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Seeing Our Gods As Ourselves and Not As They Are

Do not look to God to find yourself. Thank the gods, they stand above this world so that they can come into us, animate us, save us, and help us, and that is the point. 

Yesterday, I wrote a short piece about Imbolc. Nothing substantial really, just a highlight of new life, of spring riding its eastern wind deep down the dawn. The piece provoked some of our friends here and I wanted to provide a short, simple, and to the point follow up.

Is Imbolc a neopagan and earth worshiping festival that secularizes a Christian celebration of St. Brigid—a Christian Nun and Abbess who founded a monastery in Kildare in the sixth century of the modern era—that illustrates the decadent feminism of our times where a male god is replaced by female goddesses (the pagan goddess Brigid)?

Or, is Imbolc an ancient symbol of new life, of place-based wisdom holding peoples celebrating spring’s dawn into the darkness of winter, cleaving open our tombs to enlighten and to enliven our spirits?

According to the Jewish tradition, Abram was born in Ur of Babylonia, modern day Iraq, around 1,800 BCE. The Israelites left Egypt around 1,200 BCE. Brigid was born around 450 AD. These are estimates of course.

The Mound of Hostages upon the Hill of Tara, a Neolithic passage grave, was constructed around 3,000 BCE. On Imbolc and for a week after, the sun perfectly illumines the inner tomb’s backstone. Imbolc’s dawn light then reflects off the backstone and diffuses a gentle fluorescence on the earthen tomb’s many engravings. Imbolc comes from the Irish i mBolg, meaning “in the belly,” and signifies pregnancy, new life emerging from the darkness, like the tomb in Tara.

The history of Ireland’s elder peoples is a history written by outsiders and priests. Herodotus (Greece, ~400 BC) was one of the first to mention the Celts—those who live beyond the Cynesii in the western-most of Europe. The Abbot Áed Úa Crimthainn wrote The Book of Leinster (Leabhar Laighean), an anthology of early Irish sagas and more, in ~1160 AD. We owe a great deal to these outsiders and their works are important stones in our memory’s mounds. But we must also read their work as the work of outsiders. The Book of Leinster contains the “Irish Book of Genesis,” called Lebor Gabála Érenn. This “book” establishes the Island of Ireland (Ériu), the Irish people and their culture and language within a Biblical world setting. It is fair to assume, I think, that the ancient Celts that constructed the Hill of Tara to awaken on Imbolc did not see their creation story coming from a book that would be written a half a world away, by Moses perhaps, thousands of years later.

This is not to say that these two cultures are divergent or that any perceived separation is negative or argumentative.

Is Imbolc a paganization of a Christian holiday? History is complex and the human mind often is inadequate. We measure graphs miles long with microscopes, with one eye closed.

Even the great, Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton could not resist entering the conversation. In his essay, Science and the Savages, Chesterton reasoned that the “most pathetic of all the delusions” of primitive peoples is the idea of anthropomorphism. As long as a “tree is a tree,” he wrote, “it does not frighten us.” But it becomes something frightening, alien, and strange, “only when it looks like ourselves” and our knees knock under us.” The tree in nature is not alien or frightening. Man in nature, according to Chesterton, makes our knees knock. But this is the streamlined Christian and civilized mythos—only humans truly live and, if that is true, then a tree that is now also alive as a human is also alive becomes immediately frightening, because it is also immediately out of place.

But this is just Darwinian evolution writ in the social textbook of the enlightened west. Lewis Morgan, an influential social theorist of the late nineteenth century, argued in his magnum opus, Ancient Society, that human consciousness, not unlike human biology, naturally and inexorably progresses through three stages of cultural evolution—from savagery (hunter-gather) to barbarism (substance agriculture), to civilization (written languages, law, and art). This trajectory plays in the human species, Morgan and others asserted, as naturally as biological evolution plays in the ruts of our ecological history. As human society evolves, so does their language and art. As human understanding becomes scientific, so does their goddess cults and animistic naivety recede into the annals of prehistory. “If man desires to find out the origins of religion, let him not go to the Sandwich Islands; let him go to church,” writes Chesterton.


If you wish to celebrate spring, celebrate.

If you wish to celebrate St. Brigid, celebrate. I really do not care. But please refrain from claiming that prehistoric traditions are modern, neopagan leavenings. Even if they were, notice the leavening of Christianity over Judaism. Just going to leave that one there. The cult of progress is alive and well but not its not Imbolc that is the problem.

Do not look to God to find yourself. As Micah 7 reads, “A man’s enemies are the men of his own household. Therefore I will look to the Lord.” Thank the gods, they stand above this world so that they can come into us, animate us, save us, and help us, and that is the point. Look to God for life, in the actual sense. Also, look to their spring for new light. She is coming regardless if you like it or not.

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