Toward a Vernacular Polytheism

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I’ve begun the long, long process of acquiring books and research materials on unconventional home-building and land stewardship in preparation for buying up a rural parcel at some point shortly after landing in Canada as a legal immigrant. And one of the concepts I’ve come across that has really stuck with me so far, is the concept of the vernacularFor Christmas I got an original copy of Architecture without Architects, a book published for the 1960’s MoMA exhibition of the same name, which defines vernacular architecture as:

…anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural, as the case may be.

And that:

[It]does not go through fashion cycles. It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection. As a rule, the origin on indigenous building forms and construction methods is lost in the distant past.

Ethnoarchitecture.org defines it in terms of language:

Classically, the name “vernacular” relates to language. “The vernacular was the unself-conscious language of the inner man,” says Stephen Greenblatt. Historically speaking, vernacular was the name that Romans gave to the language of subjugated peoples who spoke local languages as opposed to Latin. Using the term’s own root, vernacular architecture can be defined as architectural knowledge that is transmitted via oral tradition, rather than through plans or other form of tangible documentation. However, vernacular architecture can also be defined in relation to sustainability issues […]

This concept of vernacular architecture seemed to me to be far more than just a deeply habitual way that peoples compose shelters; instead, this “vernacularity” stems from a whole interrelated web of moving and existing in a place. It is not the habit itself, but the culmination of generations of movement and knowledge, trial and error, that forms the habit. And it seemed to me that the vernacular concept, then, could be applied to all facets of human life, including religion.

I feel that “vernacular” is a better word to use than “indigenous” for most of us, because it necessitates a deep folk knowledge and tradition while still permitting the existence of diaspora, of acknowledging processes of colonialism and de-colonialism, and it allows for possibilities of other kinds of indigineity that can and do manage to find roots in a world that so abhors them. For instance, very few people in Southern California can call themselves indigenous to the area, but those of us who have been here for more than a generation or two have found ourselves manifesting a uniquely “Southern California” vernacular – from the parts of the natural world we tend to value (sun, surf), to the way we landscape our yards (citrus trees, roses, succulents), to how we move about this place (cars), to the food we eat (Mexican, Asian, In-N-Out).

The origins of Southern California vernacularity are not lost to the distant past, and it is far from unimprovable, but the whole of the culture does not go through fashion cycles, it does not bend to the conscious, deliberate desires of individuals – except for the car thing to some extent – and it is, in many ways, spontaneous.

So what might a vernacular polytheism look like? How might such a thing come about for us in the West?

Conscious will and intentional direction are not features of vernacularity – these things are more in the realm of trendy consumer culture and disrootedness than a way of being that manifests organically from our relationship to place and what it has to offer us. The one is like a fetishist, imposing itself on the faceless body of the object of its desire; the other is like a spouse, in partnership with the whole of the other, eschewing short-term greed in favor of a long life of peace and contentment.

A vernacular polytheism will likely be built from the following:

Movement

Vernacularity requires a sense of place, whether that place is unmoving, in the case of a settled resident, or moving, as might be the case of a restless traveler who finds comfort in liminality. It requires knowledge of patterns of movement; of where, why, and how people move through a place.

What are the boundaries of “our place”? What are the ways in which we move through it? What are the paths we take? Our method of travel? What are the landmarks that guide us? What are their spirits and histories?

Listening

It would also require that we find out who our local community of Gods and spirits are. The ancients did this as a matter of course when traveling in foreign lands, but these days, the knowledge of what spirits reside in our local mountains, rivers, or cities is usually lost. The more sensitive of us might do well to listen to what our land- and cityscapes are saying, that we might begin to distinguish the voices of the spirits there.

In a feature from the current volume of Dark Mountain, artist Brett Bloom talks about leading a workshop on Deep Listening on the shore of the Baltic Sea as part of a process of de-industrializing the self:

We had all heard a very powerful story from the sea. This was very important to understand. Things tell us stories, not in the sense that a rock starts speaking English or Finnish or any other human language, but we construct narratives instantaneously out of what it is we observe and understand.

I think most spirits speak to most people through impressions like this, and the spontaneous narrative we construct from it informs how we proceed; this is how our ancestors partook in the slow, gentle process of trial and error in figuring out their place in… their place. As John Michael Greer puts it, we have little else to act on beyond the “second- or third-hand reflection of it in the less than flawless mirror of the human mind”. This requires us to both pay very close attention to the way in which the world around actually is while simultaneously allowing ourselves to extract from it a spirit-led mythic narrative about the ways in which those pieces of quantitative bits of reality – why the bees like this particular flower, why the local stray cats gather over there, why the winds pick up in September – to paint a whole picture, full of Gods and spirits, of where we are and how we may live beside them.

The Gods most of us have transplanted from elsewhere – from other continents, other climates, other times – change. They change just as Their people do when finding a new place, whether that change happens over the course of one year or one thousand years. The thunderstorms in Arizona are not the same as the ones that ravage the Greek archipelago. The soil is different. The food is different. The red in the pots of dyestuff are different.

Mythic Time and Space

One important feature of ancient beliefs that often gets forgotten in modern polytheist practice is the mythic – mythic landscapes, mythic stories of cities’ foundings, of their falls, and the origins of their peoples. Most of us grasp mythic time, timelines of events that both continuously happen and have never happened, but these are the stories that have been handed down to us from the ancient and pre-Christian primary sources. Where are the new myths also?

This is not to say that we should sit down with pen in hand and with the intention to write mythology for ourselves. The mythic weaves itself out of the world around us and the spirits that inhabit it; it comes from Listening to what they have to tell us about where we are and what it looks like when we become part of a place.

“Anonymous, Spontaneous”

Just as vernacular architecture does not concern itself with leaving a material legacy to be recognized by future generations, a vernacular polytheism might, too, be anonymous similarly. What is passed on is often intangible: knowledge, tradition, skills, relationship, blood. When indigenous peoples follow in their elders’ and parents’ footsteps, they do so because it works. What has been passed on to them is the culmination of many generations of trial and error, of living knowledge of where they are, the mythic “why”, and what their peoples have done to keep in right relationship with the land as a being in its own right, but also as a source of material goods that can and will disappear with careless exploitation. They are carrying on a tradition and a felt sense of rootedness without deliberation or theory, rooted in the ancestral memory of the past and embodied sensation of the present – a vernacular way of being.

Have you ever looked at a beverage that your distant ancestors would not have recognized, and simply understood that it would be pleasing to one of your Gods or spirits? Or looked a plant that the progenitors of your religious tradition would never have heard of, and intuitively recognized that a God or spirit of that tradition is present there? This is the sort of felt sense of knowing that we might begin to tap into as we reclaim the vernacular natures of our traditions: idiosyncratic, localized habits integrating what is in front of us here and now instead of perpetually trying to make sense of some distant, intellectual theorizing about the nature of our religions.

Why “Towards”

No longer do many of us purely live in local communities, participate in purely local economies, or work purely with local Gods and spirits. We are global, from the fibers in our clothing and the fibers in our LAN cables. We rarely eat local food, buy local goods, and few of us work locally as well. Colonialism and its bastard child, industrialism, tore open the world and counted its insides, leaving no stone unturned, no myth uncriticized, no folkway un-meddled with.

We head towards vernacularity because we may never reach it – we definitely won’t in a society oversaturated with information, a society that extols the merits of globalization, of disrupted communities and disrooted peoples, a society that worships the intellectual and the abstract while disparaging the mythic, and disregarding the living, breathing, soil in our own backyards.

All things considered, habits and traditions are easy enough to establish, and orally-transmitted habituation is a primary feature of vernacularity. “We do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it” is very handy stand-in for lifetimes of experimentation, and we will not have succeeded until we can once again trust people who say that. But we live in a world where architecture does often require architects, and how or when we might find our way back is uncertain. In a way, we both know too much and too little: our materialist knowledge enabled us to create what we now have, but our ignorance squanders it and we continue to cause untold damage in the process. A localist mindset is both the ultimate goal as well as the first step. A few things are certain, though: we can’t teach ourselves to be untaught, we can’t complicate ourselves into simplicity, and we can’t talk ourselves into silence.

There is no need to escape to an idealised ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ setting to understand the ways in which our petroleum-driven industrialised civilisation drastically limits who we are, what we experience and the vast unknowns that lurk in our embodied absorption of the world around us. These kinds of gatherings and collective work however enable us to immerse ourselves in a Deep Map of relationships within a place a layering of narratives and understandings that demonstrate our abilities to hold multiple, often contradictory perspectives. These expansive capacities can be used anywhere, in cities and remote rural locations. They can reveal the lost worlds of ‘Deep Grandmothers’ (ancestral time) and the storytelling that is encoded in our DNA. Once activated, they can help us shift away from cultures of violent extraction and abstraction and instead build up cultures of care in the face of climate breakdown and the ensuing chaos it might bring in the coming time.

– Learning Carefully From the Sea

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3 thoughts on “Toward a Vernacular Polytheism

  1. “Vernacular” is an excellent way to describe the polytheism that I’m trying to live, thank you for this essay. I agree that it’s much better than “indigenous,” especially, which is certainly an identity that I can’t lay claim to.

    Liked by 2 people

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