Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Our Fame Lives on After We are Dead...

The "afterlife" in Heathenry is a puzzle.  But this puzzle is nothing new. It seems pretty clear that the afterlife was a puzzle to our ancestors as well.  Our Heathen ancestors held a variety of views about what might happen to us when we die, depending on where they lived and when they lived.  This led to a variety of burial practices and traditions among our Ancestors.  In modern Heathenry, you have those that hold to more traditional views and you have those that hold afterlife beliefs that are entirely modern.  One thing is certain, to me, at least.  None of really knows what happen or where we will go when we die.  We all have our pet theories...or our wishful thinking, of course.  But none of us know.

So, it is good that most Heathens focus more on living this life, rather than talking about or hoping for what might come after death.  Most of us are happy to leave the afterlife an interesting mystery, and are resolved to just wait and see what happens.  Meanwhile, we have lives to lead, work to do, and families to raise right here in the physical world.  And that brings us to the one "afterlife" answer that both our Heathen ancestors and modern Heathens all tend to agree upon...

Our mainstream culture judges each man and woman by a diverse collection of traits.  A person's emotions and intentions must be taken into consideration.  They up-bringing and experiences in life are factored into the equation.  How much money they make and how attractive they are are heavily weighted as well.  It is not that modern society doesn't judge people by their deeds, but modern society does not weight one's deeds very heavily.

Among heathens, it is one's deeds that matter most.  If you do something good, helpful, and positive for my family and my kindred on a consistant basis, then you are good.  If you do something bad, hurtful, and negative for my family and my kindred on a consistant basis, then you are bad.  Your upbringing, your emotions, your intentions, how much money you have, or how attractive you are has very little to do with it.  Let's look at two well-know (among Heathens) verses from the Havamal...

77. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
But a noble name | will never die,
If good renown one gets.
78. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.

These are fairly pragmatic and clear in their wisdom.  Our ancestors recognized that everything's and everyone's physical existence must end.  We're all going to die.  They understood that the only thing that lives on from a man's life in this world is his renown, his fame, and the memory of what he has done in this life.  Did he stand by his kith and kin?  Did he work hard, take appropriate chances, and accomplish lasting things?  Did he live his life with honor, strength, and loyalty to those that deserved his loyalty?  Did he die a good death?  Our dead body rots, but our accomplishments live on. 

But who will remember our deeds and keep our name alive?  For nearly all of us, the only fame that will truly live on is the fame earned while pushing your family and kindred forward. The individual is nothing. But, the individual's contributions to future generations are remembered and live forever among those generations that benefit from those contributions.  As it says in the Havamal...

72. A son is better, | though late he be born,
And his father to death have fared;
Memory-stones | seldom stand by the road
Save when kinsman honors his kin.

Our descendants have a vested interest in us as their ancestors.  If we have done well in life, we have given them a good starting place for their own lives.  If we have done poorly in life, then we have given them defficient starting place for their own lives.

We see this whole idea in the concept of Orlog.  Orlog is a part of the heathen soul that is passed from parent to child, down through the generations of one's family.  Orlog is all of those deeds, or layers, you have put in the Well.  It is the tapestry of your life that you have woven with every choice you have made, the work you have done, and the things you have accomplished.  It is said that an honorable parent who has lived an honorable and accomplished life passes good Orlog to one's children.  While a parent that has lived a dishonorable or lackluster life passes bad Orlog to one's children.  Our children make their own way in the world, but they start with the foundation of Orlog you have given them.  A child that receives good Orlog has a head-start in a sense, in that they are building upon everything good their parents (and their parents, on back) have put in the Well.  A child that receives bad Orlog can still lead a good life, but it is more difficult, for they will be hampered in their progress by the poor foundation upon which they are building.

In very practical terms, we see real-life examples of this concept everyday.  And no doubt, our Heathen ancestors saw very similar examples in their own lives.  Any child can grow up to be honorable, and successful, and an adult of great worth.  But, how much easier is it for a child with parents that are honorable, and successful, and worthy?  And, how much harder is it for a child with parents that are dishonorable, failures, and lacking in worth?

So, it is only natural that it is our families that keep our memory alive, if we have lived a life worth remembering.  It is our descendants that raise a horn to us in Symbel and speak of our deeds and accomplishments.  It is our descendants that speak of us to their children, set a plate out for us at family dinner, and boast of being descended from us long after we are dead.  But, only if we have earned it.

Some people say you should live each day as though it were your last. And they turn this into an excuse to pursue selfish pleasure, experience, and "adventures." As a heathen, if you are living each day as though it were your last, then you should be working your ass off to leave the next generation of heathens better off than our own. Leave them with solid kindreds to grow up in and take over when we are gone.  Leave them with the skills you have learned in your life and taken the time to teach to them.  Leave them with wisdom and experience recorded in such a way that they can learn from it. Leave them with bonds of friendship with other heathens of their generation, so they can build upon that foundation. No one will remember what video games we conquered, or who we danced or slept with, or the beer we drank, or any of the selfish pleasures we may seek out. But, they will remember the work we've done and the foundation we leave for them after we are gone.

This is a simple thing to understand on paper, but the emotional-focus and selfishness of our age get in the way for a lot of folks.  One of the biggest things that heathenry itself and more specifically each heathen kindred needs to overcome is selfishness. In this day and age, it is very hard to let go of the idea that it is "all about me."  We should make all of our decisions based on the welfare of our family and our loyal friends (kindred) first and foremost.  We need to keep the big-picture in mind, and the generational effects of every decision we make in our lives.  

For a Heathen that believes that our Folkway is the heathiest and most spiritually fulfilling way to live, then sharing that Folkway with one's children should be given some priority.  For a tribal Heathen like myself, that means building a maintaining a strong and healthy kindred and fully involving my children in the activities of this kindred.  It means building lasting traditions and thew that they can adapt and evolve over time once they are in charge.  It means traveling with my children to Heathen gatherings, so they can play with Heathen children from other kindreds and build bonds of friendship that can last into adulthood.  It means teaching them what I know, and encouraging them to seek out their own knowledge.  It means providing them with a stable, nurturing, and somewhat disciplined home environment that allows them to grow to their full potential.  And it means a lot of other things that can't all be listed here, due to the constraints of space and the patience of anyone reading this essay.

It is always possible that one could accomplish great things and still not be remembered by name after a couple of generations.  But, what is our real goal here?  Are we working hard, living honorably, making wise desicions, and accomplishing great things just so we an be remembered by name?  

It is worth pointing out that what we are talking about is a way of life.  The end goal of this way of life is not just to be remembered.  The end goal is to accomplish things for one's family that are worth remembering. To pass solid and powerful Orlog down one's family line, and to create a foundation upon which future generations can build something even better than we can even imagine. If my great grand-children grow up in a world where Heathenry has grown in size and quality, then I won't begrudge them for taking it for granted. I'd love them to remember me, but I don't do these things for the singular purpose of being remembered by name or deed.

Do the leaves of a tree remember the limb that holds them up? Do the leaves remember the trunk that sprouted the limbs? Do the leaves remember the roots that hold up the tree? By simply existing and thriving high in the air, the leaves are a memorial to the efforts of the limb and the trunk and the roots to grow and spread out. As an ancestor, I'll be there in my descendants, in their their souls...remembered. And that will be the case whether they remember me by name or not.

If one escapes the modern preoccupation with individual identity for a moment, and you consider your life as just one moment along a long chain of lives stretching backwards into history...and forwards into possibility, then the work you do is not only for yourself. Your work is a continuation of all that came before you and a prelude to all the work that will come after you.  Your accomplishments are built on the foundation passed to you by your ancestors, and the accomplishments of your descendents will be built upon whatever you have managed to add during your time here on Midgard. 

Is this still a meaningful way in which to be remembered?  If we believe in the concept of Orlog...and a spiritual and physical connection between ancestor and descendant, then I will be content to be remembered in such a way. How many times in Symbel do we hear a toast made to all of those ancestors that toiled so hard and sacrificed so much to give us the lives we now live? In Jotun's Bane Kindred's symbels that toast is often heard.

Would I like to be remembered by name and deed by my descendants? Sure I would. But, if we work so hard and accomplish so much right now that our accomplishments are someday taken for granted...have we not still won the battle? I'm not so self-centered so as to demand being remembered by name. That is something that is hard-earned, and not up to me. I'll do the work...and my descendants will make the choice whether to remember me in that way.  Either way, I'll be there in their lives long after my physical body has rotted away.

Though a horn raised to great-granddad now and again, couldn't hurt. :-)

One of my driving motivations behind writing the essays I write, is that I want to leave something for my children that they can read and know what I believed and how I chose to live. My children are 6, 9, and 11...and were I to drop dead tomorrow, how much would my 6-year-old remember that I've taught him? So, there are times when I am tired or want to rest, and I think to myself, "Do it now...because you might not have tomorrow." And I'll write another essay...or work on kindred stuff...or do something else that needs to get done in order to build the foundation I'm working on for them.

Now, they may grow up and have a different world-view than mine. And as long as they are happy and fulfilled, that will be fine with me. But, at least they'll know I worked for them and shared what I knew with them. Where they choose to go with that is their responsibility ultimately. But, they won't be building from scratch, no matter where they go.

And so it is with each of us.  Take some time to think about it.  Are you passing good Orlog to your children and their children?  Are you building a foundation of honor and accomplishment for them to add to, and advance further than you could ever advance it in your limited time on earth?  Are you teaching them the skills and wisdom they will need to be better than you?  Are you using your time in this world to live a life worth remembering?  These are questions you can only answer for yourself right now.  But ultimately, it will be your children and the generations that come after them that will judge you based on your deeds and accomplishments in this life, and it will be they that decide whether you are worth remembering after you are gone.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods