On the way to the post this morning I drove by the local Presbyterian Church. They have a sign out front that they change regularly and it usually includes some pithy saying or tagline to draw one in. Today their sign caught my eye because of what it said: ‘Making God’s priorities your priorities.’ I thought, “Yep. That about covers the most difficult part of growing in devotion.” Since I was still thinking about that as I got home, I decided to write a bit about it here.
I’ve always maintained that it’s not enough to just believe in the Gods. In the end, it’s not even enough to venerate Them. As with ancestor practice, polytheism is something that should become the lens through which every part of one’s life, every interaction is filtered. The awareness of the Gods and spirits changes everything, should change everything, most especially how we stand in relationship to Them and to our entire world. It requires re-evaluating our goals, our values, our priorities and considering whether or not these things are in proper alignment with our devotion to our Gods and with what our Gods desire. Often it involves getting ourselves out of the way (more on that in a bit). That, I think, is the place where most people balk.
It’s easy to think that devotion is all about feeling the presence of the Gods. Maybe one is particularly gifted and can hear or even see Them. I won’t deny that the capacity to experience the Gods directly is a tremendous grace but, those things are in the end unimportant and focusing on them too much can be a powerful distraction to actual devotion, especially when they are sought or embraced without even a hint of discernment. If our devotion is predicated on seeing, hearing, or feeling the Gods what happens when we can’t do that? What happens when we’re in a dark place, a dark night of the soul, or going through some type of emotional upset that has impacted our discernment? What happens when feeling or seeing or hearing is not forthcoming? Does our devotion go away? Moreover, demanding that we have that feedback every single time we make an offering or prayer is putting the Gods on our timetable, holding Them hostage, subordinating Them to our whims and our needs. It is a violation of the hierarchy of being of which the Gods are part. They are Gods after all, not our invisible friends (for all that They may care for us, nurture us, and engage in a friendly, loving manner with us at times). It prioritizes our desires over what is good and right and proper: maintaining right relationship with the Powers. It reduces the Gods to playthings and elevates us in Their place.
This is where getting ourselves out of the way comes in. I strongly believe that we are deeply loved by our Gods. I think that They want the best for us in all possible worlds. I also think that our own world is poisoned and out of balance and our wants and desires, our egos and hungers have been shaped by that lack of balance. We’ve been taught to value things that are detrimental to our spiritual life. We’ve been raised by virtue of the culture in which we live to prioritize things that are not in alignment with the goals the Gods have for us and that are certainly not in alignment with any developed and authentic spiritual expression. When the time comes to raise ourselves up, to curb the corruption or atrophy of our very souls, when the time comes to change, to move beyond the immediate reinforcement of seeing or feeling, we balk. Sometimes we run like hell. Sometimes we throw tantrums and immerse ourselves even more in those things that are spiritually detrimental.
I’m prepping a paper right now on pop culture and religion for an academic conference and anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m not a fan of combining the two. In fact, I think that absorbing pop culture uncritically can have devastating consequences on our spiritual sense. The problem isn’t, believe it or not, pop culture itself. Pop culture has existed as long as we have possessed the ability to craft and convey stories. In the ancient world, Homer might have been considered ‘pop culture.’ Certainly, later philosophers challenged the Homeric corpus (at least the Iliad and Odyssey) on the grounds that they presented the Gods and heroes impiously. The problem is less the stories we tell than the context in which they’re told. In other words, the problem is our over-culture. In the ancient world, you had a culture steeped in polytheism. Not having yet had the dubious benefit of modernity and the ‘Enlightenment,’ devotion and piety were not yet positioned culturally as primitive, foolish, or potential mental illness. The culture itself was steeped in religion in a way that allowed for the inter-generational transmission of piety and these things countered any potential harm from the pop culture of the time. Even those who may have had a paucity of actual faith were encouraged by the philosophers of their time, by their culture, by their traditions to attend to the proper rituals and otherwise behave themselves. We don’t have that.
What we have instead is a culture that encourages us to prioritize the shallowest aspects of our lives, that encourages us to treat the Gods as errant children, that encourages us to behave, in effect, with gross (though usually ignorant) impiety. We have a culture that encourages anything but deep devotion, and that certainly doesn’t respect any intergenerational transmission of tradition. This complicates the process of opening ourselves up to the Gods. It complicates our growing in faith and spiritual awareness and it complicates us growing into fully developed human beings, human beings in right relationship with our Gods and dead.
Does all of this mean we should never expose ourselves to popular culture? Maybe. If your idea of a good night’s television is the Kardashians please try to develop your tastes a little. But maybe it means that we approach the popular culture that we imbibe critically, with eyes open, aware that it carries with it seeds that could blossom into gross impiety and ugliness in our souls. It’s an opportunity to have conversations, to challenge ourselves and the culture in which we were raised to reconsider and to do better. There are times where I will leave a movie or turn off a particular television show, even if I’m enjoying it, because I don’t want to give that level of pollution space in my head. I don’t want it to take up real estate that would otherwise become fertile ground for devotion. I want the seeds of that devotion to grow in rich, clean soil. Then there are times where I’ll watch anyway, but make offerings and cleanse afterwards, and maybe discuss with whomever else was present why it was problematic, even though it might have been enjoyable as hell. It depends. I think we’re called to do this not just with pop culture but with our culture assumptions, our values, the foundation of our morality, our goals, priorities, and everything in our world. We are called to consider everything.
It is a challenge to allow ourselves to be reshaped from the inside out by our piety rather than to attempt reshaping our piety to suit our undeveloped souls. We may not know all the time what our Gods want, but we can do those things that make us receptive to finding out. We can immerse ourselves in those practices that help us develop deeper piety, deeper devotion. We can accept that this process of doing devotion well is going to have its ups and downs, its fallow periods and its periods of deep insight and communion, and that it will, if done rightly, change everything about how we view our world, how we position ourselves in it, and ultimately how we will set ourselves to changing it.
So yes, I think devotion ultimately does come down to cultivating love of the Gods, cultivating a hunger to approach Them in our hearts, to making offerings and doing rituals but above all else, to allowing ourselves to be changed by the process of devotion, to allow ourselves to be transformed, and to a willingness to critically examine every single premise with which we’ve been raised, and every single thing our world tells us most especially in relation to our Gods, but not just there. And if the idea of aligning our own priorities with those of the Gods evokes resentment or anger, then maybe the place to start is in considering why.
this is a really interesting article about British Gods.
Seven years ago, I was standing on a hillside, not far from the borders of the Wyre Forest in Shropshire. I was looking downhill, into the valley below, where a little river was plashing noisily along the bottom. There, before me, silhouetted in the moonlight and starlight, was a vast oak tree, his broad branches spreading like the tines of antlers. Beside me stands a fellow druid, a bearded mystic and a poet, with wide blue eyes and an even wider sense of vision. We’re both regarding the tree levelly as we talk about the gods; one of whom I had felt nearby as I stood beneath the tree, some moments ago.
My companion sucks his teeth and speaks softly. “See, Nodens isn’t like the other gods we work with here. There’s something diffuse about those others – the Lord and Lady, Brigid, the Horned God, Lugh and that…
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I was feeling crafty today. I came home from a conference and
made a mess in my kitchen made a number of incenses and one of my favorite bath blends. Folks here get first crack. There is a limited supply (I don’t often go into a frenzy of incense making and I usually sell what I make at a local shop). In a few days, I’ll post what’s left at my etsy shop or take it to the local Pagan shop. Here’s what I have available:
- Uncrossing Incense – Two packets
- Sexy Times Powder (this is NOT to be used for personal anointing. It’s very good as incense, and may also be used for anointing candles, sprinkling on name papers or as a powder to sprinkle around a space) – One packet
- Healing Incense (dedicated to Hygeia and Asklepius) –
- Money drawing Incense – Two packets
- Fiery Wall of Protection (this is the best version of this traditional blend that I’ve ever made) – Two packets
- Hermes Incense – Two Packets.
- Love and Well Being bath –
For the incenses, each packet contains about two tablespooons, enough for several usages. For the bath, one packet equals about half a cup. I recycle packaging material so when I send these, they may be in boxes, small bags, or if you’re lucky, glass vials (for the incense). It depends on what I have.
Prices for the incense: $10 plus $3 shipping and handling.
Prices for the bath powder: $12 plus $4 shipping and handling.
Contact me at Krasskova at gmail.com if you’re interested.
I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. I’d just never quite heard it phrased so succinctly.
Devotional living can be hard. Coming into alignment with our Gods and ancestors and nourishing those relationships (which is part and parcel of restoring the ancient covenants with Gods, ancestors, and land) carries with it the challenge of reorienting our priorities, changing the way we look at the world, at everything, and it often involves a certain degree of loss. Actually, I think sometimes it involves a huge degree of loss. It’s difficult, really, really difficult because it changes everything in our world. Doing devotional work well changes the way we are in our world, the way we position ourselves in relation to everything. Yes, I strongly believe that the Gods more than meet us half way, walk with us as we struggle, but that doesn’t make devotional work any less grueling.
I remember once my adopted mom was discussing ‘love.’ She was very much against any abstract, grand, or romantic definitions. She said, “you know what love is? It’s rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.” She compared it to a parent changing a baby’s dirty diaper when completely exhausted and I rather agree with her. St. Augustine (I’m not a fan, but he was right on this particular point) said that “my love is my weight,” meaning that his love for his God motivated him to make changes to who he was and to whom he wanted to become. If we look at devotion as the cultivation of a deep hunger and longing for God, the cultivation and its fruition, then it’s the work of tending that fire of longing, while at the same time of seeking endlessly to sate that hunger. St. Benedict (I’m taking a class in early Christianity so we’re reading Benedict now) gave us the famous dictum: “Ora et Labora” (pray and work). Until recently I’ve always interpreted the ‘labora’ part of that saying to refer to manual labor (which monks would routinely engage in not only to support themselves but as a spiritual discipline) but more and more I am beginning think that it may be a bit more metaphysical, that Benedict was referring to the intense and painful spiritual labor of opening ourselves up to our Gods. Devotional work takes humility and vulnerability, a level of radical honesty not only with our Holy Powers but with ourselves too, most especially with ourselves and well, it can be pretty awful at times. There are reasons why Christian writers wrote that it was a “terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Well, it can be, because afterwards nothing is ever the same again.
Sometimes it’s the very longing for connection to the Gods that hurts the most. It’s fire in the soul, a goad to the heart. It’s a thing that gives no peace. I once quipped that I hadn’t had a single comfortable day since I became a devout woman (I’m exaggerating, because there is deep joy and satisfaction in the devotional life as well, but not by much). That longing is so crucial. We can numb ourselves to it. So much in our world encourages us to numb ourselves to it but if we do that, then getting through the really difficult times, the proverbial dark nights of the soul is that much harder. In the nadir of our spiritual world, it’s sometimes longing that carries us through. It’s certainly longing that encourages us to do the work that helps ensure good spiritual discernment. If we are longing for our Gods after all, why would we settle for anything less? Someone recently posted in a comment to one of my previous blog posts that the Latin word cultus, referring to all the rites and rituals and devotional practices of tending to a particular Deity, is directly related to the word meaning ‘to cultivate, or to tend’ and that is linguistically correct. To pay cultus to a God is to be in a state of having tended to that God and one’s relationship with Him or Her properly. The word itself calls to mind the work of tending a field, the hard, manual labor of a farmer minding his crops – work that paid off with the means to nourish a family or community. It implies a great deal of consistent labor. It’s the same with devotional work, that likewise pays off in the micro-verse of our souls, of our character, of the formation of our hearts and minds.
Getting back to Seneca though, I agree with him. There is immense freedom in consciously, passionately serving a God. It’s not just the satisfaction of being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, but also of acknowledging that when we are in that relationship, so much falls into place on every possible level. When we are given over consciously and mindfully to the Powers that shaped our world, that wove our fate, that nurtured our ancestors, that breathed life into our beings, with that comes a soul deep purpose. It elevates us as human beings. Likewise, we have tremendous free will within our devotional worlds. All things being equal we have the choice of doing this work gracefully. We can cultivate in ourselves those things that cultivate our connection to our Gods, or we can behave like petulant little bitches (and believe me, we all go down this route occasionally). The work of devotion is ultimately that which allows us to experience our Gods directly. It allows us to align our priorities and wills with Theirs. It allows us joy. It places the world in order and us in order within that world, and if we are in alignment with our Gods, then all else is commentary. If we are in alignment with our Gods then They are in alignment with us, and we have the benefit of Their blessing and protection as active, moving forces in our lives.
All of this leads me to the question of what makes one a good person. What does it mean to be an adult and a polytheist and what are the virtues that we should be attempting to cultivate? It’s not as easy a question as one might think given that the answer will vary mightily depending on the Gods we venerate. What Odin wishes cultivated in His devotees is very different in many respects from what Dionysos or Inanna might wish. It leads me to the conflict I see playing out in our communities every day, namely whether humanity or the Gods should take priority in our consciousness. But if we are not serving the Gods well, if we are not in right relationship with Them, then how can we possibly hope to be so with the people in our lives, or with humanity in general? If we cannot order this, the most essential of relationships rightly, then how can we hope to do so with the smaller, yet also important ones?
With Yule coming up, I want to take a moment to suggest that we shop within our community as much as possible. We should be supporting our polytheist artisans. What money we decide to spend on non-essentials should, as much as possible, be recycled back into our own communities. It’s one of the things that can help to make a community vibrant and strong. If i could, I would only do business with polytheists. Now, that may not be possible yet and probably won’t be in our lifetimes, but inasmuch as we can, I think we should consider doing so. To that end, here’s a list of some of the shops and artisans that I like and that I”ll be looking at as Yule draws near. (I’m tired — have been studying most of the day– so this is not a complete list. If you are an artist, artisan, shop owner and we know each other and your page isn’t here, post in the comments!! Any omission is not intentional and not intended to hurt. My brain is just fried from studying Syriac all day!).
Likewise Readers, if there are shops and artists you’d like to suggest, please post in the comments. If any of you reading this take commissions but do not have a formal shop, also post in the comments and let us know. ^_^
Orthodox Ritual Praxis
This morning I read an article on Greek and Russian Orthodox Church services and it was fascinating. The services, particularly around holy week can be quite grueling. They last for hours and in the most traditional churches people are standing that entire time. Of course, they don’t just stand: they pray, they sing, they move to various icons and light candles and pray some more as the spirit moves them. It’s interactive and quite physically demanding. Here’s the article I read, which actually downplays quite a bit the physical exertion and discipline required.
So I read this and think: we can’t even get people willing to offer water without them whining about how put upon they are, and how they feel being expected to actually DO something is elitist, ablest, classist, insert ‘ism of your choice here.
If people cared about their Gods as much as they cared about the latest cause or video game or Dr. Who episode maybe we’d actually be getting somewhere but I look at articles like the above and realize exactly how far we have to go to hit even a bare baseline of active devotion.
The Vikings Didn’t Need Islam to be Religiously Fulfilled.
Then there’s this little gem. Apparently, the Arabic word for God (Allah) was found on some Viking textiles and a group of academics is using this as an opportunity to normalize Muslim invasion of Europe, and to erase our indigenous religions. The scholars involved are claiming that Vikings were influenced in their burial practices by Islam, extensively influenced, because of course Heathen religions couldn’t possibly have complex and fulfilling beliefs about the afterlife. Of course, the Vikings would have had to turn to a monotheistic religion for that. It’s utter bullshit and frankly bad scholarship along with being subtle pro- Muslim propaganda. It goes without saying a certain portion of our communities are celebrating this.
Yes, religions communicated. We know this. No religion evolved in a vacuum and there were borrowings across history. This is a normal part of the conversations that happen culturally between different groups, including religious groups. That, however, is not what the article is saying. It’s flat out giving Islam credit for Viking burial practices and doing so with zero evidence.
Why were there Islamic textiles in the Northlands? Most likely trade. And frankly, given that silk is a luxury item, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s found in burials. Why wouldn’t you want to bring back and give pretty, rich things to the dead that you love before sending them off? (I’ve seen this before though in academia. Secularism and/or atheism holds such sway in certain fields, along with the blanket assumption that if you’re educated you will not be religious, that I’ve actually attended lectures on religious topics like pilgrimage wherein the speaker put forth every possible explanation for why someone would undertake this difficult and expensive process…except devotion and piety. There is a swath of academics who simply cannot conceptualize devotion. It’s quite sad and leads to some seriously shady scholarship or at the very least, scholarship that misses its mark significantly).
Why is that surprising? This is right up there with archeologists finding multiple burials of women having died of war wounds, having been buried with weapons – repeatedly—and acting confused, claiming that perhaps the burials were contaminated because women can’t have been warriors to the degree they’re finding. There is a level of obtuseness and flat out stupidity in this that I find mind-blowing. The standard attitude of academia toward polytheism in the ancient world (they hardly ever acknowledge it in the modern) is to insist it didn’t exist, to insist it was solely a matter of praxis, that there was no meat or belief or devotion or passion there…despite quite a lot of evidence (linguistic, literary, archeological, etc.) to the contrary. The contemporary academic response to polytheism is, essentially, erasure.
Bringing this full circle, it’s bad enough when academics try to erase our devotional worlds. It’s bad enough when they damn our ancestors and their traditions like this. You know what’s worse? When we do it ourselves by simply not giving a damn.
“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”
—attributed to William Gladstone
I was recently interviewed by a student for her World Religions class. They had an assignment to interview a devout person and she got permission to interview a polytheist. I received permission from her to share the interview here, though I’m protecting her name (I don’t want to see her getting harassed, which has happened before to people that I’ve interviewed), for privacy’s sake, and by request.
Interview with A.R.: Lived Polytheism
A, These are good questions. A couple of things to keep in mind with my answers: I’m not a lay person. I’m a priest and spirit worker and have been since 1994. I’ve spent the better part of three decades doing increasingly complex theological work within my communities so the answers that I give should not be taken as indicative of your average lay woman. That being said, you’ve asked some really thoughtful questions here.
- What was the religious background of your childhood?
I was raised Roman Catholic. I left the church at twelve, refusing to be confirmed and over the next few years slowly became consciously polytheistic. I’m actually quite grateful for the Catholic upbringing. I think that I was very lucky. I had good devotional models, since my grandmother, for instance, was very devout. I never had to question the goodness of devotional work or the role that devotion could and should play in one’s life. I had it modeled for me from a very early age. I also found, as I was going through my conversion process, that the writings of female Catholic mystics like Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, and the like were extremely inspiring. It was almost as though we were having a conversation across the centuries and across the boundaries of our respective traditions. At the time that I converted, there was really no one available to provide spiritual direction in my community so I turned to these women in a way for that.
- I know that honoring one’s ancestors is extremely important in Heathenry. What kind of meaning does the practice have for you?
I think that honoring one’s ancestors is one of the most fundamental practices a polytheist can have. From our point of view, it’s what a responsible, engaged adult does as a matter of course. There’s a Lithuanian proverb ‘the spirits of the dead are the protection of the living’ and a Lukumi proverb “we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors” and I absolutely believe that is true. Honoring the dead roots us deeply in an awareness that we are living links in a chain of hopes, dreams, and devotion stretching back into history and forward into the future. It helps us establish right relationship spiritually too, because if we can get it right with our dead, then it’s that much easier to do so with our Gods. Connecting to our own ancestors though (and those who are not related by blood but to whom we have powerful connections of heart, mind, and spirit) strengthens us. It’s like a tree with rich, thick roots. It is a sustaining force and I very much believe that the ancestors can and do look after us, respond to us, and watch over us, helping where they can.
- You’ve talked a lot about your personal relationships with the Gods. In my experience with conventional Heathenry, it is considered a “beginner’s mistake” to seek a personal relationship with the Gods. How do you feel about that? What level of importance do you prescribe to ancestor worship in relation to worship of the Gods?
Any Heathen who says that developing a personal relationship with the Gods is a “beginner’s mistake” is a fool who should be ashamed of himself. Monotheism already destroyed our traditions once, why on earth would we finish the job for them by abrogating devotion? There is nothing more important in one’s religious life than developing that personal devotional relationship. It’s a sad fact that the majority of modern Heathens (and you might want to define Heathen for your paper so that people know it’s a term of religious identity for those who venerate the Norse and Germanic Gods. There are multiple denominations and “Heathen” or “Heathenry” is rather an umbrella term) come from fundamentalist protestantisms and I often find that they have a very difficult time accepting the emotional messiness of devotional work. I also find a deplorable tendency to try to reify the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda as authoritative texts, in the same way the Bible is for Christianity even though our traditions are not and never have been religions of any book. This is one of the fault lines within our community and where one falls on this topic is one of the things that can determine one’s denomination, so to speak.
- The concept of frith seems to run counter to the American spirit, namely individualism. How important is frith to you, and how do you navigate the space between Heathen tribalism and the American ethos?
Well, ‘frith’ is often translated as ‘peace,’ but I think a more accurate translation is ‘right order.’ Part of restoring our polytheisms is also re-ordering and re-prioritizing our sense of ethics and civic awareness and that is occasionally in conflict with the American norm. For me, that’s never been a problem. I will always prioritize my religious obligations over anything else, be it Heathen tribalism or an American ethos. Piety becomes the lens through which every part of one’s life is filtered and the only identity that really matters.
- How do you navigate conflicting claims by the different traditions you serve? For instance, cosmological inconsistencies?
Well if there are conflicts between what I ought to do for particular Deities, or what offerings to give, or which set of Deities needs to be honored first, I can always go to divination. Polytheisms always have been – in the past as in the modern day—religions of diviners. Divination is a precious, precious gift by which we are able to directly suss out what is required of us to remain in right relationship with our Gods. It’s also very useful, working in a blended tradition as I do (i.e. Norse and Greco-Roman) for handling any such conflicts of praxis. In the end, I belong to Odin, so when it comes down to it, He has pride of place in my devotional life. Anything else is sorted via divination. As to differing cosmological issues, inconsistencies…it’s not really an issue. One of the lovely graces of polytheism is the ability to hold many different stories, realities, beliefs as true all at once. It’s not, after all, as though one is reading a book on higher math, where an inconsistency in an equation will cause one’s work to fall apart. The inconsistences in cosmological stories (sometimes even within the canon of stories for the same God – regional cultus gave rise to many variations of stories for instance) often point to powerful Mysteries of that particular Deity or pantheon. They’re points to be savored. But they don’t cause any particular cognitive dissonance because we don’t demand ideological unity. They just provide mores ways of engaging with our Gods.
- Coming from a reconstructionist religion with little in the way of infrastructure, how do you connect with other Heathens and develop a sense of community? As a gythia, do you feel like you have a special role in your community?
There’s a vibrant online community. We network via social media, and use platforms like skype and slackchat to maintain groups where members might be spread out. There’s email, and then of course there are festivals and conferences and holy days where we’ll travel to celebrate together. As a gythia (priest), my job is to serve the Gods and to do whatever I can in my work, both online and in person within my religious community to help people venerate the Gods more deeply, as deeply as possible. I’m a ritual specialist, and I’ll provide spiritual direction but my focus is always on serving the Gods. What that entails at any given moment may differ dramatically from day to day. Many of us also run kindreds or houses where we do have small, regular congregations.
- Have you ever experienced doubts about your tradition, beliefs, or religious practices? If so, how did you cope?
Not really. No more than any other person in their devotional life. I struggle often with what the Gods ask of me, but I’ve never doubted Their existence or the rightness of being in devotional relationship with Them. I’ve had fallow times where I couldn’t sense Their presence strongly – a ‘dark night of the soul,’ to quote St. John of the Cross, if you will, and I’ve been intensely angry at Them (after the death of my mother for instance) but that’s all normal ups and downs in a devotional life. I do have periods where I wonder if anything that we do will make any difference in our traditions, if we’ll ever be able to adequately restore our traditions to the strength and potency that they had before Christianity destroyed them, but the cure for that is prayer and turning to the Gods, not running away. Doubt has never been my problem. I’ve experienced Them directly at times, too much so for me to ever doubt. Despair however is something I do occasionally fight.
- I’ve noticed that there’s a controversy surrounding Jötunn worship. Why do you choose to worship the Jötnar?
It is right and proper to honor all our Holy Powers, not just the ones with Whom we are comfortable. Also, one of my earliest and most supportive devotional relationships was with the God Loki. For thirty years He has sustained me and every good thing in my life, every precious and blessed thing has in some way come through His hands. I would never, ever repudiate Him to make anyone in the community comfortable. I think the discomfort with Loki and other Jotnar has to do again with the fact that so many Heathens converted from Christianity- specifically Protestant Christianity. (There’s a wonderful book called “Love the Sin” by Janet Jakobson and Ann Pellegrini that talks about the religious character of America and that American secularism is really a particular type of Protestant Christianity. Our dominant mode of religion in the US is very deeply influenced by Protestant Christianity and that doesn’t stop just because one converts). I think they are looking for a devil. Norse cosmology at its core involves a fundamental interplay of opposing forces. It’s not good and evil. It’s chaos and order, ice and fire with no moral shading on that at all. For people raised in Christianity that’s difficult, often quite difficult. But, part of becoming a polytheist means dealing with our bullshit and not bringing unresolved baggage from our birth religions with us. We have an obligation to our Gods and to ourselves to do better. There’s ample evidence that Loki was in no way demonized amongst our polytheistic ancestors, but was instead a vital part of the pantheon. When we refuse to venerate these Gods, because they make us uncomfortable, we destroy our traditions again, just like that generation of Christians that tore down temples and demanded conversion. Why on earth should we do the work of our opponents for them?
- How do you feel about theologies like Vodou or Hinduism in which the Gods exist but are subordinate to or immanent within a higher being?
Forgive me for being quite so blunt, but I think that’s a very [white] western perspective of Hinduism at least. Many, many Hindus are purely polytheistic. It’s actually one of the fault lines within Hinduism today and the idea that they are in reality monotheists evolved out a desire to basically pander to western modernists. I’d recommend the work of Drs. Vishwa Adluri, Joydeep Bagchee, and Edward Butler on this topic, since it is more than a bit out of my area of expertise. As to Vodou, I think it important to look at how the African Diasporic religions developed in relation to slavery and the need to conceal practices behind a façade of Christianity.
In the end, what a Hindu does though or a Voudousaint matters little to my own practice. I don’t practice Hinduism, though I will pay homage to the Hindu Gods should I ever be in a position to visit a temple or a devout Hindu home. I don’t practice Voudou though I have in the past paid homage to the Lwa, given that I have practicing colleagues. There are very devout people working within those communities ensuring survival and continuity of practice. I am concerned with doing the same for my own.
I do want to point out that with these traditions, the question of whether or not they have a higher Being holding sway over all the other Deities and Powers is effectively moot. Last week, September 2017 I learned that a practitioner not of Voudou but of Candomble had been butchered by evangelical Christians because he refused to desecrate his shrines. There has been a spate of violence in Brazil: Christians forcing Candomble practitioners at gunpoint to desecrate their holy places in the name of Christ. A few months ago I read an article about the desecration of a Hindu temple by Muslims in India. Last year, a young Syrian girl was gang-raped and then stoned to death by her brother and a group of his male friends because he discovered she was a polytheist. In the end, when people are still suffering and dying for their Gods I think it more important to ally with extant polytheisms, however they conceive of that polytheism than to damn them.
Polytheists in the US are lucky. We may occasionally experience discrimination (I’ve had my office vandalized once, for instance, bibles left all over, the walls marked up with bible verses), but with rare exceptions we can go home to our families at night without worrying that we’re going to be forced to choose between our lives and our faith, or between the lives of our children and our Gods. That’s not the case everywhere in the world (think of the ongoing genocide of the Yezidi for instance) and I think it’s important to remember that. Polytheism remains under attack. For us in the US, it’s ideological – we’ll fight for space online and in person to practice umolested – but in other countries, it can very much become a matter of life and death.
(Hindu shrine statue having been smashed by Muslims — not an uncommon occurrence in today’s India)
10. Do you think it’s important for polytheists who were raised Christian to share their beliefs with their family? Or, is it okay to go through the motions in order to retain familial relationships?
I think that is a question every polytheist has to answer for him or herself. Given, for instance, that polytheism or Paganism can become an issue in divorce court where custody is concerned some people may truly not be safe in being out. I personally think we owe it to our Gods not to hide our faith. If we hide and skulk around it sends the unconscious message that we’re doing something wrong and we are not. Moreover, we shouldn’t have to hide. I made it a point to be completely open about my polytheism from a very early period in my religious life. I never dumbed it down for family and that meant that I severed relationships with certain family members. I’m ok with that. That was a choice I made a long time ago. But this is a complicated question and there’s no easy answer for everyone.
There are people who may be extremely devout but whose personal circumstances are such that they cannot safely be open. The general rule of thumb I suggest is to be open as much as you can, when you can. When you absolutely can’t, do your best and try to change the circumstances that prevent it. I don’t think the Gods love someone any less because they are unable to be open about their faith. I think it’s a terrifying thing, especially if one comes from a very devout non-polytheistic family. Some people worry about their safety. Some people worry about losing the roof over their heads. Some people worry about losing their children. Some people worry about losing every one they love. I personally could never go through the motions though. I would feel as though I was betraying the Gods I love beyond breath.
11. Are the Gods physical? How is it that Odin can lose his eye and Baldur can die?
I think the Gods can take physical form but the question of Odin’s eye and Baldur’s death are mysteries and their understanding and import are so deeply entwined with the cosmology itself that it goes well beyond the question of whether or not a God can take physical form. I don’t think that human corporeality is the be all and end all of experience. The Gods existed before us, brought materiality and temporality into being, but are not Themselves necessarily constrained by it. (I recommend my article here: https://krasskova.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/in-the-beginning/). I think the question is not whether the Gods are physical but what does it mean for us that They can take physical form? What does it mean for us that Odin lost an eye and that Baldur died? What does that tell us about Their nature? What does that tell us about how They can relate to and interact with the world itself. It’s never about the apparent physicality or lack thereof of the Gods. It’s about everything else.
12. How do you account for the different pantheons? Why wouldn’t all Gods manifest to all peoples?
I believe in all the different pantheons but I am not called to venerate Them all. Why do we have different languages? Why do we have different cuisines and cultures? I think that the different groups of Gods developed covenants and contracts and very special relationships with Their respective peoples and that is a good thing. It mirrors the diversity found in our world, the glorious explosion of a thousand different ways of being. Unity is not the highest virtue for us. It rather betrays a remarkable lack of vision. Why wouldn’t different Gods manifest to and contract with different people? Even within the Hebrew bible we see this. YHWH was the God of the Hebrew tribes. He was their God as opposed to the Gods of other tribes and peoples. His covenant was with the Jewish people, not with the Akkadians or Egyptians, etc. Why would it not be so?
13. As a follow-up, are there any Gods or pantheons you don’t believe in, and why?
Nope. It’s funny. When many people discover I’m a polytheist they’ll often look confused for a long moment and then inevitably the first question I’m often asked next is “but…but you believe in Jesus right?” well, yes, but He’s not my Deity. I don’t venerate Him. I belong to other Gods. But I believe in Them all.
14. What do you believe will happen to you in the afterlife? Do you follow the model of the soul with many parts?
I do follow the multi-part soul model. As to the afterlife, I believe I will be reunited with my ancestors and then hopefully with Odin where I will continue to serve Him in whatever capacity He deems necessary. I hope I don’t have to reincarnate. I’m tired.
15. What purpose do food offerings serve? What benefit does it have for the God?
Food is the most essential means of nourishment, and it’s also concrete abundance and wealth. It sustains and giving food offerings sustains the relationships we have formed with our Gods. It’s not so much what it does for the Gods – They will continue to exist whether or not we honor Them thusly – but that it sustains us in relationship with the Gods. It is a sharing of all that we are, of all that sustains us with the Holy Powers. It’s a reminder that we are part of a vital, reciprocal relationship, one that requires – as any relationship does—constant, ongoing attention to remain healthy. I do think with land spirits and with ancestors, the food offerings do provide a type of spiritual nourishment but with the Gods something different is going on and in the end, we are the ones being nourished by being brought continually into a state of awareness and remembrance of the debt that we owe Them for our existence, and the myriad ways in which They nourish us always as a mother and father nourish their child.
16. How do you perform divination? How do you interpret your answers?
I can’t answer this question simply. I’m a professional diviner as part and parcel of being a competent priest and spirit worker. I’ve trained for thirty years to do this work well and I continue to work hard, both on my own and under supervision of elders and more experienced diviners (including those outside of my tradition – one of my best teachers was a Lukumi priest who was willing to share his knowledge of the sacred art). Doing divination well involves cultivating intense devotion, spiritual discernment, being attentive to miasma and pollution, and maintaining humility before the Powers. There are technical skills to master (whatever systems one divines with) but also the ability to communicate divination if one is working with clients. It’s rather like translating. One receives this information often a myriad of ways and very rarely in nice verbal chunks, then one has to translate it into words. After that, one interprets for the client or oneself. I’ve written books on the subject of divination and it’s one of the things that every competent spirit worker should know. To be a diviner is a sacred calling, much like a priestly vocation. It is the gift whereby we are able to know what our Gods want and whether or not we are in right relationship. How I interpret my answers depends on the client, the question, the Gods and spirits involved. Sometimes it is reading a pattern, looking at fate and probability and explaining what I see, sometimes it’s listening to what their ancestors or Gods have to say, sometimes it is being taken up as an oracle, and sometimes a combination of all of this and more. The point is that this is a sacred craft that takes years and years to master, one that demands continual work to keep one’s skills sharp.
17. Do you have discernment criteria for your own UPG? How common do you think it is for people to directly experience the Gods?
Of course. I pray, meditate, divine. I will often seek out other clergy or elders. There’s a process, as all devotion is a process and in the end I trust my Gods in the relationship we have established. I think that it is perfectly natural to experience the Gods. That is the heart of every tradition. I think also, however, that it can be terrifying – I believe it was St. Paul who said, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. No shit. It really is and it changes everything. I think that there is nothing in our world that prepares us or encourages us in developing the devotional consciousness necessary to open up, such intense vulnerability, to the Gods. In fact, I think we’re raised to everything but so while it should be as natural as breathing, instead because of the disorder and disease of our world and culture, it has become a struggle. My husband of course, also a polytheist, disagrees. He says it’s always been difficult and maybe he’s right. There’s a passage in Lucan, where he’s writing about a priestess about to carry the God Apollo as a oracle. She’s begging the petitioner not to make her do this, because it such an overwhelming and painful process. It can be. But I think we make it harder than it has to be. I also think there’s always been some people who are better able to go into the necessary head and heartspace than others, just as there are some people able to make amazing music, like Mozart.
18. Why did you choose Heathenry and Hellenism? Why not the religion of your Lithuanian ancestors?
I’m not a practitioner of Hellenismos. I practice cultus-deorum and Heathenry (so more Roman than Greek. Hellenismos is specifically Greek polytheism.). But I didn’t choose. Odin and Loki chose me and I was smart enough to comply. That led me (rather against my will) to Heathenry. Over the years I was pushed by Them to seek out the Greco-Roman Gods, particularly Hermes (and later Apollo and Dionysos). That all happened rather organically though.
It’s not that big a leap. The Romans went everywhere and brought their Gods with them, including into the northlands, and likewise the Germanic tribes eventually brought their Gods with them when they came to Rome. There was always exchange and conversation between these traditions. I rather like to think that I’m continuing that in the present day. But I didn’t choose. I went where my Gods pushed me.
As to why I don’t practice Romuva, well, the Lithuanian Gods never called me. I have some taboos from my Lithuanian ancestors, mostly protocols for engaging with them, and some obligations around kindling fire but otherwise, nothing.
(That was the end of the formal interview, but we had a follow up in person chat, going over these and a few other questions but overall, I found this a very interesting interview, and so, I share it with my readers here. Thank you, A.R. for allowing me to do so).
by Dr. Emily K.
We shouted from the docks on the day You arrived,
Splendid and sailing up from the South,
Your barge trimmed with beaten gold.
A noble hound attended Your right hand
And a basket of the sweetest fruits spilled from Your left.
We have You now!
O Queen who has travelled in many lands,
Now at last in these low fields
Walled off and dug from the ocean
You are home at last.
Keep safe our sailors, silks, silver, slaves,
And all the wealth our merchants will display.
You will be our Mother
Until the day we come sailing to Your harbor
Hounds and health-bearing fruits laid by our sides
As we lie in earth
Seafaring in the mound
Then You will say to us: