hth: (i'm a veronica)
[personal profile] hth
Because a certain type of Christian is sort of famous for insisting on doctrinal issues of faith that are objectively not at all how the real world works, I thought I'd be incredibly fair today and talk about one of those places where I also struggle between things my religion teaches me to believe and, well, actual-facts reality.

There's this idea that exists throughout the Indo-European world, embedded deeply into the ancient language and literature, of something called "undying fame," which is believed to take precedence over any other kind of undyingness. Pagans had various views on the afterlife, depending on time and place, and while I think there's a lot of good evidence that the belief in a peaceful underworld existence where the dead rejoin their families is an ancient, indigenous IE belief, the historical record clearly shows that the Greek and Roman worlds, at least, had a pretty grim view of the afterlife. They saw it as populated (for the most part) by sad, hungry shades who longed eternally for the living world they would never see again, a world which had all but forgotten them.

On the other hand, there was this "undying fame," which provided a sense of continuity. If you were mighty and successful in whatever way, congratulations! The poets would sing about you forever. You, unlike the other sad, dead bastards, would continue to be remembered, and to matter to the world. This was a huge component of the heroic ethos and these cultures' sense of what a good life meant. Essentially, it meant a *great big* life, one that was impossible to forget. That was the goal of it all: not to fade away. That's why the great heroes of the poetic tradition inevitably make a speech that boils down to "I don't care when or how I die, as long as I take enough enemies with me that they'll sing my Undying Fame til the end of time."

That's a pretty neat trick if you're trying to recruit warm bodies for generations of systemic, endless fighting over cattle and gold and wives: turn it into a great quest for glory and honor instead. We still pretty much do that. It's a winning strategy, for the warlords who field these armies of eager-beaver hero wannabes.

But the thing is, the end of time is a long way away. Human memory just is not "undying," even under the very best of circumstances. In the last post I mentioned that human history is tens of thousands of years long. The great ancient heroes we've heard of (assuming for the moment that these were ever real people; some of them may have been, or maybe not), your Gilgameshes and Beowulfs and Achilleses (Achillei?), are preserved in memory over the course of maybe three or four thousand years...and that's because of the accidents of history that provided for some (very far from all) of the IE world's traditional oral epics to be written down once the cultures began to change so irrevocably that their institutional memories were failing.

That always happens, is the thing. Cultures fail. Civilizations fall. Memory exhausts itself. We don't know the names or the stories of the people who built Stonehenge, although that's a fairly epic achievement. We don't know the names of any of those original great warriors who rode down out of the Caucasus to seek their fortunes and eventually spread throughout Europe. Forget their personal names, we barely even know what they called themselves as a whole (they might have called themselves something like "Aryans," but it's more likely that was a conceptual category that united a number of completely disparate tribes and helped enable them to cooperate with each other). The effects of their deeds are impossible to overstate: they invented the western world as we know it. We don't know one name. Not one of them achieved the Undying Fame they believed would be their reward.

Heck, the thing about an afterlife in another realm is that it's not exactly disprovable. Undying Fame *is* disprovable. It's disproven. And it's a pretty sketch concept anyway, given that it's supposed to apply primarily to the heroes of action-packed epic wars and not to the people who, you know, invented axles and agriculture and other things that have a lot more world-shaping significance than the siege of Troy or the Cattle Raid of Cuilgne ever could have -- let alone to the people who just lived decent lives and raised -- improbably, *amazingly* -- one more generation of human beings, launching their children out into the future freighted down with all their hopes and fears. Those are the people who made us who we are. Those are the people whose deeds invented our world. And most of us can't name them four generations back.

So here I am, trying to practice the religion of my ancestors, but unable to accept one of the really pretty significant belief systems that animated and drove them. Death for me can't mean what it did to them. Life to me doesn't mean what it did to them. The idea of fame will never have the same weight to me; I'm the child of many centuries of revolution in thought about the concepts of elite and common, of significant and insignificant, and I'm just not driven in the same way by the dream of heroism. I'm driven by the other dream: of honoring my obligations to my family, and of the joy of being at home among them eternally. I like to tell myself -- with some good evidence, I think! -- that that's a vision at least as old, at least as well-integrated into the tradition. But the thing is that even if it isn't, I'd choose that over the other.

I think there's something to be said for the honesty factor when it comes to tradition. No matter how deeply we honor where we came from, I think all of us run into those things where we just can't believe the same things about our world that our ancestors did. I'm not saying that's always comfortable, but I don't know of any tradition that doesn't pretty clearly place a higher value on truthfulness than falsehood.

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Bull Moon Hearth

October 2013

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