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Principles of Paganism, Lesson 2

Lesson 2

Will and Fate

In pagan religion the future is fated, but this should not be understood in a straight-line sense.  The mind of Moira, [1] the dark goddess of fate in Greek religion, is incredibly complex.  She does not prescribe one series of events only, but allows for certain forkings to occur for each person at certain critical moments.  When one is born, his or her fate is merely sketched out by Moira; in the course of life one will make decisions, and in response to these she will begin filling in details in the picture of one’s future.

Will is of the spirit, and spirit, like everything else, is material, though it is subtle matter rather than the gross matter we see and feel every day.  Being material, there is only so much of it at any one time or place.  When we are born, we have the possibility of many different forking paths, but as we choose first this fork and then another, our possibilities close in on us.  This is the same as to say that we gradually use up our will-substance, or, if you prefer, our will-energy (for matter and energy are interchangeable), [2] and what we receive is often bound up in habits and so rendered less directly usable.  We generally know when these critical junctures come to us, though we may pretend to ourselves, out of habit, that we have no real choice at that moment.   At one point one is still free to fulfill certain possibilities in his or her life, but if the other fork is taken then those possibilities go away.  With respect to those possibilities, one’s fate is then sealed.

When seers or seeresses foretell the future, they foretell it in terms of those parts of fate that are already sealed, and then add in their knowledge of which critical turning-points lie ahead.  A person with a clear mind will see a fork in his or her path and the two fates to which each fork leads, even though he often has a strong disposition to choose one of the alternatives.  Thus, Achilles saw clearly that he had the choice to go to the war against Troy or not, and following his warlike heart chose to go, even though it was predicted that he would die young.  In going, he chose a short life with renown.  [3]

Choosing certain forks in the road can gradually seal one’s fate in advance, until all that remains to happen is the event which will trigger the final sealing.  Thus,  when Hector mortally wounds Patroclus, the latter while dying declares that Hector’s fate to be killed by Achilles now stands over him. [4] And indeed, when Achilles is pursuing Hector, Zeus weighs the fates of the two heroes in his scales and the fate of Hector is borne down and departs wailing into Hades, which is another way of saying his fate is sealed. [5] Against such the gods themselves strive in vain; but until one’s fate is sealed, they do their best to help us optimize our possibilities within its limits.  They also send omens foretelling turning-points to come, so that we can take the better forks in the road with full mental clarity, as Achilles did.  They do this for those mortals who treat them with respect and reverence, acting towards them in a friendly manner.

An omen sometimes tells one that a critical turning-point has just been reached, sealing off certain possibilities which it would be futile to pursue any further.  When Leif Ericsson’s expedition to Vinland in North America was ready to sail from the Greenland colony, his father Eric the Red intended to sail with him.  However, on his way down to the harbor he slipped and fell, injuring his thigh.  Recognizing the omen, he had himself carried back home again, declaring that it was not his fate to discover any more new lands.  [6]

The gods, for the most part, do not foresee all the future.  While Odin’s wife Frigg knew the full future of men and gods, she would not prophesy.  [7] Odin himself had to consult a seeress, as is told in the Voluspø of the Elder Edda.  [8] Zeus heard a prophecy that, just as he had supplanted his father Kronos, so he in turn would be supplanted by a future god.  The titan Prometheus, who had the power of forethought, knew the identity of Zeus’ supplanter but refused to reveal it, even under torture. [9] It appears to be a universal pattern in paganism that the few beings who know the full tale of possibilities for the future never reveal all of their knowledge.

Nevertheless, partial glimpses of the future may be had through oracles, omens and dreams.  As mentioned above, these are prophecies of fates which are already sealed and only await certain triggering events to become manifest, or else of critical turning-points where one or another fatal course will emerge as the result of a decision taken.  It is because will is a function of spirit and spirit, like all forms of matter-energy, is limited, that these turning points and sealings take place.  To make a decision is to cut away all other possibilities except the one chosen at that moment.

Moira operates on many levels, for each cosmos contains smaller cosmoses within it.  Many pagan cultures recognized this fact, and each person is a cosmos in miniature, with internal gods and spirits serving as counterparts to the greater gods of our common cosmos.  Just as our cosmos, often pictured as a great world tree, [10] draws its nourishment from an underlying sea of chaos, so each of us draws on a store of vitality from a source beyond our control.  And just as a cosmos in decline will gradually receive less ‘water’ or vital energy from the underlying sea, so each of us is born, develops, reaches a peak of vitality, and then begins to decline towards death, as our own store of vital energy gradually runs out.

On the highest level, Moira governs the cosmic cycle itself, which worsens in time until she is ready to bring it to an end.  The vølva or seeress in the Voluspø described her [11] and the end-time thus:

“In the east sat an old woman in Iron-wood

and nurtured there offspring of Fenrir;

a certain one of them in monstrous form

will be the snatcher of the moon.” [12]

Ironwood can mean a tough wood like hornbeam; but it also refers to a type of tree that takes on a rusty hue when it dies; hence this is probably a death symbol.  Fenrir’s children were a monstrous brood who would fight the Æsir at Ragnarøk, the final battle closing that world-cycle.  Moira and Urd’s Hindu counterpart was the dark goddess Kali who also brought a cosmic cycle to an end, preserving the gods and other spirits (including the spirits of mortals) in a seed in her womb, until it was time to bring forth a new cycle. [13] The archaic Greek poet Hesiod, who seems to have known only one cycle, also represented the cosmos as worsening in the course of four ages of gold, silver, bronze and iron, with an interregnum of demigodlike heroes between the third and fourth ages to account for the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey. [14] He seems to be harmonizing two traditions here.

Moira sometimes appears as a group of three goddesses, especially when assigning fate to one just born.   We see later versions of this in fairy tales, where a harsh fate foretold by the older fairies is somewhat ameliorated by the youngest of them. [15] The gods, in optimizing our fate, can often draw upon this minor strand to render some fated restriction a little more flexible, or provide the one fated with an unlooked-for compensation or consolation; but it is generally up to us to recognize, grasp and make use of our boon from the youngest fairy.

Questions for Lesson 2:

  1. If the future is fated, in what sense do we have free will?
  2. How do the gods seek to help us within the limits of our fate?  Name two ways.
  3. What are turning-points?  Why is it best to recognize them clearly when they arrive?
  4. What does it mean to say that one’s fate is sealed?  Do the results of such a sealing always happen right away?
  5. Give an example of a triggering event in the case of a sealed fate.
  6. Why is will limited?  How is will self-limiting?
  7. As we age, we receive less vital energy, including will-energy.  In what other way is usable will-energy diminished?

Questions from Lesson 1 with Suggested Answers

Lesson 1, Part 1:

  1. One barrier to understanding ancient religion is anachronism, the tendency to read into ancient ideas the meanings of later ideas.  What is the other?  Give an example of both hurdles.

Deliberate mistranslation.  An example of anachronism is the much later idea of creation from nothing, which leads translators to interpolate the word ‘And’ at the beginning of Gen. 1:2, thus making the account of bringing form into pre-existing matter seem as having taken place after the act of creation, instead of describing how that creation took place.

Examples of deliberate mistranslation are ‘God’ for ‘Elohim,’ which means ‘the gods of the family of El;’ and ‘void’ for the Hebrew word meaning an abandoned ruin or desolation.

  1. Why are the Sumerians unsuitable as a source of information on root paganism?

The many cities of Sumer all had a common pantheon of gods, suggesting that their religion was already well-established when they arrived in southern Iraq, perhaps c. 4000 BCE; and it was a sophisticated, urbanized religion.  Thus we lack information about Sumerian religion in its formative, tribal phase when the people were pastoral.

  1. What is meant by root or robust paganism anyway?

Religion based on personal experience which is open-ended in its development and controlled loosely through tribal custom instead of by urban political forces.

  1. Concepts are attempted answers to questions.  How does the ancient question about creation differ from the later question?  How do the answers differ?

The ancient question was something like “How did local conditions come about?”  The later question is “How did everything come about originally?” The answer to the former differed according to terrain, weather, and other local factors.  The answer to the latter depends on philosophical thinking.

  1. How can modern scientific knowledge be reconciled with ancient views of the world?

The ancients, prior to the advent of philosophy, sought to describe the world as it appeared to the senses.  Modern science builds upon sensation with the use of precision instruments and controlled experiments to explain and predict phenomena.  Where such explanations and predictions are necessary to our everyday lives, we can draw upon science; but in the moment-by-moment living of our lives our experiences will be enriched by paying attention to the world simply as it appears, with the sun rising in the east in the morning and setting in the west in the evening, and so forth.

Lesson 1, Part  2:

1:  Name one way in which cosmos and chaos are relative to each other.

Every cosmos contains within it wilder entities that have penetrated its boundaries, and generally lie in peripheral areas out towards those boundaries.  Every cosmos is contained within a larger cosmos that is organized more loosely, containing wilder entities and more virulent energies, but which are nevertheless organized after their own fashion, as a wilderness operates by its own laws of kill or be killed and surrounds a settlement in a clearing that enjoys a more ordered existence.

2:  What does the dark goddess do in favor of chaos?  How does she   help cosmos?

She gradually lets chaotic elements accumulate within a cosmos as it declines, finally letting them overwhelm it at the end of a cycle.  She helps preserve cosmic entities in a seed in Her womb between cycles until it is time for a cosmos to be reborn.

3: Sometimes chaos within cosmos makes a positive contribution.  How         does this come about?

Trickster gods like Loki or Coyote spike the well-laid plans of the gods of cosmic order, forcing them to develop new methods, often with the help of the trickster god himself, who shows them how to circumvent the harm he has caused by introducing new powers and magical weapons.

Bibliography (Suggested Reading):

HESIOD and THEOGNIS, transl. by Dorothea Wender, London and New        York, Penguin Books, 1973.

HOMER, The Iliad, in 2 vols., transl. by A. T. Murray, Cambridge, MA &            London, Harvard University Press, 1993,

HUNT, Margaret, transl., Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm,      London, George Bell, 1884, 1892, in 2 vols.

JONES, Gwyn, transl., Erik the Red’s Saga, in The Norse Atlantic Saga,             Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

KERENYI, C., The Heroes of the Greeks, London, Thames and Hudson,             reprint, 1997.

LIND, L. R., ed., Ten Greek Plays, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

NIKHILANANDA, Swami, transl., The Upanishads, vols. 1 – 4,  New      York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1977.

POETIC EDDA, The, transl. Carolyne Larrington.  Oxford, New York,      Oxford University Press, 1996.

Exercise:

When I was a boy I spent a week out of each summer vacation visiting my cousins, who lived farther out on Long Island, where it was more rural at the time.  One evening we were returning from a walk when I noticed that the moon seemed to be following us home.  I mentioned this and was told that it was an illusion.  I can remember feeling embarrassed when told this.  Many years later, when my younger son and I were on a similar evening walk, he pointed to the moon keeping pace with us, and I realized that I had ceased to notice this sensation ever since that time in my boyhood.  I said nothing about it being an illusion, and just kept the moon in view out of the corner of my left eye.  Including a long-ignored sensation in my attention rendered all my perceptions more vivid, and I felt a sort of energy flowing from the moon into my head.  When I turned to face the moon, the flow of energy ceased.  Evidently the habit of ignoring the moon following me home was implanted in my frontal vision; but when I fixed my peripheral attention on it again, the energy flow and vividness of sensation resumed.  Try this out yourself on the moon.  It works on the sun as well, of course, but the sun is too bright and dazzling, and the light of the moon is soothing and stimulates alpha rhythms in the brain.


[1] For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to fate as the Greek goddess (or Titaness) Moira, except when making specific reference to figures from other traditions, such as the Hindu Kali or Scandinavian Urd.

[2] The denser the matter, the lower the frequency of energy; the higher the frequency of energy, the subtler the matter.

[3] Kerenyi, p. 347.

[4] Iliad XVI: 855.

[5] Iliad XXII: 210.

[6] Saga of Erik the Red, pp. 207-35.  See Jones in bibliography.

[7] Loki’s Quarrel, 29.  See The Poetic Edda, p. 89.

[8] See The Poetic Edda in bibliography.  Voluspø is called ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy in this edition.

[9] Æschylus, Prometheus Bound.  See Lind, Ten Greek Plays.

[10] Voluspø 19.  See The Poetic Edda, p. 6.

[11] In Norse religion Fate is threefold, called the three Norns.  The eldest, Urd, is probably meant here.

[12] Voluspø 40.  See The Poetic Edda, p. 9.

[13] Nikhilananda, vol. 1, pp 67-8.

[14] Hesiod, Works and Days 105 et passim, pp. 62 – 65.  See Hesiod in bibliography.

[15] See for instance ‘Little Briar-Rose’ in Brothers’ Grimm Household Tales (Hunt in Bibliography).  There we have 13 wise women, the 13th is left out (because she is from the old lunar calendar) of the baby’s christening and appears, pronouncing her curse of death.  The 12th and youngest wise woman cannot undo the curse, but now she speaks her gift changing it to a magic sleep.  The milder fate always manifests later.