More Conversations we Ought to be Having: Part IV

 

I want to move our conversation away from politics for a moment to touch on two threads that I’ve been seeing emergent in Paganism and Polytheism lately. Firstly, we’re having an ongoing conversation about miasma. Apparently some Pagans think we should jettison the whole idea because it might lead to people equating it (inaccurately) with sin and thus feeling badly about themselves. Now ritual pollution is a thing, and keeping clean of it when approaching the Gods is important in many, many Polytheisms. I’m not sure why this is such a difficult concept in our communities today, but apparently it is. What are your thoughts on ritual purity and the community? 

KENAZ: I think the idea of “sin” as “wrongdoing which lessens the wrongdoer before the community and the Gods” is entirely appropriate to Polytheism and Paganism.  Of course moral and ethical codes are flexible: of course they change and develop over time and as circumstances change.  But that doesn’t mean we should jettison them entirely or that the highest and best of all moral teachings is “do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt.”

In John Beckett’s latest Patheos article about Paganism and sin, his definition of “sin” owes more to his daddy issues and authority complexes than to the way Christians use the word.  For example, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia offers a clear and detailed definition of sin from a Roman Catholic perspective.  And while I’d disagree with some of it (I obviously don’t think things which lead people away from Catholicism are prima facie sinful, for instance), I’d say there’s a fair bit there, which could be of use to Polytheists and Monotheists alike.  Contrast this with Beckett’s knee-jerk rejection of “Sin” because it must be CHRISTIAN and therefore bad.  

I also think that Beckett et al are missing an important point about miasma and ritual pollution: it exists whether or not you acknowledge it.  In Ifa osgobo is a tangible thing, which can stick to people and places and wreak havoc until it’s addressed.  I got touched by osgobo after a friend committed suicide.  I didn’t get it because I was a bad person: I got it because I lit candles in his honor without making appropriate precautions.  (Spirits that die violently or in an agitated state can bring osgobo with them and this has nothing to do with whether they were good or bad people in life). 

GK: I like some of John Beckett’s writing, but I do think this piece misses the mark significantly, especially leading in with dismissive remarks about piety.

Moving on though, I was always taught that Osogbo are actually a family of spirits and as such deserving of respect, including the respect of taking appropriate precautions around their potential presence. I think your example really highlights how one can be doing everything right but still miasma, pollution, or osogbo can still happen. It’s a natural thing in many respects for which we have clear cut protocols.

KENAZ: I have encountered miasma in other situations, which were strongly positive.  The life change, my daughter’s birth, was wonderful and transformative — but I found myself out of alignment and struggling to redefine myself.  And I think that could have been avoided had we had available the historical childbirth and post-childbirth rituals that helped welcome baby and parents to their new roles in their community and incarnation.  But that was something I missed because (that damn Monotheism filter again), I still equated miasma with negativity, impiety and sin.   As you wisely stated on your blog, miasma doesn’t have a moral payload: it can be incurred by sin or impiety but that is not the only way it happens. So that is something we definitely need to keep in mind — and something which would help prevent the types of abuses Beckett appears worried about in his essay.

GK: It definitely doesn’t have a moral payload (i like that expression). It’s not equivalent to sin at all. I feel like I need to say that over and over again for my readers, because it’s probably the most insidious misunderstanding I’ve encountered lately.Miasma does not equal sin. If you take nothing else away from this conversation, please please take that. 

On a different topic, I’ve seen comments in several places to the effect that theologians and spirit workers and mystics like myself, like certain of my colleagues have a competence that makes people feel small. One post on tumblr (of course) actually accused one of my colleague’s writings of giving readers PTSD because they felt they couldn’t live up to the standards set by this writer for herself in her own practice. Of course, instead of setting better goals for themselves and allowing such writings to inspire them, a remarkable number of people chose to complain about how it made them feel bad and so they couldn’t read anymore, even years later, even though the spirit worker in question wasn’t telling people what to do, but was talking about her own practice.  I’m wondering your thoughts on this. 

KENAZ: There’s a very real danger of creating ego-driven hierarchies in a spiritual community.  I’m a better spirit worker than you because I can horse Gods; my Gods love me more than you because I’m a Godspouse and you’re not; I hang on hooks and whip myself for my Gods while you just light candles for yours.  And all that garbage is worse than useless.  The important thing is your relationship with your Gods and your ancestors.  If They are happy with your service, then you are doing things right.  Even if those things don’t involve Ordeals or Sacred Kingship or Horsing or anything exciting like that.  When you start seeking those things for glory or excitement or power, you take your focus away from the Gods.  And that’s the first step in a long spiral downward. 

GK: I’ve actually seen this quite a bit and it’s troubling. I tell people: do the work your Gods give you. If you’re an ordeal worker great. If you’re not, also great. I’m not quite sure why there’s this need to do the flashiest (and most dangerous) of practices when apparently making an offering of water and maintaining a regular prayer practice is too inconvenient. It makes me ask: are you doing these things for your Gods or for yourself? Do the work you’re given to do. If the focus isn’t on the Gods, then none of it matters. What’s the point?

KENAZ: That’s exactly it: when you start chasing titles or looking for attention (human or divine), you’re taking the focus off the Gods. That’s one of the things I learned from Fuensanta. She had this laser focus on the Gods above all else: it was about Them, not about the world recognizing her devotion or her piety. And if you have that focus, you’ll find yourself in right relationship with your Gods and with your world.  That doesn’t mean things will be perfect for you, but it means you will be in a place from which you can put your trials in a proper perspective and fulfill your responsibilities to the Gods and to the community. 

GK.: There it is. I aspire to her level of devotion and piety. I really do, every god damn day and every day I fall short. Still, I know what devotion can be and what it looks like to live a deeply engaged devotional life and that inspires me to keep trying.

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Posted on August 11, 2016, in community, Polytheism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Edward P. Butler

    Perhaps part of the reason why people confuse miasma with sin is because we habitually misuse the Hellenic term hubris, which in its ancient sense means “an outrage, wanton violence”. This is the term that occupies the semantic space that “sin” does in our Christian-dominated culture, minus the “sins” associated with sexual conduct or “original”, ontological sin, of course.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      that’s an interesting point, Edward. I hadn’t thought about that…you may be on to something.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      so…hubris vs. nefas….thoughts?

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      • Edward P. Butler

        Well, nefas is semantically literally equivalent to when Greeks say something is “ou themis”, “not lawful”, which can simply mean not permitted by whatever rules apply to a situation, or can more generally mean “impious”. I don’t know what the scope of the Latin term is, but I don’t think that “ou themis” has the sense of a moral wrong most of the time.

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  2. ganglerisgrove

    Edward, it’s an incredibly charged term. It can actually be translated as crime with the association of foulness and a complete breach of the laws of Gods and men. it’s probably one of the worst terms for wrong doing that i can think of in Latin and always seems to have indications of massive religious violation.

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