Two Good Practical Questions
In response to my last post, Xenophon asked two very good and practical questions, and I’m going to take a stab answering them here.
QUESTION: “How do you go about worshiping Gods that are antagonistic to each other without getting on the other’s bad side?” IE: Loki and Skadi, or Loki and Heimdall, Thor and Jormundgand or Odin and Fenris (still trying to wrap my brain around the notion of veneration for him or Surt ), Or even the Aesir and Jotnar. Oh…and one I just thought of….what would be the most basic way of worshiping the Gods as a stepping stone?” — Xenophon
I think you actually have a third question squeezed sneakily in there with your comment about Fenris and Surt. I’ll give you my thoughts on that one too in a moment. I think how one treats the Jotnar, whether or not one venerates Them, and which Jotnar one venerates (most mainstream Heathen denominations would say there is a difference between honoring Gerda or Skadhi versus Surt and Fenris, for instance) is really one of the key denominational divisions. This question right here, almost more than any other (what I sometimes call, in a rather tongue in cheek manner, the “Got Loki?” question) is a key identifier within Heathenry and the various Northern tradition denominations. See, I’m digressing already. Let me hit your first question first, before I wander too far out into the weeds.
Re. worshipping Gods that are cosmologically antagonistic to each other, specifically Loki and Skadhi, Loki and Heimdallr, Thor and Jormundgand, and Odin and Fenris (good exampla all) there are a couple of things I keep in mind.
Firstly, how do we interpret the lore? Most scholars, I think would agree that there has been a certain Christianization of the lore. This isn’t unexpected given that so much of what was written down was recorded by a Christian politician and poet and various of his peers at least two centuries after conversion. Such muddying of the waters is inevitable, and we can learn a lot from it, from what was shaded in that way, and what wasn’t. As I learned in divination: what isn’t present is every bit as important as what is. Also, we should always keep in mind that we have but a fragment of the sacred stories our Heathen ancestors enjoyed. There is so much more to our cosmology than what we have enshrined in written record, even if one takes into account folklore.
When reading a sacred text, there are numerous ways that one can approach the text: literally, allegorically, anagogically, tropologically. I would add onto that mystically. What does all that mean? Well, while we don’t have something holding the authority of “scripture” in the way that the bible might be positioned for Jews and Christians, we have texts that are maps to the holy. Not holy in themselves, they provide keys, windows, and doorways to Mystery. Mysteries seem to be wellsprings of unending depth and we can return to a story again and again finding new meaning, new ways to construct our world, new insights into our Gods, our cosmology, and our devotion. That’s why these stories are so powerful. That’s why any religious text is so powerful: it teaches us how to navigate our world.
One can read a text literally, taking everything as a literal, even historical account (I don’t recommend this. It flattens out the texts, the religion, and the mysteries therein and often leads to very black and white morality). In an allegorical interpretation, we look for hidden meanings, for mystery. Likewise with a mystical interpretation, we filter our understanding of a particular story through the lens of the God we are venerating. Anagogical interpretations tend to utilize a text to refer to or interpret future events (often there is a sense of foreboding, foreseeing, prophesy, or eschatology here). A tropological reading looks for the lesson, the moral of the text and seeks to apply that to our current behavior. I tend to be hesitant about indulging in this type of reading too much with polytheistic texts because religion – however much devotion may have shaped our ancestors’ morality—was not the proper locus of morality and virtue development for ancient polytheists, not generally. Rather, they would have looked to philosophy, to their culture, their family, civic awareness, and their laws and customs for this. At least, they didn’t enshrine a moral code into their cosmological stories in the way that the Bible seeks to do (and really, either one is ok but it’s important to realize the work that these texts are doing within the religious communities that use them. We have a lot of converts still who may instinctively want the lore to do the work that the bible does, but, at least where morality is concerned, it just doesn’t and was never meant to do so).
On top of that we have the three worlds of any text (1): there’s the world behind the text. This would be the social, cultural, and historical context in which the text was written. There’s the world in front of the text. That’s our world and all the things we bring to it from our own experience and understanding today as we sit down to read. Then there’s the world *in* the text. This is where one can find the little doorways to the Gods and to Mystery. It’s the world the text creates, the story that unfolds therein. On top of that, I layer a healthy dose of philology. I want to see the original text, not a translation (or the original text and a couple of translations in most cases) and I will meditate upon individual words sometimes for a very long time.
All of this has to be taken into account when one takes up a section of the lore. On top of that, the whole process should, in my opinion, be framed with prayer, offerings, and devotion. What can the Gods tell us, where will They lead us, what inspiration or insight might we be given? It all gets woven together into the filter through which we can do what I’d call a polytheistic lectio divina.
When I read a story where two Gods are antagonistic to each other, the first thing I do is ask how this ties into the creation story. Creation stories are key to any tradition. They set up the scaffolding upon which the tradition will be built. So much of what happens in the creation narrative is reified again and again throughout other parts of the cosmology, other stories, etc. So, when I see antagonism, I immediately think of the grinding together of the world of fire and the world of ice, a process from which all being and materiality evolved. It reifies and makes new again that moment of creation. It is a point of vitality and re-enactment of something very, very sacred, *the* mystery that all the Gods protect. What is the work this story is doing when placed against our creation narrative? That’s the first question I’ll ask. (Well, ok. I’m a spirit worker. I’m going to ask the Gods for insight and then let my mind open to Their inspiration but that’s not helpful if one hasn’t been taught to do that! It’s cleaner, and leads to better discernment for the majority of people, I think, to learn this process of reading and engaging with a text first, so long as one understands that at its core, are the Holy Powers and all the Mysteries They carry, and the text is but a vehicle for engagement, not engagement itself).
I also keep in mind my place in the cosmological hierarchy. In the grand scheme of things, any politicking between Gods is well above my pay grade. My job is to be respectful, make offerings, pray, and otherwise engage in cultus. This is where one’s religious protocols come in, and lacking that, the guidance of teachers and elders. Protocol is a good thing. It is all the courtesies and etiquette by which we can safely and respectfully engage with the Gods. Each God has His or Her own protocol – all the things that make up the cultus of that Deity. We can sus this out through a close reading of the lore, or the God in question may inspire us directly. Regardless, protocol is important and often that will be a great help in how to manage the practicalities of cultus to opposing Deities.
On a purely practical level – and I probably could have started here – keep Their shrines separate. Do not honor Them closely in the same ritual (as in don’t do a rite dedicated to Both. Individuals may offer prayers to Whomever they choose when the horn is being passed, if it is that style of rite). Respect the antagonism as something sacred, as pointing to something crucially important and vital embedded in the very structure of our cosmology. Such antagonisms often point to powerful Mysteries and in such, each God is holding space for that Mystery to unfold. It’s not actually antagonism I would warrant, but something much, much more primal and primally important. It’s also a tension that as a devotee you most likely won’t resolve (or won’t resolve for a very, very long time) in your devotion. It’s up to you whether that becomes a fruitful tension or not (and I’m not being bitchy here. It really, really is and sometimes those points of unresolved tension can lead to the most fruitful of places). But understand that the perceived antagonism is key to maintaining the structure of creation. It does something, performs an important task within our cosmology and in the end, I have often suspected that when we move away from the more personal manifestations of our Gods to Their more cosmic and overarching emanations (2) – I don’t like that word emanation so consider it a placeholder until I find something more appropriate—we may find that it’s not antagonism so much as partnership and performance of a cosmic reality.
So, that being said. Go with it. Honor Them separately. Be respectful to both. Meditate upon Their stories; and pray with the fervor of a Christina mirabilis (3) doing medieval parkour.
I’m going to stop there, because I’ve pretty much just given you a primer on how to read theologically and it’s a lot, and I just want to let it sit for a bit before continuing. Over the weekend, I’ll discuss your other two questions too. Right now, I’m off to prep for Sunwait.
- This way of reading is something I learned from Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse: Reading Beyond Thecla by Caroline Stichele and Todd Penner.
- One of my colleagues Raven Kaldera offered a model for the way Gods show themselves to us. If I remember correctly, he used the model of a stalactite, positing that the Gods narrow Themselves down becoming more anthropomorphically “human” to allow for intimate and mystical contact with us. But then, at the other end of that spectrum, they are immense, far, far too enormous for any human intellect to comprehend. I’m not sure how fully I agree or disagree with this, but I do find it tremendously useful for conceptualizing the sheer complexity of our Gods. I think he wrote about it in this book, but I’m not 100% sure.
- See the wiki article on Christina Mirabilis here. She is awesome. Nick Cave wrote a song about her too, which you can listen to here.
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