Monthly Archives: October 2019
Lately I’ve seen some egregiously bad advice percolating around tumblr (no surprise). The most recent is the idea, articulated as though it was historical fact, that to refer to the Gods as ‘my God’ or ‘my Goddess’ is hubris.(1) I’m not sure where this nonsense is coming from but it’s just that: utter, misguided bullshit.(2)
Each devotional relationship with a Deity is unique. To indicate ownership of that relationship by using the possessive acknowledges that reality. It articulates responsibility for one’s role in that relationship. It acknowledges that someone else may have a very different relationship with the same Deity, that the Gods are independent Beings, capable of relating to Their devotees as individuals, unrestricted by the narrow confines of anything written about Them.
To say “my God …” also articulates an essential difference between one’s own tradition and that of whatever interlocutor with whom one might be speaking. It expresses uniqueness, as each Deity is unique and each devotional relationship is unique, while at the same time giving voice to the tremendous power of such relationships. It is indeed possible to engage with the Gods in significant ways. One’s own engagement does not impinge upon someone else also having an equally significant devotional reality. Language is often problematic when it comes to discussing spiritual reality, the Gods, or indeed anything Holy but I do not believe that this is a situation that falls under that particular rubric.
If we rule out such intimate language than we are tacitly agreeing with the idea, promulgated so frequently in academic circles, that polytheists in the ancient world had no personal devotional relationships with their Gods. This is, of course, also nonsense. Use of the possessive acknowledges the unique nature of each devotional relationship and the rich complexity such relationships bring to one’s devotional and religious life. The only hubris lies in not acknowledging that.
- Not only is it anything but hubris, in many indigenous religions, particularly certain ATR, it is common parlance to refer to “my [insert Deity name here]” precisely as a matter of respect, and a reference to certain initiatory realities. If using such language is “hubris” in one tradition, then the implication is that it is “hubris” in every tradition, which I’m sure was not the intent of the original tumblr post. Still, language is a precise instrument, a tool to foster clarity of expression and sentiments like this matter. Now the main focus of the tumblr in question is a rather narrow type of progressive politics, and I cannot help but wonder if the idea of articulating distinctions in one’s devotional and religious worlds bothers the poster because it is creating a border, distinguishing clearly between your tradition and mine, your Gods and mine, your praxis and mine. I don’t think such distinctions are bad things. I think, for the integrity of traditions, they’re necessary. It also brings clarity to any conversation about these topics; after all, one is not by such possessive usage speaking for the Gods, which would indeed be ethically problematic.
- So is the same poster’s advice on miasma. Katharmos (cleansing) is NOT just for murder/killing. There are many, many reasons that some type of cleansing might be required. I would suggest R. Parker’s classic text “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” or “Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion” by A. Petrovic and I. Petrovic. My Gods, I wish people would read and critically consider what they read. Also, maybe go beyond Homer, ffs.
An amazing song with which to start the morning.
I heard the Gods
I heard the Gods were angry
For forgetting where I’m from
Tried to find my way back
Tried to find my way back
But the trail of crumbs have gone
But the trail of crumbs have gone
And may all people find their way home.
I’m not a devotee of Hades but I felt I had to write this prayer to Him after one of my classes today. We were discussing salvation and the afterlife and the teacher insisted that the less educated classes in the ancient world didn’t believe in anything but darkness and death, that they had no reverence for Hades and the ancestors. He acknowledged that more educated folks had a soteriology and sense of immortality of the soul but not the regular folk. Obviously, I disagree and while, just like today, there were people who believed in nothing after death, your average person was more pious than the average person today simply by virtue of living in a society in which acknowledgement of the Gods was the norm. It hurt to see Hades and His realm misrepresented and this is what I can do by way of remit.
I must pray to Hades,
Beloved of Persephone
Master of the land of the dead,
Master of the haven where souls go
for healing and restoration.
You are just and merciful, oh Lord.
It is not out of cruelty
that You ignore the pleas of the living
when they pray for their dead
to be returned to them.
Far from it. Rather You know
the balance of things, that death
is necessary, and that the dead need the gift
of Your healing sanctuary.
All things change and are renewed
and the worlds are ever sustained.
Your mysteries are writ into our flesh.
You call to us from the moment we are born
and You are patient.
You can bear the weight of our grief.
As Herakles died, so must we
and this tells us it is not a horror
but sweet release and reward.
Pluto, there is a wealth of treasure
in the land of the dead,
in their songs and their stories,
and these too, You secure, for eternity.
Hail to You, Lord of the Dead,
Silent Protector of our ancestors.
Hail to You, Hades.
(image of Hades and Persephone by Jodie Muir Art).
“Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
He is beautiful. All Gods when They come to stand before the eyes of the soul are beautiful. Hermes granted me that and it saved me. He came in a dream and I could not breathe. He came in a dream and it was just for a moment that I saw Him and it nourished me though a week that would otherwise have brought me to my knees. Such encounters, no matter how fleeting, change the shape of the soul. They bring our hearts into alignment with the holy just a little bit more. They not only sustain but they transform. I don’t know what I carry now as a result of that encounter but I am so grateful.
It is the work of our souls to fall in love with our Gods, to seek Them out fervently, fiercely, unceasingly. To love a God is a fire that turns our worlds inside out. It brings us back to the moment of creation, the moment the Gods breathed or burned, willed or wove the cosmos into being, the moment divine architecture was created. To love a God means we are woven into being again and again always renewing and renewed. Our souls become intimately bound up in the constant reiteration of divine order. We take part in a song that binds everything in our world to our Gods. We take part in nourishing the Tree that nourishes us in return.
(“Hermes” by Pierre et Gilles)
(caveat: really bad pain day, yesterday and today. I’m right at the cusp of a migraine and the arthritis in my hands is flaring so badly I can hardly think. This might be a tad bitchier than usual. You have been warned).
For many years, I worked in the interfaith community, thinking that a polytheistic presence in such a space would be useful and productive (it wasn’t). Eventually I gave up on it realizing that there isn’t really any true desire for religious parity and the whole project is just various monotheists, nominally (but not really) committed to [the most modern iterations of] their traditions wanting to stroke each other’s egos about how tolerant they are. Maybe they are, until a polytheist enters the picture and isn’t willing to put piety second nor to pretend that the monotheistic way of doing things is some holy norm, and especially one who isn’t willing to say that all Gods are facets of their precious one. It grew very tiresome very quickly.
Every so often, one will pop up in a discussion on facebook and today that happened and really, I’m just fucking done. I’m tired of having people for whom their entire religious experience is about how good and precious they look to other people coming into polytheistic spaces and shitting on our traditions. You have never stepped away from yourself long enough to be snatched up by the terrible, terrifying hand of the Holy? That’s not my fucking problem. I’m tired of having their way of viewing the world, a way that erases the Gods and spirits, sanctity, and magic from daily living thrust into my face along with their condescension and spiritual pollution.
This is not all monotheists. I have very good and devout friends who are monotheists. This is a particular breed who have chosen to identify as “interfaith” practitioners or ministers or what have you and who are very proud of how “enlightened” and “tolerant” they are. It’s pathetic. Yes, I’m going off on a bit of a tear here but really, what do they ever hope to get out of conversations with us when inevitably they approach us in ways that spit on the foundations of true spirituality: the Gods, the land, the ancestors. I’m happy to talk about religion with people. Hell, in a way it’s my job and I enjoy discussing how we might differ in our approaches and what other traditions do and as I said in earlier posts, I’ve had very nourishing conversations with fellow theology students who were staunch monotheists and very committed to their traditions.
Perhaps that’s the key: being committed to one’s Gods and traditions. I don’t think those who define their spiritual practices solely by the rubric of “interfaith” are. Perhaps that is unfair. It is, however, an opinion based on quite a lot of experience. I suppose there are ways to do interfaith work well (in fact I’ve articulated them in previous pieces on interfaith work) but so often that just doesn’t happen. So often instead, those of us committed to our polytheistic traditions get treated to smugness and condescension. (I suspect monotheists rooted in their traditions, really rooted, who are not obsessed with modernism and getting external validation from other people about how accepting and “tolerant” they are would get treated exactly the same as we do).
I’m really not sure what we have to say to each other. I can sit down with a devout monotheist and find common ground, or at least have an interesting and productive discussion. I can’t do that with someone who mistakes modernity for integrity and pseudo-tolerance for piety and who only talks about “god” when it doesn’t inconvenience them or who thinks about God solely in the abstract as love or peace or what have you, ways that elide Presence and therefore the obligations such Presence might bring. I am always curious though about why these people feel the need to come into our spaces and post or argue or whatever it is they think they’re doing. They know the space in question is that of a polytheist. I’m sure they can find other interfaith people or modernists or even atheists (though frankly, I think your average atheist has far more integrity than your average interfaith practitioner) who completely agree with their way of viewing the world. I’ll bet they’re far, far more respectful of such people than they ever are to devout polytheists.
I’ll wrap up before I go off the rails. This all just pisses me off, some days more than others. Honor your Gods. Honor your ancestors. Honor the land. Try not to be an asshole. That is all.
I just returned from a conference at Villanova this past weekend. The Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) conference is one of the leading theology conferences held every year just outside of Philadelphia. It’s really my favorite conference, the one I really, really try to do every year. It’s a lovely group of people and I always learn so much when I attend. This year the panels were so good (they pretty much always are) and I feel I have new things to gnaw upon, so much productive feedback to integrate into my work, and so many new books to track down and read. I can’t wait for next year (and for me to say that about any conference is miraculous. I might enjoy them but they generally wear me out. This one, well, I was sorry when it ended).
This year I chaired a panel and presented a paper. Usually I work in Patristics. My ongoing area of interest is developing a cultural poetics of the eunuch, looking at early Christian sources and the way ideas of the self and the holy were mediated through the figure of the eunuch. Because this conference covers more than just late antiquity, however, I was able to present a side project, one that is rapidly becoming a major secondary area of interest for me. I first gave an iteration of this paper, titled “Ravens in the Mead-hall: Rewriting Faith in the Wake of Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars” at last year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Conference and in between then and now, I’ve tweaked it considerably. This paper discusses Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons and their consequent forced conversion through the lens of post-colonial theory. It utilizes the Heliand, the 9thcentury Saxon translation of the Gospels as a lens through which to explore the re-positioning of the Saxons as a subaltern people, and the ways in which their indigenous religious traditions remained vividly relevant within the framework of Christianity. It gets a little darker than this implies, discussing things like forced child oblation, genocide, and the erasure of indigenous religious cultures too (and these darker threads are things I intend to continue exploring with this line of research). It was remarkably well received.
This is partly my way of holding space as a polytheist for our ancestors. Yes, it is useful to go to professional conferences. It’s a chance to explore these side topics, to get valuable feedback, in an atmosphere that – at least in this case – is fairly relaxed and congenial. Yes, I really want to look more closely at the ways post-colonial theory can be applied to Charlemagne’s atrocities. The more I learn about forced child oblation, forced exile, forced conversion and all the various ways the Franks impeded on and erased Saxon religious culture, the more I’m convinced that it’s here specifically that structures were first put in place that came to be used throughout the conquest of the New World, six hundred years later. Before all of that, however, I am holding space for the dead.
This is important. This is part of our history as contemporary polytheists. This is the story of our traditions, what happened to them, and why we are in the position we’re in today of having to reclaim, rebuild, and restore. If we do not understand what happened and where we came from, then we will never truly appreciate the importance of that restoration, of holding staunchly to our traditions, of cultivating piety and respect and reverence for our dead.
Why do I do this? Let me give one small example: during the Q&A, one of the attendees, a senior scholar who herself later presented a fascinating paper on a piece of Arthurian lit., said to me very earnestly, “I think it’s important to remember that the Franks had good intentions.” When I picked my jaw up off the floor I responded, “I’m sure that makes all the difference to the five thousand plus Saxons butchered at Verden.”
I’m sure that makes all the difference in the world to the men, women, and children who fought to maintain religious and cultural independence and instead ended up exiled, impoverished, with their children forcibly interred in monastic “schools” where they were Christianized and denied a Saxon identity religious or otherwise. Are you fucking kidding me? That is like saying Hitler had good intentions too. Who the fuck says that? Yet here we are in 2019 and I’ve an intelligent, educated scholar in all earnestness urging me to remember: the Christians had good intentions. That’s why I do this, because that attitude is everywhere in academia. It isn’t genocide if it occurred before the 19thcentury and was blessed by the cross.
Of course, not everyone thinks that way and most of the scholars that I work directly with would be equally appalled by such a thoughtless comment, a comment that erases the religious and cultural genocide of a people. Still, there are enough who do not question the narrative of the goodness of conversion, of Christian expansion, who do not realize that such expansion came with a heavy price, writ in blood, who do not realize it was forcibly done against the will of numerous peoples, or who do not care, that it is important to hold the line openly and at times vociferously. The evidence is there for those scholars who care to look. It is my obligation to do so. The intentions of those who destroyed our traditions really don’t matter. The results speak for themselves.
For those interested in reading my article in full, it will be coming out in the next issue of Walking the Worlds.
There are times it’s really funny being an academic. I have noticed over the years that there is the assumption (from other academics) that we are all “secular moderns.” This is not the case, not at all, in theology but it generally is in history and I’ve encountered exactly that terminology (“secular modern”) again and again.
For instance, I was sitting in a history class a few weeks ago right next to our professor. He’s great and the class is a lot of fun but he made a comment that began innocently, “as secular moderns…” and I just growled under my breath to which this gentleman (and I use that term in the most positive sense: he was a very gracious gentleman) immediately reevaluated “well, most of us. I am at least …” and went on with his comment. I appreciated the reconsideration immensely because it’s not the first time, nor the second, nor the tenth that I’ve encountered that assumption and I think it makes a difference not just to how we approach material but also to how we comprehend the motivations and practices of religious people that we’re studying. Not to mention erasure of experience is never good and never serves academic inquiry however innocently that erasure may occur.
We should of course interrogate our automatic biases, question our approaches, and evaluate our integrity consistently and honestly but we should be working with our whole selves not cutting off the most important part of who we are as human beings just to get a job done. No, I am not a secular modern and in one of the beautiful ironies of being a polytheist haunting the halls of academe, I think most of my colleagues in theology, most of whom belong to staunchly monotheistic faiths, would say exactly the same (I know some of them would at least, because several of us have had precisely this conversation).
It is irritating the assumption that we are divorced from religious practice simply because we are educated. The academic world is space that for thousands of years was not only defined by religion but was in fact, created by it. Polytheists: philosophers, scientists, educators, and thinkers developed not only schools and methods of pedagogy, but the intellectual agora of their time and Christians and later Muslims adopted and continued this process (perhaps, I will grant, with a little less in the way of free thinking and exploration at certain points in history). Jewish communities had always had, as far as I know, strong cultures of learning. There would have been no scientific revolution without deeply devout thinkers and library shelves of great literature would be empty. Far from culling one’s intellectual acumen, being deeply rooted in one’s religious tradition, in devotion to one’s Gods, is a logical outgrowth of a proper education and it is precisely one’s devotion that inspires and challenges one every moment of every day to use those gifts, most especially the intellect, that those Gods have given. The main difference between secularists and the rest of us is that our work is rooted in humility, the knowledge that just because we have the capacity to do something doesn’t mean we perhaps ethically and morally should, and an immense gratitude. It is rooted in awe and respect. It is rooted in a sense that there is a purpose to the underlying scaffolding of creation, and most importantly of all that we are connected to something far greater than we shall ever be and perhaps even answerable to those Powers.
I work at a university whose motto is ad maiorem dei gloriam– for the greater glory of God. (I will admit whenever I see it, in my mind I usually change the dei to deorum lol unless I’m thinking of one specific God like Odin or Mani at the moment I walk inside). When I walk into our theology building, that motto is inscribed on a huge carpet right inside the entrance and this is good. There is comfort in that reminder of what our ultimate purpose is, of what it is –our Holy Powers—who undergird everything that we do within those walls (and without for that matter). I like the reminder. It centers me. It restores my focus. It allows me a split second to reorient myself and to remember that there is not a single place I shall ever go where my Gods are not. Every single thing that I do should in some way glorify Them, every thought, every moment every action. This is what it means to live a connected, engaged, spiritually rich and fulfilling life. We bring our Gods with us and They open up the mysteries of the world for our exploration. The whole of learning is a conversation with our most beloved Holy Powers. The whole of learning is a long, extended moment of devotion.
I’m not secular for one very important reason: because that implies that there is a space somewhere where the Gods are not. I do not believe such a thing is possible. I’m not modern because that would accept this idea of deity-privative space as good. I do not think it is. For those sputtering about how we have such amazing technology as moderns, yes, we do and so did our polytheistic ancestors. The Greeks had steam engines for Gods’ sake, and the Romans flushing toilets, to give but two exempla. Technology is not something that just existed in the unhallowed halls of modernity nor is the problem with “modernity” or “post-modernity” or whatever you want to call it (they’re all slippery and inaccurate concepts) technology and science. Rather, the problem is the way we frame ourselves in relation to the world. The corollary to secular-modern then, is a reorientation of our purpose as thinkers. Instead of building up the world so that it reflects the Gods Who made it, we deconstruct. Instead of approaching our insights and work with humility, we have hubris (especially in the area of science). We no longer see the inherent connection not just between us and a world that is wondrous and full of Gods, but between each other too.
The argument of course is that religion has no place in the public sphere and I disagree. I think intolerance for or violence over another’s religion has no place in the public sphere but that is a different thing all together. I welcome the richness and multiplicity of perspective that happens when I’m sitting in a classroom with two orthodox deacons, a pacel of Jesuit seminarians, a Coptic monk, an atheist, a Unitarian minister, some random Catholics, and me with the class being taught by a devout Anglican (to give but one example of one particular class breakdown). If we are honest about where we’re coming from and the forces that have shaped our perspective and perceptions, fruitful and fulfilling dialogue can occur. It is in fact possible to be honest and openly devout without shitting on someone else’s religion. Instead, we find common ground in the acknowledgement of our devotion. Then we get down to the intellectual work at hand.
I need to wrap this up, though there is in fact more I would say on the matter. I’m currently attending a conference at an Augustinian university where I am sure I’m the only polytheist presenting. The conference focuses on theological currents in patristics, the medieval period, and the Renaissance and yesterday I gave a paper on Charlemagne’s butchery of the Saxons where I discussed forced oblation of Saxon children by the Franks. It was well received and the questions gave me insight into the next part of this project. In about twenty minutes I’ll be attending a panel on Apocalyptic narratives in the Roman and Byzantine worlds. In each case I come away enriched and in each case I come away with a thousand questions that further my own work; and yes, for those of you who are wondering, I’m completely open here as a Heathen.
As I’ve mentioned before in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve just started PhD work in theology. I attend a Jesuit university (it was my first choice and I really love the program) and to my knowledge, I’m the first polytheist to be admitted to their theology program. I work with lovely people, most of whom are either clergy or in some way very active in their own religious communities, and my classes are really thought-provoking and actually quite relevant to the work I do within my own tradition. One of the things I intend to do as I move through the program is share my experiences and thoughts, those relevant to my position as a polytheist in a traditionally monotheistic discipline, here on my blog. So, this is really the first of what I suspect will become an ongoing if occasional thing.
I’ve been in coursework now since the end of August and I’ve begun to notice a few things about myself.
Having taken theology classes in the department even while doing my MA, I knew that it was surprising to some people to meet a polytheist who was also a theologian. I also knew that for every person who took it in stride, I’d meet those who dismissed my religion or were condescending or mocking (the latter two are definitely in the minority at my school). I was ready for that and for the most part, I get asked really good questions and then we have equally good theological discussions. It’s great. I really like the people with whom I work. What I wasn’t prepared for and what isn’t so great – and I want to make it clear that this does NOT in any way come from anyone in the department nor the department itself, it’s completely my own psyche—is that I’m starting to feel a certain insecurity and defensiveness about my legitimacy being a Heathen priest, compared to and when surrounded by Orthodox and Catholic priests and other devout but monotheistic clergy. I have also been feeling not only on edge (some of which may just be normal as a first-year PhD student), but somewhat ashamed, as though I’ve in some way failed my Gods –though there was no reason to feel so: I’ve never once hidden or denied my faith. It was really weird and it took me awhile to realize what was happening.
I started getting a push from Odin to be more visible as a polytheist. I thought, I don’t hide it at all, how much more visible should I be? Am I being given a new clothing taboo or something (I have certain religious taboos by virtue of my work as a vitki or shaman, mostly around the colors that I’m permitted to wear)? That didn’t feel right and I took it to divination last weekend. That’s when all of this got sorted and I realized how I was allowing myself to be affected. I was pushed, not just by Odin but by other Gods too (including Athena, Whom I’d consulted for a client) to remember who I was and that as a priest, my position is every bit as licit as those other clergy members with whom I work. Moreover, our traditions have ancient roots. I was urged to remember that we are rebuilding now specifically because our traditions were decimated by the spread of Christianity (and later Islam). I was urged to fight off this mental miasma, which is precisely what I was told it was, and keep in the forefront of my mind that they have very little they didn’t steal from us. Their religions are built on the remnants of temples they destroyed, on the graves of our polytheistic ancestors, from fragments of our mysteries. I am there representing not just myself and my own tradition but our collective polytheisms. I’m the kick in the teeth, by presence alone, that says you did not succeed and your way is not the only way. I carry the rubble of every sacred space destroyed by the spread of monotheism in my soul. I walk with a thousand upon thousand ancestors who remember their sacred ways. I am there to remind you that you did not win, you will never win, and one day we will outnumber you all. On that day, things will change. Polytheists invented theology and I am the first of what will become a steady flood ready to take it back. We are here and it’s our time to have a seat at this table.
I am very fortunate however, that this is a department in which being devout is not an issue. That is not generally the case in academia in general. In theology, we are not generally your “secular moderns.” Pretty much every single person that I’ve encountered is in some way connected to a particular religious tradition and/or active in their devotion and praxis. It’s always interesting to see what I’ve always assumed to be true being played out: two or three of us who are very devout, even if we come from dramatically different religious traditions, have more in common overall than a devout polytheist would with someone who was atheist or agnostic (though there are always individual exceptions). That opens up the ground for conversation and I think we learn from each other and that is good.
I thought long and hard about writing this and even longer about posting it. What decided me was that I know of several polytheists either in theology or religious studies programs or contemplating the same (and that we so often get pushed into the latter field rather than theology proper is a conversation in and of itself). I know several polytheists in other graduate programs, including at my university, and have encountered a few undergrads as well. The mental pressure of opening up previously monotheistic spaces is real and on the off chance that I can help prepare others and spare them some of the cognitive disconnect I experienced the last month, then I felt it important that I post. I am in a very, very supportive department. I’m completely open and out as a polytheist. If I reached out to my advisor or any of the professors about this, they’d be the first to offer support and the same with my student cohort. That is not going to be the case in every grad student’s life. It’s important to be prepared for these things. Pressure often comes from unexpected places and I would never, ever have considered this to be one of them.
My solution to Odin’s request that I be more visible as a polytheist is to simply speak more openly about it. Yesterday, a fellow student asked me what I did this past weekend for instance, and I told him I’d done a good deal of ritual work, that we have a moon God (Mani), venerated extensively in our house and with the beautiful harvest moon it was the perfect time for rituals to Him. Last week when I was questioned about a brooch I was wearing, I said honestly, “It’s a shrine piece. I wanted to feel closer to our moon God today so I decided to wear it to keep me in devotional headspace.” I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation. Monotheistic students, as far as I know don’t have to think about this in a theology department. As a polytheist, I do. It’s no one’s fault but simply the status quo as it stands. I am grateful that my Gods trust me to do this and I am grateful that I recognized what was happening (it’s good to have a tradition that has the sacred art of divination!) before it had eaten too deeply into my confidence. For those of you in grad school, develop a good support network. You never know how the stress of the work you’re doing will affect you. Sic itur ad astra.