The Hel We Want

Truth has a kind of gravity to it. In the first decades of the ninth century as Alcuin was guiding Charlemagne’s Court School to greater feats of Roman hero-worship, he spoke out against the idea that “vox populi, vox dei:” ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God,’ but there is a truth in this statement just as there is a kind of truth in “a hundred million people cannot be wrong.”

Of course, everyone is a little bit wrong, but no one is altogether wrong, a fact that we would best keep in mind as the whole world watches the United States convulse under the throes of its presidential election. This is to say that everyone has a different perspective of reality (that oh-so-problematic term), and in a world of the colour-blind, the one who can see red will seem crazy.

Like some hills in Wales and Ireland, sleeping under the Brugmansia or Angel Trumpet tree was said to make you either insane or a poet. High levels of alkaloids in the flowers and leaves can generate hallucinations or even death.

Nevertheless, truth has a gravity to it. It draws us toward it inexorably, calls us relentlessly and inspires us to acts that may seem bizarre and insane even, like a precognitive dream that seems utterly incomprehensible until its circumstances are realized. We can see the patterns this gravity forms in larger society as many people acting unconsciously follow the invisible dictates of its force. Vox populi, vox dei … but which god, which truth?

Many attempt to understand or interpret the force of truth’s gravity across humanity and its history with manifold results. Marxists will see the interplay of class and power. Monotheists will see the providence of God. Atheists will see the interplay of natural forces, but at some point all these different interpretations will fail because the perception of truth lies beyond human perception and reason. It is the foundation for reality itself and so human perception and reason are ontologically dependent on it. An eye cannot see itself without a mirror, so human reason cannot perceive truth save by its influence on the world because human reason and perception are extensions of this foundational truth.

(That link is to The Spectrum of Consciousness, by the way, a book totally worth the read.)

This is not to say that truth lies beyond us. That is like saying the Sun lies beyond us. In one way it does — it is eight light-minutes away and if we were to physically reach it we would be instantly incinerated — but in another it is right here and obviously with us. What is the Sun to us other than how it looks, the warmth it gives, the life it promotes and the death it deals? The beauty of a sunset is no less a part of the Sun simply because it lasts for the briefest moment, and the emotion that a sunset prompts in us is no less a part of it as well. What are the gods to us other than the influences they exert in the world?

Ask yourself if this is the reality of a full stomach or rather the feeling of warmth and contentment after eating? Which is more real or true? Maybe I should have gone with The treachery of Images?

Monotheistic theologians will take this analogy and say that it is an argument for monotheism, that any appearance of polytheism is merely different aspects of the One True God. This is a little like saying all stars are really aspects of our one Sun because they share so many attributes. From an argumentative standpoint this can carry weight, but from a practical standpoint things get a little weirder. If we take human consciousness to be an extension of the kind of truth with which I began this post then every human activity we find evil, repulsive and wrong must extend from the same divine truth. Imperialism, colonialism, racism, the commodification of humanity, the predatory spirit that informs both child abuse and serial killers, all must either be an aspect of the monotheistic truth or an aberration from it — unless …

… unless there are multiple, different truths of different natures that supply the foundation for all we perceive and experience.

But you know all this. I’ve talked about this before. What I am really getting into here is not the nature of truth or reality, but how that nature or truth informs our society: our elections, our friendships, our economies, our schoolings, our movies, indeed our very culture.

The fact of the matter is that we can, to a certain degree, decide which divine truth we wish to engage with. I say ‘to a certain degree,’ because every traditionally pagan culture has a notion that when we are born there is a spiritual association beyond our control. Among the Norse it was the dísir. Among the Romans it was the genii and the among Greeks the daimones. Even the notion of astrological associations connects to this sensibility, so in some ways who we are spiritually is beyond our control as the gods will work without consulting us. However, we can respond to the workings of the divine, giving thanks where due and mitigating negative forces through ritual.

Among the Indo-Europeans at least there was a three-fold conception of how the divine interacts with us: the sacred (those things fit for the gods and not for us), the august (those things filled with divine power in the world, like the harvest, super-heroes, and David Bowie), and the sanctified (those things brought into right relationship with the divine through ritual). (Look for Harriet Lutzky’s article in that link I posted.) My personal feeling is that all traditionally pagan cultures recognize this trio, but thus far only the Indo-European side of it has been commented on by academia. My point is that the gods are present in us and we can respond to their presence in ways that will benefit us, but we need to make that decision.

This brings me to my title. In many ways we choose our perspective: Marxist, Atheist, Monotheist, Pagan, etc. We can choose a perspective that predicates misery. We can decide that life is “nasty, brutish and short” and that society is going crazy. It can seem that way, but it isn’t. If it looks like the world or people are going crazy, it’s because there is a different spiritual reality informing their world and lives. The question is what we do about it, and the first thing is to ‘touch base’ with your own gods and people. By doing so we choose a perspective that predicates joy. Now, I’m not saying that the Huffington Post has all the answers (as you might have wondered since I’ve linked twice to them for those perspectives), but I have found them to be a fair indication of the vox populi. Moreover, I think it very significant that in their “Habits of Supremely Happy People” (the latter link) they list ‘getting into nature,’ ‘unplugging,’ and ‘getting spiritual’ in addition to several behaviours that build connections with people. Combine these together thoroughly and you get traditional paganism.

The world ‘hell’ has become quite an intensifier, and I think it’s no coincidence that the word and idea go back to the Norse goddess, Hel. As the goddess and personification of the underworld, one of the three worlds resonant in all traditional paganisms, she gave her name to the Christian Hell and informed its notion of eternal punishment — though in Norse cosmology Hel’s realm is just kind of cold and boring.

We make our own Hel. We make our own world out of our perceptions and the actions implied by those perceptions. We get whatever the Hel we want. We can do whatever the Hel we want, but we must do it with wit, resourcefulness, and good will or never be more than the plaything of consequence and the slaves of others, divine or mundane.

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