Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The data's changed. So, now what?

One of the questions that has been asked of Celtic pagans from people of multiple persuasions is "what do you do if the scholarship changes?" Celtic studies is prone to fads, fancies and the more solid reasons for alterations in approach. Many documents lie untranslated. New discoveries shape analysis of older ones. And even etymologies get the occasional revisit.

Take the Gaulish god Belenos. For decades, people translated his name as "bright one" and the Victorian presumption that all shiny male gods are sun gods carried into modern times. Recent work has discovered that its definition is closer to "strong one" and may also be related to a Gaulish word for henbane in an echo of how one Latin name for it is apollinaris.

Now, Apollo is a sun god, but he is also a god of healing. And in all of the times Apollo was conflated with gods in Gaul by the Romans, none of them were ever stated as being solar deities in the extant descriptions. It was always Apollo's other aspects, such as healer, that led them to merge the two. Thus, Apollini Beleno was a healing god with no solar aspects.

There are modern pagans who class Belenos as a solar deity, using prior scholarship as their guide. The new data contradicts this approach. And the news leads to examples of how different pagans treat such changes. I know of some who look at the information as the god's way of letting us know we're getting him wrong. Others refuse to change, whether because it works for them or they'd prefer more direct input from the god in question before they change their approach. While I'm all for that kind of spiritual inspiration, I can't help but remember the old joke about the man who said "Jehovah will provide" when rescuers came by to fetch him off the roof of his house before the waters rose too high and he drowned. I can't help but picture Belenos looking at the people who insist he's a solar god in the face of the new data and saying, "I sent you three Celtic scholars and a dictionary! What more did you want?"

Some would argue that innovation shouldn't be treated too cavalierly. A tradition must be allowed to change. I agree with that. But the best, most appropriate and respectful changes come from a base of true understanding. The Victorians shaped the data to fit their assumptions. This is not understanding, it is appropriation. Their presumptions work for some people, I know. And if you're aware that you're using their material instead of more attested ancient lore and admit as much, it's not that big a deal. But honest eclecticism shouldn't get anyone too annoyed, I think.

No comments: