Vestalia & Needful Religion

In the last few years I’ve seen a wide variety of people arrive at the conclusion that what we need as a society to avert self-destruction — self and everything else, that is — is a new religion. I’ve encountered novelists and sociologists (who might be predisposed), economists (who probably are not), celebrity chefs and actors, personal friends and relatives, philosophers, and a politician or two (who are most certainly not so inclined). Humanists have slid into spiritualism. Atheists have turned to ritual and monastic rule. One might even read something of a yearning for something new in the words of Pope Francis.

Of course, this might be written off as merely a continuation of the boomer need to find themselves and a higher purpose through the cultural practices of others. But somehow I don’t think so. For one thing, it’s not just the boomers; it’s people of all ages. For another, the trend isn’t seeking out self-affirming exotica with little reference to some larger system of faith or practice. Most of the people who say we need a new religion mean we need a new religion, in accordance the word’s actual meaning, a binding. We need ethical boundaries, a structure of rules to guide us, a ritual calendar that gives meaning to our lives and ties those lives to something greater, a way to live that can be objectively defined as good. Obligations, bonds, reverence. We need to feel awe; we need to feel humility; we need to feel indebtedness to the world that nurtures us. We need us some of that ol’ time religion.

It is not surprising that a good many of these people are looking to the past. That’s generally where you find tradition after all, and tradition is much closer to religion than what passes for religion in many churches and temples. There isn’t a good reason for religion to include things like personal salvation, for example, nor even deities for that matter. Religion does not have much truck with origin stories though those often become woven into the fabric of a religion because humans do like to tell stories about themselves. There is also not much about death or some fanciful notion of continuance thereafter. Religion is a system of rules that tell us how to live. In this world. How to live the one life that we are given. Over time, stories that explain why the rules exist might grow and evolve. But most rules tend to be justified in circular fashion: “because that’s the way it’s done”. Or more pragmatically “because it works”.

And that is, I believe, what many people are looking for these days. Something that will work. Something that will guide us through this mess. Maybe even show us how to avert it — though that possibility seems rather minuscule at this point. Religions of the past worked. Human cultures and societies who accepted the bindings of religion, of tradition, tended to be highly stable and tended to be highly effective at meeting needs, human and otherwise. Which is probably the true origin story for religions and almost certainly why the boundaries were accepted.

There’s a notion gaining traction these days. I can’t find its origin. It may also be something that just works. It goes something like this:

Boundaries are liberating.

There are pop psychology books and essays with titles such as Set Boundaries, Find Peace or “How Boundaries Can Set You Free”. (For the record, I sort of think this is rather less like religion and more like boomer self-absorption, but then I’m generally suspicious of self-help. Bookseller, you know.) This shows just how far the idea has penetrated, if in garbled form.

As I said, I don’t know where it started. It’s been around a long time. Maybe longer than notions of freedom. Definitely longer than the radical self-determinism that is taken for freedom in the neoliberal era. This notion of living within boundaries so that we may live freely may be older than homo sapiens. (It is how much of the animal world lives after all, but let’s leave aside the anatomy and existential philosophy of free will for the moment, shall we.) Humans may instinctively turn to rules in order to live freely because we are social creatures. We take on restraints and guide-lines so that we can move about without constraint. It sounds paradoxical. I can’t write it so that the words make logical sense. But think about a counter-example — a society with no rules, nothing to control or hinder any behavior, a chaotic jumble of isolated selves ricocheting off of each other. That is approximately how many of those with both Y-chromosomes and a deficiency of epidermal melanin live these days, so you really don’t have to tax your imagination too much — just watch Fox News (with proper antacids). Is anyone in such a society free?

So thus religion. Let’s make a religion! 

But I suppose that’s where we’re going to trip up first. Along with stories about ourselves we also like universals… that are centered on ourselves. We do love our one ring to rule them all. (Even though we all know that the one ring was evil.) Point being, it’s not so easy to make a religion. No one rule is going to suffice for all the disparate ways of living based on all the distinct ecological niches all over this globe. But perhaps there are guidelines?

What is interesting to me is the number of people — rational people, now, not just the loosey-goosey, crystal fairy mountain types who I grew up amongst in Northern California — who are turning to paganism, or maybe “pagan-esque life-ways” is a better term. The thing about paganism is that it is not one thing. It was the pre-existing condition of societies all around the world before state-supported (mandated) “religions” commandeered the rules (to support the state… how’s that for circular!). There are as many paganisms as there are habitats. But most of them share a few crucial features that the more recent faiths do not possess.

First and foremost is a reverence for nature, and not merely as some wondrous thing out there that we can watch at sunset, feel good about for a few minutes, and then ignore in our “real” lives. In nearly all religions that are not primarily concerned with supporting human hierarchies, there is no hierarchy. There is no distinction between “human” and “nature”. In fact, there is no “human” nor “nature”; it’s all the living world. It’s all people. It’s all family. Nature is us. We are bound up in it. And it is miraculous and wonderful! It is life. Pagans revere life as the great mystery and nurturing matrix that it is. Life is sacred (which, like “boundaries that free”, also makes no logical lexical sense but is nevertheless unquestionable truth).

It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that this is a fairly useful attitude to cultivate if one’s goal is to stop humans from messing up the planet. It leads to all sorts of boundaries that are greater freedoms. The Wiccans say it best, though with characteristically goofy anachronism (that kinda doesn’t make sense if examined too closely, but whatever): An it harm none, do what you will. Harm none. Within that bounded state, you do you. But first harm none.

Of course, this can be interpreted to the extreme because those one rules tend to be expansively vague, you know. But it is a good first step. Harm none. Put that first and all sorts of things… just… stop. Put that first and you have to at least consider what you are doing in order to know whether you are causing harm in doing it. Harm none is the foundation of most paganisms. And thus, I believe, paganism has new cachet among the intellectual set — even with paganism’s strong whiff of crystal fairy mountain air.

The next commonality among paganisms is a ritual calendar. Where we live, this is what we do and when we do it and how we do it. And sometimes why. There is a rhythm to life, a repetition, a constant sine wave of growth and decay, expansion and contraction, birth and death. (Note: it’s not life and death; death is part of life and is merely a transition point, like birth. Life encompasses both.) This structuring of time into set action, into timely traditions, is how humans participate in the world. It is how we belong — with other humans and with everything else, from the position of the sun to the first flowering of the cherry trees to the last breath of atmosphere we inhale. We can of course dispense with the symbolic rites and still participate but only if we’re very creative and very organized. The rites are the mnemonics and the easy garden paths. And truly there is more belonging in doing what has been done countless times than in creating your own path — even when the rites are so old they’ve become somewhat fuzzy on original meaning, they mean more to us than something original to us.

When people say we need religion, this is usually the outward expression. The rules are wrapped up into social activity and ordained time-keeping. It’s, not coincidentally, most of the fun parts of religion as well. “We need religion” becomes “we need to have solstice celebrations and harvest feasts”. And we do. We need to celebrate this living world. Together. Because this is the “why” and the “how” we harm none, among other important reasons.

Another commonality is one that is perhaps not obvious unless you squint at the name in the right light. Pagan was a Roman term of derision, slang for those backwards, country bumpkins living in the wilds beyond the civitas. Pagans were rednecks. In just about any equivalency you might care to draw. They dressed funny. They talked funny. They smelled… earthy. They were hairy in all the wrong places. They were loud, drank too much and married their cousins… ok, well, the Romans had them beat on that one, but anyway… Pagans were people of the land, not of the human-mediated-landscape. 

When we generalized “pre-state-sponsored-religion” and then “pre-Christian-religion” into “pagan” (because of course everything references… ok, I’ll stop…), the term maybe lost some of its snark but it did not change in essence. Pagans from all manner of cultures are people of the land. Bound to it and bound up in it. In nearly all paganisms there is a human social milieu — facilitating societal living is the whole point — but humans are not in control. Humans are neither the mediators nor the originators. Humans may live in houses, but even those hand-built structures exist at the whim and grace of the non-human world.

Pagans are tied to their physical locations. To the trees and rivers, soil and stars. Animals of all sorts are family, though some are more akin to your nasty uncle than your favorite granny. But what is around you is you in most pagan world views. This, too, is a useful idea to cultivate in our times. It feeds into harm none, yes, but it also engenders humility, love, connection. Care. Pagans care for their world because it is the world. It does not belong to anyone; it is everyone. It is of and for and with all things together bound up in the perpetual sacred dance of living.

And so, we turn to religion. Maybe old time religion. But if you’re not of a pagan bent, that’s fine. There are many good qualities in the younger faiths. Just mind the transcendentalism, dualism, anthropocentrism, and hierarchy. Look to the world. Recognize your interdependencies. Follow traditions that work harmoniously. Harm none.

Victim for the Goddess Vesta by Sebastiano Ricci (c.1723)

In one of my favorite little ironies, the Roman equivalent of redneck became applied to the Roman state faith when Christians took control of their state. There are many things about Roman Paganism that are not very pagan, but the essence of the pre-state faith remained strong. In fact, the most pagan, of-the-land elements survived the fall of the Roman state, with some of the oldest traditions gleefully carrying on right under the wrinkled noses of the disapproving Church Fathers. (We still celebrate Carnival, you know.) They survived the state because these old and durable traditions were largely of the land, and all of them were of the common people; none were state-focused.

In the Temple of Vesta by Constantin Holscher (1902)

June 7th marks the start of one of the most important of the Roman Pagan holidays — Vestalia. We giggle about Vestal Virgins these days, but these were people — female people! — with great power, authority, and dignity. Their word was unassailable. Their persons were sacrosanct. Their character, unimpeachable — except for the few times when it was useful for the state to have a highly visible scapegoat to blame for troubling events. They served the central deity of the state — who was also the central deity of each home, Vesta, the goddess of the hearth.

Rare image of Vesta from Pompeii

Ponder that, friends. The mighty Romans and their great works of empire-building worshipped a nearly faceless domestic goddess above all. (Yes, she was fiery, but that was really not the point.) The Vestals were the guardians and keepers of the home for the entire empire. As such they witnessed and preserved wills and last testaments. They were required to give voice on law and preside over state functions. Vesta was invoked daily in all matters. But she was literally viewed as the hearth-fire — unassuming, grounded, intimate, and comforting.

Vesta is very pagan. 

Vestalin mit Efeugirlande by Carl Friedrich Deckler (c. 1910)

So if you are looking to turn to a way of living that might be more grounded, if you are looking for a religion that proscribes so that all may be free from arbitrary proscription, you could do worse than thinking about the hearth-fires in your life. What is most important to you? What is sustaining and life-preserving? How do you serve what is sustaining? How do you make home, and how do you share the comforts of home with others, human and otherwise? Who cares for you and where do you feel that care and how do you return it?

Vestalia lasts through the 15th, so you have plenty of time to think on all this. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

And that, my friends, is very pagan too.

Merry meet! 

©Elizabeth Anker 2022