More Desperately Needed Conversations– Part 9
GK: moving away from the topic of miasma, I read a conversation thread today wherein someone was freaking out because some polytheists practice “dual tradition.” I’ve never understood why this was so concerning. Many if not most ancient polytheists did the same thing. One practiced the religion of one’s ancestors, of the state cultus, and then whatever cultus one might wish to initiate into–it was always flexible and fluid, with the caveat that one honored each set of Gods appropriate to Their traditions and rites. In many respects, honoring the Gods of one’s neighbor was an act of hospitality, especially when so many of these populations were mobile and connected by economic and political agreements. What are some of the issues in doing this and how do you think it can be done respectfully?
KF: I think they are reacting in part to the “Initiation Shopping” common to plastic shamanism. You buy a trip to Peru to drink Ayahuasca; you travel to Nigeria to get made in Ifa by an “airport babalao”; you go to Hawa’ii to become a Big Kahuna. And in each case you’re buying an experience and a title without any real knowledge of what goes with that title or how you should incorporate that relationship into your spiritual practice. Then there are the Tumblr godspouses with their retinue of “deities” doing what comic book heroes usually do and the “Norse Wiccans” or “Celtic Pagans” who use a tradition for its trappings and props rather than engaging with it.
The secret to practicing multiple traditions is to approach each tradition with respect. Understand the responsibilities that go with the title you are seeking: if you are incapable of meeting them then don’t seek that title. (I did this early on in my Vodou career. I received elekes but decided learning Vodou was a full-time job: trying to master Lukumi alongside that would do a disservice to both paths). If you serve the Gods of any tradition with respect and mold your service to Their requirements rather than expecting the Gods and the priests to make accommodations for you, you’ll be just fine.
Another thing I’ve found is that most people who successfully practice dual traditions have a solid relationship with their Deities and spirits in both paths. I’m a Lokean who also serves the lwa: I’ve been working with Loki for almost fifteen years and with the lwa for a few years before that. I’ve been able to work within both paths with little conflict — other than the conflicts which inevitably come with Loki, of course 🙂 And I would note you have a rock-solid relationship with Odin and advanced degrees in the Classics: you take your duties to the Gods seriously no matter what Pantheon you may be honoring. Playing “mix and match” games or treating multiple traditions with equal disrespect is just going to get you into trouble.
GK: I have seen many monist and pantheist apologists point to the syncretism to justify their anti-polytheist claims of ‘all gods being one.’ Likewise, I’ve seen many (ill read) anti-theists point to examples of agnostics and atheists in the ancient world, to justify their attacks and incursions into contemporary polytheisms, which is especially offensive because just because something existed in antiquity doesn’t mean it was a good thing — they had pedophilia, slavery, etc. Not to mention these views were always the minority and often soundly criticized. What is your reasoned response to this misuse of our history?
KF: Syncretism certainly happens: I’m thinking of Zeus Amun, whom Egyptians honored as the Kemetic God Ammon and Hellenics as a praise-name for Zeus. (Given the structure of many contemporary African religions I might even compare that relationship to the various “caminos” of an Orisha or the various Ezilis, Ogous, etc. in Vodou). Polytheism doesn’t just involve many Gods, it involves many theologies and many different visions of the Universe: sometimes those visions will be conflicting and downright contradictory. That’s because the Universe is a big, messy, conflicting and sometimes downright contradictory place.
But while there were questions as to the nature of the Gods, there was very little debate as to their existence. Agnosticism was generally a theoretical exercise: atheism was a crime in most of the ancient world and considered the most dangerous sort of impiety. When we look at ancient writings from agnostics and atheists we also need to remember there was then as now a marketplace of ideas. And of course our worries about belief and the individual’s interior life are largely a product of the Reformation: the ancient world was more worried about what you did than what you thought. It was certainly possible to speculate on the existence or non-existence of Gods, so long as you continued to perform the required rites in accordance with your civic duty. When you shirked those duties, or encouraged your countrymen to turn from the Gods, that was a whole different kettle of fish.
Archetypal Monotheism looks more welcoming at first than hard Monotheistic traditions like Islam or Christianity. But it’s ultimately just as corrosive. If all Gods are one God then all faiths are really one Faith and any disagreements or differences between traditions must be chalked up to misunderstanding or human error. What results is a bunch of Gods who are all saying the same thing, a bunch of supposedly disparate “traditions” all aiming at the same goals, and a big warm bland steaming pile of culturally-blended and homogenized mush.
You also raise a very interesting point regarding slavery and pedophilia. Polytheism is a work-in-progress.
GK: well, I don’t raise it. I don’t really care. I’m educated in history. I’m not one of the ones using these things to muddy the discourse. I have however seen it coming up from the more ahistorical amongst us.
KF: Social mores change and what was acceptable in one generation may be condemned in another. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were roundly condemned by Hellenic practitioners of the Classical era despite earlier rituals. Even in the Old Testament we see HaShem telling His people not to pass their children through fire (sacrifice them) in His name — and generally you don’t issue “Thou Shalt Nots” unless people are actually doing the things you condemn. We can look to the past for inspiration without slavishly copying it: in the spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism we can give tradition a vote but not a veto. And people who say otherwise or who assume honoring the Gods must invariably lead to human sacrifice and theocracies are willfully or unknowingly stirring up trouble over nothing.
GK: Of course they are – I think that they’re willfully doing so to cripple the restoration so you actually give some of these people far more credit than I do. With some of them at least, I can see clearly the religions from which they’ve come. We’ve talked about how many people bring Christian baggage and wounds and trauma into their new religion. We can clearly see the difficulties this causes in our communities today. How would you address this? Conversion is a multi-layered, difficult process and in a community that damns its elders and refuses to accept standards of training and rules of behavior — even something so simple as miasma– how can newcomers move past these issues? What tools can we provide them with?
KF: One way to get past the Monotheism filter is to recognize it and open yourself up to alternate interpretations. Instead of falling back on the “All Gods are One God” explanation, consider addressing those “faces of God” as individual discrete Beings. You don’t have to make a decision immediately on it, but be open to the explanations Polytheism offers. If you have to tell yourself “this is just a thought exercise” do that — but exercise your thought.
You also need to distinguish between the Monotheism Filter and any personal authority issues you may have. If you grew up in an abusive Christian cult you may associate any kind of hierarchy with that abuse. And while the Gods don’t expect you to grovel before Them and abase yourself — by and large They would much prefer you live a virtuous and honorable life — They are greater than you and deserve and They demand respect. There is a difference between bending your knee and superstitious groveling in fear: if you can’t or won’t understand that Polytheism is not for you.
When you come into a functioning spiritual community you have to understand that they have a way of doing things and a way of addressing the Gods. If you are a guest in that community you are expected to acknowledge their routines and to honor them: if you wish to join that community, you will need to learn its standards and expectations and shape your behavior accordingly. And, again, if you can’t or won’t do that then you need to avoid that community for your sake as well as theirs. Nobody is asking you for unquestioning obedience, but they may be asking you to pour out libations for their Gods, to prostate yourself before Their shrine, or to refrain from participation for one reason or another.
For example, you cannot salute Damballah if you have your period. This has nothing to do with misogyny: it is simply that Damballah finds the smell of blood offensive. If you insist on saluting Him despite this because you want to reclaim menstruation or prove that Haitians are just being superstitious when they uphold this silly taboo, you are guilty of grave disrespect. And if you don’t understand that and feel instead that Vodou should reshape itself to better suit your interpretation of feminism then you have no place in a hounfor or at a fet lwa.
GK: well said. Yes, yes, and yes. Our own limitations should never, ever be the standard to which we hold our practice, our tradition, and our Gods. Might we discuss the problem that many of us see arising in the community i.e. the lack of a decent education, of historical knowledge, of critical thinking ability, and lately I’m beginning to assume basic reading skills, because I think that’s part of the reason this is so cognitively hard for some people.
KF: I think we’re actually dealing with a perfect storm. First there’s good old fashioned ignorance and lack of education. American literacy has declined precipitously and fewer and fewer people have even basic critical thinking and research skills. That makes it difficult to distinguish between solid scholarship and crap: it also makes debate difficult, as not many people care about things like logical fallacies or internal consistency anymore. You also have to worry about being called out as an intolerant bully when you call out wrongheaded ideas and bad behavior. (Unsurprisingly, the worst bullies have learned the lingo and will happily accuse their critics of “shaming,” “bullying” and “oppressing” them at the drop of a hat — and since critical thinking is in a death spiral, they all too frequently get away with it). Spiritual communities are expected to be “Safe Spaces” where everyone is made to feel valid and warm and affirmed. (Loki and Odin may be called many things, but “Safe?” Naah… ). And what results is that the unqualified, disrespectful and flat-out impious are coddled to and tolerated while those seeking to protect the tradition and the Gods get forced out.
GK: Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
KF: Every Polytheist must of necessity engage with hir community: frequently that includes political action. There is nothing un-Polytheistic favoring one candidate over another, with donating to the political causes of your choice, with writing essays in support of your political position. The problem begins when you start telling me all Polytheists must favor your candidate or cause, or try to make Marxism, capitalism or any other creed the Official Political Position of Polytheism. I strongly suspect most of the people who don’t get this distinction are being willfully obtuse a la “Spiritual Purity = the Holocaust!!!” or similar rot.
GK: I don’t think they’re being willfully obtuse. I think they know exactly what they’re doing: obfuscation, poisoning the well, and other nasty rhetorical tactics because they can’t get their way and they want to take down those who are engaged in the restoration and in affirming healthy boundaries.
I think there is a real resistance toward restoring our traditions because with traditions come rules and sooner or later, someone is going to feel inadequate because they refuse to meet them (with the corollary that they then expect the tradition to accommodate their lack, instead of themselves working to be better. I mean, “I’m an idiot and can’t tell my God from a time traveling fictional character but yeah, I should be a licit voice in this revival and even though I”ve made excuse after excuse for my failure to do the least thing my Gods have requested of me ad nauseum, I’m a role model”. Um, no sweet-heart. I don’t think so. You’re fit to be something but I’m pretty sure that’s not it and the fact that we’re the only ones calling foolishness like this out points to the devastating state of our communities. People like this are bringing so much shit into the communities that it’s going to take the rest of us working together a generation to clear it all out again. I sympathize with Herakles cleaning the Aegean stables).
KF: We will never have an egalitarian relationship with the Wellsprings of Being: They are more powerful than us and more powerful than we can imagine. We will never have a safe relationship with them: They can turn our lives upside down at a moment’s notice and not infrequently do just that. Anybody looking for safe, egalitarian Gods needs to look outside Polytheism: our Gods are Gods in all Their glory and terror.
GK: I think these people are small and they want our Gods to be too, to reduce the Heavens to the size of their own limited intellect and hearts. Pity for them it doesn’t work that way.
Me? I want the Gods to render us in our smallness, stripping away everything that does not serve.
Posted on August 17, 2016, in community, Uncategorized and tagged Asshattery, Community, conversations we need to be having, kenaz filan, Polytheism, why we can't have nice things. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.