Monthly Archives: May 2015
Just a quick post foliow up on the survey I posted several weeks ago. In response to everyone’s votes, the first portable shrine box will be for Hermes, and the second for Odin. 🙂 It was *really* close and I thank everyone for participating. I’m in the process of changing my studio space so it might be late summer before I get these made, but I”ll post them here once they’re ready.
I’ve been Heathen for twenty +years and sadly, I have to say this article is pretty spot on about my religion. We’re damning ourselves into irrelevance and brava to this author for calling us out. We can and should do better by our Gods, our Ancestors, and ourselves.
This (long) post has been a long time coming. I’ve referenced my feelings about personal background and development in some other articles and have been spending a lot of time trying to explore myself in relation to the modern Pagan movement and Heathenry. Although the title was inspired by Bertrand Russel’s piece “Why I am Not A Christian” I won’t, as he does, seek to deconstruct the idea of a particular deity. I will, as he does, explain why the values expressed in the religion in question do not fit mine, and why that leaves me in a difficult place.
Let me begin by explaining that I’ve had a love for the Aesir and Vanir since childhood. I first read of them in children’s fiction when I was four or five and rapidly advanced to reading more adult storybooks about them. Later on I discovered source material like the Eddas…
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I swear I need to avoid email and facebook first thing in the morning. One of these days it’s going to give me a heart attack. Today, I woke up and, as per my norm, grabbed my phone to check my email. I like to know right up front if there are any fires I’m going to have to put out work-wise. Today there weren’t, thankfully, but I did have someone comment on one of the discussions I’m having on facebook that ‘maybe one day we’ll evolve beyond religion.’ Yeah. Nothing like a well-meaning but utterly appalling comment like that to get my sorry, achy, non-morning-person ass out of bed. There’s a lot in that statement that I think warrants both a challenge and a bit of unpacking.
Firstly, I want to say up front that the person who made this statement is a caring, committed person deeply engaged in her community and in social justice. She made this comment in the midst of a discussion about the devastation Christianity had caused and continues to cause to indigenous and polytheistic religions. I believe the comment was made in response to the anger and pain expressed by myself and other polytheists in relation to this. My parsing out this comment should in no way be taken as an attack on the very caring individual to originally made it. It does however, point out an attitude and approach that I often encounter both in certain dark corners of academia and in the interfaith community too, this idea that social and cultural, human evolution must necessarily involve abandoning religion.
My initial response first thing in the morning, before I’d even crawled out of bed, was sharp: I’d rather see us end as a species first before we further abandoned veneration of the Gods and ancestors. We did that once, generally under force, when Christianity swept across Europe. It didn’t go so well. Moreover, as human beings I very strongly believe our purpose, one of them, our duty is to venerate the Gods according to Their wishes and doing so is a joy. It is the natural hierarchy of things. It is what ensures balance and fruitfulness in the world. It is what ultimately brings peace, what the Romans might have called a ‘pax deorum’ the peace of the Gods, the peace, sustainability, and strength brought as a result of maintaining proper reverence for the Gods and ancestors. I would go so far as to say that we are hard wired spiritually for such connectivity. Polytheism, after all, is deeply relational.
So needless to say, it puzzles and concerns me to hear, from many quarters this idea that ‘evolution’ somehow means abandoning religion. Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman (and probably great pain in the ass to those in power too) defined religion as “being bound to the rites and ways of our ancestors.” He based this on his etymology of the Latin word religio. It’s a good definition from a polytheistic standpoint. I think that part of this pervasive idea that evolution somehow means abandoning religion stems from what my friend Raven once termed “Urdummheit”: the misguided idea that our ancestors were stupid. I mean, we’ve been entrained to assume this. Our addiction to progress at any cost demands it and so does the monotheistic worldview with which we were both raised and educated. I even see it in academia all the time.
The study of religion as an academic discipline evolved in an academy developed and deeply influenced by British colonialism, and the idea that modern, white, Protestant culture was inherently superior not just to native peoples across the globe, but to their own non-Christian ancestors. The idea of a ‘hierarchy of religions’ was introduced, one that at first placed Protestant Christianity at the top, and later agnosticism and/or atheism. The idea that evolution somehow must equal no religion doesn’t stem from any social sense; it comes from our own inability in white Christian culture to comprehend, respect, and leave in peace those indigenous, often polytheist religions that differ from our own monotheistic norm. It comes right out of our racism and prejudice, our ingrained arrogance and sense of entitlement as a culture. It presupposes that our ancestral religions were not effective or good enough and that the hegemony of Christianity was inevitable “progress.” It erases a legacy of conquest, domination, genocide, forced conversion, and brutality. It also erases a polytheistic legacy of reverence, respect, innovation, creativity, and piety.
I see the results of this deeply ingrained attitude all the time even in contemporary polytheisms. I think one of the biggest issues in Heathenry, particularly with our approach to the Gods and our ritual structure, is that we’re ashamed of our ancestors. No one will say that, but we go to great lengths to reinterpret lore in ways that reinforce a very Protestant worldview. This is our norm and what we’re comfortable with. We’re concerned about not being seen as modern enough. I think that devotion is so challenging for so many people precisely because it demands we act in a way that violates that Christian influenced norm. Starting with the Protestant reformation that wanted to drive Pagan elements out of Catholicism, and continuing with the so-called Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, devotion and belief have become passé. It’s ok to be religious provided one’s primary focus is social justice or bettering one’s community but to actually believe in and venerate GODS? Oh, that’s “primitive. That’s un-enlightened. That’s foolish and possibly deranged. We’ve evolved. We know better.” Think I exaggerate? Well, during the course of the various community discussions and debates I’ve seen every single one of those things argued either publicly or privately. Devotion stumps people because it prioritizes the supernatural and we have been taught a casual disrespect for anything that is not concrete and anything that does not prioritize the human ego and sense of its own achievement.
I know I harp on this a lot but it’s something that I don’t think people truly get. No one wants to connect these dots. It is impossible, however, to restore our traditions until we acknowledge and rid ourselves of this internal colonization of the image of God. There’s no moving forward until that happens and that’s a damned uncomfortable process and means leaving a lot of safe assumptions behind. It is essential though. Until we stop looking at ‘evolution’ as moving away from veneration, as abandoning traditional rites, as doing anything other than restoring polytheism in all its glory, we’re fucked. Until we stop being ashamed of how we must look when we engage in devotion, until we stop feeling silly for showing actual reverence, we’re getting nowhere. Until we stop pulling the Gods and our religions down to our level, dispensing with not only protocol but simple respect, until we stop insisting publicly that ‘we don’t really believe in the Gods, it’s a cultural thing” we’re spinning our wheels in the mud of two thousand years of Christian indoctrination.
I was having a conversation with a colleague a couple of days ago and I asked her ‘ what is so damned difficult for people to understand about “polytheism?” The meaning is right there: poly- many, theoi-gods. Her answer was insightful. She said that people don’t think much beyond the many gods part to the fact that acknowledging the Powers in such a way changes practice. It has an effect on everything else. She’s right of course, and this to me seems so obvious that it would never have occurred to me to state it so clearly. Of course the way we view the world has an immediate and powerful effect on our lives, our practice, our actions, our ethics, everything. Well, so does the opposite: having been raised monotheist does too and often in ways we don’t realize. The great anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu once said that ‘culture goes without saying because it comes without saying,’ meaning that we have an entire body of responses and unconscious assumptions and beliefs about the way the world works, including religion, created by the culture in which we were raised. There’s no escaping this. This is precisely what we’re tasked with challenging.
We’re tasked with challenging ourselves every day to root out the influences of monotheism, to root out the creeping monism that so often threatens to replace polytheism (because it’s just one step away from monotheism, folks.), to root out the disrespect, the discomfort, the lack of reverence with which we’ve all been raised to accept in the world. Part of the restoration of our polytheisms is the re-sacralization of our world. In all possible ways large and small we must bring the sacred back, and that means bringing back awareness and a cultivation of personal piety.
Maybe what we do need is a good dose of Roman religion, but I sure as hell don’t mean Christianity!
This is one of the most powerful poems about ancestor work that I have ever had the privilege of reading. THIS is exactly what it’s like for some of us. THIS.
They do not tell you the Dead will ride you so far
You will almost join them, you
half-alive, standing between meaning
and meaning, the stuff you purchase
and the stuff that matters.
They do not tell you, but then you know
the dead who ride you matter, and so
you listen, here, in sleep and waking
and on-coming cars that aren’t your death and
warriors and villains and blood-soaked earth.
Her death, and your life, flowing out
where later weeds take hold, and flowers
remembering what others forget, remembering
what others could not hear, there,
between stone and stone and earth.
They do not tell you you shall die their deaths
Nor what you will become, still living
half sleeping, half waking, blooded
vessel flowing over from rim,
Thinking of my mom tonight. I found my common book, a collection of quotes and musings and helpful things that she inspired me to keep. I had thought the book lost. She was often my lifeline through the difficulties of devotion and when I was most discouraged, and tired, and frustrated, when the Gods seemed so very far away, her wisdom often helped me to find my way back to Them, or at least to open up again to the sense of Their Presence. It is so very easy, after all, for the poison of this world to close us off.
I was contemplating devotion tonight. It’s been a long, hard haul since her death in 2010. Even a shaman can get angry at the Gods –irrationally so, i will admit–for the death of a parent. I redid my altar tonight, my working space and it is stark, as I often feel inside when thinking of how much I miss her. My dead have been very present today. They sustain me in so many ways.
I was thinking of all the tools and techniques that I used for so many years to strengthen and nourish my devotional work, and my connection to Odin. It’s always funny for me, when a cherished technique no longer works. I’ve moved on from those first faltering steps but that does not mean I don’t falter. Sometimes, He prompts me to find new ways of connecting because it is never, ever good to grow complacent in one’s relationship with the Gods. I know that much: it is not a thing to ever take for granted. We must work to make it anew, again and again and again, to keep it vibrant and ever-changing. We are ever spinning that thread of connection. It’s never a set thing, a done deal. Thinking of all the currents that have carried me through and forward in my work, there has always been one necessary constant: getting myself out of the way.
As I was thinking of this tonight, i happened to snatch up my common book and I opened to a page with a quote, something my mother said so many years ago. I want to share it with you, my readers, tonight:
“You have to be as still and empty of yourself as a reed-flute — only then will the Gods play you.” -Fuensanta Plaza
She is right of course. She is so very right and the grief and anger that has taken root in my heart for so long, the pain of missing her, has filled up too many spaces that were once empty for Them. Time to shatter myself again, break myself open, give myself up as fruit to the winepress to begin anew in walking with Odin. Even when I hate this process so, it is much like coming home to an old friend. I want to share too, for all of you who struggle with your communities, with your families, with everything that devotion to the Gods can demand, another quote from my journal, something my mother Fuensanta gave me, a quote this time by Ida Goerres. I don’t know where she found it, but it has helped me in the past to consider and considering has filled me with a ferocity to proceed and endure. The only context I was given for this quote is that it is about those called and claimed by the Gods:
“Those who receive such a call, and answer it, are not inhuman. They are marked souls who must call forth in us fear an awe, reverence, and perhaps painful sympathy. And if they offend us also what does it matter? Everything that exceeds average humanity offends those who cannot understand it.” -I. Goerres
So that is all I have tonight. Keep to your practices. When it is difficult know that there are those of us who have stumbled over the same broken and bloody rocks. You are not alone in your barren places. Those places echo with the tears and cries of all who have passed before you. Let us sustain each other in between the moments of blinding joy that true devotion brings.
I usually don’t write about political things on this blog. I save that for my facebook page. I’ve decided to make an exception in this particular case however, because as an educator I am so incredibly concerned about the trend I see in education in the States.
Yesterday, I read a news story (you can read it here and here) about a high school teacher in CT. This teacher, Mr. David Olio has long received accolades for being an amazing English teacher, capable of inspiring his students to a noteworthy degree. His trouble began during an AP Poetry class. For those outside the US, an AP course means ‘advanced placement’ and it is typically taught to 17 and 18 year olds as a college prep course. High School students here typically graduate at 18. Sometimes one can even gain college credit through taking these courses. I’d also like to point out that I teach college freshmen and sophomores and that’s the precise age that I’m dealing with in many of my own freshmen college classes.
During the course of the class, one of the students brought in a poem he’d read by Allen Ginsburg. The poem was “Please, Master”, a very graphic poem about a BDSM charged interaction between two men. The student asked if it could be discussed in class and the teacher agreed. The result of that discussion, within days, is that this teacher was suspended, parents were up in arms, and despite both student and community support, this award-winning teacher was forced to resign.
Articles covering this are saying things like “one mistake shouldn’t ruin a good teacher’s career.” I agree that his career shouldn’t be ruined, but I don’t think he made a mistake. A student brought a piece of poetry to an advanced, college prep poetry course and asked to discuss it. As a teacher, I would have made the same decision Mr. Olio did. I might have talked to the students about the origins of Beat Poetry, and the social milieu that birthed it, a world filled with growing racial and class tensions not unlike our own. I might have discussed why Ginsburg chose to craft powerful poems around subjects that were generally considered taboo for poetry. I might have told them that he had been brought up on obscenity charges and taken to court for his brilliant, fucking brilliant poem “Howl,” and that the judge ruled it had ‘redeeming social value’ and Ginsburg won the case. I might have pointed out that before writing “Please, Master,” Ginsburg had been locked up in a psych ward for being gay and had been subjected, against his will, to electroshock therapy and that perhaps a poem like this was his fucking declaration of independence. I might have asked them how LGBTQI people are treated socially today, and Gods know there are enough news articles about discrimination and death that I could have brought to the table with just a cursory internet search to bolster the discussion. Hell, a comparison of contemporary Russia and the US would have filled a class. I might have asked if the poem would be considered quite as problematic or objectionable were it depicting a heterosexual couple (and it might be…despite the popularity of such badly written crap as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Americans still tend to go crazy at any hint of kink or even sex in media. Puritanism dies hard, folks). For all we know, Mr. Olio discussed all those things and more.
Ginsburg, as a friend of mine pointed out recently, can be a difficult poet to read. His work is graphic, raw, and disturbing and I think it’s meant to be. I also think that’s precisely why we should read him. Higher education isn’t about having your own possibly provincial worldview reinforced. It’s about learning. Part of that is learning how to engage with ideas and concepts that one might find different, disturbing, and highly charged. If education doesn’t challenge and make one uncomfortable than it isn’t education. Part of becoming a thinking adult capable of dealing respectfully with divergent worldviews is also being exposed to a diversity of perspectives early on. Part of becoming an adult is also learning how to cope with ideas that offend and upset. Every day of my life, as a woman, a polytheist, as someone with an invisible disability (chronic pain), I face things in our popular culture, our over-culture that offend me terribly and that dehumanize me as a person. And every day I’m faced with examples of humanity with whom I really don’t want to share a planet (Daesh, the Duggars, etc. etc). Part of being an adult is facing that and how we choose to deal with situations that offend us to our core, or that make us uncomfortable, that hurt us is what determines our character as human beings.
Just last week I read several articles about students at an Ivy League school complaining in their literature classes because material was ‘triggering.’ It evoked an emotional response. It made them uncomfortable. It demonstrated values at odds with their own contemporary world. The case involved a college professor teaching a class on Ovid. One of the students didn’t “feel safe” in the class because many of the stories Ovid describes involve rape (Hades abducting Persephone for instance). I’ve read other articles in which students expect a pass while skipping “triggering” material. Leaving aside the question of how this bullshit waters down and misuses the psychological term “trigger”, let’s consider at the potential effect on education of bowing to such overactive sensitivities. How much of classic world lit is going to be discarded if we remove everything that is possibly disturbing? What is going to happen to a generation of students who have insulated themselves from anything remotely challenging or disturbing when they encounter life? If someone is legitimately disturbed to the point of feeling unsafe by reading “Ovid” in an environment filled with critical analysis and discussion then perhaps that person ought to engage in a bit of personal responsibility and seek out therapy and perhaps he or she is not ready for college. The last thing professors and institutions should do is bow to emotional manipulation, blackmail, and censorship. Better they close their doors first.
I was discussing all of this over breakfast today with my partner and he pointed out something else that I knew, but had not taken into consideration here. Christian fundamentalists (notably utter nutcases like Dominionists and Quiverfull families) have, since the rise of the New Conservatism, made it a point to get themselves on schoolboards. It’s part of their policy of attacking society at a local level. There are various areas on which they particularly focus (and I don’t’ have the stomach this morning to pollute my mind by hunting down requisite articles. I just can’t reread that garbage right now), areas including education, military, finance, entertainment industry, and politics. Many Americans don’t come out in droves to vote in local elections and don’t’ follow that quite as assiduously as the election of our president. We should. The real power is at the local level. The President may be the leader of our nation but powerful political currents start on the local level: school boards, city councils, and the like and what’s happening there is, as one of the articles on Mr. Olio called it, “a creeping social conservatism.”
I very much believe that we need to break the stranglehold and crush the back of the Christian right. Utterly and without mercy. These people believe they are warriors for their God and will stop at nothing to suck the life and freedom out of our nation, our educational system, our society, and our children. They are very bit as dangerous as Daesh, more so in many ways since they are here, among us, acting slowly and insidiously to gain control of the next generation, acting on a local level. There’s already enough in our society alone working against our students. For this and oh so many more reasons, we should be keeping a keen and eagle eye on trends just like what we’re seeing here with the dumbing down of education and the attack of good teachers. We need to be getting involved in our communities at a grassroots level. We need to be paying attention to what is happening in our schools, our school boards even if we don’t have children. We need to awake and aware and maybe, just maybe, fiercely involved.
I hope sincerely that Mr. Olio is able to move on from this debacle with his reputation intact. I hope he is able to find another good teaching position. I hope that his school and community realize what a valuable asset they have lost in allowing his resignation to go through. I fear for the pressures being put on our teachers not to teach. I fear for a generation of students being raised with no emotional resiliency, and no ability to engage insightfully with opinions different from their own. Most of all I fear for those of us who will have to live in the society this will create.
Because Daesh has begun the destruction of Palmyra.
Because too many nations are standing back allowing them to destroy and desecrate.
Because they are human filth with no respect or piety even for the God they claim to worship.
Because they have committed countless atrocities on women, children, and the lands they enslave.
May the Gods of those lands, the Gods of their own ancestors turn Their attentions upon them. May their own ancestors repudiate them.
May the land itself rebuke them.
May abundance and success elude them.
May they suffer as they have caused others to suffer.
May the Gods afflict them.
May the Gods destroy them.
May the Gods call them to account for every deed.
May they be expunged in agony from our world.
I call upon Sekhmet, destroyer of nations.
I call upon Isis, whose name they defile.
I call upon Inanna, Who brings Her enemies to heel.
I call upon Set, God of the scorching desert.
I call upon Anat, Warrior of Her people.
I call upon Rashap, Lord of Weapons
I call upon Ba’al Hadad, Master of the Storm,
I call upon Pazuzu, bringer of plague.
I call upon all the Gods, named and unnamed here of the peoples they oppress: rise up and protect the lands that once venerated You. Even though the people there have turned their backs upon You, there are still those among us all who venerate Your names. Rise up and protect your thoughtless people. Save them from this plague of human filth. Cleanse and purify, oh Immortal Powers.
and may Your names be reverenced.
May temples once more resound with Your praises.
May the smoke of thousands upon thousands of offerings once more rise to the Heavens in praise of You.
So may it be.
Here is a truly excellent article by Anomalous Thracian on Polytheism 101. Particularly of note is the final section on ‘being an ally’ to polytheists. This is an article that I would share everywhere if i could. I think this really breaks down Polytheism, polytheistic traditions, and the Polytheist Movement beautifully and clearly. Please read!