Plucking Forth a Thread — Piety Possum Rides Again ;)

The recent conversation about sacrifice on my blog has provoked quite a bit of discussion in my household. For many of us rooted in our traditions, this is a non-issue so i’m always surprised at how some people respond when it comes up. Those responses often bring to light areas of disconnect that I may not have considered and in this work that we do it is so very important to consider everything. That certainly happened here, and then several other tangential conversations happened that dovetailed nicely as well leading me to this post.

One of the things that I had said to my partner, as I read through the various comments on my blog was this, “why is it so difficult for some people to grasp?” In fact, I often ask that about polytheism in general, usually with a bit more profanity involved. He pointed me back to an article that I’d written in April about casual irreverence and the way that we are, by pop culture particularly, conditioned to treat the sacred, the religious, the supernatural with an ingrained, often unconscious attitude of dismissive disrespect and a more recent one where I touched on the same topic and its effect on ritual. Since I wrote those articles, I’ve been paying attention as I watch television and it’s really rather alarming how much casual disregard there really is. I’d never fully considered its impact before this, but always, always the human is prioritized and the sacred reduced to the ridiculous. Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem if more people were fully aware of both it happening and the potential effects when this is *all* we are exposed to in our culture. Most people, however, do not seem to give it a second’s thought, nor see the long term problems this has the potential to create when unbalanced, unmet, unchallenged by communities rooted in respect and piety, reverence and veneration for the Gods; and let me tell you, those things are in precious short supply. How could they not be? We have precious few models in our world of reverence and piety that does not in its own turn focus that on the human experience. Allow me to parse this out a bit.

The biggest problem, aside from the unconscious irreverence, lies in how we position our Holy Powers in relation to humanity. As communities, I think we’re much more comfortable with the *idea* of the Gods, the abstraction of Them, than a reality that would, of necessity, alter the way that we engage and behave when in sacred space. It’s one thing to say that we “worship the Old Gods” and quite another to actively engage with those Gods directly. One is a nice idea that allows for pleasant rituals, and the other something that demands a change in our priorities and an acknowledgement of a cosmic hierarchy to which many of us are markedly antagonistic. Make that shift and suddenly one’s religion is not about me, me, me, me but Them, Them, Them, Them and that has consequences in every aspect not just of our devotion, but — if we take it seriously — our lives.

Let me give an example from something I just read this morning. I came across a comment about sacrifice that firstly dismissed it as a very modern approach. Ok, the historian in me can’t let that one slide. It’s not modern at all. Sacrifice is one of the most ancient of religious rituals. To engage in sacrifice correctly is to restore threads of piety and devotion, of tradition and praxis first laid in place thousands of years ago. There’s nothing modern about it — if there were, fewer people would have so many problems with it. (I’ve actually had people tell me factory farming is more humane. One has to wonder what planet some of these folks live on). That’s actually not what piqued my interest though. In this same thread, someone said that they didn’t like the idea of fully immolating an animal, that it was wasteful. I’ve seen the same thing said when a sacrificial animal is not shared out in feast with the community. I’ve seen exactly the same thing argued with the idea of giving any kind of food or drink offering, including water. i’ve likewise seen the same arguments made against giving anything to one’s ancestors.

Now the first time I encountered this, I dismissed it vociferously as impiety. It just seemed so incredibly assed-up. It took me awhile before I actually sat with this idea and attempted to ferret out what was behind such attitudes. I think comments like these, attitudes like these really give remarkable insight into the chasm between our ancestors’ world and our own, at least insofar as the sphere of piety is concerned. When we make an offering to the Holy Powers or to our ancestors, we are establishing and nourishing a very sacred compact. We are giving to Beings Who exist. Therefore, the corollary to that is that we’re giving to Beings Who exist and Who can enjoy the fruits of devotion that are being offered. If we truly believe that the Gods and ancestors exist and that they can interact with us, impact us, engage with our world and with us, then how is an offering “wasted?” To say that making offerings, including sacrifices, is wasting food and drink, is by extension to say that the Gods and ancestors are not actually capable of engaging with us and our world. It is to limit the boundaries of our devotional awareness solely to what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. It is, furthermore, implying oh so insidiously that only what is taken up by human beings has value. That, regardless of what one might think of devotion and sacrifice, is in and of itself, a very slippery slope to crawl down.

I think two things are behind this attitude too. First, there’s the idea that these tremendous, awe-inspiring, primal Powers are real, sentient, and capable of impacting us quite directly. That right there is a difficult cognitive leap for many people. It’s so much easier to imagine the Gods as archetypes, thought-forms, or projections of our unconscious, or as concrete natural forces than as well, Gods. Then, there is the hierarchy this presupposes: that because of what They are, the Holy Powers, the Immortal Ones as a Roman polytheist might say, are far, far above us in the natural hierarchy of things. That, in a world that barely acknowledges the long term impact of human foolishness, let alone that something might be more important or more powerful than we, is another difficult pill to swallow. There’s quite often a knee jerk reaction to seeing this hierarchy, or hearing it proposed for the first time that causes people to act as though they are being reduced to nothingness, when in fact they are simply being shown that there is something, Something bigger and older and greater than they. We are like children throwing tantrums. Is it any wonder then, with these anxieties, that we’ve created a pop culture — entertaining as it may be—that allows humanity to top the Gods?

I often write about the impact of Christian culture on our psyches and I think there may be a piece of that to be considered here as well. What is the primary ideology of Christianity, the aspect of their theology that trumps all others and that has influenced centuries of theological discourse and debate, literature, art, and folk practices? In Christianity, their God chose to incarnate as man, as a human being. Ultimately what this does is close the gap between God and man. It puts man on an equal footing with God. I don’t necessarily think that this was the conscious purpose of such a theology, and I certainly think that generations of Christian theologians would be horrified at the thought, but essentially, psychologically, this is precisely where one can take the incarnation. To minds like ours patterned to impiety and hubris, it reduces both the transcendent and the immanent to mere humanity. It desacralizes the world.

In another article, I wrote not too long ago about the growing emphasis on social justice in many branches of the polytheist community, as opposed to interior practices and devotional work. While I think social justice is indeed necessary and good, twinning it to religion and at times in place of engaged devotional work one on one with one’s Gods, makes a certain type of sense given the climate of our culture. Given the deeply ingrained discomfort with devotion and all it says about the Powers, it’s much more comfortable to simply replace it with social justice work. This has the benefit of being absolutely necessary in our world and if one can position it as the sum total of devotional work, then one doesn’t really have to acknowledge the Gods and Their hierarchy directly. It again pushes the focus of religion onto the community and not the Gods. It takes something that frankly, we should be engaging in anyway as concerned human beings, and uses it to usurp the more uncomfortable facets of a tradition. Should one engage in social justice work: Yes, absolutely and I suppose one can do social activist work as a devotional thing, but if you take the Gods out of the equation, would you still be doing that work? If the answer is ‘yes’, then really, how much of a devotional act is it?

In the sphere of piety, I think that we as a culture have a very, very difficult time acknowledging that there is anything greater than we ourselves. We gauge and judge and filter everything through the lens of an overly-prioritized humanity and when the Gods don’t fit, when devotion demands we rise above that, when we are challenged to think outside the limitations of our own five senses, we all too often balk, fail, and blame the Gods for our failings. We are so small in the way that we see the world. The thing is, we don’t even prioritize humanity well. One look at our world tells you that. Some things to think about on a Friday afternoon. I’m not expecting agreement necessarily, but it’s about time we all began challenging ourselves to look more deeply at the way we approach our Gods, the problems we encounter, and just possibly a few reasons why.
possum

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on June 12, 2015, in devotional work, Polytheism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’ve never entirely gotten a lot of the ideas like the ones you discuss are so common. I’ve known people like that, and I have such trouble understanding them. I have no idea why, but even when I was reading Silver Ravenwolf when I was first starting out the Gods were separate Powers instead of archetypes and such. I never had a big discovery that they were such, I just always knew it. This has been a big part of why, I guess, a lot of Pagans around my area don’t understand and discredit me. I don’t feel comfortable with these people because of their complete lack of understanding of what they are dealing with.
    It’s the idea that we are the only ones, that we are the best, that confuses the stars out of me.What I like about some pop culture portrayals is that (more often in literature) even if the author is trying to make that point, the characters being used just kind of smile and laugh at it. “Oh, okay, we’ll go along with this. You’re not really worth trying right now, and there are other people we can touch in a better way through you, so we’ll let you get away with this.”
    I’m reading Storm Front (Dresden Files #1) right now, and in the first chapter the main character, Harry, kinda nails it. He says that most people who are turning back to the supernatural have this ingrained skepticism because they were raised to worship science, and are disenchanted because everything it promised isn’t there and doesn’t look like it ever will be. I feel like that “Cult of Science” for the common masses was perpetuated by the very thing you’re talking about, the desacralizing of the world. I find this especially interesting, because most (if not all) the scientists I know are some of the most pious, respecting people in the world. From their point of view, it’s still sacred. One God or many Gods, they see it for what it is; beauty and perfection cannot be recreated exactly. They still try, alchemist like, for the answers. How can they not? It’s a process of worship in itself. They seem to loose what they are when the forget that.

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  2. michaelseblux

    This is definitely a very interesting perspective for myself as a Gnostic who happens to identify as a polytheist; though I will note that there is a subtle nuance to the Incarnation which does deserve a bit of unpacking before we can really say that it necessarily closes the gap between God and humanity.

    One of the primary, and perrenial probelems within Christianity is the nature of the Incarnation which is commonly placed under the study of Christology. For exoteric Christians, the nature of the Incarnation and, subsequently the Trinity, becomes enshrined in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. Now, Gnosticism took it in a slightly different route, but one that arguably predates both credos and has much more in common with a Neoplatonic understanding of nature and preserves the reality of Gnosticism as a mystery religion first and foremost:

    “It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself – and what you see you shall become.” (Gospel of Philip. Wesley W. Isenberg, trans.)

    From the Gnostic conception, using the language of Neoplatonism, God exists triadically, all contained within itself transcendentally and immanently throughout the realms and cosmos. The entirely ineffable One (Gk: pantelos arrheton) beyond all beings is also expressed as the simply One (Gk: ho haplos hen), that which is before duality (Gk: pro tos duados). The simply One is active where the ineffable exists in its own repose. Finally the One exists as the One-Existent or One-Being (Gk: to hen on), also called the Idea of the Good (Gk: tou agathou idean) or the Good itself. Here the One in all its ways exists beyond being, beyond life and beyond mind. All these come from the One but the One is beyond them. As the senses of the physical body cannot grasp nor even perceive the realities of the mind, as image cannot take hold in what is absolutely simple and shapeless, and as the bodily cannot approach the incorporeal so too is the mind incapable of gazing upon that which is beyond intellect and beings are to be found inferior to that which is infinitely prior to being. We see some similarities with this in common with some African religious traditions- Bon Dieu and the Trinity of Olodumare, Olofi, and Olorun in Lukumi. To what degree the latter were influenced by the monotheists or arose independently is naturally up to debate.

    Now, back to my point, I think that the doctrine of emanation which is preserved in Gnosticism (note: when one is ordained in a sacramental Gnostic church, even today we affirm , “I confess the doctrine of emanation and salvation through gnosis”.) the reality, or hypostases, of the gods and other divine powers becomes much more of a reality and interfacing with them must be done accordingly as individuals which is much more in common with historical polytheisms than necessarily a Christian one and does, again vis a vis Neoplatonism, make necessary the reality of sacrifice – much like our orthodox brethren we do, by and large, believe in the real presence of the sacrifice of mass using that language and in our theurgical liturgies do likewise preserve elements of sacrificial thinking and necessity.

    Back to the point, however, I do think that Calvinistic and Protestant thinking in the Western World really did do a whammy to trying to close the gap between the ineffable mystery of the reality of God(s) and try to put humanity on equal footing with the Divine in whatever manifestation any person living in the present West perceives it. This, naturally, is a tragedy and would follow what you had alluded toward.

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  3. You have given me much food for thought.
    I was originally against sacrificing animals in the Heathen tradition, but now I think I’ll have to rethink it. If the killing is done as swiftly and painlessly as possible, I think I’m ok with it.
    I was originally against burning the animal after the sacrifice and found it wasteful, but now I think I’ll have to rethink that, too.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Thank you for posting! and for being gracious about my comments. I think part of the issue in our communities is that no one ever takes the time to break down the equation. I tried to do that here. I’m glad you came back and read the article!

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  4. I’m curious, what do you do with the burnt offering after is has been offered to the gods?

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    • ganglerisgrove

      it depends. quite often personally, I”ll gather a good deal of the ash to use later in certain ritual work. Otherwise it is scattered or buried. Once the offering has been received, I treat remains (and this holds for regular food and drink as well) as the no longer useful remnants of a meal served to an honored guest.

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  5. thetinfoilhatsociety

    I think you may have hit on the heart of much of what I find so frustrating and disappointing about the Pagan community even after 20 years. It explains why so many people who identify as Pagan are so …. well, irresponsible. They don’t seem to understand that perhaps the reason their lives are so unlucky is because they are treating the Gods like TV characters (as in they don’t really exist) and the Gods are, frankly, ticked off about it.

    Sacrifice, including blood sacrifice, has always been a part of my (and our group’s) devotional practice; the blood sacrifice is only for my personal devotions (and is my own personal blood) but historically I know it’s been an accepted thing to offer the Gods. Why in modern times it would not be I can’t imagine. We have more to give now than ever before in human history, at least here in the West; surely at least a token offering can be spared? Are we really that selfish as a group? Do we really think we can get something for nothing? Are the Gods our spiritual welfare office?

    You have given me much to think about regarding the place of the Gods in my life, however. It informs my general worldview most definitely, but if the Gods had a greater place of prominence, what different choices would I make? How would my priorities change regarding devotion, time management, career?

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