July 18, 2012

Counterfeit Religions VIII: Ancient Nature Religions

When stating Ancient Nature Religions this is referring to the Primal Religions. I suppose under this heading we can include neo-paganism and even animism which is beliefs that revolve around the existence of non-human "spiritual beings" or similar kinds of embodied principles. In saying the aforementioned and considering some of these belief systems to be religions, we are really dancing around the edge of the definition of what a “religion” is. This is a broad category and at times may be hard to define.

Dates:  Unknown, antiquity, pre-history

Founder(s):  Unknown, multiple. Not an organized religion per se but rather a communal or community based set of beliefs, value systems, morality, ethics (or lack thereof) usually driven geographically and culturally: Geo-Cultural or location based religions.

Major text(s): As they are often ancient and stem from multiple sources, there are usually no official texts but it should be noted that they often rely heavily on oral tradition and passing down of stories of gods (an ancestors) through storytelling or aural/oral traditions, folklore and rituals. Generally there is no set doctrine but there are generalized commonalities of belief. Nature being divine or being imbued with the divine (Panentheism) is one such commonality of many of these belief systems. There are exceptions as is the case of Wiccans who have the Wiccan Rede which is a statement that provides the key moral system that says: “If it harms none, do as you will.” This can hardly be considered a sacred text though. In the case of Druidism Bards (storytellers in song) were often the keepers of tradition and the memory of the tribe/clan.

Major variations: Since I am broad stroking large swathes of belief this is hard to pin down. The ones that come to mind most are things like Druidism, Wicca, some can even be revitalizations of Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Roman and other ancient Pagan religions. Sometimes a combination of any of the above can result in a form of syncretistic hodge-podge. Due to indefinite or undefined set of beliefs or doctrines in these “religions”, endless variations can result. I will even take this slightly farther to include the likes of Native American religions, Australian aborigines, etc. although this may not be the strictest sense included in this catagory.

Current number of adherents: Nearly impossible to estimate. Some estimates say 1 million, some more, some less

Beliefs about major holidays and practices:  Since we are dealing with heavy variations in multiple (plural) belief systems there are a large variety of holidays and practices. I will note some generalizations that will define a majority of these “religions”. In general it should be noted that different deities are connected with different times of the year and worshipped in seasonal festivals, and practices like astrology and divination are rooted in the belief in nature's divinity. In this way they are Panentheistic (or appear to be). They revere the cycle of the seasons, which is regarded as an expression of the divine and a model for spiritual growth and renewal. The Earth itself is regarded as sacred, divine or a god/goddess: Gaia, Mother Earth, Green Man, etc. Because of these presuppositions there are deep ecological concerns that are characteristic of many of the adherents of these types of religions. The magical or mystic practices seem to revolve around the phases of the moon.

I will note some of the practices of Wicca and in so doing we will see interesting parallels with other beliefs. There is a belief in 4 or 5 Elements of Nature: Some acknowledge (4) air, fire, water, earth and others recognize (5) elements: earth, air, water, fire, and spirit or akasha. Some see the points of the pentagram symbol as representing the five elements. Elemental forms are commonly invoked at the beginning of rituals or used in their physical forms to symbolize purity. Each element has associated symbols, rituals and meanings. Like Native American beliefs, there is also a significance held in things like directions: North, south east, west, and center. Colors: Yellow, red, blue, green, violet, white or black. Talismans and/or Totems: Wand, chalices, pentacles, circle, animal totems, etc. Basic concepts of time: Mornings, noon, twilight, midnight and especially seasons (cycles of birth, death, re-birth): Spring, summer, autumn, winter. There is a huge dependency on symbols and symbolism relating to: The mind/intellect, reason, sciences, travel, youth strength, passion, energy, transformation, sex, emotional energies, intuition, wisdom, healing, fertility and transcendence and extremes such as everything and nothing.

Many of these “religions” are defined less by doctrines and dogmas and more by practices and behaviors (i.e.: rituals). Many cling to things related to the seasonal cycle or Wheel or cycle of the Year. The festivals generally fall along the lines of the following (or some variation thereof): Imbolc (midpoint of winter), Ostara (Spring Equinox), Beltane (beginning of Summer), Midsummer (Summer Solstice), Lughnasadh (beginning of harvest), Mabon (Autumn Equinox) , Samhain (end of harvest), Yule (Winter Solstice). It should be noted that many of these pagan festivals influenced the Catholic Church’s desire to covert the pagan masses, thereby they adopted and absorbed many of these practices and renamed them into Catholic celebrations, saints, etc. They did this sometimes to the detriment of the Christian church. Sadly, we are again beginning to see this in the more Liberal denominations willing to participate in ecumenical councils and interfaith gatherings that end up watering down Christian doctrines.

Beliefs about God: What appears to be normative to all these religions is recognition of the divine in nature. These ancient /primal religions generally (but not always) seem to have a polytheistic and often times Panentheistic view of God/gods and view deity often in the sense of a pantheon or multiple gods. One god is usually viewed as supreme or superior to others.

Beliefs about humanity There is an intrinsic belief the mankind or humanity is intimately tied to the earth.

Beliefs about the supernatural (angels, messages from God, etc):  Nearly all ancient nature religions usually honor ancestral (Cult of the Dead) and locational spirits. (This ties into the afterlife) Although there seemed to be no universal belief of reincarnation among the Celts, it is clear that it was believed that Spirits are often born into flesh for various reasons (Transmigration of Soul)

Beliefs about the afterlife:  These religions seem to follow a wide variety of paths and may have a variety of beliefs questions like the afterlife. The Celts expected their afterlife to be very similar to the life they left behind. They were buried either whole or after cremation, with chariots, jewelry, weapons, drinking equipment and food (similar to Egyptians). If not reincarnation there are many beliefs of afterlife. I’ll mention a few. Summerland is a Wiccan concept of paradise, where one experiences happiness and sensual pleasure. Summerland can function as a destination between reincarnations (a place of rest and renewal) or as the ultimate destination, when a soul eventually stops reincarnating…never mind that the final destination never seems to be alluded to. Then there is Tir na n'Og or "Land of Youth" is a blessed realm across the water where souls journey after death. It is also a land where the souls of heroic warriors engage in valorous battle. This then leads to Valhalla "Hall of the Slain" or Folkvangr "Field of the Host". These appear to be similar to the concept of the Elysium Fields which were destinations for the spirits of noble warriors and kings. The great warriors who journey to Valhalla and Fólkvangr upon their death will assist the gods in the battle at the end of the age. Then of course we have Hades which is the underworld in Greek myth. Descriptions of this place vary from gloomy to a realm similar to the Elysium.

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