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Pagan Blood Fetishism

Provocative enough title for ya?

There’s a lot of talk about ancestors and ancestor veneration and the religion of one’s ancestors going around on and off, and a lot of it has a whole lot more to do with mythology than reality. There is a whole lot of mythology about ancestors. Not in the ‘sacred story’ sense, in the ‘made-up nonsense’ sense. This is particularly the case for white Americans.

Basically, one of the first posts I made when I started blogging (and this was several blogs ago) touched on the problem of “white America”, specifically the cultural delusion that we have no culture. There are a lot of things that come of this, but one of the more popular is obsession with ancestry.

For example, my personal family mythology is that I’m three-eighths Irish, a quarter Polish, most of a quarter English, an eighth German, and some leftover smidge Scottish. And, certainly, I have heritages that go back like that.

But when I’m wanting to be culturally accurate about it, I say that I’m a quarter Boston Irish, a quarter Polish, and half-Yankee. Those are my cultural heritages, more or less. (It’s more complicated than that; I have trauma instead of functional Polish heritage because of the way the surrounding culture brutalised my grandmother until she passed for white. Because Slavs were not a part of ‘white culture’ then.)

I make jokes about the half-Yankee thing. Yankee pagan joke: I have returned to the religion of my ancestors. By which I mean “Unitarian Universalism”.

I’m descended from Puritans, you see.

And it’s actually more complicated than that. My father’s been going on a genealogy binge, intermittently, which means I occasionally get emails about various famous people I’m descended from, along with lines of descent to get there. (Also what level of cousin Bellatrix Lestrange is, because apparently there’s a real-world historical figure in that genealogy somewhere so I can be distantly related to a fictional homicidal maniac.)

So if I go through those emails, I’m apparently descended from King David, but it sure doesn’t make me Jewish. Also a High Priest of Amun, which has nothing to do with me being an Egyptian recon. Also Aphrodite, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t make the blood quantum required to qualify me to be a Hellenic hero.

But even if we stick with near enough generations that it’s more or less plausible, there are names like “João Fernandes de Riba de Vizela”. That name is Portuguese.

You know what there’s a serious lack of in my family statements about our heritage? Portuguese. And that family line runs through Spain – a couple of generations down from there are some people whose name says they’re from Toledo. Also missing from family statements about heritage: Spain. Mind, this is around 1400, but. (An Englishman married a Spanish wife, who apparently had heritage into Portugal.) 1400 in that area, everyone involved was Christian anyway; digging back to What Ancestral Polytheisms Did My Ancestors Have gets even more tenuous. (Okay, I’m now wondering if my father can dig up any Muslim ties, as that’s before the Reconquista. It’s possible! Of course, it’s entirely likely to be in the parts of heritage that are ‘these people didn’t hold any land, so who cares who their descendants are’.)

Is that too far back? How about this one: my mother was looking into where her grandfather had come from. The information she had involved a small town in the suburbs of The Big City, so, okay, she was looking to see if she could find relatives near Warsaw. No dice.

Turns out The Big City? Vilnius.

Now in Lithuania. The capital of Lithuania.

(Lithuania’s been Christianised since about the same time I have that Spanish ancestress, and it went late.)

Ancestry just plain isn’t all that tidy. People move around. People have always moved around, and just because my Christian ancestors were in one area doesn’t mean that they lived in that area enough generations back that the local polytheistic religions would have been ones they subscribed to. For all I know they came from somewhere else back then.

I can say, yes, I have heritage links to various things, or I feel the need to do various things because of my more recent ancestors – which I do, in some cases, and not just for ancestors recent enough that I knew them. But it’s implausible for me to point and say ‘because of my ancestors within the last five generations, I’m going to devote myself to the reconstructed religion of the people who lived where my ancestors lived a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, because I have more meaningful ties to that than to anything else.’

I don’t. I really don’t. And looking at the actual genealogies really drives that home. What I choose can’t be about heritage because heritage is weirder and more complicated than the mythologies I told myself.

Also, the mythology of recovering the “real” religion of a particular location, in case that wasn’t muddying the waters enough:

Unless you are making cave paintings and making sure to be buried with red ochre you are not practicing the original religion of ancient Europe. Just to be totally clear.

Things have changed since then.

Any of these places has been, since then, subject to a variety of theological innovations and changes, population migrations, people being displaced, people assimilating into other groups, die-offs, conquests, decisions that the gods one previously had a reciprocal relationship with haven’t been holding up their end of the deal so they need to be fired in favour of new gods who might maybe not break the tribal bargains, and so on. History is a complicated mess like that.

Any ‘religion of this particular place’ is arbitrarily chosen for a particular point in time. Anything that is there will have shaped itself to fit the space – and for all that people rant about Christianity being an imposition from outside, it did that thing. (Of course, then people whinge about decorated eggs and hypothetical Germanic goddesses being Proof Of Christianity’s Unoriginality And Theft, so basically there’s no winning. There isn’t even any acknowledgement that those are local customs that have been exported due to their popularity among powerful cultures. People may not even know that. I’ve run into a surprising number of people who are entirely unaware that “Easter” is only a thing in English and German; just about everyone else, sensibly, uses a word that derives from “Passover”.)

These religions are not static and emerging from the earth itself, teaching its people the ways of a particular place – and if they were, people an ocean away have no business pretending they’re doing it. Even if we knew the theological nuances between tribes at various points in time, the facts are that there was constant flow and development. “Celtic” was basically an ancient fad for a bit, and we don’t know how much of it was people moving around and how much of it was adopting artforms and stylings from the cool neighbors. Religions changed and evolved and mutated when the Romans conquered places and demanded some level of conformity to the statue cultus, when the Goths sacked Rome, when the Huns swept through, and so on. Poland was a religiously tolerant state because it was a Catholic state wedged among Lutherans, Orthodox, and Muslims and didn’t want to piss off any of its powerful neighbors, which is why it wound up with a tremendous Jewish population.

This isn’t a statement about one supersession being better or more legit than another, it’s just: they happened. Anything one tries to reconstruct as pre-Christian is going to be chosen from a particular point in time, and it overcame something that was there before, and was overcome by something that came after. Further, it evolved out of a constant flow of cultural contact with others with different practices, sometimes amicably, sometimes not.

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