Heather left a powerful comment on my Downtrodden blog, about spiritual attitudes to poverty. I’ve been reflecting on that, and wanted to follow on from there. I’ve never been one for the New Age theories of like attracts like, or that misfortune is the paying off of karmic debts for some awfulness we did in a past life. Equally I have never seen wealth and affluence as proof of being in a deity’s good books. Until recently I hadn’t examined why I hold such beliefs, but on reflection I think it has everything to do with the Celtic element of my Druidry.
Skipping over how truly ancient any of the Celtic myths are, I would say it’s fair to describe them all as a bit mournful. Very few Celtic myths end happily ever after. Many end with the death of the ‘hero’. Tragedy is a pervasive theme. I think about Rhiannon, deprived of her child, blamed, humiliated and suffering. I think about the torments Branwen suffers, and all those doomed lovers, people destroyed by geas… Celtic myth is not resplendent with happily ever after, and this is a big part of what I grew up on. But then, the more I think about it, the less able I am to find stories where the righteous do not suffer. In most traditions, religious stories are all about being tested. From Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, onwards, the Old Testament makes it very clear they have a God who tests his followers.
What makes a hero, or a legend? Once upon a time, there was a man who the gods loved. They did everything imaginable to make life easy for him. He never had to work because money grew on a tree in his garden. He had a wonderful wife who recognised all the qualities in him that the gods loved, and did not want him solely for the money tree, and who bore him lots of charming, beautiful and well behaved children. Life was perfect for them in every way. It’s not a very good story, really. It’s dull, and you’re waiting for the moment when it all goes crushingly wrong, because that’s what happens in stories. It also raised a point. What are the qualities, in this deity-blessed man, that make him so appealing to the deities? If they do everything, and he does nothing, all they’ve got to go on is who he imagines he is. This man is untested. He is not a hero. He has never done anything of note, and he never will.
Compare this with the story of a woman who starts out badly – her parents are poor, maybe she’s blind, maybe she has some virtue – a good heart, a quick mind, a pretty face. To take care of her aging parents, she sets out into the world and faces terrible adversity. Bears chase her. Bandits steal her only possessions. She shares her last crust with a swan who turns out to be a fairy who can tell her how to find a fortune if only she will undertake to do three impossible things first. Not only is this more like a story, but at a symbolic level, it is more like real life.
In practice, being dishonourable, selfish, greedy and ambitious is more likely to pave the way to affluence than being generous and kind. A compassionate person won’t use their energy praying for a new car, they’ll be praying for the starving, for the homeless, and will spend their time trying to help others. Only someone who sees it as their god given right to strive after wealth above all else, will live that way. However, very few people like the idea that they might be morally bankrupt. So, by assuming money, ease and success to be signs of divine favour, they neatly get round the ethical issues. I must be fine, see how much the gods love me, see how much money I have…
If the stories are anything to go by, the gods are anything but kind to those they love most. You do not get to be a hero unless there are monsters to fight. Saints are given opportunity to die for their faith. Heroes die in battle. Mythical women die for love, or protecting their children, or defending their virtue. In face of adversity, the people who spawn legends, shine. We might take Nelson Mandela and Ghandi as more contemporary and famous examples here. The martyred icons of protest, the heroes of bloodless revolution, the ones who stand up to injustice. They are on the news every day. You can bet they aren’t praying for a pay rise. Those whom the gods love most, they challenge, sometimes to breaking point. But then, it’s only when you break a person that you see what’s inside them. Often it’s the cracks that let the light through. Often it is the wrongs, or the pain suffered that motivates a person to do amazing things. A person can have a life of ease and comfort, or they can have a life of trial and heroism, but not both. For me, one of the essential messages of the Celtic myths, is that I would seek out the latter if it did not come to me anyway.