Survivor? Or Pioneer?

*Note: I am specifically speaking about polytheisms centered around PIE religion and the descendant IE faiths. There are other polytheisms out there, of course, but they’re both a) not nearly as commonly practiced by those identifying as “Pagan” or “polytheist”, and b) far beyond the scope of this post AND this blog. I’m also American, so writing primarily for that audience. Thanks for understanding.

My deepening study of Proto-Indo-European religion is resonating through my life in some interesting ways. I’m constantly finding new bits of info or perspectives that challenge what I thought I knew.

It was through that study that I was suddenly able to see a perspective so ingrained in modern Paganism/polytheism that I didn’t even know it was there until I had an alternative for comparison.

It boils down to this: When we practice our faiths, do we see ourselves as Survivors? Or Pioneers?

The Survivors

When it comes to modern PIE-descended polytheism, Survivors see the world like this:

The Survivor Scenario.

At one point in history Proto-Indo-European religion ruled the day, at least for a specific part of the world. It was a polytheistic faith, and it established the ground rules for all the derivatives and variations that came after. 

Over time different descendant groups developed distinctly different playbooks, but they were all still for the game established by the PIEs. The Romans and the Celts and the Norse were all different from each other, but they retained their polytheistic roots and were built on that original Proto-Indo-European framework.

Then Monotheism came in like an atomic bomb, blowing all of those beautiful, distinctly different polytheistic faiths to smithereens. BAM! PIE-descended polytheism (with the exception of the Vedic, which took a completely different route) disappeared from the world entirely, leaving us unmoored and adrift from the traditions that came before.

It was a polytheistic apocalypse, and those of us claiming polytheism today are the last survivors. Like the folks in Mad Max or Waterworld, we scavenge the ruins of once-great civilizations for whatever glimpses of authentic meaning still remain amongst the wreckage, because however tattered those remnants are they’re still better and/or more authentic than anything existing in the here-and-now.

Gathered around a campfire in a blown-out hellscape.

“Back before the world ended, people came from all over for training in the Great Mysteries! How amazing would that have been?” “Right? SO much. I was born too late, dammit!” *tosses another stick on the fire, brooding as the sparks fly*

This view – the Survivor Scenario – is why so many Pagans enter their practice with a sense that they’re either reliving or attempting to revive a bygone era. They believe, consciously or not, that the Golden Age of polytheism has passed us by. For Survivors, modern polytheisms will always be fundamentally inferior to ancient polytheisms, and our efforts will at best get us within shouting distance of what our ancestors once had. We often despair of doing even that.

It’s a view of polytheism that forever looks back and never ahead.

The Pioneers

I’ll admit, the Survivor Scenario is the one I’ve been working with for years now. It permeates modern polytheism so strongly that I didn’t even know it was there until I started getting more into my studies. Once I saw it, though, I was able to see an alternative to the Survivor Scenario. I call it the Pioneer Scenario.

Pioneer Scenario

Most of us who claim polytheism today rarely go back to the original PIE culture (at least as far as I’ve seen), instead focusing on individual hearth cultures that came from it. Even worse, we tend to look at the entire body of knowledge belonging to each culture as monolithic. It’s like we think these cultures sprang fully-formed from the ground and didn’t have any growing pains at the beginning, that they didn’t have centuries to develop, that they didn’t have to start somewhere.

We never consider that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans were a migratory people, and every time they reached a new place to settle they were again faced with the task of adapting their practices to fit the circumstances of their new home.

When we see that, though, we begin to see Modern America as simply one more culture in a long line of them. We’re attempting to do the exact same thing with our polytheism our predecessors did – plant it in a new homeland and grow it into a faith that’s rooted in tradition but relevant to the here-and-now.

Like any of the other groups we’ve got a mixed bag of challenges and blessings that will shape how our particular polytheism grows, but to make anything lasting we’ve got to ditch this idea that our culture is inherently inferior. It’s different, to be sure, but it’s not deficient.

Once we accept that, we can venture beyond merely copying what worked for the other PIE cultures. Doing so won’t work, not in the long term, because it’s not ours that way. We have to seize the opportunity to create new traditions that both honor our PIE heritage and this new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves. Just as our ancestors did before. Otherwise we really will be the last polytheists standing.

Lewis_Clark

“What new adventures lie thataway?” “I don’t know – let’s go find out!”

Our challenges and blessings are both significant, though, and we’ll need to keep both in mind if we’re going to succeed in establishing a uniquely American polytheism.

As far as challenges go, our ancestors had the benefit of living in a world where polytheism was the norm. We don’t. It’s also true that we no longer have an unbroken chain of inherited knowledge for any hearth culture. I can’t go to my local Druid, spend 20 years learning the lore, and practice Druidry the same way ancient Druids did. That opportunity is long past. Only a tiny portion of all the writings that once were have survived the passage of time, too, and a huge swath of oral history is forever lost. These losses are truly tragic.

Instead of dwelling on the losses like the Survivors, though, the Pioneer asks “What unique blessings can this new cultural landscape bring to the PIE table?”.

And there we have quite the list.

We in the modern era have archaeology and psychology and sociology, biology and chemistry and physics, to deepen our understanding of our world far beyond what our ancestors had. We can use that to fuel our polytheism. We can share information between continents, in real time. I’m sharing this blog post using a system containing information that rivals the most celebrated libraries of the ancients, and almost 90% of our population can read it. We’re not just locked into studying one hearth culture to the exclusion of the others by virtue of our physical location alone – we’re in the enviable position of being able to study all of them, simultaneously, from the comfort of our own homes, and we can use that knowledge to inform our practices.  We may not have the depth of information our ancestors did, but I’m betting we’ve got way more breadth, and that information is available to damn near everyone regardless of class or family lineage. And while social progress can be debated, I am thrilled to live at a time when it’s more acceptable to challenge traditional gender roles, or openly live as LGBT+, or to hold any number of other individual perspectives that can enhance our collective experiences.

Personally, I think focusing too much on the Survivor Scenario hampers our ability to adapt, and it impedes our ability to appreciate where we are as much as where we’ve come from. Which makes it harder for us to build something that will carry us into the future.

I’m doing my best to reject the Survivor Scenario entirely. It doesn’t serve anyone. I’m consciously choosing instead to focus on what modern America has to offer as we take our place with the other hearth cultures at polytheism’s table. I’m excited to see what this branch of the PIE family tree will one day grow into, and I’m eager to do what I can to help.

What about you?

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13 thoughts on “Survivor? Or Pioneer?

  1. Sarenth says:

    I think you’ve got a good thing going here. My initial reaction is that Modern America should be more like sub-leaves off the main leaves of each of PIE’s subgroups, i.e. Celtic – Modern America, Norse – Modern America. By and large what polytheists are doing here is taking these cultures as springboards into our own and developing hearth cultus that way.

    I think we’re living through an and/and scenario. We *are* Survivors dealing with the fallout of monotheism severing most of the threads of PIE religions and yet we are also living through Pioneer, forging new roads ahead with our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and the communities we are part of. I think the new emphasis on hearth culture is a warm addition (pun fully intended) to the discourse taking place in modern polytheism, and I think it is important to mark that we have come from a great many shores and are living on this land now. It’s part of why I am working, intentionally, to mythologize my landscape through my Heathen and Northern Tradition polytheist lens.

    • Caer Jones says:

      This wound up being LONG. Apologies in advance – but you had such cool commentary! 🙂

      I get what you’re saying in your first paragraph, and I considered it when I was writing this post. A few things stopped me from going in that direction, though. The main one was that ancient polytheisms are no longer growing things, living traditions. I’d absolutely go with your visual if modern Norse polytheists, practicing an unbroken chain of Norse polytheism, immigrated to America and started adapting their practices to fit this new place. However, that’s not what we’ve got.

      No matter what, modern practitioners will always be American (or whatever) first, and our understanding of ancient cultures will always be an intellectual one. Even when we talk directly to the Powers, we still filter Their voices through our modern perspectives. That’s why I’m considering Modern America as its own distinct PIE branch. It’s the primary filter through which we view everything else. Whether we see that as a problem to overcome or an opportunity to work with is a matter of perspective, but it’s something I feel is important to at least consider for ourselves. How we answer changes things.

      To switch metaphors here, the old polytheisms are no longer naturally fermenting in their own cultural milieus. Instead it’s more like they’ve been distilled and mixed with other ingredients along the way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that or anything, and in fact we could make a case that modern practices are even stronger than what came before in some ways, but it does mean the flavor profiles are different. Only by really getting that can we both appreciate them straight and effectively use them to make refreshing and fulfilling cocktails.

      And WOW do I use a lot of metaphors! 🙂 This might be a point on which we agree to disagree, though – I certainly see where you’re getting your take!

      Your last sentence, though! YES! One aspect I keep stumbling across, that I’m not seeing much of (yet!) is honoring the Powers associated with Land features HERE, like the Mississippi River and individual mountains. Our ancestors did it in Europe, and I think they knew what they were doing. As the PIEs migrated they honored all the Land-based Powers with which they came into contact. We’ve not brought that perspective to our new homeland in any significant fashion, and without that piece of it I doubt we’ll ever really find our footing here.

      I think we run into two main issues there. One, we simply don’t think of doing that anymore. More of that modern culture thing. It doesn’t occur to us. That’s something we need to work on, because I think the practice is important to everyone following a PIE-based faith.

      I also think there are some complex cultural appropriation concerns around it, and instead of attempting to navigate them we’re avoiding the practice completely. While we continue to honor Land-based Powers from other continents. If we really consider it, ignoring the native Powers could be seen as actively insulting Them, which is the opposite of what those avoiding this discussion are trying to do.

      So yay, I’m glad to see you’re working with that. More of us need to. I’m really eager to see what you come up with! *bouncy*

      • Sarenth says:

        No need to apologize! I’ve been busy and this is the first chance I’ve had to read your response and give my own reply.
        Hmm. I get where you are coming from. I tend to look at those who are reviving or in some way hearkening back to PIE religions in the aggregate as rather diasporic. Our religions’ roots were severed in a lot of ways, but we’re working on regrowing them in new soil and in new conditions. Like growing a new Donnar’s oak from the one St. Boniface cut down. This is why I gel with a mix of both views.

        “However, that’s not what we’ve got.
        No matter what, modern practitioners will always be American (or whatever) first, and our understanding of ancient cultures will always be an intellectual one. Even when we talk directly to the Powers, we still filter Their voices through our modern perspectives. That’s why I’m considering Modern America as its own distinct PIE branch. It’s the primary filter through which we view everything else. Whether we see that as a problem to overcome or an opportunity to work with is a matter of perspective, but it’s something I feel is important to at least consider for ourselves. How we answer changes things.”

        This is a good set of points. My Kindred’s Heathenry filters through the local landscape. Our holidays, both in terms of content and in terms of timing for what holidays we still hold on to, differ because the ancient cultures we are inspired by/reviving/enlivening is growing in different soil. It might be a Donnar’s Oak, but it is one living firmly in Michiganian soil.

        “To switch metaphors here, the old polytheisms are no longer naturally fermenting in their own cultural milieus. Instead it’s more like they’ve been distilled and mixed with other ingredients along the way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that or anything, and in fact we could make a case that modern practices are even stronger than what came before in some ways, but it does mean the flavor profiles are different. Only by really getting that can we both appreciate them straight and effectively use them to make refreshing and fulfilling cocktails.”

        Absolutely. A bourbon is a whiskey but not all whiskeys are bourbons. You might have the recipe for a bourbon, but it has to have the right conditions to be a true bourbon.
        “And WOW do I use a lot of metaphors!  This might be a point on which we agree to disagree, though – I certainly see where you’re getting your take!”
        I appreciate it. There’s this beauty in speaking through metaphor, especially since a lot of times we’re grasping at things that metaphor helps us get a handle on. Since I brew mead, I really like the way you put things.

        “Your last sentence, though! YES! One aspect I keep stumbling across, that I’m not seeing much of (yet!) is honoring the Powers associated with Land features HERE, like the Mississippi River and individual mountains. Our ancestors did it in Europe, and I think they knew what they were doing. As the PIEs migrated they honored all the Land-based Powers with which they came into contact. We’ve not brought that perspective to our new homeland in any significant fashion, and without that piece of it I doubt we’ll ever really find our footing here.
        I think we run into two main issues there. One, we simply don’t think of doing that anymore. More of that modern culture thing. It doesn’t occur to us. That’s something we need to work on, because I think the practice is important to everyone following a PIE-based faith.
        I also think there are some complex cultural appropriation concerns around it, and instead of attempting to navigate them we’re avoiding the practice completely. While we continue to honor Land-based Powers from other continents. If we really consider it, ignoring the native Powers could be seen as actively insulting Them, which is the opposite of what those avoiding this discussion are trying to do.”

        This is again why I think an “and/and” approach is useful -namely, because we’re reconstructiving/reviving and reinvigorating ancient polytheist religions, traditions, worldview, and ways of relating to the Holy Powers and the world. To me, honoring the landvaettir and Gods of the places we live is part and parcel of living a polytheist life and being part of a polytheist religion. I think you are right to note the worry of ignoring the native Powers and how they relate to the native peoples who have developed relationships with them vs. us developing our own, separate relationships with them. While a valid concern, one that needs to be addressed so we’re not colonizing others’ Gods, I firmly believe we need to relate to the Powers of the land from within our own polytheist worldview. For instance, the local ADF grove has been honoring the local river as a Goddess for…going on 25 years or so, and have developed a relationship with Her in their own way.

        I have developed a good relationship with some of the Great Lakes as well as with my own water supply from within my Heathen worldview. Some of the Work I have to do with the Great Lakes involves physically journeying and speaking with Them on things They want me to pass on, things like that. I think that this is part of polytheist religions growing up in the soil they’re planted, and it is partly why I don’t think I would ever be able to leave this State for another at this point. The land has me and I’m in the land. As things go on I’ll be sure to write updates!

      • Caer Jones says:

        Excellent points! I’ll definitely do some pondering on them. And I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Bring on the updates!!!

  2. caelesti says:

    I also find the “survivor” mindset erases the continuous living cultures that went on through Christian and/or Islamic influences, including cultus to various local spirits, ancestors, customs. This tends to really step on toes when Americans/Australians/Canadians etc. interact with folks in European & other countries.

    • Caer Jones says:

      Excellent point, and absolutely! I see this when modern polytheists take established folk practices and “strip away the Christian veneer” to access the “essential polytheistic core beneath”. There are SO MANY WAYS that could be incredibly disrespectful and go horribly wrong, but we do it anyway. It’s this weird permutation of cultural/spiritual colonialism that we REALLY need to be more conscious about.

  3. Jenn says:

    Oh wow that’s awesome, I had no idea about the survivor outlook but it does make sense. I have been stuck in it for so long, weeping that the Dionysian and other mystery religions are lost to time. This post has changed my perception totally.

  4. heathenembers says:

    Fantastic post, you’ve really summed up something that was gnawing away, half formed, at the back of my mind. I guess we’re all survivors in a sense by default, but whether we choose to become pioneers or not is up to us. I think some people may find more solace in identifying with a belief that puts them outside of the modern world, rather than take on the daunting task of finding a way to be polytheistic and modern at the the same time. Fair enough, too, but I’ll try to be a pioneer as best I can.

    • Caer Jones says:

      You’re absolutely right in noting how DAUNTING the task is. There’s so MUCH required of us if we’re going to not only do it but do it right, with both intent and inspiration. Many hands make light work, though, so the more people get involved the better off we are!

  5. […] you’ll read all year. This is the point at which I pause and urge you in the strongest terms to go read it before continuing with my article. Got it? […]

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