A Recent Interview that I Gave
I was recently interviewed by a student for her World Religions class. They had an assignment to interview a devout person and she got permission to interview a polytheist. I received permission from her to share the interview here, though I’m protecting her name (I don’t want to see her getting harassed, which has happened before to people that I’ve interviewed), for privacy’s sake, and by request.
Interview with A.R.: Lived Polytheism
A, These are good questions. A couple of things to keep in mind with my answers: I’m not a lay person. I’m a priest and spirit worker and have been since 1994. I’ve spent the better part of three decades doing increasingly complex theological work within my communities so the answers that I give should not be taken as indicative of your average lay woman. That being said, you’ve asked some really thoughtful questions here.
- What was the religious background of your childhood?
I was raised Roman Catholic. I left the church at twelve, refusing to be confirmed and over the next few years slowly became consciously polytheistic. I’m actually quite grateful for the Catholic upbringing. I think that I was very lucky. I had good devotional models, since my grandmother, for instance, was very devout. I never had to question the goodness of devotional work or the role that devotion could and should play in one’s life. I had it modeled for me from a very early age. I also found, as I was going through my conversion process, that the writings of female Catholic mystics like Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, and the like were extremely inspiring. It was almost as though we were having a conversation across the centuries and across the boundaries of our respective traditions. At the time that I converted, there was really no one available to provide spiritual direction in my community so I turned to these women in a way for that.
- I know that honoring one’s ancestors is extremely important in Heathenry. What kind of meaning does the practice have for you?
I think that honoring one’s ancestors is one of the most fundamental practices a polytheist can have. From our point of view, it’s what a responsible, engaged adult does as a matter of course. There’s a Lithuanian proverb ‘the spirits of the dead are the protection of the living’ and a Lukumi proverb “we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors” and I absolutely believe that is true. Honoring the dead roots us deeply in an awareness that we are living links in a chain of hopes, dreams, and devotion stretching back into history and forward into the future. It helps us establish right relationship spiritually too, because if we can get it right with our dead, then it’s that much easier to do so with our Gods. Connecting to our own ancestors though (and those who are not related by blood but to whom we have powerful connections of heart, mind, and spirit) strengthens us. It’s like a tree with rich, thick roots. It is a sustaining force and I very much believe that the ancestors can and do look after us, respond to us, and watch over us, helping where they can.
- You’ve talked a lot about your personal relationships with the Gods. In my experience with conventional Heathenry, it is considered a “beginner’s mistake” to seek a personal relationship with the Gods. How do you feel about that? What level of importance do you prescribe to ancestor worship in relation to worship of the Gods?
Any Heathen who says that developing a personal relationship with the Gods is a “beginner’s mistake” is a fool who should be ashamed of himself. Monotheism already destroyed our traditions once, why on earth would we finish the job for them by abrogating devotion? There is nothing more important in one’s religious life than developing that personal devotional relationship. It’s a sad fact that the majority of modern Heathens (and you might want to define Heathen for your paper so that people know it’s a term of religious identity for those who venerate the Norse and Germanic Gods. There are multiple denominations and “Heathen” or “Heathenry” is rather an umbrella term) come from fundamentalist protestantisms and I often find that they have a very difficult time accepting the emotional messiness of devotional work. I also find a deplorable tendency to try to reify the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda as authoritative texts, in the same way the Bible is for Christianity even though our traditions are not and never have been religions of any book. This is one of the fault lines within our community and where one falls on this topic is one of the things that can determine one’s denomination, so to speak.
- The concept of frith seems to run counter to the American spirit, namely individualism. How important is frith to you, and how do you navigate the space between Heathen tribalism and the American ethos?
Well, ‘frith’ is often translated as ‘peace,’ but I think a more accurate translation is ‘right order.’ Part of restoring our polytheisms is also re-ordering and re-prioritizing our sense of ethics and civic awareness and that is occasionally in conflict with the American norm. For me, that’s never been a problem. I will always prioritize my religious obligations over anything else, be it Heathen tribalism or an American ethos. Piety becomes the lens through which every part of one’s life is filtered and the only identity that really matters.
- How do you navigate conflicting claims by the different traditions you serve? For instance, cosmological inconsistencies?
Well if there are conflicts between what I ought to do for particular Deities, or what offerings to give, or which set of Deities needs to be honored first, I can always go to divination. Polytheisms always have been – in the past as in the modern day—religions of diviners. Divination is a precious, precious gift by which we are able to directly suss out what is required of us to remain in right relationship with our Gods. It’s also very useful, working in a blended tradition as I do (i.e. Norse and Greco-Roman) for handling any such conflicts of praxis. In the end, I belong to Odin, so when it comes down to it, He has pride of place in my devotional life. Anything else is sorted via divination. As to differing cosmological issues, inconsistencies…it’s not really an issue. One of the lovely graces of polytheism is the ability to hold many different stories, realities, beliefs as true all at once. It’s not, after all, as though one is reading a book on higher math, where an inconsistency in an equation will cause one’s work to fall apart. The inconsistences in cosmological stories (sometimes even within the canon of stories for the same God – regional cultus gave rise to many variations of stories for instance) often point to powerful Mysteries of that particular Deity or pantheon. They’re points to be savored. But they don’t cause any particular cognitive dissonance because we don’t demand ideological unity. They just provide mores ways of engaging with our Gods.
- Coming from a reconstructionist religion with little in the way of infrastructure, how do you connect with other Heathens and develop a sense of community? As a gythia, do you feel like you have a special role in your community?
There’s a vibrant online community. We network via social media, and use platforms like skype and slackchat to maintain groups where members might be spread out. There’s email, and then of course there are festivals and conferences and holy days where we’ll travel to celebrate together. As a gythia (priest), my job is to serve the Gods and to do whatever I can in my work, both online and in person within my religious community to help people venerate the Gods more deeply, as deeply as possible. I’m a ritual specialist, and I’ll provide spiritual direction but my focus is always on serving the Gods. What that entails at any given moment may differ dramatically from day to day. Many of us also run kindreds or houses where we do have small, regular congregations.
- Have you ever experienced doubts about your tradition, beliefs, or religious practices? If so, how did you cope?
Not really. No more than any other person in their devotional life. I struggle often with what the Gods ask of me, but I’ve never doubted Their existence or the rightness of being in devotional relationship with Them. I’ve had fallow times where I couldn’t sense Their presence strongly – a ‘dark night of the soul,’ to quote St. John of the Cross, if you will, and I’ve been intensely angry at Them (after the death of my mother for instance) but that’s all normal ups and downs in a devotional life. I do have periods where I wonder if anything that we do will make any difference in our traditions, if we’ll ever be able to adequately restore our traditions to the strength and potency that they had before Christianity destroyed them, but the cure for that is prayer and turning to the Gods, not running away. Doubt has never been my problem. I’ve experienced Them directly at times, too much so for me to ever doubt. Despair however is something I do occasionally fight.
- I’ve noticed that there’s a controversy surrounding Jötunn worship. Why do you choose to worship the Jötnar?
It is right and proper to honor all our Holy Powers, not just the ones with Whom we are comfortable. Also, one of my earliest and most supportive devotional relationships was with the God Loki. For thirty years He has sustained me and every good thing in my life, every precious and blessed thing has in some way come through His hands. I would never, ever repudiate Him to make anyone in the community comfortable. I think the discomfort with Loki and other Jotnar has to do again with the fact that so many Heathens converted from Christianity- specifically Protestant Christianity. (There’s a wonderful book called “Love the Sin” by Janet Jakobson and Ann Pellegrini that talks about the religious character of America and that American secularism is really a particular type of Protestant Christianity. Our dominant mode of religion in the US is very deeply influenced by Protestant Christianity and that doesn’t stop just because one converts). I think they are looking for a devil. Norse cosmology at its core involves a fundamental interplay of opposing forces. It’s not good and evil. It’s chaos and order, ice and fire with no moral shading on that at all. For people raised in Christianity that’s difficult, often quite difficult. But, part of becoming a polytheist means dealing with our bullshit and not bringing unresolved baggage from our birth religions with us. We have an obligation to our Gods and to ourselves to do better. There’s ample evidence that Loki was in no way demonized amongst our polytheistic ancestors, but was instead a vital part of the pantheon. When we refuse to venerate these Gods, because they make us uncomfortable, we destroy our traditions again, just like that generation of Christians that tore down temples and demanded conversion. Why on earth should we do the work of our opponents for them?
- How do you feel about theologies like Vodou or Hinduism in which the Gods exist but are subordinate to or immanent within a higher being?
Forgive me for being quite so blunt, but I think that’s a very [white] western perspective of Hinduism at least. Many, many Hindus are purely polytheistic. It’s actually one of the fault lines within Hinduism today and the idea that they are in reality monotheists evolved out a desire to basically pander to western modernists. I’d recommend the work of Drs. Vishwa Adluri, Joydeep Bagchee, and Edward Butler on this topic, since it is more than a bit out of my area of expertise. As to Vodou, I think it important to look at how the African Diasporic religions developed in relation to slavery and the need to conceal practices behind a façade of Christianity.
In the end, what a Hindu does though or a Voudousaint matters little to my own practice. I don’t practice Hinduism, though I will pay homage to the Hindu Gods should I ever be in a position to visit a temple or a devout Hindu home. I don’t practice Voudou though I have in the past paid homage to the Lwa, given that I have practicing colleagues. There are very devout people working within those communities ensuring survival and continuity of practice. I am concerned with doing the same for my own.
I do want to point out that with these traditions, the question of whether or not they have a higher Being holding sway over all the other Deities and Powers is effectively moot. Last week, September 2017 I learned that a practitioner not of Voudou but of Candomble had been butchered by evangelical Christians because he refused to desecrate his shrines. There has been a spate of violence in Brazil: Christians forcing Candomble practitioners at gunpoint to desecrate their holy places in the name of Christ. A few months ago I read an article about the desecration of a Hindu temple by Muslims in India. Last year, a young Syrian girl was gang-raped and then stoned to death by her brother and a group of his male friends because he discovered she was a polytheist. In the end, when people are still suffering and dying for their Gods I think it more important to ally with extant polytheisms, however they conceive of that polytheism than to damn them.
Polytheists in the US are lucky. We may occasionally experience discrimination (I’ve had my office vandalized once, for instance, bibles left all over, the walls marked up with bible verses), but with rare exceptions we can go home to our families at night without worrying that we’re going to be forced to choose between our lives and our faith, or between the lives of our children and our Gods. That’s not the case everywhere in the world (think of the ongoing genocide of the Yezidi for instance) and I think it’s important to remember that. Polytheism remains under attack. For us in the US, it’s ideological – we’ll fight for space online and in person to practice umolested – but in other countries, it can very much become a matter of life and death.
(Hindu shrine statue having been smashed by Muslims — not an uncommon occurrence in today’s India)
10. Do you think it’s important for polytheists who were raised Christian to share their beliefs with their family? Or, is it okay to go through the motions in order to retain familial relationships?
I think that is a question every polytheist has to answer for him or herself. Given, for instance, that polytheism or Paganism can become an issue in divorce court where custody is concerned some people may truly not be safe in being out. I personally think we owe it to our Gods not to hide our faith. If we hide and skulk around it sends the unconscious message that we’re doing something wrong and we are not. Moreover, we shouldn’t have to hide. I made it a point to be completely open about my polytheism from a very early period in my religious life. I never dumbed it down for family and that meant that I severed relationships with certain family members. I’m ok with that. That was a choice I made a long time ago. But this is a complicated question and there’s no easy answer for everyone.
There are people who may be extremely devout but whose personal circumstances are such that they cannot safely be open. The general rule of thumb I suggest is to be open as much as you can, when you can. When you absolutely can’t, do your best and try to change the circumstances that prevent it. I don’t think the Gods love someone any less because they are unable to be open about their faith. I think it’s a terrifying thing, especially if one comes from a very devout non-polytheistic family. Some people worry about their safety. Some people worry about losing the roof over their heads. Some people worry about losing their children. Some people worry about losing every one they love. I personally could never go through the motions though. I would feel as though I was betraying the Gods I love beyond breath.
11. Are the Gods physical? How is it that Odin can lose his eye and Baldur can die?
I think the Gods can take physical form but the question of Odin’s eye and Baldur’s death are mysteries and their understanding and import are so deeply entwined with the cosmology itself that it goes well beyond the question of whether or not a God can take physical form. I don’t think that human corporeality is the be all and end all of experience. The Gods existed before us, brought materiality and temporality into being, but are not Themselves necessarily constrained by it. (I recommend my article here: https://krasskova.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/in-the-beginning/). I think the question is not whether the Gods are physical but what does it mean for us that They can take physical form? What does it mean for us that Odin lost an eye and that Baldur died? What does that tell us about Their nature? What does that tell us about how They can relate to and interact with the world itself. It’s never about the apparent physicality or lack thereof of the Gods. It’s about everything else.
12. How do you account for the different pantheons? Why wouldn’t all Gods manifest to all peoples?
I believe in all the different pantheons but I am not called to venerate Them all. Why do we have different languages? Why do we have different cuisines and cultures? I think that the different groups of Gods developed covenants and contracts and very special relationships with Their respective peoples and that is a good thing. It mirrors the diversity found in our world, the glorious explosion of a thousand different ways of being. Unity is not the highest virtue for us. It rather betrays a remarkable lack of vision. Why wouldn’t different Gods manifest to and contract with different people? Even within the Hebrew bible we see this. YHWH was the God of the Hebrew tribes. He was their God as opposed to the Gods of other tribes and peoples. His covenant was with the Jewish people, not with the Akkadians or Egyptians, etc. Why would it not be so?
13. As a follow-up, are there any Gods or pantheons you don’t believe in, and why?
Nope. It’s funny. When many people discover I’m a polytheist they’ll often look confused for a long moment and then inevitably the first question I’m often asked next is “but…but you believe in Jesus right?” well, yes, but He’s not my Deity. I don’t venerate Him. I belong to other Gods. But I believe in Them all.
14. What do you believe will happen to you in the afterlife? Do you follow the model of the soul with many parts?
I do follow the multi-part soul model. As to the afterlife, I believe I will be reunited with my ancestors and then hopefully with Odin where I will continue to serve Him in whatever capacity He deems necessary. I hope I don’t have to reincarnate. I’m tired.
15. What purpose do food offerings serve? What benefit does it have for the God?
Food is the most essential means of nourishment, and it’s also concrete abundance and wealth. It sustains and giving food offerings sustains the relationships we have formed with our Gods. It’s not so much what it does for the Gods – They will continue to exist whether or not we honor Them thusly – but that it sustains us in relationship with the Gods. It is a sharing of all that we are, of all that sustains us with the Holy Powers. It’s a reminder that we are part of a vital, reciprocal relationship, one that requires – as any relationship does—constant, ongoing attention to remain healthy. I do think with land spirits and with ancestors, the food offerings do provide a type of spiritual nourishment but with the Gods something different is going on and in the end, we are the ones being nourished by being brought continually into a state of awareness and remembrance of the debt that we owe Them for our existence, and the myriad ways in which They nourish us always as a mother and father nourish their child.
16. How do you perform divination? How do you interpret your answers?
I can’t answer this question simply. I’m a professional diviner as part and parcel of being a competent priest and spirit worker. I’ve trained for thirty years to do this work well and I continue to work hard, both on my own and under supervision of elders and more experienced diviners (including those outside of my tradition – one of my best teachers was a Lukumi priest who was willing to share his knowledge of the sacred art). Doing divination well involves cultivating intense devotion, spiritual discernment, being attentive to miasma and pollution, and maintaining humility before the Powers. There are technical skills to master (whatever systems one divines with) but also the ability to communicate divination if one is working with clients. It’s rather like translating. One receives this information often a myriad of ways and very rarely in nice verbal chunks, then one has to translate it into words. After that, one interprets for the client or oneself. I’ve written books on the subject of divination and it’s one of the things that every competent spirit worker should know. To be a diviner is a sacred calling, much like a priestly vocation. It is the gift whereby we are able to know what our Gods want and whether or not we are in right relationship. How I interpret my answers depends on the client, the question, the Gods and spirits involved. Sometimes it is reading a pattern, looking at fate and probability and explaining what I see, sometimes it’s listening to what their ancestors or Gods have to say, sometimes it is being taken up as an oracle, and sometimes a combination of all of this and more. The point is that this is a sacred craft that takes years and years to master, one that demands continual work to keep one’s skills sharp.
17. Do you have discernment criteria for your own UPG? How common do you think it is for people to directly experience the Gods?
Of course. I pray, meditate, divine. I will often seek out other clergy or elders. There’s a process, as all devotion is a process and in the end I trust my Gods in the relationship we have established. I think that it is perfectly natural to experience the Gods. That is the heart of every tradition. I think also, however, that it can be terrifying – I believe it was St. Paul who said, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. No shit. It really is and it changes everything. I think that there is nothing in our world that prepares us or encourages us in developing the devotional consciousness necessary to open up, such intense vulnerability, to the Gods. In fact, I think we’re raised to everything but so while it should be as natural as breathing, instead because of the disorder and disease of our world and culture, it has become a struggle. My husband of course, also a polytheist, disagrees. He says it’s always been difficult and maybe he’s right. There’s a passage in Lucan, where he’s writing about a priestess about to carry the God Apollo as a oracle. She’s begging the petitioner not to make her do this, because it such an overwhelming and painful process. It can be. But I think we make it harder than it has to be. I also think there’s always been some people who are better able to go into the necessary head and heartspace than others, just as there are some people able to make amazing music, like Mozart.
18. Why did you choose Heathenry and Hellenism? Why not the religion of your Lithuanian ancestors?
I’m not a practitioner of Hellenismos. I practice cultus-deorum and Heathenry (so more Roman than Greek. Hellenismos is specifically Greek polytheism.). But I didn’t choose. Odin and Loki chose me and I was smart enough to comply. That led me (rather against my will) to Heathenry. Over the years I was pushed by Them to seek out the Greco-Roman Gods, particularly Hermes (and later Apollo and Dionysos). That all happened rather organically though.
It’s not that big a leap. The Romans went everywhere and brought their Gods with them, including into the northlands, and likewise the Germanic tribes eventually brought their Gods with them when they came to Rome. There was always exchange and conversation between these traditions. I rather like to think that I’m continuing that in the present day. But I didn’t choose. I went where my Gods pushed me.
As to why I don’t practice Romuva, well, the Lithuanian Gods never called me. I have some taboos from my Lithuanian ancestors, mostly protocols for engaging with them, and some obligations around kindling fire but otherwise, nothing.
(That was the end of the formal interview, but we had a follow up in person chat, going over these and a few other questions but overall, I found this a very interesting interview, and so, I share it with my readers here. Thank you, A.R. for allowing me to do so).