Idolatry of the Self

So I was recently reading “Amazing Grace” by Kathleen Norris and while overall I found the book rather simplistic and at times naive, every so often I found a gem. One such was a brief discussion (p. 72) on something she terms “idolatry of the self.” I was struck by this passage because I think it nails so much about current threads in Paganism. We bring the poison of our over-culture with us, after all, even as we convert and it can be a damned difficult thing to root out. Here’s the passage that gripped me so:

“The profound skepticism of our age, the mistrust of all that has been handed to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers as tradition, has led to a curious failure of imagination, manifested in language that is thoroughly comfortable, and satisfyingly unchallenging. A hymn whose name I have forgotten cheerfully asks God to “make our goals your own.” A so-called prayer of confession confesses nothing but whines to God “that we have hindered your will and way for us by keeping portions of our lives apart from your influence.” to my ear, such language reflects an idolatry of ourselves, that is, the notion that the measure of what we can understand, what is readily comprehensible and acceptable to us, is also the measure of God. It leads too many clerics to simply trounce on mystery …”.

While she is referring to her own Christian experience, I think that the same trend is found in large part in contemporary Paganism and even Polytheism. We work so hard to make ourselves the limits of our Gods. Our comfort becomes the highest good, and we doggedly flee anything that challenges our fiercely held comfort zones. It’s not religion many of us are seeking but self-validation. Mystery challenges all of that.

Mystery is not about comfort. I think many of us talk blithely about “mystery traditions” without ever realizing what that truly entails. It’s a fancy word for experiences of the sacred that have the potential to tear one’s life to shreds. Mystery renders. It distills. It is an atomic explosion, Rumi’s knife in the dark. It is not the experience of a Deity in the bright, clarifying light of day, but rather the terror in the night that throws us down into the piss and shit of our own ugliness, that then rips us open and leaves us arched and bleeding on the dark empty floor of our souls. Then all of that is stripped away too, and we are brought into the heart of the Powers and spat forth again in dizzying ecstasy, mad dervishes whirling forth vomiting up color and poetry and song into a world rich only in its emptiness.

It always seems to come as a surprise when the focus of the spiritual experience is not on us. I think this is *the* point of tension within contemporary Pagan and Polytheist religions. Is it about us, our feelings, our morality, our wants or is it about something greater than we, something ancient, elder, and Holy? We whine to the Gods to reinforce the boundaries of the narrow worlds we’ve created for ourselves and condemn those Gods when They do anything but. We are self-absorbed children resentfully, petulantly working through mommy and daddy issues and wondering why our traditions aren’t’ sustainable at all. But then we shouldn’t wonder when we reject tradition in favor of feel-good exceptionalism and the illusion that we are courting ancient Mysteries. But when Mystery comes calling we piss ourselves trying to escape it.

This isn’t just a Pagan or Polytheist problem. I think it is the influence of modernity on all aspects of devotion. We have a culture in equal parts hungry for and disdainful of mystery. Norris noted in her book something that I’ve seen other Christian authors comment upon as well: the attempted erasure of mystery within Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. In many respects it was the protestant agenda. It certainly does make all aspects of religion accessible to everyone when Mystery is removed, accessible to everyone and truly meaningful to none.

In my opinion, a huge part of the problem is the ingrained arrogant belief that we are “evolved,” and superior to our ancestors. We want what we want on our terms, without any inconvenience rather than with the raw integrity and humility of actual engagement. Instead of looking at what our ancestors were doing right when polytheism was the world, we claim superiority and hold fast to the imprint of two thousand years of monotheism on our spiritual psyches. Throw in a little bit of contemporary self-absorption and one wonders why we bother at all. Polytheistic religions do not offer instant salvation. They offer a chance to right the breach of ancient contracts, to restore and renew and transform our world, to regain right relationship with Powers we can only begin to imagine. That is terrifyingly hard work, challenging work, rewarding work. It is work that reminds us that we are not at the center of it all, but merely one part of the problem and hopefully one part of its solution. It is work that reminds us there is indeed a hierarchy out there and it is good and natural. It’s work that begins with the first prayer uttered and the first offering made and ends in reverence for Mystery, Mysteries to which we may never be given entry; and in between is an awareness of our own pollution.

I don’t have any solutions to this. I only know that our traditions are worth fighting for, they are worth plumbing the depths of our cultural and spiritual pollution and fighting our way back to the right relationship our people once had with their Powers. It’s worth the attempt. It’s worth seeing clearly the abyss of emptiness that our culture terms ‘normal,’ and primes us to want with all our being. It’s worth rejecting that and seeking instead a path of integrity. The Gods are worth the fight. They are worth confronting ourselves for. They are worth fighting step by painful and wrenching step to be worthy of what Mysteries They bestow. Somewhere along the way, for the promise of salvation, for the lure of ‘progress’ we sacrificed ourselves and the wisdom and sacred rites of our ancestors. It’s worth the long hard battle to get them back. Perhaps that is what faith is: a long term belief that restoration is possible. In the end I have faith. I have faith that, though it may take generations, we can restore all that was lost. When it seems the most hopeless, I have faith because the ancestors are at our backs and the Gods above and below are there, waiting only for us to cross the chasm of our own self-absorption and fear. I have faith that we can do this uphill though the battle may seem. I have faith that when we fall at last into Mystery, should our Gods grant that it be so, we will have the courage to throw ourselves forward and carry those Mysteries back to transform the world and faith is stubborn, stubborn thing. Sometimes, it is enough.


(originally posted in 2014)

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

Posted on January 1, 2019, in community, devotional work, Lived Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Yes, I generally agree with your overall theme here.

    My only question (perhaps not even an objection, just a clarification) has to do with the involvement in our daily activities and routines that we have with our Deities within our devotional relationships with Them. I’ve often heard people say things like “The Deities don’t care whether you _____,” and that blank can have things like “eat carbs,” “spend one’s money,” “vote Republican,” “join Twitter or Facebook,” or “wear green underwear,” amongst many other likely or unlikely possibilities. And my question in such instances is always: is that true? How would one know unless one asks the individual Deities-in-question? And the unwillingness to ask, the notion that Deities wouldn’t have any interest in such “petty” and “human” concerns, is yet another symptom of some of what you’re talking about in this post, I think: namely, the idea that there is a separation between this-world and the Deities, that religion and daily life can be compartmentalized, that one doesn’t have an influence on the other, and so forth…or to put it in slightly different terms, that the “separation of church and state,” so to speak, is absolute where our connection with Deities is concerned, and that the running of daily life has nothing to do with our devotional relationships.

    I find this problematic for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the ideas of the absolutization of the “disenchantment of the world,” but more importantly the hypocrisy implied in such notions when we also might be carrying on important conversations about the role of purity and miasma in our religious practices (if things like that matter, then why might not larger but downplayed things–like where the money that we got to buy our offerings with and what we had to do to get it–matter?). I know for myself that the more my own devotional relationships have matured and developed, the more my Deities are involved in my daily life, not less. They have a say, and often even a veto, on my daily activity choices, on who I associate with, on where I go, on how I spend my money, and on what I devote my time to outside of my direct relationships with Them…and, I’d say that from a religious/spiritual perspective, that is a good thing and an important thing if my concern is really to serve Them however possible and bring Their presence more into my life and into the wider world.

    So, as a result, if I have that sort of devotional relationship, then whether or not I get that promotion at work, or whether or not I get sick, or whether or not the test results I’m waiting for tell me that I have cancer or not, DOES become very important for the Deities involved because the results of those matters will end up impacting how well I am able to serve Them, how much time and money and resources I can devote to Them, and so forth…and thus, my interests (and more often than not my necessities) very much end up overlapping with Theirs. While I wouldn’t quite put it on the level of “make our goals Your own,” the question of where the line is between what Their goals might be for us and how our own strategies for getting on in the world in better ways (i.e. being healthier, having more money or other material resources, etc.) might impact what we are able to do for Them and what They might want us to do with what we’ve got, becomes a lot less clear than it might have been otherwise.

    If we did ask more frequently and more directly about a lot of these things, I think we might end up being surprised by some of the answers we get…I know I have been. Giving to charity might be a great thing, but perhaps giving to this-or-that charity at this-or-that time might not be what a particular Deity wants us to do; or, perhaps buying a few board games that are on sale with that bit of extra money we had this month is what a particular Deity would like us to do on some particular occasion. The “why” involved in either of these things might not be readily available to us, or ever discernible, and the reasons any given Deity might have for advising such might not also be obvious–it may not be that the charity involved is actually somewhat corrupt and the people running it are making more profit than they’re actually helping the environment or the poor or what-have-you (though that might be the case), or that this particular Deity likes the historical associations of the symbolism behind this board game or that developing one’s skills in playing it might have applications outside of the board game being played (thought that might be the case), or any number of other things (e.g. the money donated might be needed for something more essential soon after; the Deity decides you just need a break and the board game would be a good and enjoyable thing to do within your means; etc.). Both of those are hypotheticals, and while I’ve had similar sorts of situations, neither of them is anything I’ve had happen directly, but I think you get the idea here. 😉

    Anyway, that’s just my own thoughts on the matter. On the whole, yes, I think that people are often far more self-interested than they are open to the mystery, magic, and profundity that might be available to them through devotional engagement and spiritual practice; and yes, sometimes what the Deities ask of us is challenging and uncomfortable, and many of us would prefer complacency and indolence to legitimately working toward what They might suggest or even demand of us on any occasion. However, what we may want and what They may want (or even “want for us”) is not always clear or distinct or simple, and the only way to find out is to ask more, to inquire further, and to bring Them closer into our everyday lives by finding out where and when our goals are Theirs and Theirs also align with things that are also ours. We may be saying the exact same thing, in fact, just from two (amongst many more!) different sides of the issue. But, perhaps some of what I’ve mentioned above is worthwhile, or might be useful to someone at some stage…one always hopes so! 😉

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    • Sometimes I wonder how important our value as polytheists is the Gods, considering that we are so few in number nowadays and only us give them worship. It’s an inevitable question, but perhaps uncertainty is the best answer, since if we are important, some might become careless or arrogant, or if we are not, hopeless or fanatic (like some monotheists who hunger for huge rewards). A happy medium would be a concentration on action in studying to serve the Gods correctly and increase our numbers as well as organization. Surely the Gods care for us and we for them, but we can always strive to do more without dwelling on that point, because so much can be gained…or lost. The present generation is revivalists, if their work is honest and hard enough, could be worshipped as Heroes and Heroines by posterity. In ancient times, our ancestors honored the founders of communities as well as other celebrated persons who did great deeds. It is enough to draw strength from the knowledge that the Gods must be served and our ancestors must be reconnected with us & our future descendants through a restoration of traditions & the establishment of corresponding communities.

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  2. It reminds of the Victorian sense of having everything neat, clean, and civilized. Instead of forests, people have gardens, where they are Gods domesticating nature. Even people go into forests, they expect niceness and not savage nature i.e. being eaten by a bear.

    I think that this is reflected in current Paganism – of the friendliness of fairies who will help save the environment and Core Shamanism where nature is waiting for people to heal it. Nothing will hurt us, nothing dangerous here.


  3. It has been 4-5 years since the original post of this honest & powerful article was made, and I hope things have improved for polytheism, at whatever rate, during the interim. The world we live in, this continuum of modernity, is taking its course and running forth headlong, sometimes blindly, in what it imagines as progress. Cold individualism is the fashion nowadays, since everything is interconnected and materialism is at its height. The paradox for polytheists is that we must endure a period of individualism before we can re-establish groups and communities, in order to restore tradition. This article describes exactly what we must bear in mind if polytheism is to succeed or indeed survive in future times. There are also underlying questions and points that can be raised for further reflection, among which are: 1) To what degree is polytheism compatible or incompatible with the modern world? How can the differences be resolved? 2) How should/must polytheists *live* in order to serve the Gods and traditions towards continuity? 3) What historical traditions (or models) are best suited for the present time? To what degree should polytheism be based in the past? 4) What is the path to a good, strong and lasting community? Can private devotion be partly transformed into public effort towards rallying polytheists? If so, how?

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  4. In a weird way, you’re on the same page as Orthodox Christian columnist Rod Dreher.

    Once again, this proves my observation that two people who take religion seriously, even from different creeds, are more similar than nonreligious people. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  1. Pingback: Idolatry of the Self — Gangleri’s Grove | Dances with Tricksters

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