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A Pagan Perspective on Love

Robin Herne's picture

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AFAN – Love

The English language is, perhaps, one of the least suitable for discussing the nature of love, given that we have such a limited lexicon for it. When religious people (of whichever ilk) talk about love, they most commonly refer to philanthropic or spiritual love, rather than the romantic variety. Ancient polytheist religions tended to be tribal, and emphasise loyalty to and affection for ones tribe above any more encompassing regard for strangers. However, almost all cultures balanced this with the concept that the Greeks called xenia, support for travelling strangers. This latter may not have been born out of love in any sense that we might conceive it now, but from a more pragmatic need to aid the survival of others (and be aided in return).

Sticking with the Greeks, one of the primal driving forces of their theology was Eros the god of love. He bears no resemblance to the twee cherub carved or painted by those for whom love must be something nauseatingly saccharine. For the ancients Eros was a primeval force known by the epithet of Eleutherios, the One Who Liberates. Love in any of its forms has the power to set us free. It may be said that a characteristic of genuine love, rather than the mere desire to possess, is the wish for the loved one to be free to grow and flower to their full potential.

Love also binds, though in a positive way, for Hesiod saw Eros as the creative urge in the cosmos, the force of attraction that draws one thing to another and holds them in orbit. In myth Eros inspired desire in people ~ sometimes beneficial, and sometimes of a kind that ultimately brought about destruction and madness. In daily life we can frequently see people form attachments that uplift them or push them into obsession. The Greeks considered any type of romantic attachment a form of lunacy, theia mania, visited on people by the Gods.

Whilst the term erotic has come to mean overtly sexual, in Plato’s philosophy eros was the gateway to the soul, a means by which people could be inspired to contemplate the beauties of the person they loved and come to grasp the nature of the spirit that dwelt within them. Cicero said, “For man not only loves himself, but seeks another whose spirit he may so blend with his own as almost to make one being of two.” In this instance Cicero was talking about friendship, and in any sort of healthy love ~ sexual, platonic, familial, spiritual ~ one of the chief functions of the relationship is to aid each participant to transcend the limitations of an emotionally isolated life. The loving person may be said to be part of a network of deep emotional attachments, a gestalt greater than the sum of its parts. If love is madness sent by the Gods, it is one that enables us to glimpse some of both their nature and the divine sparks within others and ourselves.

Going off at a slight tangent, it may be worth considering love as a verb rather than an abstract noun ~ that is, a word that describes what we do rather than what we feel. In Pagan wedding ceremonies people take oaths; whilst modern ceremonies can often be quite flowery, in ancient times they were more practical. We cannot promise to feel something in a year’s time, or even in a day’s time ~ our emotions cannot be experienced to order. However, we can promise to behave in a way that expresses love. This is not simply true of sexual relationships, but also of the love between friends, relatives, that felt for a pet, or anyone else. When thinking of whom we love, consider not just the emotion but also the practical means by which we express it. How do we show someone that we love them ~ by saying it, by being honest with them, by doing the ironing, by showering them with gifts, or any of a hundred other ways?

Many people claim to feel love for others, but behave in ways that express very little kindness or affection. Sentiment is easy; action requires considerably more investment. The American novelist Reynolds Price said, “Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives....” It is certainly true that vast numbers of people survive without the basic necessities, let alone pleasures. We can last without romance, but can we truly live without any sort of mutual emotional commitment with those around us?

Given the colossal amount of (frequently dreadful) songs written about romantic love, it is reasonable to suspect that these days we wildly over-value the role of sexual love whilst downplaying the importance of other form of love that attach us to the world. Millions may survive without romance, but few of us last long with friendship, family, the devotion of pets, and so forth. The prolonged absence of love brings madness far more disturbing than its presence!