Gods and the Grace They Bring

Today I started my day with a mini conversation on Facebook about keeping one’s word to the Gods and direct expressions of Their grace and power. It made me think of two stories, two examples from my own devotional life and I’m moved to share them here.

The first (chronologically too) involves a blot I was planning to make to Odin. I had prepped for it, bought a small goat from an acquaintance, gone to the appropriate land where the blot was to be held, gotten ready and about ten minutes before we were due to head down to Odin’s godpole, this acquaintance comes to me and tells me he just can’t bear to part with the goat, he’s grown attached. He didn’t have the money to return my purchase costs ,etc. etc. I was vexed, because this meant Odin would not get the goat that I promised Him and was trying to work out possible alternatives when my acquaintance comes back in ashen. He’d gone out to the goat pen to find his favorite goat, the one I’d bought for Odin, dead. It had been struck down in the time it took for him to come in to tell me I couldn’t have it as promised. We did the blot putting the goat’s body (after divination of course) on the fire as Odin likes. Moral of this story: don’t steal from the Gods.

The second is a story I find delightful and still can’t quite believe it happened to me. A couple of years ago I had, for some reason I no longer recall, promised Hermes a steak. On the day upon which I was supposed to deliver there was a blizzard. I went to my Hermes shrine and explained that I couldn’t drive safely now but would go get His steak as soon as the roads were clear the next day and in the meantime, I offered Him some alcohol. I felt really bad about it but it really wasn’t all that safe for me to drive. About five minutes later my doorbell rings. There was a man and a truck that I’d never seen before and haven’t since selling …steak. My jaw must have been hanging on the floor as he told me he was on his way home and was hoping to make one more sale. I bought three boxes. Hermes got His steak. Moral of this story: Hermes really wanted that steak.

 If we meet the Gods half way, even when we fall short of what we should be doing (by means of circumstances outside of our control), if we’re honest and upfront, They will more than pick up the slack.

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On War

I recently read this article by a neo-Pagan talking about how pointless and horrible war and war Deities. I found it disturbing then and continue to do so, not because I think war is wonderful, (I don’t. I think it’s hellish and many of the wars that we enter into are completely unnecessary), but for reasons that I’m going to briefly discuss below.

First of all, if one feels that way about war, then what does one feel about the men and women who fight in them? It’s a thin line from incomprehension to contempt.

Secondly, some wars are necessary.  Some wars are moral obligations. Peace at any cost is a terrible, terrible thing. Imagine, for instance, had the US not joined WWII what the possible outcome might have been. We have in  Heathenry, a concept called frith. This is often translated as peace but I hold with Gronbech that this is absolutely ahistorical and inaccurate. It’s better translated right relationship. Sometimes to put things back into right relationship, to restore true peace and luck, one has to fight.

Thirdly and most importantly, war is one of the domains of the Gods, Gods like Odin, Freya, Freyr, Tyr, and numerous other Deities. Yes, war is part of the Vanic experience. In our cosmology the first war that we learn about is one between the Aesir and Vanir and let’s be frank: the Vanir started it. In Ragnarok, Freyr, along with Freya probably the best loved of the Vanir in our modern community, is so ravaging a fighter that He doesn’t require a weapon. He fights like a raging animal with a deer antler (or perhaps a blade of antler) in his hands. I think this is significant. Freyr’s commitment to peace and plenty does not negate the fact that He is a very capable warrior ready and willing to defend His tribe, and the Worlds at Ragnarok.

War is also the way that Odin tests and selects the best of warriors, men and women who will fight in the final battle against the foe that seeks only the destruction of the order the Gods have made. It is a testing ground, and those who pass living through its fires are much more cognizant of the precious price of the peace for which they fought. It sustains our communities, and there is no civilization that is not built on the backs of its warriors and soldiers. That is as it should be. If one is going to build something sustainable, then there needs to be those willing to fight and die to protect its borders. No field flourishes as best as that fed with the blood of a thousand fallen men. It is akin to the cycle of predator-prey and while not something to be sought, there is a time and a place for its violence just as there is a time and place for the wildfires that cleanse and clear the land readying it for new growth.

To say that war has no value is to devalue these Gods. It is spitting on those areas of being that They prescribe.  It is contempt for Their Power. One cannot (and should not seek to) pluck out one part of a Deity’s power, leaving us only with those aspects of that God we deem “acceptable” in our humanity. Freya is Goddess of love and abundance, sex and beauty yes, but She is also a Goddess of war and by negotiation with Odin receives Her choice of the first half of those slain in battle. (No, She is not Queen of the Valkyries. See my article here).  Imagine if we thought of Her realm of love and sex as we so blithely do about war. (Yet the way we treat sex in our culture and utter lack of any sense of continence or morality encouraged today is at least as big an issue in the destruction of culture and family as war, and far more insidious).

I think it is best to acknowledge war as a terrible thing, but sometimes a terrible necessity. It is also, because it is the domain of the Gods, a holy thing, as uncomfortable as that may be for us. Perhaps if we approached it thusly, with that mindfulness, we’d engage in it a bit less frivolously or often.

 

 

When Belief Doesn’t Matter

(I”m reposting this piece, which originally posted some time ago, upon request from a reader).

I counseled someone recently who came to me distraught (and I am sharing this now with permission from that person). “There are days when I don’t believe.” She said. “Days when I question. Days when the Gods seem so far away.” She was sure that she had offended her Gods greatly because of those moments where the reality of Their presence was the farthest thing from her mind in the world. I just shrugged and said “me too.” And watched the girl almost fall off her chair.

Belief is a funny thing and while it’s important to cultivate I think it’s equally important not to fetishize it. I know the Gods exist like I know gravity exists. I don’t have to beat myself over the head thinking about it every single day. If for a span of days I don’t feel Them palpably in my world, so what? I don’t consciously feel the presence of gravity either, thinking every time I drop something: behold its power. The most devout person I ever knew, a woman I considered a living sancta told me once that there were times she didn’t believe; but she continued, “whether Loki exists at those times or doesn’t exist, I love Him anyway.” And that was all that mattered. It was that commitment, dedication, and love that guided her devotional life, not abstract musings on the state of her belief. She didn’t let it bother her when it was less than she would have liked; rather, she worked to cultivate it regularly to be more than she could ever hope and in between allowed love and devotion to guide her.

I think it is normal given that we are fighting for restoration, rather than living it organically, that we are picking up and reweaving sundered threads rather than inheriting the full tapestry of tradition passed down in an unbroken ancestral inheritance that sometimes we will be self conscious about our internal processes around belief. Nor am I saying that non-belief is ok. I think, however, that part of building a devotional relationship is learning how to cultivate belief every single day. It’s difficult not to fetishize belief when we are working at a nexus of communities wherein we must fight for space for our Gods to exist but I’ll share with you what I was once taught about it, by the sancta I mention above:

Belief is a choice. You make it over and over every day, throughout the day. You make it every time you choose to engage in devotional work, every time you choose to do something that deepens your relationship with the Gods, that prioritizes Them in your world and like working a muscle, the more you do that, the easier it becomes. Belief moves from the realm of the abstract into a bone and soul deep certainty that sustains.

It is less than about any right belief than understanding that because the Gods exist it has consequences in our lives. Because we are seeking to cultivate devotional relationships with Them, to prioritize Them in our lives, our behavior with respect to things sacred will be impacted. Things have consequences. When one is likewise working to rebuild a tradition, well, that has consequences and requirements too. Getting back to belief however, it’s counter productive to beat oneself up when it falters. It’ll happen. If we think that we contemplate our belief only at those times when it is physically and emotionally palpable, then we must realize that what we are dealing with is an emotion and emotions are questionable guides to any truth. Just because we do not feel belief at a given point in time does not mean that our belief is shit. What it means is that feelings are vague – at best—indicators of ontological truth. Feelings are fragile. They can be affected by anything from lack of sleep to indigestion! We’re all going to have times where we’re just not where we want to be in terms of actively feeling belief. That’s when you make the choice to carry on with devotion anyway, to act in right relationship with the Gods anyway because emotions are variable things but the Gods are not.

I think people often get too caught up in the “feeling” of belief instead of action. In reality it’s not about right belief or feeling, it’s about hospitality and being respectful. One can be respectful regardless of the state of one’s belief. One can treat Them well, as proper guests, respectfully even if one is struggling spiritually. One can likewise struggle toward organic belief and doing so is one of the things that helps to build a strong spiritual life.

I don’t think any Deity expects perfection of practice, not now, not ever. I think that it is the struggles and sometimes even our failures that add color and texture to the fabric of our spiritual lives. I think struggles can be immensely productive and working toward belief can bring us more deeply and closely to our Gods than simply moving through devotion by unthinking rote. The corollary of course would be to embrace those fallow times as deeply nutritive, at least in potential, to our faith but I’m not quite there yet! I dread them, even knowing their worth. Still, and here is the heart of what I’m saying in this post, it’s not productive to beat oneself up for those times belief seems very far away. Just get on with devotion and know that when you can do nothing else, you can still make the choice to be kind, hospitable, and respectful to the Powers.

 

Submission to Dionysos’ Agon

The God of Broken Souls
by Sparrow

There are Gods for those who take up arms,
To protect their families and tribes.

There are Gods for those who till the earth,
And reap the bounty from Gaia’s depths.

There are Gods for those who are clever,
With their words and their hands.

And then there is a God for the rest of us,
We who are broken in body, mind, or spirit,
We who polite society frowns upon.

He understands our suffering,
For He has suffered.

He understands what it’s like to be human,
For His beloved mother was a human.

He understands what it’s like to be shunned,
For He was shunned from Mount Olympos,
Before His triumphant return there.

This God is the great and powerful Dionysos,
Lover of the outcast and downtrodden,
Loosener of cares,
Master of revelry,
Breaker of chains.

What would we do without Dionysos’ love?
I honestly do not know.
I am only thankful that He is always here for us.
He wraps His protective arms around us,
Offers us sweet wine from His cup,
And then He leads us in His dance.
Let us always praise Him. Io Dionysos!

Καιρός – the appropriate time

Tonight, I was talking to a couple of apprentices about their upcoming work (they’re all doing well, but as ever, the reward for work well done is more work). I made the comment that “there’s our time and then the right time.” In other words, there’s when we want to do something or think we’re ready to do something, and there’s when the Gods and ancestors determine a thing should be done.(1) In between, there’s usually a hell of a lot of whining and procrastinating! Granted, during this discussion I was thinking every bit as much about my own work and its failures as anything my apprentices are doing (who by and large do not procrastinate and are in fact, very deeply devoted), in large part because it reminded me so strongly of something my adopted mom said to me once. She was doing something for the Goddess Frau Hölle (I don’t recall what) and I asked her if it could wait. She then asked me what was more important, our inconvenience or doing the relatively simple thing the Deity asked when it should be done? In other words, we’re in these committed relationships and that means prioritizing something over our own convenience or inconvenience. It is the least we can do, she said, given the tremendous honor of loving Them.

This is a difficult thing actually, because I am lazy as hell. I struggle with chronic pain; I’m usually tired, and quite often resentful when told to do something. It’s sometimes hard not to balk at what I know are my devotional obligations – even when I very much want to meet them (I think this is termed ‘cussedness’ in the south lol). But even more, and far more importantly, I like to be in the proper devotional headspace when I do things for the Gods and ancestors. To my shame, I’ve often used the excuse of not being in the right headspace to excuse my own indolence. In reality, I know full well I could have easily put aside what I was doing and gotten myself in the right headspace had I wanted to do so. Part of me just didn’t want to be bothered. Part of me was saying that whatever I was doing (watching TV, reading, some hobby) was more important than the Gods.

All ritual work large and small is a process, one that begins well before a person actually goes before his or her shrine and before the Gods and dead. It’s not that every offering or prayer needs to be a huge show, but the transition from mundane ‘me’ space to Their space, to holy space, to receptive, devotional space is worthy of conscious consideration and transition. It is certainly more fulfilling for us and perhaps for our Gods and spirits too when we enter into the simplest of devotional acts mindfully. It all comes down to the choices we make. If I want to have a nourishing and fulfilling devotional life then it’s on me to make time for it, to set aside the time to develop the appropriate headspace, to tend the shrines when they need tending (not when I want to do it), to cultivate devotion in all the various meandering pathways of my life, large and small. Our Gods, as one of my apprentices said so wisely, shouldn’t have to chase us to get our attention when we’ve already committed to honoring Them and paying proper devotional cultus. It’s the same with our ancestors.

Which brings me to καιρός. (2) This is one of several words for ‘time’ in ancient Greek. It has the particular meaning of the right, or appropriate time, the most advantageous time in which to do a thing. It is the critical moment on which the success or failure of a thing may well revolve. More and more I think developing devotional consciousness means being aware of καιρός in our lives, in our work, in the way we respond to the Gods, and the way we pay cultus. There is our time and there is the right time to do the things we all know we should be doing devotionally.(3) We should be seeking the appropriate time for our devotions, even when it’s inconvenient to our other plans. To do otherwise is a distortion of the very cultus we are seeking to pay.

Notes

  1. Fortunately, we have divination to determine that latter should the need arise.
  2. While the word is Greek, both the word and concept have been taken up in ritual studies well beyond that particular language or tradition. I first encountered it not in my training as a Classicist but when I was doing my undergrad degree in Religious Studies.
  3. This is why I have often said that half the battle devotionally is getting ourselves and our egos out of the way.

 

Doughboy Statues all around NY

I probably shared this link months ago, but with November having Veterans Day, and with this being the 100th anniversary of WWI, I think it’s good to share again. Those of you in NY, check this out. Great places to make offerings to the military dead:

See full article here:  The World War I doughboys of New York City

Newsletter forthcoming starting Dec.

So starting in December, I will be sending out a monthly newsletter to subscribers. You’ll get a sneak peak of new projects and interesting things that I may be working on. Those interested can subscribe by going to my follow page and following the instructions there, where it says in big, bold print: sign up for newsletter.

Reminder

There are roughly two more weeks on the Dionysos Agon. It ends November 30 at 9pm ESt. If you’ve been contemplating a submission, best to do it sooner rather than later. (there are prizes). 

 

A Note on Hela and a Shrine-share

Holdasown made a comment on my previous article about Hela caring for dead children and I concur 100%. My devotional sense of Hela has always been that She cares tremendously for the dead, especially those who were vulnerable, abused and neglected in life, that Helheim is a sanctuary where the dead are cherished. I don’t believe any of our suffering passes unnoticed into the void. Our Gods care deeply. Because I particularly resonate with the idea of Her tending to dead children, I wanted to share a statue of Her that I have on my ancestor shrine, honoring Her thusly (and also as Queen of Helheim and Protectress of all the dead). The statue was created by Brandon Hardy.

hela

I call bullshit or Odin is not your babysitter

There’s a meme making its way around Facebook lately that presents us with the story of an abused child who dies and is taken to Valhalla. Everyone, especially Odin, comforts the child and in the end, that child brings comfort to another abused child who also ends up in the hall of warriors. It’s lovely. It’s emotional. It’s sentimental. It’s also utter bullshit.

Now before this piece gets spun by the tumblr crowd as “Galina hates abused children” let me encourage reading comprehension. Let me also point out that an abused child is a survivor. They are resilient and worthy of immense respect. They are not however, warriors. We are so removed from the realities of our ancestors, from the idea that a necessary and expected passage into adulthood was serving as a warrior or soldier, that we use terms like ‘warrior’ and ‘battle’ metaphorically. There is a role for this in language, yes, but not when it’s being used to elide religious ideas. Let’s also be quite clear: the child in this passage doesn’t exist. So those of you reading this and getting your panties in a twist because of what I’m saying are crying and whining about a fictional construct. The idea expressed in this meme, however is an incredible distortion of Norse ideas of the afterlife and that is what I want to address.

Valhalla is home to an elite military force. It is a place where Odin has selected the best of the best of warriors and where He is training them up daily to be a vicious fighting force in the end battle. This is the elite force being trained to prevent the dissolution of our world and the cosmic order of the Gods. They do two things: they fight and feast.  They constantly train, brutally over and over and over again. There is one, maybe two ways to gain entry into Valhalla: being killed in combat (and maybe belonging to Odin, if one thinks that one goes to the hall of the God to which one is sworn). Either way, it’s no place for a child. It is a place by its very nature that would re-traumatize a wounded soul again and again. Valhalla is not a place of healing. It is a place of brutal, ongoing training.

This is not, of course to say that Odin doesn’t care about abused children. I think the Gods do care immensely but Valhalla is not the appropriate space for such a child to end up. It’s tremendously disrespectful to other Gods, Gods Who do have a specific interest in and care of abused children to foist this off on Odin. We’re polytheists. We have many, many Gods. We don’t have to copy the Christian idea of forcing one God to accommodate everything. An abused child might be better off in Mani’s hall, or Sigyn’s, both Gods that modern, shared experience have revealed to have a fierce interest in caring for and protecting abused children. Maybe such a child would find happiness in Njord’s hall or even Freya’s. Perhaps Hela’s hall would be best, where a child can meet his or her other ancestors and be given love and acceptance that has no taint of violence or pain; and there are dozens more Gods, all of Whom have places in the afterlife far more appropriate than Valhalla. I understand that the author of that meme is likely attempting to address the helplessness inherent in being abused, and making the statement that surviving abuse is like surviving war, but the reality is that they’re not the same thing. It’s not just surviving a violent situation that makes you a warrior; it’s surviving it and going back in willingly over and over again. Intimating that an abused child will go to Valhalla is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read recently. Why? So that kid can spend an afterlife in terror? Or so an elite war band can be transformed into some progressive’s idea of a babysitter? And what exactly is that child going to do when the final battle comes? This elite war band has one purpose: to fight in that battle and most likely to face their soul’s obliteration doing so. Is that child going to fight with them? Is that really the afterlife that we find appropriate for a child who suffered terrible abuse whilst alive? Think about that long and hard and exactly what that would be like for such a soul (including what it would be like to bond with these men and women and then see them all go out and die).

Moreover, why is it so difficult to allow our warriors to have their own space? Since the ancient world, cultures have realized that warriors and soldiers needed space that was their own because they endure things that only another of their kind can comprehend. It’s one thing to kill once in a fight for one’s life but quite another to go again and again into the clanging, chaotic, terrifying din of battle – willingly—knowing that even if you survive, the experiences that you endure defending and protecting the peace of your people will likely render you unable to ever truly be one of them again. You will forever be separate from that which you fought to sustain.

Our communities have real problems with elite space, with space that is not in fact inclusive of everyone. Fortunately, our Gods don’t seem to have this issue and instead realize that such spaces are necessary for any work to be done, for any tradition to grow, and that our dead deserve to each find their homes.  I said to someone recently: we will not have traditions worth defending until we have people willing to take up arms and shed blood to sustain them. Why? Because tradition and civilization are both built on the backs and the blood of its warriors. You don’t get to enjoy these things without this class of people willing to give everything to sustain them.

sad child

(“Why do you want to scar me for all eternity? Haven’t I suffered enough?”)