Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Indo-European Ancestor in Cult Ancient Greece and Rome

Family, Kin and City-State: the Racial Underpinning of Ancient Greece and Rome by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges and J.W. Jamieson. Scott-Townsend Publishers, Washington, D.C., 1999. 108 pp., index, softcover, ISBN 1-878465-34-1. Available from the publisher at http://scott-townsend.com/.

Generally, whenever consideration is given to the pre-Christian religious beliefs of the European peoples, it is invariably the public religions of the great creator and nature gods and goddesses that are referenced. This is true regardless of whether it is the humanized paganism of the Mediterranean or the more primordial/primeval heathenism of the Northlands that is under discussion: the mythologies of the Olympians and the Asgarders are depicted as the only forms of religious faith in ancient Europe. Yet, this is not the case, for the pre-Christian spiritual beliefs of our ancestors were more complex, layered and sophisticated than is commonly perceived.

In addition to the public worship of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother, of Zeus and Athena, of Jupiter and Mars, of Odin and Frey, all of the Indo-European peoples had a private, personal religious faith rooted in the veneration of ancestors and blood lineage. On the rare occasions in which it is mentioned, this private religion is normally referred to as the "ancestor cult" or (more accurately) the "cult of the ancestors." If the word "cult" is understood in a technical religious sense, there is no problem with this designation. However, in common usuage the word "cult" has accrued a pejorative meaning, which makes it problematical in this case. Nevertheless, as a matter of convenience, and since it is technically correct, it is the term we shall use here.

There are only a handful of works in English which discuss the ancient Indo-European ancestor cult, and for the most part they are obscure and difficult to obtain. The most comprehensive of these is The Aryan Household by William Edward Ahern (1893). The Aryan Race by Charles Morris (1892) also includes a chapter-length summary discussion of it. More recently, Brian Branston mentions it in passing in The Gods of the North (1955) but does not explore it further.

Fortunately, a good English-language introduction to the topic is available from Scott-Townsend publishers under the title Family, Kin and City-State: the Racial Underpinning of Ancient Greece and Rome. This is a book-length excerpt from a longer work by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1899), which was first published in French in 1864 as La Cite Antique. An English translation by Willard Small followed in 1873, as The Ancient City: A Study of the Religious Laws and Institutions of Greece and Rome. De Coulanges divides his study into five "books," the first two of which are "Ancient Beliefs" and "The Family."

Renowned scholar and Indo-Europeanist J.W. Jamieson has taken this basic text by Fustel de Coulangnes and developed it further. The point being made in The Anicent City was that it was this religious belief and its accompanying practice that held the societies of Classical antiquity together. Jamieson, in turn, shows how the whole religious structure was based on blood-lineage and heredity. Beginning with the family and extending to the clan, and thence to phratry and further the tribe, and further still until the whole of the Folk was encompassed, there was a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating network of social, political and economic relationships based on blood-kinship, or as we would say today Race. Thus ancient Greece and Rome were at their inception racial societies, as were those of the Germans, the Celts and all the Indo-European (or Aryan) peoples. In each case, it was the family, based on the cult of the ancestors, which formed the fundamental building block of Indo-European society.

By "family," we do not mean the typical nuclear family of 21st century America, with a husband, a wife, two children and perhaps a dog or a cat as a pet. Rather, the Indo-European family was more along the lines of what we today call an "extended family," consisting at any moment of three or four generations of related people, numbering anywhere from a dozen or two to a hundred or more. Included were not just those related by blood or marriage, but also their servants, slaves, bondsmen, and retainers, as well free men who had voluntarily placed themselves in the service and protection of the family. The family had a hierarchical structure, at the head of which was the senior male, called in Latin the Paterfamilias. He exercised total personal, economic, political, and social control over the family. He was, in short, a dictator, albeit a just and benevolent one, we imagine, if the family was to hold together and flourish.

The Paterfamilias was also the head -- the high priest or "pope" -- of the family's own individual and unique religion: the cult of the ancestors. Each family had its own cult and accompanying religious rites, which were its alone, and which we kept secret and private from the outside world. The secret nature of each family's cult means that the complete details of any cult have not survived into the modern period. However, occasional references to ancestor worship are made in ancient sources, enough so that it is possible to piece together a general picture of what it was like (although the details would have varied from family to family).

The tradition was that each family could trace its ancestors back to a single "founder." The bones of the founder were said to be buried beneath the family hearth. This hearth, in turn, was the focal point for religious worship. A sacred fire burned on the hearth, the flame which was never allowed to be extinguished. This fire was the responsibility of the women of the family, most typically of the Materfamilias, who was the wife of the Paterfamilias, and who exercised corresponding authority. The central act of worship was a communal meal, attended by all family members and presided over by the Paterfamilias. The spirits of the ancestors were also said to attend these meals, during which offerings were made to the dead which were said to nourish them. In return, the spirits of the ancestors were said to bestow protection and blessings on the members of the family, although these did not extend far beyond the boundaries of the family's ancestral property.

The authors summarize:

The worship of the dead in no way resembled the Christian worship of saints. One of the first rules of the worship was that it could only be offered by each family only to those deceased persons who belonged to it by blood. The funeral obsequies could be religiously performed only by the nearest relative. As to the funeral meal, which was renewed at stated seasons, the family alone had a right to take part in it, and every alien was strictly excluded. They believed that the dead ancestor accepted no offering save from his own family; he desired no worship save from his own descendants. The presence of one who was not of the family disturbed the rest of the [ancestral spirits]. . . [T]he prayer and the offering were addressed by each man only to his own forebears. The worship of the dead was the worship of ancestors. Lucian, while ridiculing common beliefs, explains them clearly to us when he says the man who has died without leaving a son receives no offerings, and is exposed to peerpetual suffering. . . [T]hese rituals established a powerful bond between all the generations of a family, whch made it of a body forever inseparable. (pp. 19-20)

In Greece and Rome, at least, descent was reckoned only through the male bloodline. When a young woman married, she formally renounced her allegiance to the ancestor cult in which had been raised, and was initiated into the cult of her new husband. It was also necessary that the young woman was someone of whom the ancestors would approve, as her offspring would one day become worshippers offering sacrifices. Still later, they would become ancestors themselves. A woman of foreign or inferior stock was thought to pollute the bloodline, and would have been unacceptable to the ancestors. Thus we see that this was a religious practice that was based on heredity and blood, and that the continuity of the bloodline reinforced the performance of religious rites, which in turn reinformced the purity of the bloodline.

De Coulanges and Jamieson note that, "[T]he purpose of marriage was to permit the lineage to recreate itself -- to enable the life force to express itself in a new generation" (p. 28).

Although Family, Kin and City-State focuses on the ancestor cult in the Classical world, it was also practiced by the Germanic peoples. As in the South, the cult in the Northlands was stronger among the ordinary people than the worship of the great Sky and Nature Gods. In AD 1000, when Iceland formally converted to Christianity, public worship of the old Gods was banned, but private religious worship -- that is, the ancestor cult -- was still allowed.

A special note for National-Socialists: it is commonly maintained by mainstream historians that the NS movement in Germany was "neo-pagan." Yet one looks in vain for references in the NS period to the worship of Wotan and Donner. It is interest in the ancient Aryan ancestor cult that the neo-pagan -- or to be more precise, neo-heathen -- nature of National-Socialism expressed itself. Although Adolf Hitler himself seemed to be indifferent to the practice, it was strongly supported by Heinrich Himmler and the SS, by Walter Darre, and in the Hitler Youth. In connection with the SS, we take special note of the prose-poem The Voice of the Ancestors by Wulf Soerensen (Die Stimme der Ahnen: Eine Dichtung von Wulf Soerensen, Nordland-Verlag, Magdeburg, 1935).

Family, Kin and City-State is an inexpensively produced book, printed by docutext and perfectbound. Chapters include: A Religion of Heredity and the Family; The Importance of the Lineage; The Sacred Hearth Fire; Marriage and the Family; Kinship and Property; Moral Law; Gens, Phratry, Tribe and Nation-State; The Domestic Religion as the Moral Foundation of the Anceint City-State; and The Decline of the City-State. An electronic edition is not currently available.