In trying to reweave and restore our ancestral religions, it's easy to get confused and even easier to miss the mark. Our culture is a sick one after all, disconnected, impious, and fairly confused. After two thousand years of Christian dominance, it can be very difficult to reclaim our polytheistic heritage, most importantly, it can be very difficult to reclaim the mindset, the deeply internalized understanding of the way sacred things work within an indigenous context, that lies at the heart of that mindset. Sometimes it's an uphill battle.
Take this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2013/05/making-light-hero-worship/ for instance. There is some major disconnect here. I realize that there is an entire foundation, a habitus, a cultural and religious comprehension that comes with an understanding of lineage and tradition, that comes of growing up in a community rooted in a common understanding of what it means to be polytheistic. We don't have that. Still, part of the battle is recognizing it as something important to reclaim. Much of that reclamation begins with learning to rightly honor the dead.
I've said it before and I"ll say it again: the ancestors are our best and strongest allies in this fight. They can help us get it "right." Our traditions were sundered. They were destroyed. Not only our traditions but any sense of lineage was torn away. That is such a horrific, collective, soul-deep devastation, a holocaust of such proportion that it's no wonder we're struggling. Our ancestors are there and they want to help us, but we lack the spiritual technology to figure out how to let them. We as a people have been disconnected so long, we don't realize we're disconnected.
The title of this article refers in part to 'heroes.' By that term, i mean the unique, superlative, elevated ancestors who are special carriers of strength and excellence, fortitude, and inspiration. Ancient or modern, maybe our ancestral heroes are exactly whom we ought to be calling for help on that. I would like to see offerings made, sacrifices done, all for the dead of our collective lineages, those that were sundered with the supremacy of monotheism. I would like to see the ancestors being honored and fed, and empowered in this restoration. This, i believe, is crucial.
In the meantime, that still leaves us with a disconnect. One of the areas that people seem to struggle with is the restoration of our heroic cultus. This was not an uncommon facet of ancient polytheisms. I don't believe we have anything close to it in our modern world, save the Catholic cultus of saints. There's a big difference there though, between saint cultus and ancient hero cultus. If i understand the theology correctly, Catholics venerate saints not only for the miracles they are believed to have performed, but as examples of how to live a good, decent, faithful life. That is not at all the case with ancient heroes.
Honoring heroes like Cu Chulain, like Heracles, like Achilles, or even contemporary Heathen honoring of Saga heroes like Egil has absolutely nothing to do with with their virtuous character. It has to do with their being larger than life figures, figures who performed remarkable, exceptional deeds, whose deeds affected their communities, who embodied in some way --to default to Greek-- "arete."
Arete is usually translated as 'excellence' and refers to glorious deeds performed by the would-be hero. The greatest of Greek epics, the work that influenced not only all of ancient Greek culture but Roman culture as well, Homer's "Iliad" was all about arete: distinction, fame, and glory. It had nothing to do with the behavior of Homeric heroes. Many of the most revered heroes were mighty warriors, which means they were highly trained killers, obsessed with personal glory, quite often willing to rape, pillage, and plunder nations. It is this quality of surmounting mediocrity, of setting in the threads of wyrd that which will stand as an incitement for later generations to excellence that leads to the veneration of heroes. That may hold true with modern heroes (like Malcolm X, Gandhi, or Rosa Parks -- all names recently brought up by modern polytheists as 'heroes') as well: it is not who they were so much as what they did with what they were that mattered.
There are also a couple of pre-requisites to being a hero:
1. You had to have lived at some point. You had to be *an actual person* -- that is, an actual *living* person.
2. You had to do something worthy of veneration. You had to become part of your own mythic cycle. Your story had to become part of the mythic cycle of your people. it had to become fuel for future generations.
I find it incomprehensible for all of these reasons and more, that someone, anyone would equate ancestral heroes with comic book or fictional characters. I understand that not everyone is a reconstructionist. I'm not technically a reconstructionist; but that shouldn't mean that one eschews reverence for the dead or diminishes it. Given the disconnected cultures that we all grew up in, it's all the more important that we give our ancestors the reverence that is their due. They're our essential lifeline.
In a world that already encourages us to view the Gods and spirits as fictional beings, I think it's all the more important to draw a clear line between those things that inspire us but that are fictional and actual holy Beings, that…you know, exist as independent, sentient Beings. There's a very fine line after all between equating comic book characters to ancestral heroes and positioning the Gods in the boundaries of one's mind and heart as fictional too.
I think that's in part what concerns me in all of this: the potential for a remarkable lack of cleanliness. With the media fixation that is also part of our modern American world (cell phones, Facebook, television, movies), television and movies have come to take the place, sadly and to our detriment, of the mythic cycles of our ancestors. There's nothing wrong with a good tale, a good story. It is not, however, substitute for actual ancestral engagement. I'm not denying the power of the theatre or the cinema or even cable tv to present a spectacle that hits us on a deep level and opens us up. (Sannion talks in much more breadth about the sacrality of theatre here: http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/making-light-of-superhero-worship.html). That's great. That's good. This is something in our world and therefore can certainly be a sacred tool. What i'm questioning is the wisdom of equating those fictional characters with our honored dead. It seems all too easy to diminish the latter.
More to the point, the very definition of a hero precluded fictional origin; and religion is not entertainment. The point of veneration be it of the Gods, ancestors, or cultic heroes is not one's personal entertainment. Conflating comic book heroes with ancestral heroes is not a question of orthodoxy vs. modern avante guard perspective, but of singular comprehension of the role of cultus in one's religion vs. spiritual puerility.
Part of the difficulty for us moderns may be the use of the term 'myth.' To, ironically, paraphrase a popular film "I do not think that word means what you think it means." We use mythology to refer specifically to stories that are not true. The word itself implies something if not fictitious itself, then very, very close to it. It's something removed from our every day reality. That is a post-Christian meaning. In ancient Greece, a culture deeply entrenched in heroic cultus, and from which the word 'myth' comes, it meant 'narrative, account, story.' There was no necessary implication of fiction. It was an account of something worth retelling. We are using the word today very, very differently than the cultures in which heroic cultus developed. This is, to be blunt, muddying the waters terribly.
Finally, perhaps the cultus of the dead is a buffer keeping out the frivolous. It forces one to root, and there is a segment of people, a segment of people ultimately of little use to their Gods or their dead who resent and resist that and all the responsibilities inherent in this restoration, that run fleeing from it. In every single traditional religion that I can think of that is the focus, the first focus to the point that we must sometimes go through our ancestors to reach the Gods. It opens up fighting the filter to a whole segment of people who think they have nothing left to offer there. Why? Because everyone has dead and as a beautiful Lithuanian proverb goes: 'the souls of the dead are the protection of the living.' With the heroic cultus, surely that would hold to an even greater degree.
But, unfortunately for us, this is the age of Marvel and DC Comics, Josh Whedon, Dr. Who , etc. and it is much easier engage with fictional characters that won't (in fact *can't*) engage back than to actually engage in the process of spiritual restoration and maybe, just maybe with the Powers - ancestral and divine--who can and will.