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Pagan Theology

Pagan theology: Dog Days of Winter

So I decided I wanted to put on a ritual centered on dogs.  Don’t ask why, I don’t even like dogs, but there it is [1].   I also had to write a column, Pagan Pages never sleeps, after all.  So I thought: why not just stick them together and see what comes from it?

One of the most important questions, I think, is what can we take from what we know about Celtic worship.  I’m not talking about modern (including 18th century) reconstructions.  Those reconstructions often have either a romantic, or a ethnocentric [2], view of the “Celtic” religions.  Instead, I’m asking: what are we really doing when we work with ancient Celtic deities?  If we believe they are real, how do we reconcile that reality with the terrible obscurity that they suffer from today?  Do we make stuff up?  How much do we try to reconstruct, and how much do we construct?  How legitimate is what we bring to worship, as opposed to what was done in the past?

I may not be able to answer all these questions, but I want to use this example to talk about some of them.

First of all, for the ritual, I needed to understand the role of dogs in ancient Celtic religion.  Animism and animals were a big part of Celtic worship.  In times when worshipers were surrounded with animals, both domestic and wild, it was natural for them to see in them things they might revere, such as courage, virility, ferocity, and cunning.  Unfortunately most of what we seem to have from Celtic worship regarding animals is either ritual deposits of animal bones (both reverential and sacrificial) or iconography [3].  We don’t have a lot of writing on exactly what was going on back then.

So there is a big difference in the literature between modern, Pagan, practices and exactly what we know about ancient deity.  First, most of what we actually have, both for traditional witchcraft practices and ancient Celtic Pagan practices, is archeological not documentary.  There is little that is written down, and we’re left to infer from temples, stones, and burials.  Second, any writing we do have has to be viewed with great suspicion because it was generally Christians, or at least Romans, who wrote it down.  The stereotypical example of this is Caesar’s description of Druid practices (the Wicker Man).  Third, much of what we have in the Pagan literature, except perhaps for some strict reconstructionists, is synthesized, modified, and modernized worship.  It is extremely unlikely that ancient Celts drew circles, called quarters, and did anything at all recognizable as a modern Pagan ritual.  In fact the Catholic mass is probably a better example of what it actually looked like, but, then again, we don’t really know.

So if our goal is to work with ancestral Celtic deities all we have are pictures and bones.   In my quest for a dog ritual I did have one advantage: I knew that there was a Celtic Goddess closely associated with dogs.   The Gaulish Goddess Nehalennia was almost always depicted with a companion dog.  And not just a lapdog as occurs in many Celtic Goddess depictions, but with a full-sized hound (perhaps a greyhound), sitting beside her at the ready [4].  Many temples have been found in Zeeland and other areas where she is depicted in a fairly standard way:  standing in a nook, her foot next to or on a ship, holding either apples or bread, and with a “hound” or dog.  Information on some of these altars suggests that they were built by sailors who were thankful for safe passage over the North Sea.  Hence the depiction of ships.  Apparently when the storm was blowing the sailors would invoke her, and promise to erect a shrine to her if they were spared.  Naturally if you got to erect a shrine, she saved you.  At the same time there is also evidence of sacred groves associated with her temples [5].  But we really don’t know that much about her, all we have are a bunch of votive statues, some inscriptions thanking her for safe passage, and her association with ships (intact ones) [6].

There are other Goddesses associated with animals in Celtic worship.   While Apollo Atepomarus was associated with horses, the primary Celtic horse Goddess was Epona.  In addition to her name being the word for horse, in almost all her Gaulish temples she is seated astride or between two horses.  Likewise Nehalennia is similarly associated with dogs, though the reason for the association is not well understood [3-5].   Unlike Epona, who is mentioned by Latin writers, we don’t have a lot of documentation on Nehalennia’s association with dogs [3].

And that Latin association introduces another complication.  While Nehalennia may have been worshiped from the 2nd century BC, her temples can be dated to the 2nd through the 3rd centuries AD [4].   This means that much of what we do know about her has been influenced by potential syncretic Roman influences.  When the Romans conquered various parts of Europe many of the deities were merged and cross-associated (e.g. Apollo-Atepomarus), making sorting out exactly what part was Celtic and what part was Roman difficult.

Historically dogs have had four associations in European Pagan lore:  death, hunting, healing, and protection.  These are universal, but mostly documented in the Roman/Latin literature.  While the associations with hunting and protection are pretty obvious, healing is thought to come from the dog’s ability to heal itself with its own saliva.  The chthonic function of dogs may come their association with the hunt, or with the death aspect of the Mother Goddess.  It is believed that this association was with the protective aspects of the Mother Goddess toward the dead, instead of the more vicious guardian aspects found in Virgil’s Cerberus or in the Welsh dog-hunters of human souls [5].  Dogs also provided a guide or a warning, and were often associated with their wild reflections, the wolf [6].  In Irish tradition both the dog and the wolf are associated with young warriors, and in Sweden there are Viking age stones commemorating the arrival of warriors in Valhalla that also depict dogs.

Needless to say, this mashup of material that spans hundreds of years, and several distinct cultures, is difficult to sort through when constructing a ritual.   For ritual purposes the idea of the dog as protector, healer, guide, and hunter is full of possibility.  But what about Nehalennia herself?  How exactly does she enter into the ritual, and how do we approach her given that we are not a) Dutch, b) Celtic, c) living in the 2nd century CE.

Most religions seem to confront the same problem, but in different ways.  There is often a theme of getting back to the “original” or “honest” and “true” form of the religious practice.  This has been a bit of a theme in Christianity, with various sects and groups seeking to hold true to the original or authentic version of Christ’s teachings.  For Pagans there is not much of an option to return to the original, as we really don’t have even as good an idea of what the original looked like as the Christians do.

So almost from the beginning we are constructing something on a very old, and very worn down foundation.  The idea of the Goddess Nehalennia is about all we have left. We don’t have ritual practices. We don’t have any sort of scripture or theology. And we don’t have any idea what the people actually did in those temples.  While we can generally surmised that they called on her, and may have given sacrifices of one kind of another, all we are doing is extrapolating common practices from the era to her worship.

At the same time, even the extrapolation from temple iconography is suspect. Nehalennia was worshiped during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, with worship abruptly stopping in the 3rd century when her temple was flooded by the sea.  During that time the Roman empire had considerable influence, and her iconography and other attributes seem to have filtered through Roman culture.  So while she was worshiped by Celts, there was also some Roman influence occurring.  In all likelihood she was worshiped well before the 2nd century, with the erection of temples that date from that time reflecting one aspect of her worship.  So what was she before the Romans?  Is that the Goddess we should seek if we are intent on understanding the Celtic, as opposed to Roman, Goddess worship?

Archeology and history give us little to work with.  This can be both frustrating and depressing.  How can we connect with our ancient Gods and Goddesses if all we have to work with are bones and stones?

There are a couple of paths open to us.  One path involves asking what the Gods and Goddesses mean to us now.  Even historically based religions for the most part change and adapt to the times.  If Christianity wasn’t changing and adapting why would so many of its followers at any one time be seeking to return to older, truer, ways?  Things change, religion is one of them.  The Gods and Goddesses change and grow with time, just like we do.  Remember that Paganism says that the Gods and the Goddesses exist in this world, and this world is subject to change.

This gives us a lot of options when it comes to defining modern Pagan worship.  Some of those options are good, and some are bad.  If we define the Gods and Goddesses the way we want them to be defined, as beings that affirm or reflect our attitudes, needs, or beliefs, then we can be correctly criticized for setting up a self-centered, narcissistic, worship.

On the other hand, if we spend time in careful thought about how the Gods and Goddesses translate from their ancient forms to modern practice, then we can say that we are in “good faith” bringing their existing relevance into our modern lives.  In this sense the Gods and Goddesses have pre-established, existing, forms and intentions.  These forms are established by the foundation of ancient archeological and historical records.  It’s also established by our own, relatively recent elder tradition.  However imperfect either of these are in divining the “true” nature of the Gods and Goddesses, they are a collective building toward that understanding.  It is what we build on when we do our rituals.  It is what builds the form of the Gods and Goddesses in the world we live in today, and it is reflected in how we think about them.

Working with these forms, instead of trying to project ourselves onto them,  creates a kind of spiritual tension.  In the same way that Christianity asks its followers to compare themselves to the ideal of Christ and his path, the “otherness” of the Gods and Goddesses asks us to see ourselves in contrast to the “other.”  Because they are not simply projections of our wants, needs, or personalities, the Gods and Goddesses cause us to ask whether their aspects are in us.  The dark, the light, the loving, and the petty.  Asking who they are means asking who we are.

In addition to the foundation of ancient and elder tradition that we build our understanding of the Gods and Goddesses on, we, as Pagans, have another source.  Direct experience.  When we seek the Gods and Goddesses themselves through shamanic trance, prayer, meditation, or simply keeping an eye out for their glimmer in the world, we bring back a personal understanding of the nature of the Gods and Goddesses.  If the Gods and Goddesses are real, they should be approachable.  They should be capable of being encountered through worship or workings.  Because of that we build our understanding on experience, not just history.  The more those who have authentic experience with deity write, speak, and do rituals about their experience, the more the foundation of ancient worship will grow into a modern understanding of the Gods and Goddesses.

So our ritual would give us an opportunity to encounter the Goddess, and build on what we learn.  This doing, learning, and building gives us a unique way to grow our modern understanding of the ancient Gods and Goddesses.

The legacy of understanding, both historical and experiential, that we bring to our rituals gives us an image of the “other.”  It gives us something to challenge, to reassure, and to inspire us.  If that is true, then the wide variety of Gods and Goddesses that come down to us from ancient times should be an invitation to almost unlimited growth.  Instead of working exclusively with the “big guys” Odin, Thor, Dagda, Ceridwen, Athena, etc. we have an immense range of Gods and Goddesses available to us.  Bringing out, and reviving, some of the more obscure Gods and Goddesses in our rituals will give us more paths for growth, more ways to understand deity, and ultimately more ways to change ourselves.

So we have this relatively obscure Goddess, Nehlennia that we need to incorporate into ritual.  How do we do that?  Well, I suspect dogs have not changed much ancient times, and, in fact, many of the aspects of the dog were seen as aspects of the divine image of the dog in ancient times.  With that I could either focus on the chthonic aspects of Nehalennia and dogs, or the protective and healing aspects.  I figured no one that would be at the ritual would be worried about taking long sea voyages on the North Sea anytime soon, so that aspect wouldn’t be helpful (though it would certainly give us an “other” to consider).  Building a ritual around loyalty, protection, and healing, the attributes of the dog, would emphasize the need to be those things in our own lives.

And that is what I did.  In addition to a ritual incorporating calls on, and sacrifice to, the Goddess, we did work that connected us with our own “dogness”.  Dogs live in the moment.  Emptying our minds and using that focus to understand what our goals are, what is important to us, was the way we began the ritual.  Likewise I had a piece on companionship and loyalty, where people considered, and spoke, about those whose loyalty they valued, including dogs.  And finally we did a magical energy working to invoke the protection of the dog, and ask for protection from the Goddess for something that was important to us.  This may not have been the perfect way to incorporate dogs and the Goddess into ritual, but it was an interesting first try.  Hopefully the next time we work with Nehlennia we will be able to better understand how to connect the ancient reality of Nehlennia to the modern lives we live, and the worship we do.

[1] But I like them better than cats.   What this means that this would be a serious ritual working, not some fun piece about honoring pets.

[2] The ethnocentric piece is a fun column all by itself.  The “ethnos” that we bring to the problem is 20th century liberal metropolitanism, which would include things like reverence for nature, equality, and nonviolence.  We see the world through very different eyes than they did thousands of years ago, as is the case with almost all religions.

[3]  Miranda Green.  The Gods of the Celts, Bramley Books, UK, 1986.  This is an excellent book on Celtic religion and the various manifestations of deity.  Note that all of the references in this paper are archeological, as there is little else to base our understanding on.

[4] Miranda Green.  Celtic Goddesses:  Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers, British Museum Press, 1995

[5]  H.R. Ellis Davidson.  Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Syracuse University Press, 1988

[6] http://www.livius.org/ne-nn/nehalennia/nehalennia.html