Category Archives: academic work
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.
For those of you near NYC, the Cloisters Museum is currently having a lovely exhibit of books and jewelry from the 14th Century Jewish community in Colmar, France. It’s all on loan from the Musée de Cluny, Paris and while a small exhibit, definitely worth seeing. I went to a preview a couple of weeks ago (I received a Fellowship in Jewish studies this semester and it was one of the events recommended for us) and I’ll be going at least one more time this semester. (For those of you who, like me, are mobility challenged, please note that the Cloisters is really rough. While there IS an internal elevator, it’s accessible only with the aid of the staff and there are four flights of stone stairs to get to the ticket desk. Good luck).
I was particularly taken by the intimate nature of so many of the pieces. Most of it is women’s jewelry and if i recall correctly what the curator told us during our tour, the ring size at least points to it all belonging to the same woman, or at least the same family. Material culture is so incredibly fascinating. I took quite a few photos while I was there. The piece that impressed me the most was a wedding ring. It was used only for the actual ceremony in medieval Judaism. The every day ring would have been of solid silver or gold (I was told it was to protect the woman from being taken in by unscrupulous fiances: solid metal is easy to measure so you know precisely what you have). Look at the incredible filigree work:
Then there was this piece, a brooch about the size of a silver dollar. It really highlighted how there was so much cross-cultural contamination (in good ways) between the Jewish community in Colmar and the surrounding Christian majority. The styles in clothing, jewels, and so much more reflected that cross-pollination.
And finally there was this MSS that shows three skeletons. Y’all know how I like ossuaries and bone chapels so this immediately appealed to me. They look like they’re having a good time. LOL.
That’s just a taste of the exhibit — there were too many people there for me to take a lot of photos but if you’re interested, check out the website above. That is all.
Today is the bookversary of my more academic bent book, Transgressing Faith, which was originally submitted as my Master’s thesis in Religious Studies from NYU. 🤓
An eye-opening and balanced presentation of the history of the Heathen revival in America and its attendant conflicts over where to draw the boundaries concerning belief, practice and identity.
Though this restoration has only been going on for a few generations there is tremendous tension within the community concerning areas such as gender, race, normative social presentation, sexuality and questions of religious authority.
All of these are explored with a special emphasis placed on how the community treats those who don’t quite fit in or are called to intentionally transgressive roles.
Who has read it? What were your thoughts on it? Your questions?
I recently had a letter printed in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I was responding to a piece debating whether meritocracy has any … merit. You can read the letter here, which also gives a link to the original piece.
The autumn term started for me last week and already its pace is frenetic. I love my studies but adapting to my new schedule is a bit like being punched in the face. As I see incoming freshmen and new grad students, taste their excitement and also their nervousness I wanted to reach out to those of you, my readers, who may also be heading back into academia’s hallowed halls (or to vocational school, apprenticeships, etc.).
Where ever you’re going, know that you belong. Imposter syndrome is something we all often wrestle with, no matter what our academic or technical qualifications. I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I learned about six weeks into my first MA: no one in your year group knows any more than you do. Lol They’re ALL feeling just as insecure and challenged. They may be hiding it better, but you are in no way alone in any uncertainties you might be feeling. Persevere. You CAN do this. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to other grad students, your advisor, and campus counseling. That’s what they’re there for and with your peers especially, we’ve all been there. We may be crazy-busy, but most grad students I know are more than happy to lend an ear to newcomers. Don’t be afraid to rely on the resources available to you. Also, make sure you have a good support network. School can be really stressful (when the term started, I looked at my husband and said ‘nice knowing you. See you in December. LOL, which is funny and yes, I was joking, but the number of hours and stress we put in can really strain relationships). Don’t neglect your most important relationships. You may not have a lot of down time, but cherish that which you do.
If you have learning disabilities, (I do, I have dyscalculia) anxiety disorder, chronic pain, physical impairments of any sort please, please register with your office of disability services. It’s usually pretty easy to do and it will allow your professors to provide accommodations that you may need as the semester progresses. Don’t be embarrassed to do this and don’t put it off. This office is there to ensure that you have the most productive semester you can possibly have, and more importantly, to ensure that the university complies with all legal requirements related to disability. This benefits you – take advantage of it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and for those of you in grad school, I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me from day one: this is your career. It’s never too early to start treating it in that light. There’s a wonderful book that I highly recommend (read it sooner than later – I really, really wish I’d found it when I started back to school) called “The Professor is In.” it gives invaluable advice on navigating the often-confusing terrain of academic life from graduate school to professorship. The author (bless her!) also has a very active blog and it is really a god-send. You can check that out here. She gives advice on everything from how to dress for success, to writing a book review, a CV, to your first job interview and more. I recommend this site to everyone, not just academics. It’s been life-changing for me.
Here’s some advice that you probably won’t take, that I should take more of, and that I’m going to say anyway: GET REGULAR SLEEP and don’t stint on meals. For me, this is crucial as lack of regular sleep can tip me over into migraine territory at the drop of a hat. But this is something that is important not just for those of us with chronic pain. You’ll do better in your studies if you sleep. For years, I lived on about four hours of sleep a night. It was my husband who pointed out that this contributed to my migraines. It killed me to admit it, but he was right. It also stunned me at how much more I could remember from studying when I got 6-9 hours of sleep a night (chronic pain makes sleep problematic, but for those of you in the same boat as I am, do your best). Do not stay up all hours cramming. Do not wait to the day before a test and pull an all-nighter. Nothing is more important than getting regular sleep. Nothing. Nutrition and exercise are important too – again, do your best as the semester progresses – but sleep is the most important gift you can give yourself. Naps are your friend.
Finally, work as hard as you can but if you’ve given your best and still get a less than perfect grade, that’s OK. A bad grade will not kill you. It will not ruin your future. I got into my top choice PhD program with two poor grades on my transcript (in both cases, I knew the class would be really challenging and had taken it for the challenge, because I knew that while I wouldn’t do well, I would learn and get better in that subject, and I did. I can honestly say in both, I gave my best effort). Don’t slack off, but don’t think you have to be always and ever absolutely perfect.
Academia is a weird little world, just like any other vocational setting. Each department has its own unique culture. You’ll find your way. Just remember: you belong, just as much as anyone else there. Don’t ever forget that.
Good luck with your studies, my readers and for those of you not in academia or going back to school in some way, but who have people you care about who are, well, maybe taken them food once in a while (Seriously. There is nothing better than coming home from class utterly exhausted and not having to cook) and understand that they’re not avoiding you. They’re just exhausted and probably overwhelmed with work. Seriously, feed them once in a while! ^_^ They will thank you for it and just knowing that you are there and understand and support them can make all the difference in the world.
I just returned home today and it’s done. I successfully defended my thesis “Less is More: Eunuchs, Self-Castration, Spiritual Eunuchism, and Mystical Castration from Tertullian to Cassian,” one hundred and ten pages of philological exegesis about the cultural poetics of the eunuch in early Christian culture and theology. As of about 12:30 today I have a Masters Degree in Medieval Studies. This is my second Masters, my first is in Religious Studies. Now it’s onward and upward to PhD work in the fall. Thanks to an awesome department, advisor, and reader for amazing support. Now I’m going to get a glass of wine. ^_^
I have a book review of J. Calico’s “Being Viking” in the latest edition of Pomegranate. Folks can read it here.
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).