The Problem of Apples, Pt. IV: The Problem of Apples
Posted on June 6, 2017
Author’s Note: This is the fourth part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.
The sum of this entire discussion is what amounts to the “Problem of Apples” – the problem of a broadly reductionistic association between deities of wildly different spheres of cultural and religious matters and meanings. Though many polytheistic restorations and revivals make similar claims in regards to the reduction of divinity, Heathenry appears to be unique in the frequency with which it is engaged. In some cases, it appears to be the passive reaction to the concept of pluralistic divinity. It is an act of modern convenience and an anachronistic prevalence that serves little apparent purpose in light of the discrepancies of etymology, iconography, and other socio-cultural contexts. As has been shown, all of these elements are broadly positioned by their role in the religious and social culture, and all inform the religious hypotheses and experiences of their individual systems.
In the case of the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn, we see dissimilar deities inorganically melded together for little apparent purpose.
Within contemporary Western polytheism there is much to-do that is made about the implications of negative appropriation and appropriative acts, crafting a double standard in terms of reception towards the inclusion of divinity. It appears that these appropriative actions which are performed within something like the Heathen cultural group – within the wider Germanic foundational culture – are not critiqued in any meaningful way as being inherently deleterious to identity. This paper has endeavored to show that care must necessarily be taken in the forced association of deities with such vastly different scopes and roles.
Traditional indigenous European polytheism, which ultimately anchors these Western restorations, was a highly mutable concept of divinity; deities would go through several localizations, redefinitions, and other gradual changes. This culture was never static, as should be expected within any meaningful living system. Appropriations were common between different cultural groups – various cults made their way around the Mediterranean basin through conquest and trade. This is easily seen throughout the spectrum of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian religions when new aspects of divinity were codified, as well as the dissolution of older concepts that had once circled around the identity of the god. These all melded their divinity in inherently different ways.
In some cases this metamorphosis was encouraged by new aspects of deification entering the (particularly local) mythology of the individual deity. Other deities experienced the removal or the loss of their functional foci, which inherently altered the understanding of the deity in question. Syncretism, the act in which deities were correlated and commingled within an alternative cultural paradigm, is an almost inherent part of polytheistic identity and absolutely happened within these traditional cultures. Dissolution, likewise, was not uncommon.
We can see this metamorphosis even within the Germanic system, despite the paucity of information that we have. The recognition of two deities within the Norse polytheistic paradigm, that of Frigg and Freyja, is an example of this. Earlier Germanic peoples, it is commonly argued, understood the role of the singular divinity (originating in the Proto-Germanic *Frijjō). Through the dissolution of the functional foci and the change, this unity was dispersed between two Nordic deities.
Within the polytheistic system, these are all valid interpretations and experiences within the realm of hierophany and the experience of the numinous.
The theology of syncretic belief is, however, deeply nuanced and extends beyond simple equation of deities and their equivalencies (or not) within their culture. It encompasses a detailed understanding of divinity that is unfamiliar to many modern polytheists, either through their inculcation from other belief systems or due to a lack of resources for more accurate study. The case of the conflation of Ēastre and Iðunn serves no apparent syncretic purposes in a religious culture. It was born not from an organic or identified need, but an easily understood comparison and appropriation between deities because of a fundamental deficiency in Heathen understanding of polytheistic theology.
It is this deficiency which should be endeavored to be recognized.
An important point to consider is the overall status of Western polytheism in its present state as an organized attempt at restoration. As decentralized as it is, it still maintains an identity of necessity as a minority religious culture beneath a more domineering paradigm. The comparatively young age of these restored/reinterpreted traditions necessitate care in divine appropriation, and the role of divinity within the various expressions of polytheistic theology should be considered in light of this. While the modern trend of Globalization and the rapid exchange of ideas has fundamentally altered the manner in which information is disseminated and adopted – creating a culture almost reminiscent of traditional cosmopolitan ethos that support the commingling of ideas – it has opened up ever-greater risks for the erasure of tradition.
There was an implicit understanding of the essential nature of the divine that amounted to a wholesale cultural acceptance that pervaded every layer of society that was so concerned. This understanding extended to those instances of syncretic development and tendencies towards religious amalgamation. This enabled syncretic deities to exist alongside the common conceptions of their “constituent parts”, with little in the way of potential erasure. Even when the divinity of one deity was ultimately subsumed by another (as in the case of Rome and Quirinus/Romulus) the recognition of the essential qualities and foci of the subsumed deity persisted.
Western Heathen polytheism, a modern practice which exists beneath the fairly hegemonic monotheistic cultural force of Protestant theology, does not maintain this basic understanding of divinity on an inherently understood level. It must ultimately be reoriented and redeveloped. The threat of erasure of these arguably minority restored traditions and beliefs by the larger mass is very real, especially when done out of convenience or an ignorance of theological concerns. The false perception of a singular Heathen identity only serves to reinforce this potentially disrupting and diminishing paradigm.
Reductionist theology, for a lack of a better term, isn’t the pluralistic understanding which most traditional polytheistic theologies are known for. It is ultimately the product of an incomplete and haphazard theological understanding, one which possesses an inherently limiting effect on one’s exploration of the vibrancy of polytheistic worship. Understanding the multiple nuances of divinity from functional foci, to innate contexts that intersect their expression within the religion, to a myriad of other discussion which are ultimately beyond the scope of this paper, are crucial to the proper expression of religious action and right ritualism.
Misunderstanding these concepts impacts more than simple acceptance of differing deities. They potentially risk significant repercussions within the very structure of the religious enactment itself. The end result is not an offense to practitioners, but a fundamentally dangerous mistake in the performance of ritual – one which possesses theological consequences.
Associating Ēastre with Iðunn due to these theological implications does nothing to further the cult worship of either and instead reduces a characteristically Anglo-Saxon deity to subservient and lackluster role under a more dominant cultural force. Heathens who are of differing cultural orientations from the Anglo-Saxon exegesis are more than capable of (if not encouraged in) engaging in Ēastre’s cult; this is not an admonition of worship or an attempt at “divine gatekeeping” in this regard.
What this is constitutes a discussion on the realities of realistic syncretism and divine commingling in light of concerns with proper practice and religious sensitivity. Ritualism and orthopraxis ultimately imply a correct form of ritual and practical action, a guide to religious enactment and the proper approach of divinity. Heathenry, if it continues to be mired in these reductionist tendencies, will never be able to fully embrace its polytheistic quality of religious theology and remain a stunted and lackluster expression of belief.