The gods of our ancestors are everywhere around us, though we barely know them.
Their sacred places have vanished, or become ruins, overgrown and crumbling curiosities of a bygone age. Their sacred names are misremembered and mispronounced, uttered without the reverence and caution that should attend the power which those syllables invoke. Their sacred stories…,
The stories we have, the myths, the legends, are but fragments of a once rich tapestry, burned almost completely away now, by time and forgetfulness.
For those of us who are driven to seek out the old ways, there is but scant evidence of the gods left to be found in this world.
We pour over the bits that we can still find, while sifting through surviving folk traditions and songs, looking for anything we might have missed. We speculate and we argue about the fragments we do uncover. How do they go together? What do they mean?
And still, for all that effort, we seem to know more about the lives of the Dinosaurs, who at least had the courtesy to die and leave their fossilized remains for us to dig from the Earth.
Let us speak now, of one such nearly forgotten god.
Sometimes called Oghma the Honey-Tongued – because he is a god of eloquence, a master of poetry, and the father of writing.
Sometimes called Oghma with the Sun’s Countenance – because he is a solar deity, or because he exhibits a divinely radiant aspect, or because he likes to cause trouble in academic circles and he knew that taking on a Sun related nickname was a sure way to get people writing papers.
We know that he is the brother of the Dagda, the husband of Étan, and that he has at least two sons. We know that he is one of the Champions of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of Ireland, and that his strength is second to only one among their number.
We know that he fought in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and that he died there, or that he didn’t. The stories have it both ways.
The Irish gods do have a nasty habit of dying in one story and showing up again in some later tale. Which may have something to do with the impermanence of death when it comes to the gods. But more than likely, it has to do with the fact that these stories were written down by Christian monks who were trying to…,
…who were trying to…,
…we really don’t know.
We haven’t a clue as to exactly what these guys were trying to accomplish.
We do not know their true motivations or what they may have changed along the way.
We don’t know how well they knew the stories themselves, or why they chose these particular stories to preserve.
Is Oghma really just a flagstone flipping superman with a sunny disposition and a way with words? Can that possibly have been all that the mythology of the ancient Irish had to say about him? Or were there stories upon stories, now lost and forgotten because they didn’t fit whatever criteria the monks used to determine what should be saved and what should be let go.
Or were they written down and then lost again.
We may never know.
We owe these unknown monks a vast debt of gratitude, but that doesn’t mean we should put too much trust in them.
Let us take a side trip out of Ireland and into the ancient forests of Gaul where another god, or maybe the same god, named Ogmios, once roamed.
He too, was a god of great strength, usually portrayed as a Gaulish Heracles. But, unlike the Greek Hero, Ogmios is also said to have been a god of great eloquence, who’s power of persuasion was so strong that silver chains dangled between his wagging tongue and hooks embedded into the ears of his every listener. As a consequence, every mortal within the range of his voice would joyfully gather close to do his bidding.
The little we know of Ogmios comes to us through a handful of Gaulish inscriptions and from a brief description by the 2nd Century Greek satirist Lucian, a fellow who lived long after the Gauls had been conquered, and one not overly sympathetic to the gods of his own people, much less those of long dead foreign barbarians.
As I said at the start, his holy places are gone, his name misremembered, and his stories are, at best, the stuff of rumor and speculation.
His priesthood however…, his priesthood is as powerful as ever, and it has never waned.
Just don’t look for them among the folks who actually believe in him.
His priests and priestesses are those who write and who speak in a voice we can still hear long after we are parted from them. They speak to us across the depths of time (think of Shakespeare or Clemens), and they move us with their words even today, when words seem to have so little value.
Only a few nights ago, as I sat with a few hundred others, and listened to Neil Gaiman reading from his stories and poems, and answering questions in a thoughtful, ever friendly manner, I could see in my minds eye, those thin silver chains growing link by delicate link, could feel the hooks sliding deep into my own ears, and I knew that, though he believes the Gods are things created by story, he is every bit the vessel of their power.
Later, reading through his introduction to his latest volume, a retelling of selected myths of Norse Mythology, I found this bit:
“We have lost so much…I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was the Norse goddess of marriages, or of Sjofn, a goddess of love. Not to mention Vor, goddess of wisdom. I can imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales. They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.” —Neil Gaiman
We who believe in the gods of our fathers know that particular feeling all too well.
We were born to find the stories, to tell them, to share in their wisdom, and to bask in their glow. These things are as much a part of worship as any ritual or prayer.
But the previous generations have not been kind to us, and all that are left to us are the last fading embers of a once great fire.
And yet even that can be light enough, if we are careful.
We must learn what we can from the old stories.
But we must be willing to play with them as well, to prod and poke them until the hint of fire within begins to glow stronger through agitation and exposure to the air.
And we must be open to invention. It is through Imbas that we allow the gods to speak through us, to fan the flames of creativity and to tell their stories in our voices, for new generations.
It is long past time to fan the flames.