Not in My Paganism 4 – In Veneration of the Ancestors

Much of the racism that has been going around in the Norse corners of paganism recently have been done in the name of venerating the ancestors. This is clearly in direct contradiction to what genetic and archaeological evidence tells us about the relationship between the Vikings and people of color from different areas of the world, the Vendel and Viking virtue of hospitality, and even what written records tell us about the Vikings’ hospitality to foreigners (I’ll go a little further into the history of Ibn Fadlan in a later post). A number of pagans have come out against the racism being expressed in recent days (this is far from being an exhaustive list) and Huginn’s Heathen Hof has released their Declaration 127 which states:

The AFA’s views do not represent our communities. We hereby declare that we do not condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion, and will no longer associate with those who do. We will not grant the tacit approval of silence in the name of frið, to those who would use our traditions to justify prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, orientation, or gender identity.

Based on the plethora of evidence to the contrary, and the fact that so many modern Norse pagans seem perfectly capable of conducting their worship and ancestor veneration sans discrimination and bigotry, it’s fairly plain to see that said discrimination and bigotry is not rooted in the spiritual practice itself. The spiritual practice is being used as a smoke screen to justify biases, fears, and the nasty speech and behavior that come with those things. All of these elements that build toward racist and discriminatory practices exist independently of any spiritual practice and always have.

So, what does ancestor veneration look like without the racism? I can’t speak to everyone’s practice (if you practice ancestor worship or veneration, I invite you to leave a comment explaining your practices or a link to a place where you talk about them — I’d love to learn more) but I can tell you a little bit about my own practice.

I am a mutt. Primarily of European origin as far as I know and based on what I see in the mirror, but I know there’s some other heritage mixed in there. I just don’t know what it is and as much as I’d like to get a genetic test to find out, I can’t afford it at this moment in my life. (Some day.)

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One of my grandfather’s maps. He gave me several.

I know very little about my actual heritage, but if I go into that this blog post will be way too long. Today I want to talk about a heritage passed down by familial bonds that aren’t tied up in blood. I want to talk about my father’s adopted father.

I took part in a nine-month study abroad in Sweden which was very much connected to veneration of my ancestors, and while there I took advantage of my proximity to other countries to further honor my ancestors and broaden my experience of the world. I took a small (but hardly minor, in hindsight) pilgrimage to the Gosforth Cross and I visited Riga, the capital city of Latvia and the city where my grandfather (father’s adopted father) grew up.

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History literally litters the floors and lines the walls in Riga Cathedral. This stone giant, a pagan idol whose physical history is mysterious about whom little if anything seems to be known, sits on the ground in the corner. It isn’t roped off so it can be easily approached, and as you can see people still leave offerings of coins on the top of its head.

My paternal grandfather is not my biological grandfather, and yet he shaped my  life as powerfully as the man who gave my father his genetics. I don’t know the name of my biological grandfather (I saw my father’s birth name on his birth certificate once, but I can’t remember it) let alone his ancestry and heritage. And my father’s side of the family is even more tight-lipped about such matters than my mother’s. On the day I discovered that my father had an older brother I’d never heard about, I asked him what the story was with that. “It’s a long story,” he said, to which I responded that I had time. “By it’s a long story,” he said, “I mean I’m not going to tell you.”

So you get the picture.

My father’s adopted father still spoke with a heavy Latvian accent when he died a few years ago from cancer. History was his passion, and with the exception of a mysterious period of three or four years which he never spoke about, he loved to tell stories about his life. He had lived a very exciting and very important portion of history and still carried the memories of World War II and the events and tensions preceding it clearly in my mind.

My grandfather could not be called a good man, at least through large swaths of his life. I have heard, in round about ways, about how severely he beat his children. His wrath, it seemed, was focused on the two elder children — the ones who were not biologically his. I’ve heard rumors that this is related to the absence of my father’s older brother, though of course I can never know for sure. How my grandfather even came into my father’s life — and by extension mine — is itself a questionable matter. The way I hear it, he met my grandmother shortly after my father was born. She was a married woman, and he a single, young, foreign man who had volunteered for the American armed service. They had an affair and my grandmother’s marriage to my biological grandfather dissolved, to be replaced with this marriage which would, eventually, also dissolve.

But I also know that when my grandfather first came to the United States, he didn’t know what half and half was. He’d never drank something so rich — and yes, he did drink it. And he loved it. I also know that he became a better man, if not wholly or strictly good, after “finding Jesus,” as the family puts it. My uncle (the one I know) strongly believes my grandfather’s second wife was a huge influence in him being a better person. I know that he and his second wife, who I also acknowledge as my grandmother, were deeply in love until the day he died (I sent her a post card from Latvia, to let her know that I was in Riga and that I had gone there to see the place my grandfather grew up. To honor him). I know that when I was a little kid pooping out what little kids call art he paid us a visit and gave me twenty bucks for one of those colored pages. He encouraged me to keep up with my art, and every time he saw me he talked to me about wolves and the progress toward reintroducing them to Oregon (this was my highest passion as a child). Near the end of his life, rather than encouraging me to settle down and start a family he encouraged me to stay single, to pursue ever greater education, to travel the world and revel in the way that travel would expand my mind.

My grandfather was a complex and nuanced man who did many bad things and many good things. I honor him by remembering both the good and the bad, by not cherry-picking which aspects of him to remember because all of those aspects were him. To separate him from those things would be diminish him, and to honor him I refuse to diminish him.

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Our Lady of Sorrows church in Riga

I journeyed to Latvia for three days specifically in veneration of my grandfather. I went to the city he grew up to wander the streets he wandered in honor him and the powerful effect he had on my life despite not being biologically connected to me. I found scattered stone giants and sat with them, staring at their solemn faces and trying to intuit anything about these beings who were the gods of my grandfather’s ancestors. I honored them, too, for their ancestral effect on the person I turned into.

There were historical sites and museums abound. I couldn’t afford to go into all of them, so I did what I could to see all I could and learn all I could. I wanted to absorb as much of the history of my grandfather’s land and people in the name of his memory and in honor of him and his presence in my life.

Riga is a beautiful and fascinating city. In some corners it is impeccably modern while in others its relative poverty show in the pock-marked buildings that were never quite repaired after the war. The people are friendly but the older generations don’t speak English and the middle and young generations don’t speak English well — a lingering side-effect of being held behind the iron curtain courtesy of the Soviet Union in 1990. And, for a reason I never quite discerned, there are black cats everywhere.

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Meoooow

Latvia is a country that has known many hardships and has been in unwilling bondage off and on throughout the twentieth century. Its people have survived occupation, war, and terror in a way the United States is entirely unfamiliar with (save, of course, for the Native Americans, who are all too familiar with the sensation of occupation and genocide at the hands of colonialists and still today at the hands of the United States Government and the corporations it prioritizes over human well-being and its own treaties).

I often wonder if the States’ hunger for war is linked with its relative separation from the vast majority of the world: acts of war on American soil (that are neither acts of Civil War nor revolution) are so rare that the entire country temporarily ceases its forward momentum when violence on that level strikes (think Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and consider how utterly shell-shocked the country was). European countries have survived through two world wars and innumerable other, smaller wars and skirmishes which has left the countries relatively war-weary (until recently, it would seem — this is one of those rare occasions where I will go ahead and shake my fist at the younger generations, including my own. Have we forgotten history’s lessons so quickly?). Whereas I see young Americans everywhere chomping at the bit to go to war, my grandfather was a living example of European war-weariness: he’d been there, done that, and he had no more time or patience for the virus-like fear and hatred which breeds discrimination and related violence.

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The Riga Freedom Moument

When I saw my last name used in a blog supporting and encouraging racism, it grated on my spine and made my skin crawl. My last name is the name my grandfather gave my father when he adopted him. I detested to see it written out in a blog not only condoning but calling for bigotry as though it were a righteous cause. Let me tell you why:

My grandfather grew up in a pre-WWII eastern Europe. He once told me a story about being a child in Latvia and being told by older children who wanted to frighten him that he should be afraid of the Jews. He should fear the Jews, those older children said, because if they caught him out after dark they would capture him and put him in a barrel filled with nails. They would roll him down the hill in that barrel filled with nails and at the bottom of the hill they would drain all of the blood he’d spilled inside of the bucket and they would use it to make a special bread.

My grandfather was terrified of Jews for a long time because of this. He grew up in a Europe where Jewish people were despised, demonized, and violently discriminated against. He watched as the tensions came to a boil. He was still in Riga when Latvia praised the Nazis who they thought were coming to free them from the iron grip of the Soviet Union. He was still there when the country realized this meant one occupying force had only been traded for another, and he was inducted into one of the schools the Nazis established there. My grandfather was one of the Hitler youth.

My grandfather fled Latvia. He fled to escape the war and his motherland which was caught in the middle of a power struggle between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. He fled and he carried with him the memories and knowledge of what hate can do. He sought asylum in the United States and he eventually got his citizenship. He had an affair, married my grandmother, adopted my father, and one day when I was in high school he told me that horrifying story about the special bread made by Jews with the blood of children. When he finished telling me that story, he told me that such a story could only be conjured by the minds of people who hate.

My grandfather told me that such hate can only be conjured by minds infested with fear.

People, my grandfather told me, are people regardless of their nationality or country of origin, regardless of the color of their skin or their gender or anything else.

People are people. It is not only a waste of precious time and energy but also harmful and unacceptable, my grandfather told me in no uncertain terms, to propagate the kind of hate he saw come to fruition in WWII. This hate is unacceptable.

The cruelty of people who allow their fear to manifest as hate rather than challenge their fear head on can be truly shocking. If you’ve never walked through a preserved concentration camp or stood in one of the train cars used to transport people to those camps, I recommend it. The quiet and the dust that has settled over the contours of those places is chilling. The wood in some places still holds the faint and lingering smell of humanity and terror. Even when the sun is beating down on you, the history of those places makes them cold.

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Where the gates still stand at Riga’s open air museum, a preserved portion of the Jewish Ghetto

Bigotry, discrimination, exclusionary practices and politics and hate speech — these things are all very, very slippery slopes. My grandfather knew that. For those of us who didn’t live through WWII and who weren’t there on the ground to watch it unfold have little more to do than pick up a history book to see that this is true. We’ve already seen bouts of violence sparked by the hateful rhetoric of the shameful Republican presidential candidate, Trump. People have already been hurt, because bigotry, discrimination, exclusionary practices and politics and hate speech are slippery fucking slopes.

In case you missed it, I’m going to say it one more time:

Bigotry, discrimination, exclusionary practices and politics and hate speech are all very slippery slopes.

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An art instillation in Riga’s ghetto museum. Each lantern has information about and pictures of people who were interred at concentration camps.

My grandfather may not have always been a good man, but at least he got wiser and kinder in his old age. He may have done plenty of bad things in his life, but I cannot escape the shaping effect he had on my life and I wouldn’t want to. Besides, he also did good things, including managing to not be taken in by the hateful and dehumanizing propaganda he grew up entrenched in. At least he grew up to know that letting fear of a person or people who are unlike you, who you may not understand, warp you into hateful and cruel was unacceptable and an absolute waste of your human potential.

I didn’t need my grandfather to tell me that, but I am glad he did. I am glad because that means that in the wake of the discrimination and racism that is being flaunted in our Norse pagan community, I can share what he told me. I am glad he told me so that I can share it with people who do need to be told that hate and bigotry is not, never has been, and never will be the answer.

I visited my grandfather’s homeland in veneration and in honor of his memory. Now I write this post — looking back on my memories of my grandfather and my time spent in his home town of Riga, looking back on what I know about him, both the good and the bad — in veneration of my grandfather. I honor him and his memory by recalling and sharing the lessons I learned from him about the value of challenging your own fears and biases, of not succumbing to hate, and of growing out of cruelty and striving to be a better person. I will not cherry pick my knowledge of my grandfather, just like I will not cherry pick any of my ancestry, be it biological or cultural or psychological. I would not do that dishonor to my grandfather or any of my ancestors.

Veneration of the ancestors, be they ancestors by blood or by adoption, can be so beautiful. It can be so enlightening and so fulfilling. It can prompt you to learn and grow and set out on adventures great and small.

Let’s not let this profound and beautiful practice be tainted by bigotry and discrimination. Let’s allow it to be beautiful and challenging and moving.

Or else, what good is it?

Previously:

Not In My Paganism (in response to the racist corners of Norse paganism)
Not in My Paganism Part 2: Pagans Against Racism
Not In My Paganism Part 3: On Space and Privilege

Coming Up:

In Sweden
Ibn Fadlan

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