A certain heathen organization recently made a public pronouncement that made it clear–if there had been any doubt–that their organization is confined to gender-conforming, heterosexual white people with the right sort of surnames. This pronouncement was widely denounced as racist, homophobic, and transphobic, but also defended on the grounds that any organization has the right to determine its own membership, and that this issue was not about excluding anybody but simply about defining the tribe.
Not being a heathen, I’m not going to discuss the textual and historical reasons why racist, homophobic, and transphobic attitudes seem to be inappropriate to worshippers of the Aesir and the Vanir (and possibly some of the Jotnar): Not my pantheon, not my sources. What I am going to discuss is the nature of tribe and where that figures in my religious practice.
For a long time I was interested in druidry and other forms of Celtic paganism. This had as much to do with childhood exposure to the legends of King Arthur, the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and the Mabinogion retellings of Evangeline Walton as anything else, but the idea that I was, in some fashion, practicing the Ways of My Ancestors was appealing to me. I took ancestor devotion seriously because I took devotion to the saints seriously: Same thing, different religions. And I had some visionary experiences and contacts that strongly suggested I had ancestral and perhaps past life connections in the north of England and Scotland.
Fast forward twenty years or so, and I’m worshipping a Greek youth deified by Egyptian religion, the Roman pantheon, and a family of new gods that have only manifested in the last five years or so. My surname is Scottish; my father’s mother was Portuguese, and I’ve been told that her surname was one of those often used by conversos, Jews who became Christian. My mother’s father was German and I actually never think of myself as “German” at all, but I resemble him and his sister, my Aunt Margaret. I’m pretty sure there’s not a drop of Italian blood in me anywhere (at least, I’d be surprised if a DNA test turned it up). Does that matter in my religious practice? Not a whit.
The Greeks and Romans both got around, in Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor, trading, settling, conquering (and then settling and trading). Everywhere they went, they looked for similarities between their own gods and the gods of the land and people who were already there. They paid respect to those gods, even if, in the case of the Romans, that sometimes meant seducing or suborning those gods to help the Romans conquer their people. Their mingled culture and their literature, accompanied eventually by Christianity as a new state religion, got handed down to former barbarians and became part of their culture. As recently as the early twentieth century, learning Latin was a normal part of university education. For centuries, to be educated at all meant that you learnt Latin, and sometimes Greek.
Greco-Roman culture became European culture, which became Euro-American culture. If American kids learn mythology in public school, it’s not usually Native American stories, or Germanic or Egyptian, and certainly not Christian stories; it’s Greek mythology, Zeus and Hera, Athena and Apollo and Hermes. Public buildings look like Greek temples or Roman ones, or sometimes Renaissance palaces (like our Walters Art Museum), but not like Gothic cathedrals. Downtown Baltimore is dotted with classical-style sculptures that look like Roman deities although they’re actually allegorical abstractions.
My culture is Euro-American, heavily influenced by Greece and Rome as well as by Protestant Christianity. My religion is a melange of Mediterranean polytheisms with Christian and Buddhist influences and magical influences. My tribe? My tribe is made up of people who share my culture but not necessarily my religion. My tribe is queer people, gay, lesbian, or bisexual; my tribe is transgender and nonbinary folks; my tribe is writers, musicians, actors, artists, including people who write fan fiction and make fan art. My ancestors in spirit are poets like Dante or Efrem of Edessa, musicians like the great castrato Farinelli and the composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, and queer people like Issan Dorsey Roshi, a gay man and drag queen who became a Zen Buddhist and spent his last years running a hospice for men with AIDS. My tribe is a network of people who don’t care to define the tribe by whom they exclude, but by whom they welcome. These are the people of Antinous, the people of the Tetrad, and you are welcome in that tribe if you welcome everyone else.