I so wish I had a more clever title. Alternatively, it could be called, words mean things, but I suspect I’ve used that to death already.
So, I’m reading through Introduction to Roman Religion, mostly because I’m somewhat curious (though discovering through the read that I’m not as curious as I thought I was). One bit that I’ve really enjoyed has been looking at various words that we still use to express religious activity or understanding, in a more originally polytheistic but more importantly with more of a cultural context. Words like “piety” and “ritus”, like “sacer” and “sacrum.” Words that we still use, that come to us seemingly from monotheistic places. We use these words. Devotion. Sacred. Piety. Humility. In my experience, they have a taste of Christianity, but they’re older, right? These concepts existed before monotheism had the dominance that it enjoys today. Our polytheistic ancestors came first, and they had mature, complex concepts about the gods and spirits and ancestors and the general make up and holistic nature of the world.
The understanding the author shared of piety sort of blew me away. These days, when one talks about piety, one is generally speaking of one’s relationship with the gods. Leaving aside instances of outsiders (people not in said relationship) speaking about another persons piety or supposed lack (something, alas, paganism isn’t exempt from), this understanding of the word seems pretty straight forward and, like so much of our culture, quite removed from the rest of our lives. The author writes: “…Piety has a wider sphere of reference than ‘religion’; it covered the correct relations with parents, friends, and fellow-citizens as well as the correct attitude with regard to the gods . . . it was a reciprocal social virtue . . . Piety implied purity which was essentially a bodily state not directly related to intentions or morality.” There’s more, but this is the part that seized me up and wouldn’t let me go.
Piety is Gebo.
For myself, I’ve long understood piety as right action and right though, with regard to my relationship with my gods. It’s an action word — in my mind, piety is humility’s verb. But seeing it extended beyond just our relationships with the gods caught me up — and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I wasn’t thinking only of myself, here. To think in terms of right relationship with one’s community, of course I thought also of various people in my life who may provide examples, both of how I wish I was, in regards to my social relationships, and of how I’m glad I am not, in regard to said relationships. I’ve discovered that I can’t think about piety any longer without thinking of community.
How we are with others is important. Pagans argue about community. Is there “a” pagan community, or is there overlapping little communities? Does our online culture count as a community, or do only in-person communities count? How does that connect to our greater communities, etc.? I have, for the bulk of my life, been pretty solitary, pretty happy to stick on the side lines. When I yearn for more community, I yearn for specific people rather than people in general. But I don’t think we’re a collective bunch of faceless names and blog posts. I do believe how we are online should be about the same as how we are offline, and to go a bit further, how we interact with our neighbors does show the world how we treat people, in general.
I’m coming at this with a bias. Because compassion and kindness has become a thing for me. But I can’t think about piety without thinking about community, and I can’t think about community without thinking about hospitality. It is supposed to be this big huge important concept, especially within polytheism. I know it’s a huge deal coming at things from a heathen perspective, and I know we’re not the only ones who have hospitality as a near-sacred status. In the ancient world it was a big flipping deal. Lives could depend on it.
And I’m wondering — did our ancestors only extend hospitality toward those who agreed with them? Because I don’t think that they did. This is inspiring me to challenge myself, and it extends beyond the literal meaning of hospitality and goes into interactions with people in general in public spaces. Because, by going forth into a public space with people of all types, I’m sort of agreeing to abide by certain rules and expectations. Simply because others don’t or can’t abide by them (personal space, civility, an agreement to get on with one’s business and not make a nuisance, etc.) doesn’t mean I’m excused from upholding my end. (It also doesn’t mean I get to be a door mat, but it does mean that I respond in a way that the situation merits and that I do not go overboard).
More and more as time go by, I see the Internet interactions less as a separate thing and more akin to just hopping down to the library, or cafe, and running into people you know. Which is pretty great, actually, because there are a bunch of people I would love to run into on the way to the cafe. I’m intrigued by this larger understanding of piety, of how it feeds into my understanding of community and how I want to be, how it feeds into my understanding of hospitality, and how I wish we would be with one another.
These things are not disconnected from one another. Our communities are not independent of the greater communities we are a part of — and unless we never leave our houses and we never go online, we are part of communities, to one degree or another.
Fun musings in the wee hours. I can’t wait until winter so I can sleep well again.