Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stereotypes [Written Assignment, Notre Dame, 2011]

American poet and scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson offered the idea that the individual is the center of his or her own universe.  ‘In the individual can be discovered all truths, all experience. For the individual, experience must be direct and unmediated by texts, traditions, or personality’, [Vince Brewton (University of North Alabama) for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jul 2003].  But while Emerson’s suggestion that self-reliance and independence provide one with a perspective of the world from a non-conforming self, an actual look at the widely accepted generalizations and stereotypes in existence seem to state that the Western public perceives otherwise.
Emerson, the infamous Transcendentalist, stated “to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- that is genius”, [RW Emerson, Self-Reliance, p19].  Why then might one fail to understand another as an extension of himself should such a person merely claim a particular culture or religion different from one’s own?  Perhaps this notion of the individual as center of the universe keeps us isolated and unwilling to accept beliefs and values that may seem distal to the comfortable norm.  Such discomfort with external lifestyles, most especially those of the Arab world, shed a light on the common ease with which the Western culture limits its views of the Middle East to those provided by government officials and journalists -- restrictive representations of an extreme few to stand for the whole.
Palestinian-American and former professor at Columbia University, the late Edward Said coined the term “orientalism” in his controversial book of the same title to suggest that the West views the Arab world through a “lens” of preconceived notions, [Sut Jhally, Media Education Foundation, Video: “Edward Said On ORIENTALISM”].  Depictions of persons of Arabic decent in the popular media are far from realistic, confined to the perspective of Arab as extremist; as terrorist.  They create an unchanging, undeveloped image of a barbaric Middle Eastern culture. 
When one seeks a reason for such a stalemate perspective into the Arab world, it becomes clear that irrational fears seem to play a role of breathing life into this “orientalism” -- fears kept aflame by shock-factor focused media personnel and finger-pointing government agencies.  Descriptives that for any other ethnicity would be frowned upon as controversial racial profiling, for the Muslim counterpart are accepted as almost necessary because of fears of jihad-like attacks. 
In truth, the larger majority of persons of Arabic decent seek peace and coexistence just as does the greater part any nationality.  Extremists, such as Al Queda, who happen to follow a warped Islamic faith fail to offer an accurate depiction of the population of Arab Muslims just as Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner fails to offer an accurate depiction of any average right-wing American; just as Reverend Fred Phillips fails to offer an accurate depiction of the Baptist faith; just as the Klu Klux Klan fails to offer an accurate depiction of the Southern American; just as the Third Reich fails to offer an accurate depiction of anyone of German heritage.
Putting any sense of accuracy into generalizations or permitting oneself to accept a depiction of a small group as factual representation for the whole, steals away any unique insight we might have had into the relationship between self and another.  Conformity.  And as R.W. Emerson warned “this conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars”, [RW Emerson, Self-Reliance, P23]. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Origins of Halloween

Halloween seems to be the one mainstream celebration that is universally credited to the ancient Pagans... and yet many would be surprised to learn that the holiday actually traces back to a Christian celebration.  So how have Roman and Celtic festivals for the dead blended with Catholic influences to form the modern day Halloween celebrated in communities today?

Samhain of Ancient Celts

During the days of the ancient Celtic people, [who occupied the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France some 2,000 years ago], the year was dissected by the four seasons -- the last of which they prepared for on November 1st:

Winter.  Dark and cold.  The start of this time meant the end of harvest and on the eve before this barren season was to start, ancients celebrated by honoring the death of the sun and, in-turn, remembering their own dead.  It began with the fire in their hearth, which they would extinguish to represent the end of summer and the dying light.

Large bonfires were raised in communities where celebrations included dancing in costumes consisting of animal  heads and skins. [1]  When the festivities concluded, each family would bring home a burning piece of the ceremonial fire.  They would use the flames to reignite their hearths, blessing the fire in honor of the sun; hopeful that its warmth and light would get them through the cold, dark winter nights.

Lemuria of Pagan Rome

Ancients of pre-Christian Rome celebrated the festival of Lemuria on May 13th.  During this "Lemuria/Lemuralia", rites were performed to exorcise the lemures [restless malevolent spirits].  Priestesses of the Goddess Vesta [goddess of the hearth] would prepare offerings of beans and sacred flour cakes [made from the first ears of seasonal wheat].  [2]

Conversion Intentions by Catholic Popes

So what link connects Halloween to a Roman festival in spring and Celtic celebration in fall?   Enter:  The Catholic Church.

Around 609-610 Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and all Martyrs, converting it into a Christian Church and thusly establishing the feast of  dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres. [3]

This is the first known instance in Rome of transformation of a Pagan temple into a site for Christian worship.  The date of this conversion, May 13th, is not likely to be coincidental and is believed to have occurred in attempt by the Catholic Church to de-Paganize Rome.

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III founded an oratory for the relics "of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world". 

Pope Gregory III added saints to the celebration of Boniface IV's martyrs, calling it All Saint's Day [or All Hallowmas from the Middle English for Alholowmesse].  [4]

Additionally, Pope Gregory III moved the date of the sacred feast from May 13th to November 1st in attempt to envelope the Celtic celebration of Samhain; hopeful for a smooth conversion of Ireland to Christianity.

Over time, Samhain celebrations merged with those enjoyed on the eve of All Saint's Day, called All Hallow's Eve and, eventually, 'Halloween' [first attested in the 16th century].  ( [5] The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1989. ISBN 0-19-861186-2.)    

We often hear from conservative Christians about the evil Pagan roots of our modern holiday and yet the irony proves hysterical when we consider that the day is celebrated today because of its connections to the Catholic Church and its intentions to convert the Romans, Celtics and Gaels by overshadowing local festivals with comparable observances of their own. 

Speaking of conservative Christians...

Recently a very slanderous and ignorant opinion article was posted in Business Week unleashing harsh and inaccurate depictions of Paganism's grips on an otherwise Christian-West [through the celebration of Halloween]. [6]

The author, Amity Schlaes, states "Halloween isn’t secular. It is pagan. There’s nothing else to call a set of ceremonies in which people utter magical phrases, flirt with the night and evoke the dead."  It wasn't long at all before Mrs. B of the popular blog Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom and other icons from the Witching World enlightened our research-deprived Mr. Schlaes with counterresponses containing references to the actual origins of America's Halloween.

Truth be told, Halloween and Samhain are two separate holidays, among many across the globe, which happen to fall on the same date during the year.

Mrs. B commented "Cultures, including those that follow Christian faiths, honor their ancestors this time of year all over the world. Why focus just on those people of Pagan faiths?  Seems a little like religious persecution to me. "

When will we see a time when supposed reputable sources for news, such as Business Week, demand more [ie, the truth] from authors submitting articles to their publications?  Let's leave the spewing of lies to the tabloids, shall we?!

Happy Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, Ten Chieh, Yue Lan, Alla Helgans Dag & many many more!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why Deny: Connections Between Christianity & Paganism

When I lost my faith as a young girl, it took many years of research into the generic realm of faith and religion to find my way to Paganism.  Because of this self-induced decade of study, I came to learn much about the history of different religions and the very similar, overlapping connections shared by many.  I've proposed these similarities in conversations of the past and find people are typically unwilling to accept that Christianity has much in common with ancient Pagan beliefs, rituals, symbols and more.

Why the denial?  Recognizing that your religion shares a past with another doesn't taint it or steal it from your heart anymore than the advances of science overshadow faith.  People still believe, regardless.

Reactions by Christians upon my suggestion that our religions have a shared background have always intrigued me -- from laughter to scoffs to outright anger.  Finally an article written by Ellen Lloyd, [author of Voices from Legendary Times], has shed some light on the topic.

In the article, Christianity Jesus and the Pagan Connection, Ellen explains that "a majority of us [Christians] associate Paganism with idol worship, blood sacrifices and witchcraft.  We [Christians] were taught to believe that Pagans are primitive people, who in some way worship the Devil."

Makes sense then that they would find issue with having their "pure, sacred and unique" religion of Christianity based, however loosely, on ancient occult beliefs and practices.  However, Ellen warns, "to write off something as 'impossible' is an easy and quick process... but before we [Christians] reject the Christian/Pagan connection, we should first ask ourselves a couple of questions."

In her article, Ellen's questions seek to answer if perhaps Christians have a wrong and very twisted image of old traditional Paganism.  "Were the mystery religions maybe more spiritually developed than we realize?  What was the true reason for painting followers of the mystery religions in such black colors?" she asks.

The author recognizes that the Church's past is tainted by its political and social struggle for power.  Long wars were waged by the Church of Rome and the Roman Empire to eradicate Paganism and its followers.  However, within their bloody intent to take over as the majority shareholder[s] of spirituality, these early enforcers for the Church brilliantly understood that by adopting  portions of Pagan dates, rites & rituals, their chances of conversion increased drastically. 

And by painting a dark and sinister portrait of the Old Ways, long-term success was all-but guaranteed.  Because even millenia later, who would think to question the Church -- especially considering the deterring examples made of those who did [insert horrific tales from the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Burning Times].  People accepted out of fear. 

And then it was just a matter of permitting time to cover-up any true origins...  what was once clear embellishment turned to possible... and what was possible, after more time, turned to probable... to likely... to absolute.  Centuries after the life and death of Jesus Christ we find ourselves now struggling to convince His followers that much of what they irrefutably consider to be His tale was in-fact borrowed.  The plan worked wonders.

Yet if more Christians took an eye-opening glance into historical references and symbolism of the past -- a past, mind you, that precedes the life of their savior -- they may be shocked to find handfuls of identical stories and icons.  Author Ellen cites more than a few compelling examples including present-day traditions of the Christmas season, the birth story and life of Jesus  and other similar saviors and the existence of the cross at least 14 centuries before Jesus Christ.  [The Scandinavians, for example, considered it a representation of the four equinoxes and even celebrated a crucifixion of the sun upon its arrival at the shortest day.]

Even Bishop and self-proclaimed Christian Druid Alistair Bate, in his contribution to the book The Path of the Blue Raven [by Mark Townsend] stated "the Christian and pre-Christian myths are so intertwined,  interdependent and complementary as to be inseparable".

There is far more here than can be so easily dismissed with a laugh, scoff or angry outburst.  Just as much of our lands, our histories and even our genetics have intermingled since the dawn of man, so too have our religions.  Instead of taking offense, take interest!  There are some fascinating tales interlinking many different faiths and cultures.  What once created wars and rifts now has the potential to bring us together.

Divine Unity : Many paths up the same mountain.