A thread on TC about the effect of one’s culture of origin on one’s path got me thinking about what it really means to be a cultural polytheist. It’s not just about honoring ancient gods, nor even doing it in a “historical context” with traditional offerings and prayers and such. I think at least part of it has to be about making the values of that culture important in your own life and practices.
One might digress a little and remember that just because a culture talks about the value of a thing doesn’t mean they practice valuing the thing, and that sometimes what seems like a good or honorable thing to value can in practice be harmful or oppressive. To use my own culture as an example, the US talks a big talk about equality, but only straight, cis white people with decent bank accounts would look at our country and genuinely see equality. We hold up the idea of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps”, that anyone can achieve anything if they just work hard enough, as the American Dream; but not only is it wildly untrue, it creates this false dichotomy that anyone who hasn’t achieved simply isn’t working hard enough and that anyone who has something has worked for it- which hurts everyone, because the people at the bottom never get the opportunities they need to succeed, and the people in a position to give those opportunities see no one “deserving” of them. All of this to say, just because a culture holds something dear is not reason enough to adopt it wholesale into one’s practice; we can certainly learn something from the people who came before us, but some if it will always be a good example of a bad example.
It’s hard for me to see the forest for the trees sometimes, when it comes to being from the US, so I’ll start with the ancient cultures I draw from, and see if they help me see my own original lens better.
Alexei Kondratiev compiled a list of “Celtic Values” that I think are very accurate, which I will summarize:
- Enech, or honor; a communal saving or losing “face” moreso than a personal code of conduct
- Oígidecht, or hospitality; limited by law to keep hosts from the poorhouse
- Meisnech or self-control; keeping one’s temper/controlling one’s mood (Kondratiev translates it as courage)
- Tairisiu or loyalty; trust and consistency in beneficial support
- Indracus or honesty; integrity, wholeness, right-doing
- Coair or justice; in accordance with a cosmic/grand sense of rightness
I might argue that the second through sixth values are all facets of enech; not only would violating any of these cultural norms be wrong in and of themselves, but the satire and mockery that would come of the community being made aware of those transgressions would only further damage one’s enech. I do think, though, that the cultural use of satire to shame, and the fact that laws had to be passed to keep hosts from needing the hospitality of others, both might indicate that these two values were of the utmost importance.
That said, I’m not sure that enech is really a value I want to hold above others. Perhaps if my culture utilized satire in the way that the ancient Celts did, it would be a different story; but as it is, we reward awful people with more fame and attention all the time, and when those awful people are a little closer to home, we tend to talk around the issue and make excuses instead of exposing them as we ought. The esteem of my community-at-large (my culture) means very little, and while I’d certainly prefer to be well regarded in my actual communities, basing my behavior on what would earn their esteem creates very little in the way of moral guidelines. I would rather earn their disdain by breaking down harmful cultural standards like binary gender normativity, the rampant sexism and shaming of rape culture, etc., than toe traditional lines for the sake of “saving face.” (I admit I don’t do much in the way of traditional gender role breaking personally, as I am comfortable/enjoy much of what’s assigned to me as a woman, but the fact that it’s assigned is bullshit.) The rest, however, I think are all worthwhile, and don’t raise any particular red flags to me.
I also find it interesting to see some of the Celtic values repeated in the few compiled by Andrew Campbell in his Hellenismos FAQ (reprinted on TC with permission). (Not shocking- very little in the ancient world is utterly unique to one particular culture, I find- but still interesting.) He lists four in particular:
- Eusebeia or piety; performance of customary acts of respect
- Xenia or hospitality; laid out expectations for both host and guest
- Sophrosune or self-control; less about avoidance of temptations as being aware and in control of oneself (historically difficult to translate)
- Metriotes or moderation; see the Delphic maxim ‘nothing to excess’
Like the Celts, the Greeks valued hospitality (not very surprising, in a world without Hiltons or Motel 6s). In xenia, though, there is equal emphasis on the right actions for a guest as there are for a host, something I think our modern culture tends to vastly overlook or oversimplify. Sophrosune has apparently been difficult to define since ancient times, but it is closely tied into metriotes, and the Delphic maxim “know thyself”; being in control of oneself means being aware of oneself, and makes one more capable of temperance and inner balance.
I think the only value here that I might quibble on is that of eusebeia- which might seem odd coming from someone who has explicitly expressed a desire to be more pious, in the Greek conception of it. I think, though, that eusebeia is the go-to for many modern pagans; indeed, one of the most common queries on TC from newbies is how they can “find/choose their gods”. “Picking” deities is generally the first thing crossing a new pagan’s mind, and while I absolutely understand the impulse- the gods were an early consideration of my own- I think that being properly observant of the gods very frequently takes precedent over all else, excepting perhaps magic, in the general pagan community. And as Kiya has said- the gods don’t need us the way people do. The living breathing community that surrounds us, pagan or not- their needs are surely more pressing than that of the gods. Who will benefit more from a cup of cool, clean water, or a plate of warm food? I can’t discount the importance of eusebeia, but I cannot give it the overwhelming precedence it enjoyed in the ancient world with good conscience.
The ancient Egyptians are the least wordy, when it comes to cultural values: everything, it seems, circles back around to just one word.
- Ma’at or truth, justice, right-doing, balance, law and morality
A singular, tidy concept that like sophrosune can be difficult to define, but certainly of vast importance; the upholding of ma’at is not only the most important duty of the people, but of the gods themselves. Like the Celtic coair, ma’at is the right action and right speech that brings reality and the community into balance and harmony; as Chabas has said, if an action for one community goes against ma’at for another community, you draw the circle bigger. It’s a tall order to live up to, but at the same time, even the smallest actions can contribute to it, like putting the shopping carts away. It encompasses the good of the community- the macrocosmic community down to the individual- in a way that many pagan platitudes about community touch on but fail to truly comprehend.
This somewhat rambling piece brings me back around to my own culture. What does modern, secular New England America value, that is worth upholding? Nationally, there are a few:
- Equality; though our country has wildly failed to achieve it thus far, it is a worthwhile effort, and certainly a value that can be brought into everyday life
- Liberty; though we knowingly or not concede our privacy and liberties bit by bit each day, our personal liberties are valuable and should be fought for; furthermore, the Prison Industrial Complex is a travesty that should be dismantled like a maenaed rends flesh, and the world at large should enjoy the freedom from US soldiers on their soil
- Charity; while Lady Liberty asks for the poor and hungry, we have plenty of them here at home who are too often neglected and overlooked
The regional level is perhaps slightly harder to pin down, unless one looks at the states’ history:
- Civic action; the Revolutionary War found its start in New England, both in protest and in battle, and was the center of the strongest abolitionist and anti-slavery movements in the US, and the widely common town-meeting model is a great example of direct democracy
- Scholarship; some of the oldest schools and universities are located in New England, and are cultural touchstones
- Creativity; a bulk of classic “American literature” comes from the region, a source of pride
It’s interesting; I’ve never actually sat down before and examined all of these cultural values, and weighed them against my own thoughts. I think something that would be of further, erm, value, would be to go through this list and muse on what exactly living these values in today’s world might look like, but as this post is already rather long, it’s a thought experiment for another day! I do think, though, on brief review, that these values are fairly well rounded, and even without further exploration can be a good set of guidelines for everyday action.