Why is Devotion Important?

There’s been some predictable Heathen push back on my latest polytheist.com article: “Towards a Heathen Theology.” It’s been fascinating reading Swain’s article right after posting my own: his piece so neatly demonstrates precisely the type of blind sophistry that I was discussing in my piece that one could almost think we were working together to better make the point about devotion. I could almost thank him for providing such a clear example of everything that is so amiss with Heathenry particularly in the realm of theology (and perhaps reading comprehension).

Firstly, Swain posits that the only reason to be devoted is to gain some boon from the Gods. Right there, he and I are moving from two very different perspectives. Whereas for him, at least according to his writing, the only purpose in prayer or devotion is mercenary, for me it’s part of being a responsible adult. We engage with devotion not because we want something, but because it is the right thing to do. It’s a matter of maintaining right relationship with the Gods, with the Numinous, with the Holy Powers. This idea that the Gods are too busy to bother with us is one of the most destructive ideas currently in play in contemporary Heathenry. It negates from the start the possibility for any type of in depth relationship with the Gods. It nullifies the need for devotional work at all, which I’m sure is the reason it’s such a popular load of crap. One thing that comes through in reading ancient writings is that the Gods were real to these people. Swain and those Heathens like him reify lore without ever considering the mindset of the people who are supposedly reflected in its pages. The thing that we struggle with the most: the reality of the Gods is the thing that was a given to the ancient world. We are the ones lacking and it is specifically in the area of devotion.

Secondly, honoring the ancestors does not preclude honoring the Gods. This is a typical Heathen argument that crops up frequently in this type of discourse and it is founded in a false dichotomy. In reality, these things work hand in hand.

Thirdly, devotion and prayer for their own sake, as expressions of reverence for the Gods are not Christian concepts, or rather they did not originate with Christianity. Pre-Christian polytheists had complex theologies and the earliest prayers that we have on record date from Sumer. That we do not have reams of prayers from early Heathens points more toward their having an oral culture rather than a lack devotional consciousness. Otherwise we are forced to conclude that in comparison to nearly every other polytheistic culture extant prior to Christianity, pre-Christian Heathens were backward and shallow in religion and we have Roman sources noting that this was hardly the case. Tacitus talks about the piety of the German tribes, piety that was lived every day, not just when it was convenient to have a festival.

Swain writes at the closing of his piece:

“In closing, I think Krasskova is either trying to purposefully lead folks to believe those that do not practice devotion to the gods the way she does do not believe in the gods, or perhaps for some reason she actually believes this. Either way makes no difference to me as I feel Krasskova has put little to no thought into why we should practice such devotion, just that we should. And I feel all evidence points to her the ideas of such devotion as coming from Christian ideology. There are far too many similarities. If she can come up with a well thought out, reasoned piece drawing on the lore on why we should practice such devotion, then I might be able to understand. but to simply say we must have such devotion, or we are non-believers will not do. Simply, because many do not do as she does, does not mean we believe in the gods any less.”

I would hope that those reading my work are far better and more deeply ensconced in their devotion than I. It is not a matter of creating cookie-cutter spirituality. Even if we were devoted deeply to the same group of Deities, each person is going to express that uniquely. It will be a unique relationship for each and every person engaging in devotional work. The desired commonality lies in value and prioritization, in other words valuing a devotional life which Swain’s brand of Heathenry does not.

It is common in Heathenry to dismiss uncomfortable ideas or ideas with which one might disagree as ‘Christian’ ideology. Swain should perhaps study ancient history, or even early Christianity. The Christians had as much discomfort with the idea of an informed devotional life (one not easily brought into submission with prevailing orthodoxies) as contemporary Heathens. Hence why holy people like one of my favorite mystics, Mechthild of Magdeburg were as often excommunicated and sometimes even executed as they were canonized.

Finally if one believes in the Gods then it follows that belief should affect behavior. Given what one can so obviously see in Heathenry (evidenced beautifully in Swain’s post), it’s difficult to conclude from behavior any great depth of belief or caring. Swain may attempt to obfuscate the issue by ridiculing or misrepresenting devotion in general and my devotion in particular and he may hold up a lore based defense of devotion as his golden calf (ignoring again my argument that lore is not scripture and we should not need lore to show us how to behave respectfully to the Gods if we are adults) but in the end it comes down to this: Swain and others like him devalue devotion because they simply don’t want to do it. (1) Perhaps the enormity of what the Gods are makes them feel small? I don’t now, but the only right relationship with the Gods that they acknowledge is one in which the Gods barely exist.

 

Notes:

  1. I’ve noted before in other articles that the endlessly quoted verse from the Havamal “Tis better not to give than to give too much…” is inevitably always quoted out of context. Read this in context and it clearly refers to negotiating with the rune spirits, not Gods and not ancestors. It’s a perfect example of the misuse and mis-interpretation of lore to edit out anything that might point to devotion or to skew it out of context and true.

 

cross eyed possum

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Posted on November 25, 2015, in Heathenry, Polytheism, polytheist.com, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. It seems from this angle that the two of you are coming at the same problem (where should the bulk of my energy go?) with totally different sets of priorities. Personally I think I have something of a middle ground between the two points of view, having neither a mercenary nor what you might call a true devotianal mindset regards the Gods, rather I honor Who and when I feel appropriate. My closest relationship is to the spirit of the land on which I live and farm. I believe that it would be utterly impossible for me to continue or to grow as a farm based business without the aid of that spirit, and I am continually thankful for its help. So now we have three different opinions about what should come first. For Swain Wodening, his human community. I’ll give him credit where it’s due, because he seems to have achieved what I consider to be a Heathen understanding that community is not limited by time, and that his ancestors are just as much a part of his community as the humans currently wearing flesh. You place your Gods first, and this is a proper course of action for one who is, undoubtedly to my mind, a priestess of those Gods. My life and livelihood are my land, so is it any wonder that I should place that first? I think what I’m trying to sort out is where the line between simply having different priorities and truly having no sense of reverence for our Gods might be.

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    • anyone doing remotely adequate ancestor work should have a palpable sense that the dead are part of our community, that community is not limited by time. I think it goes deeper with swain and heathens like him. I really do believe they would rather have no gods at all than have to extend themselves remotely.

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  2. Heidi, the Crossed-eyed Opossum, deceased 2011. One of my honoured Dead.

    As for your blog entry…. I have read much of Swain’s writings, and thought he was pretty thoughtful in his religion. I did read his posting, and pondered whether he and I read the same posting that you wrote. The one thing that did strike me was his comment of how you (and the rest of us) were treating the Gods as cosmic bellhops or giant gimmie machines. I wonder where that idea came from.

    The other thing that struck me was the quote from the Havamal, and how the Gods preferred several larger offerings to daily offerings of cheap incense. As a Roman Polytheist, I ask why not both? What is wrong with having a God who comes into your kitchen and shares your food? What is wrong with having a God who likes the smell of cheap incense and the act of praise?

    If the Ancestors and Land Wrights (Lars for me) are worthy of veneration and attention, why not the Gods? Where does the idea of the removed Gods come from? Sounds like something out of Western religious thought – the removed watchmaker who is remote and unknowable. I didn’t think it got translated into Heathenism, since the Heathens I know are fans of Thor, and see Him in personal terms.

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    • I know. it seems quite a false dichotomy being set up gods OR ancestors, small offerings OR large ones, devotion or community rituals. we should have it ALL.

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  3. Another problem I see in Swain’s piece (and one that may be an honest mistake) is conflating a wide spectrum of so-called “devotional polytheists”, and applying his reactions to one type across the board. Not everyone who believes that the gods are involved in our lives and champions regular devotional worship also believes that the gods are our best “pals” or that They care about every tiny little thing in our lives. Not all of us purport to sit around simply watching TV shows with our gods and chatting. I’ve always feared that those folks gave the rest of us a bad name, and this kind of proves it – if someone doesn’t read far enough to see the differences, it might appear that we’re all that casual and chummy with our gods…. an approach that really *doesn’t* have much precedent in ancient polytheistic cultures (and is, to my mind, mostly a product of wishful thinking and avoidance of the deeper and more challenging aspects of devotion). My gods are deeply entwined in my life, They have helped me, They care to varying degrees about important aspects of my path, but I certainly don’t consult Them over which type of pasta to buy at the store, or in any other way treat Them as just invisible people.

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  4. Even as a polytheist of roughly around two years, I can readily say that devotional practice and reverence for the Gods arises as the most natural and instantaneous substance that defines the quality of those relationships. In my initial stumbling, I found myself very irritated when reading “Pagan” themed books that dealt with the Gods on the basis of “tit-for-tat,” or even worse–painted pictures of the Gods as being cosmic hotlines that you could ring up, and plug Them into your rituals whenever you wanted something.

    This mindset still gets under my skin in a major way. Giving “gifts” in the form of offerings to the Gods is wonderful–but if you’re doing it ONLY for the purpose of receiving in return, it’s not a gift, it’s a bribe–and I think there’s something seriously insulting and ignorant, (not to mention insincere,) about such an approach. Now, I’m not saying that I think there’s anything wrong with prayers of petition, but claiming that the Gods are “too important” and “too distant” from our petty concerns is negated by the statement that They can be coerced into helping you when you feel like giving a shit! (Which is how I understand Swain’s rebuttal, truly.) He accuses you of NOT presenting an accurate representation of devotional practice while…not…having one…himself.

    Cute.

    I think when we start looking at devotion as being primarily about what WE want, we’re doing it wrong. And I think this is where people confuse self-interest, (“I give you this, I get this,”) for reciprocity. Devotion isn’t about you. It’s not about you sitting at an altar, built in the image of all your projections, desires, egotistical posturing and comfort. It’s about daring to love, to encounter, and venerate something more incredibly vast than we could ever hope to contain, control, or comprehend.

    It is a practice of putting aside the limitations of an artificially enforced perspective which has sought to rob the world of colour and life. It is about recognizing that while you are a relational participant with Powers beyond yourself, you are the sacrificial bull–the empty chalice waiting to be filled–and your heart will burn upon the brazier in smoke and ash as an offering of the most intoxicating redolence, all for the purpose of a God’s pleasure.

    So when people start saying shit like, “Devotion isn’t supposed to be this intimate,” what I really hear is:

    “This asks too much of me, and I don’t know that I want to give more than I care about receiving.”

    All healthy relationships are built on reciprocity, but they are sustained by mutual love and connection–and that is exactly what devotion is–an expression of love. It is an acknowledgement of Their worthiness, and to say that the Gods should receive anything less than Their due, for ANY reason other than because They deserve it? I don’t think that’s devotion.

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    • I just needed to say that I am totally in love with your whole comment here. Wow. Every single bit of that was perfect.

      “It’s about daring to love, to encounter, and venerate something more incredibly vast than we could ever hope to contain, control, or comprehend.”

      YES!!!

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      • Likewise. I couldn’t have said this better myself, especially “I think when we start looking at devotion as being primarily about what WE want, we’re doing it wrong. And I think this is where people confuse self-interest, (“I give you this, I get this,”) for reciprocity.”. yes, yes, and yes. precisely.

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      • Thanks guys! 🙂 Devotion is basically a giant fucking love letter that never finishes being written. Sometimes in gold, sometimes in blood. (LOL.) It’s a living, breathing thing. And I don’t think that it’s a mindset that our (predominantly) monotheist over-culture prepares people for. (Or even actively supports, when it comes to polytheism) Assuming there are parallels that’re going to cross over from Christianity is quite potentially a deadly mistake, but it’s been my understanding that the Gods are willing to work with inexperience.

        I think They’re more concerned with someone giving genuinely and freely of what they DO have on a consistent basis, and so far as I’m concerned what I “receive” in return is being able to enjoy the benefit of Their company. What is one beer, and a couple sticks of incense compared to sitting with a God? Learning from Them? Hearing Their voices, ideas, desires, and concerns? Being permitted to experience Their joys as well as Their sorrows?

        I think that the Gods are the reason our indigenous ancestors became as developed as they were in the first place. Where would their smiths have ended up without Brighid, Goibniu, or Hephaestus? They’re more than integral to our cultures. They helped create them.

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  5. Swains almost aggressive determination to accuse you of “Christianizing” your & others devotional life referenced in the article really backfired as it brought instantly to my mind the years of listening to Protestant preachers declaring from their pulpits that “faith alone” is all that is needed etc…etc…That i could deal with, its a difference of opinion. However Swains almost threatening stance with his statements against daily devotions such as “Indeed, going by the Havamal the person doing daily prayers may be in danger of Freya completely turning her back on her.” is deeply troubling & ridiculous!That accompanied by his own stated mentality of The Gods not putting out any more with daily devotions vs. devotions just a few times a year, so why bother & the old exhaustive, multiple attempts to mock & belittle those who do daily devotions with the tired “buddy God, parking space at WalMart” jab is laughable. It seems as though Swain & those like him have never thought, or are very resistive, for whatever reason, to the fact that those of us out here, who honor our Gods as much & as often as we damn well want,are doing it out of LOVE, yes, LOVE!

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  6. That’s what I kept thinking; I’m not burning incense and saying prayers every day so I can get stuff, I’m doing it because I love Those I’m praying to.

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  7. I’m sort of perplexed by his insistence that devotional polytheists treat the gods like cosmic vending machines. Perhaps that’s more a reflection of what he thinks a close relationship to the gods must be like, because it’s certainly not what I’ve ever read in your writing.

    Also, I don’t see how venerating the gods, spirits, and ancestors is less called for than showing love, respect, or care for humans. I want to both tell and show my partners that I love them. I make time for them, I express my feelings toward them, and sometimes that involves material objects too (not just gifts, but even something like making a meal). Why would I give the gods less than the mortal people in my life?

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  8. My faith comes from a different culture and background. I also admit I have limited knowledge of past and modern Heathen traditions.
    In my tradition devotion is a necessary, a prerequisite and a natural form of communication/interaction between the gods. Also these concepts are not Christian!

    I understand I come from a completely different school of thought, but I personally find this whole discussion perplexing.

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  9. Swain’s response does seem to sum up many of the attitudes you called out in your piece on Polytheist.com. It seems to me that he feels that that is the proper way to honor the Gods. The problem lies in that he’s hardly the only voice, and there are those of us who have had great benefits from giving and offering regularly – and I’m not talking about in a Cosmic ATM sense. We learn and grow from our interactions with the Gods, and while I won’t say I’ve never asked for small favors from them, I will say they aren’t likely to gift them without good reasons.

    Also… his example with Freyja really troubled me, because of the whole of the Lay of Hyndla. Ottar was a fool, but he was devoted to Her “Ay did Ottar believe in the Asynjur” and she went out of her way to help him win a bet. I have trouble understanding where he gets the idea that gifting and honoring Her regularly would get Her to turn Her back on you – other than the single line in Havamal that is trotted out every time someone wants to complain about someone else giving to the Gods.

    Finally, I’m very tired of the accusations of Christianization, coming from people who have just as much Christian influence in their lives. All faiths and practices come from somewhere and are influenced by the things around them. The Northern traditions did not spring fully formed from their followers with no influence of what came before and what surrounded them. In the year 1000 AD it’s hard to imagine that even a Pagan holdout would not have felt some Christian influence. I wish people would relax about the possibility that other peoples’ (never their own, they’re above such things!) interpretation of their faith might be tainted by Christianity in some way.

    It’s hard not to just assume that folks like him just want to make sure that they’re the most important figures in their traditions rather than the Powers, and that’s just insulting.

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  10. To me, this quote from his piece was very telling:

    “Very early in my Heathen life I dedicated myself to Woden. I performed numerous rites to him, took up the practice of the runes, and talked at him daily. Over time I learned such devotion was not needed. I would not get anything more from Woden than if I only honored him a few times a year instead of daily.”

    It seems as though what he’s saying is that he tried devotional practice and because he wasn’t given things as a result has decided that it is useless. And he accuses *us* of having a cosmic-vending-machine approach to the gods?

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    • I saw that and wondered the same thing. In my experience, Woden recruited me into Paganism in general, but seemed remote and close at the same time. I tried being Asatru but the Norse Gods didn’t respond to my devotions. I ended up being contacted by Neptune during a Roman ritual, that I was invited to.

      After that, I became a Roman polytheist, and have no problem with the Gods responding to my devotions.

      I asked around about this, and discovered that Woden(Odin) and a couple other Gods recruit people into Paganism, stay with them for awhile, and then leave. That These Gods act as Gateway Gods to a deeper Paganism or Polytheism. That many people feel the way that Swain writes and hurt as well, then they grapple with it. Usually another God from another pantheon comes to work with them. In my experience, the Roman Gods generally wait for the person to come into Paganism before contacting them.

      I wonder if Swain was contacted by other Gods or if he was, he couldn’t accept them for some reason. Or he is too attached to the Ancestral aspects of following the Gods of your Ancestors, instead of being more open. It is a very telling statement that he said.

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  11. Here’s my question: have those Heathens who scoff at devotion as a petty, Christianized way of being in relationship to the Gods, who point to the lore and say, “see, no examples of daily devotion here” never considered that1. depending on a book, rather than personal or community numinous experience, for truth or proof of…whatever, is a Christianized way of doing religion; and, 2. that the lore to which they defer was actually written down by Christians, who might possibly have had a vested interest in not offering people instruction in how to worship Heathen Gods? Serious question. Am I missing something?

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    • nope. you’re not missing anything. i’ve asked exactly the same questions and they refuse to see or admit the truth of what you so neatly lay out here.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wodwose : “Devotion is basically a giant fucking love letter that never finishes being written. ” if i could like this comment a thousand times i would.

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