of assistance.
Given that my strange chaos magic-influenced runic experiments seem to work I can only conclude that the gods are Not in fact adverse to innovation, though I suppose keeping it in the spirit of the tradition would be good manners (whatever “the spirit of the tradition” means – another matter of arbitrary opinion I fear).
This isn’t to say we should throw out the historical record of course – on the contrary, it is a source of marvelous riches. Often when you do the research you find that the arch-Heathen’s view on a particular issue was much more interesting than the psuedo-historical stuff that folk sneak into modern Heathenism all the time.
But just because it is old and original doesn’t mean it is the best – the Heathen cultures of yore certainly didn’t agree with one another on how to do things, and in the meantime I think we can safely dispense with human sacrifice and the like.
Look at me – I started by rhapsodising about the rich experiences afforded by Monet’s work and now I am debating ideas and ideology. What a degeneration! It troubles me that so many Heathens are so eager to debate theory and ideology but so few are willing to go and directly engage with the magic of the ancestral traditions, the natural world, the runes, and so forth.
(In fact, given that the arch-Heathens seemed far too busy living life to be splitting intellectual hairs, it seems distinctly syncretistic and unHeathen to get obsessed about distinctions like folkish/universalist).
The point of my questioning the hard reconstructionist view that the only valid sources for modern Heathenry come from the original Heathens is this: what if the spiritual and cultural current of Heathenry never really went away, but has instead been happily manifesting itself in all sorts of guises since the Conversion?
My instinct is to say that this possibility could only ever be the truth. What else would guide us back into the arms of history but the latent Heathen intuition and instinct that still lives within us?
And so I turn to Monet, whose art – like the Greek temple Heidegger invokes in his landmark essay “On The Origin Of The Work Of Art” – redeems us to a reverent relationship to nature.
This reverent relationship is deeply scored in the art, mythology and physical culture that the arch-Heathens left behind. And yet I would argue that its most refined and ultimate expression does not occur until nine hundred odd years after the Conversion: on the doorstep of nihilistic modernity Monet erected the final distillation of the Heathen-animist experience.
Monet is not the only one – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Moorcock, Cave, Von Till – the list goes on, artists, thinkers, writers, musicians who, whether consciously or not, have expressed in powerful terms the threads of arch-Heathen consciousness.
We would be utterly insane not to draw upon these living, breathing (though concealed) manifestations of the life-urge which shaped arch-Heathen culture and consciousness in the first place.
In Hinduism, a useful and valid Indo-European cognate to Heathenism, there are always new developments, as great humans are elevated to godhood and as cultural mores shift. For our ancestors it was no different – we need only compare the different branch cultures of old Heathenry. Modern Heathenry will not be truly reconstructionist until it whole-heartedly embraces innovation.
Again, this is not to dismiss the reconstructionist project, which is utterly needed if we are to have a fluid connection to the Well of Memory. I am as amused and disappointed by the endless hordes of shallow and idiotic pseudo-Heathen writings and articles as anyone else. But if we dismiss the impulse that produces these well-meant attempts then the game is over, too.
Look at it another way: as soon as we reduce modern Heathenry to hard reconstructionism we are left with two choices: either continue to draw on post-Conversion Heathen manifestations such as Monet’s art and thus become hypocrites; or abandon computers, modern languages, stop eating potatoes, and countless other absurd sacrifices. The reconstructionist project might be necessary but it sure as hell is not sufficient to produce a genuinely flourishing modern Heathenism.
Me? I’ll be letting Woden guide me to the art gallery, where I’ll gorge my soul on Monet and listen to the advance reference tracks of the new Ironwood album (about to come out) on my mp3 player. And hope that one day the focus of mainstream Heathenry will be the experience, the thing itself, and not irresolvable debates about what amount to arbitrary rules.