aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

What did people in the past actually believe in?

I was watching a YouTube video on Slavic folklore and mythology that raised questions I have encountered in discussions of Germanic folklore and mythology. In what sense do people “believe in” the beings they talk about? Do people who talk about elves, e.g., really believe them to exist? When people participate in folk rituals, like leaving milk out for the Good People on Midsummer evening, is this just a thing people do for tradition’s sake? Who do they think consumes the milk? What efficacy do they think doing this has (regardless of who consumes it)? When a folklorist gathers stories of trolls or dwarves along with stories of pagan gods, can the various non-human/supernatural people be fitted into a coherent metaphysical system, with a continuity running from the back garden to a heavenly realm? For that matter, when sifting the evidence for heathen beliefs from a thousand years ago, can a coherent religion be assembled out of the remains, with consistent dogma and ritual? What do we do when one early medieval non-Christian is reported to have said or done one thing, and then seems to be contradicted by what another early medieval non-Christian is reported to have said or done?

Linguists and anthropologists have spent enormous effort in trying to reconstruct “Germanic religion” or “Indo-European religion” or what have you. They have come up with several tendencies, and a fair amount of commonalities, but no coherent belief system, no ordered ritual, no religion in the sense that we usually think of.

But in what sense do we believe in the things we say we believe in? When someone says their cat or dog has “crossed the Rainbow Bridge” they’re not referring to Bifrost as guarded by Heimdallr with his Gjallarhorn. They are referencing a very modern idea that beloved pets have souls and those souls have a heaven reserved for them. Is this just a metaphor? Do they seriously believe this? Are they willing to put it on the same level as, say, the resurrection of Jesus? Christian doctrine is silent on the place of animals in the economy of salvation, but this has not prevented a good deal of speculation, even by such serious personages as St. Paul and John Wesley. At what point does speculation rise to the level of dogma? Do the people referencing the Rainbow Bridge mean to imply the same sort of thing, with the same level of conviction, as the person who carved “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection” on his loved one’s tombstone?

For that matter, even when people engage in religious talk, does quoting popular spiritual slogans like “God will never give you more than you can bear” mean that the person saying it has an actual life-commitment to God he or she is living out in a particular way (i.e., is following a religion) – or is this just the kind of thing people say to comfort those they cannot help in more concrete ways? What about the folk rituals of evangelical Christianity, with its “name it and claim it” kind of prayer? What does the phrase “thoughts and prayers” mean? What do we do with the folk beliefs about demons or ghosts or witches? Some of these are discussed in all earnestness in some churches, but in most places these are personal additions to the official beliefs one has subscribed to. In the late 50s/early 60s, there was a spate of “coffin songs” (rock and roll songs about tragic death at an early age) which asserted things like “I’ve got to be good so I can see my baby when I leave this world.” Did the person who wrote this believe the line? Did the teenagers who listened to it affirm it with the same seriousness as their confirmation vows? What did it mean for the non-church-going teens who listened to it?

If the term “folk belief” when attached to something modern people – particularly Christians – do bothers you, you could call such things “colloquial Christianity.” The fact is, other than a few hard-boiled atheists who have thought it through and put some effort into not believing in anything, religion is a natural part of human consciousness. Even people who are not serious about dogma speak as if they believe in various things. Some of these things will be high and solemn, some will be what one might call “superstitions,” and others will be matters of personal wish-fulfillment. These things will often contradict each other; there is no system. People will take a bit of old lore from here, a notion picked up in church from there, a saying they heard from their grandmother, and circulate it all freely. For those of us charged with instruction of the young and the outsider in the actual doctrines of Christianity, trying to figure out what someone is really making of the religion they consider themselves a part of is often a challenge.

So we shouldn’t expect to find a coherent system of beliefs and practices in the old pagan religions, or a clear dividing line between religion and folktale. It’s hard enough to find a coherent system of beliefs and practices in modern people who have been thoroughly marinated in Christianity their whole lives. And that includes some who are leaders in the Church.

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