Where Is Your Nile?

After a living room talk to a group of Anchorage Pagans about different types of nature religion, I ended up in the kitchen with a woman who was an Egyptian reconstructionist — or revivalist, as she preferred to say.

Given my concerns, my first thought was that if the ancient Egyptian sacred year was organized around the flood cycle of the Nile, what was the Alaskan equivalent? If ships of ancient Egyptians had somehow sailed into Cook Inlet, how might that landscape have changed them?

Yes, it’s true that one of my religious studies professors called me an “environmental determinist,” and he did not mean it as a compliment. But I am not the only one wondering about how one’s religious practice becomes rooted in a particular place — and how do we get back to that situation?

Dolores LaChapelle in SW Colorado

Here in Colorado, one under-appreciated writer on these topics was the mountaineer and deep ecologist Dolores LaChapelle. Earth Festivals: Seasonal celebrations for Everyone Young and Old was written in the 1970s, while her big book, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep — Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life came out in 19972. (Visit her Amazon page to see all her books.) Both might be called “deep green religion,” to borrow a phrase — non-theistic nature religion but still exhibiting an approach to life that I would love to see more of in contemporary Paganism.

spirit of placeAnother writer who wrote a how-to workbook on integrating spirituality with nature is Loren Cruden, whose The Spirit of Place: A Workbook with Sacred Alignment involves study and doings through the cycle of a temperate-climate year.

Neolithic Shamanism: Spirit Work in the Norse Tradition by Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova, also takes a workbook approach. I was impressed by Kaldera’s original approach in his book Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle, while Krasskova has herself written widely on re-creating ancestral cults and on polytheism. neolithic shamanism

The term “Neolithic” might be off-putting for some, especially those who — following some deep ecologists, philosophers like Paul Shepard, or Pagan thinkers like Fred Adams — see it as the “Fall” from the older Paleolithic life, which was dangerous but yet more leisurely.

The “Neolithic Revolution” (agriculture, domesticating livestock) also meant bigger social groups, hierarchies (the Big Man becomes the king, and you better bow down), turning women into full-time baby-makers (More sons, bigger farm!), and an overall decline in health and physique, at least in some archaeological studies, although not everyone agrees.

But perhaps the thought is of robust peasants living in somewhat more egalitarian societies on the margins of Europe.

Rather than organizing by the calendar, Neolithic Shamanism is organized by realm: Earth, Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft, Air, Ancestors. Unlike the other books mentioned, this one is very much about spirit work:

We [authors] have many spirit allies; we also have plenty of experiences with spirits who weren’t interested in talking to us, or who took a firm dislike to us from the start. Remember that these are people. They aren’t human people, but they are People. Like all individuals, some will take a shine to you, and some will prefer someone else. Don’t take it personally. (Italics in the original.)

This book is densely packed, and it would take months to work through the exercises, but to do them all would change you permanently.

One question always in my mind, however, is to what extent we can impose a pantheon, so to speak, on the gods of our place. (There are at least two polytheistic theological questions in that sentence.) Do we “summon, stir, and call [them] up” or do we hang out and see who is there?

This is especially a question when in new places — new hemispheres — and there is only one piece of evidence — that I know of — in which a Pagan ancestor dealt with it.

Unfortunately for the story, almost all the Norse who visited North America during the time of the Greenland settlements (roughly 1000–1400 CE) were Christian, from Leif Erikson on down. So the episode from Erik the Red’s Saga about “Thorhall the hunter” has passed through many layers of Christian tellers and redactors, meaning that Thorhall is portrayed as an anachronism at best and a fool at worst.

To me it is a very poignant story:

They [the Norsemen] stayed there [in Vinland] that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one . . . . They ran short of food and the hunting failed . . . .Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked.

Meanwhile Thorhall the Hunter disappeared and they went out to search for him. They searched for three days; and on the fourth day Karlsefni and Bjarni found him on top of a cliff. He was staring up at the sky with eyes and mouth and nostrils agape, scratching himself and pinching himself and mumbling. They asked him what he was doing there; he replied that it was no concern of theirs, and told them not to be surprised and that he was old enough not to need them to look after him. They urged him to come back home with them, and he did.

A little later a whale was washed up and they rushed to cut it up. No one recognized what kind of a whale it was, not even Karlsefni, who was an expert on whales. The cooks boiled the meat, but when it was eaten it made them all ill.

Then Thorhall the Hunter walked over and said, “Has not Redbeard turned out to be more successful than your Christ? This was my reward for the poem I composed in honor of my patron, Thor; he has seldom failed me.”

When the others realized this they refused to use the whale meat and threw it over a cliff, and committed themselves to God’s mercy. Then a break came in the weather to allow them to go out fishing, and after that there was no scarcity of provisions.

Whether in Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland [?], to Thorhall it was all one realm.

9 Comments

  1. Moma Fauna says:

    So much to say, so little time. So just a few:

    “Like all individuals, some will take a shine to you, and some will prefer someone else.” An emphatic YES.

    “Do we “summon, stir, and call [them] up” or do we hang out and see who is there?” I prefer the latter. But I might also add that I think certain members of the various pantheons are more “portable” while others seem decidedly localized.

    As for the young woman in the kitchen, I picked up that conversation where you left off. There’s much more to be said there, probably among many, but it’s a work in progress.

    Thank you for this post, it put all those pieces into a concise, cohesive statement & added some resources to boot. 😉

    • Chas Clifton says:

      “I might also add that I think certain members of the various pantheons are more ‘portable’ while others seem decidedly localized.”

      Another of those poly-theological questions. Thanks for your response.

  2. From what I understand, Raven and Galina had little (if any) input into the title of their book, as is the case with so many books that aren’t self-published. So, I don’t think “neolithic” necessarily occurred to them as the best way to describe what they were discussing. Oh well…I suppose the phrase “don’t judge a book by its title” might be a good one to keep in mind sometimes, too.

  3. Dorothy (a.k.a woman in the kitchen) says:

    Technically, the sacred year was calculated based on the relationship of two physical events. The annual inundation of the Nile, but also the rising of the star Sirius in the night sky after a long disappearance, and the correlation between the two.

    Personally, what I find more troubling is that I cannot view this astronomical event (the rising of Sirius before dawn in late summer) from where I am located in the “land of the Midnight Sun”.

    Keep in mind that the Nile itself was never worshipped as a deity in Egyptian religion, but Hapy the god of the inundation was, and even if I were a modern Egyptian…the Nile is no longer allowed to flood.

    I think it is also worth noting that Hapy’s cult was never as large as that of the deity whose physical presence is known to all of humanity. Ra shines on us all after all. As do the ancestors, who in most Kemetic traditions are seen in the Stars.

    I suppose I merely question the usefulness of this line of questioning. This is exactly what most revivalists I see are doing, interpreting the ancient traditions through their own lived experience, and that’s all any of us can do. I know a local Hellenic who has a personal cultic focus on Apollon’s wolf associations, because, well, Alaska. My husbands answer to the question was basically, “why hypothesize?” Practice, and what that practice looks like is the result. What I do know is that the ancients took their gods with them, and they also felt called to worship foreign gods all the time, when the pull was strong to do so.

    What I also know, is that if we ever want larger institutions, and many of us do, we have to agree on some common interpretations of things to a certain degree, and for Kemetic religion, we certainly can’t base that common ground on the particularities of an unsurprisingly lonely Kemetic in Alaska.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Dorothy, thanks for commenting. I was not thinking of the Nile as worshiped or not, but as the central fact of the calendar. As for Ra, while the astronomical Sun is the same everywhere, we experience it differently at high latitudes as compared to say 30° N in the Nile valley. And, as you mention, the rising of Sirius is experienced differently. Thus it seems to be that the cultic practice would feel different, but I am just speculating there. I hope that you will keep writing about your experience.

  4. Hraefna says:

    Small (but useful)typo correction: LaChappelle’s book was titled Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, not Sacred Six. 🙂

  5. Hecate Demeter says:

    /Adds furiously to book list.