Category Archives: Literary Matters
I had a wonderful pod-cast interview go live today. One June 4th I was interviewed by Weiser Books Radio Hour about my current and forthcoming work. It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I”ve had the pleasure of doing too. The host, Mike Conlon really did his homework.
I haven’t listened to the finished version, but we were chatting away for about an hour. Interested readers can listen to the whole thing here.
I’m really enjoying this format. These are slim, pocket sized volumes with a series of prayers that one can do daily. They’re not heavy works of theology, but small booklets for those wanting to engage in a prayer practice for specific Deities. I love how portable they are and how flexible the practice can be. I’m definitely going to be writing more of these.
While folks are waiting for “Honoring the Mothers,” which should be available soon, check out the other novena books currently available:
To Rejuvenate and Nourish: Nine Days of Prayer to Asklepios, God of Healing.
In Praise of Hermes: Nine Days of Devotion to the God of Travellers, Mischief, and More.
By Scalpel and Herb, Blood and Healing Hands: A Novena to the Healing Goddess Eir
Sacramentum: A Devotional to Dionysos (this one isn’t a novena book per se, but it’s the same size as the novena books and contains articles and prayers).
I ‘ve been focusing on the Greek Gods, but I intend to do several for the Norse too, so stay tuned.
I just finished writing “Honoring the Mothers: Novenas to the Mothers of Our Gods and Heroes.” I’m sending it to be formatted and edited tonight so it should be available in a couple of weeks. I can’t quite believe it’s finished.
This book includes novenas to Semele, Mother of Dionysos; Maia, Mother of Hermes; Leto, Mother of Artemis and Apollo; Thetis, Mother of Achilles; Metis, Mother of Athena; Leda, Mother of Helen and the Dioskouroi; Alcmene, Mother of Herakles; Danae, Mother of Perseus; Penelope, Mother of Pan; and Pasiphae, Mother of the Minotaur.
Once these are available, I’m going to have ten copies to sell here, signed, personalized, and with a prayer card of your choice. If you would like to reserve one, please contact me at krasskova at gmail.com. they’re going to be $10 plus $2 shipping and handling.
Novena books still in progress include Freya, Sigyn, and I’m seriously considering ones for Athena and Apollo.
So I’m working on a paper about St. Jerome and his anxieties over his love of Pagan literature and thinking about my final paper for my Asceticism and Monasticism class, which has been focusing on the desert fathers and as I’m outlining, I’m thinking about how to lay out clearly the complexity of the Pagan and Polytheistic world that preceded and overlapped early Christianity. Certainly until Christianity did its damndest to obliterate it, the Pagan world was synonymous with education, learning, and civilization. This created serious tension for early Christians (a tension with which I have zero sympathy I might add) as they attempted to define, develop, and refine a cohesive group identity.
I was talking to a couple of my theology colleagues at school last week and we were chatting about our paper topics and they were teasing me (I’m obviously the only polytheist in the class, and these two knew that so we were throwing good natured zingers back and forth) about being a polytheist who studies theology and I said something to the effect that we’re taking it back. That actually brought them up short and one said “but you never had it…Pagans didn’t have theology.” I’ve been pondering that (erroneous) statement ever since because it’s not an uncommon attitude in academia.
Firstly, by Pagan, we’re talking Polytheists and those who practiced their various ancestral religions and mystery cultus in the ancient world coincidentally with the growth of Christianity, so we’re talking, c. 3rd and 4th centuries. It is true that scholasticism and the academic discipline that we term ‘theology’ didn’t develop until the medieval period (with the rise of the university) but that does not mean that the Polytheistic world lacked theological inquiry.
I think a couple of things went on in the Pagan world. Firstly, many of the questions that today would fall under ‘theology’ were instead addressed by the various philosophical schools.(1) Beyond that, there were lived mystery cultus. There was an experiential component to the hammering out of theological inquiry that went hand in hand with philosophical exegesis. (2) To say that Pagans didn’t have theology is to imply that they asked no questions about the origins of their world, about the Gods, about the nature of the holy, and a thousand other questions that today would fall under that category and we simply know that this is not true. They did ask these questions and we have enough surviving material to prove it.(3)
To assume that Polytheists didn’t make these inquiries is to dismiss their religions as less than monotheism. It’s to say that they did not care about their traditions, or that there was something lacking in those traditions that precluded deep thought – all assumptions we know to be patently false. I don’ t think that my colleagues meant to imply these things at all, but the paradigm in which they’re working is based on precisely that implication.
One of the articles I’m reading in research for my paper kept putting ‘pagan’ and ‘pagans’ in quotes, and I almost had to trash the article this annoyed me so much. I had to sit and think about what the writer was saying about the extant religions that Christianity was so hellbent on replacing. Was he denying that they were legitimate religions? Was he questioning the uniformity of any one Paganism? Was he just objecting to a term applied to people by their enemies? I don’t know because he didn’t footnote his reasoning. What I do know is that whatever that reasoning might be, it diminishes the polytheistic identity that existed, however varied it may have been, prior to Christian obliteration and it misses the point that the final generations who led a protracted resistance to Christianization did adopt “pagan” as an identifier, whether it was imposed on them or not.(4) These things matter. Just like capitalizing the first letter of pronouns relating to our Gods matters. It sends a powerful psychological message and levels the playing field.
One of my professors was confused when I spoke about the diversity of the divine inherent in polytheism and I realized that he’d never considered what it meant to be polytheistic. It was a word, an idea, a placeholder until Christianity could happen for him, not a reality. These are the unspoken paradigms with which we’ve been taught to approach our world. No wonder this restoration is so hard. Our very ability to think has been crippled.
So now I’m going back to outlining my paper. Jerome goes on quite a bit ‘What has Cicero to do with the apostles? What has Vergil to do with Christ?” Nothing and I can think of no better reason to read them. Go read some Homer, Virgil, Cicero…it’s a good tonic to so much of the crap.
1. The influence of Hellenism and Neo-Platonism on early Christian theologians cannot be overestimated. Early Christian thinkers like Origen, particularly in the East, were deeply influenced by Hellenistic culture and philosophy to the point of integrating some of these ideas into their own writings.
2. Keep in mind that even that shining star of Christian theology and scholasticism, Thomas Aquinas, based much of his work on reworkings of Aristotle.
3. Plato’s Euthyphro for instance hammers at the idea of the holy, what is the holy and what makes something holy.
4. I shouldn’t be surprised since the article was trying to make the case that religious violence against temples and shrines wasn’t that bad.
I have two things of note to share and one upcoming project.
Firstly, the Eir novena booklet is done and has been passed on for formatting and design. It should be available in perhaps two weeks. I’ll keep you posted.
Secondly, the Hermes devotional that I have long been working on is also finished. It has, however, gone through a number of changes. Instead of a 31 day devotional, I have turned it also into a novena book (I’m really quite taken with this format). Because of that, I was not able to use the bulk of the prayers that people contributed. My apologies and please know you will each get a copy of the finished devotional. My decision had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the prayers contributed — all of which were wonderful– and everything to do with my decision to do a novena book instead of a book of hours. I want to thank everyone who contributed and with permission, I’ll hold onto those prayers for a future project, perhaps a collection of prayers for the Gods. (Of course, feel free to post and use elsewhere in the meantime).
Finally, I’m going to be working on a novena booklet to Freya. Stay tuned. That is all for now.
Here is a sneak peak at the Semele prayer card image. This is not the best image — i need to get a better photo in better light which I”ll do this weekend– but you can see what the card will look like.
I’m reading a book right now that I think ought to be required reading for anyone concerned over the censorship on college campuses and on the way the liberal left attacks and dogpiles on anyone who dares to disagree with their one-dimensional view of the world. It shows what happens when we become afraid of different opinions, wrapped in the self righteous sense that we should be immune from the horror of being offended. The book is called “Kindly Inquisitors” by J. Rausch and I’m about a third of the way through.
I’m reading this in tandem with a documentary called “Can we take a joke,” about the way the illiberal left are ruining comedy and shutting down discourse on campuses. It was actually quite horrifying, especially when the producers interviewed Jon Ronson, who wrote a book about the twitter inspired attacks on Justine Sacco, and others who have been publicly shamed. It really brings home the fact that (and I say this being someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy comedy) our comedians and satirists are often the first warning sign of a society out of true. They’re the ones holding the line against well meaning incursions against our freedom of speech.
Growing up I never thought about what it meant to have freedom of speech. I took my classes in US History, Government, Civics and it was an assumed right in this country. We have a right to freedom of speech, not freedom from being offended. I think in the wake of our various well meaning (?) outrage mobs, that is slowly – and perhaps not so slowly—changing. Now, conservative speakers on college campuses risk assault. Artists and comedians risk getting shot.
If you want free speech, you don’t get to decide who has the right to speak. You don’t get to shut down opinions with which you might disagree. Free speech means free speech. I detest, absolutely detest much of what comes out of the Pagan left. I would never presume to tell them they don’t have the right to say those things. Instead, I’ll take them on head on and carefully dissect their rhetoric for those who haven’t the time or courage to do so for themselves.
Hate speech laws…the idea that we could be arrested for our words…are a terrifying reality today, and a clear violation of our freedom of speech. They’re the legislative acts of cowards, the new McCarthys. Our community is not immune.
Those of you who are familiar with Heathenry will assuredly be familiar with the fixation some (most) Heathens have on lore. With a demographic drawn largely from Protestant Christianity, and working in an over-culture that is doggedly Protestant Christian in its attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that there is deep suspicion and even hostility toward anything not immediately and apparently mediated by the written word. Given that the majority Heathen demographic is also largely working class, there is also a noticeable insecurity and ambivalence toward mysticism (i.e. direct experience often dismissed in Heathen circles as “U.P.G” or the dreaded unverified personal gnosis) and you have, well, a mess.
Before going further, let me clarify what passes for ‘lore’ in Heathenry. When one of us speaks of “lore,” we’re referring to written texts. That includes the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon texts, and contemporary historical, archaeological, linguistic, as well as any other relevant scholarly work. None of these texts may be considered ‘revealed’ texts, nor were they ever intended to serve the purpose of “scripture’ in the way we are accustomed to think of that term. This is the context in which most Heathens frame their religion, and in many cases, it’s also the context by which their experiences is consciously limited. I find that unfortunate. It is not however to be unexpected.
Let’s unpack that a bit. One of the dominant features of Protestant Christianity is a liturgical focus on Scripture. This was, historically, one of its criticisms of Catholicism: that the latter’s praxis and liturgy veered too far away from Scripture. Bible study, memorizing and quoting scripture, the emphasis (here shared with Catholicism) on reading and of Christ as the embodiment of the “Word” are all key facets of this approach to faith. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is referred to as a ‘religion of the book.’ Even before the Protestant Reformation, in the medieval period with the early Christian fathers, there was this emphasis on text.
Essentially for religions of the book, there is holy writ, and it has tremendous authority in guiding practice and approach to faith. Since Vatican II, unfortunately, Catholicism has also been — all in the spirit of “modernism” and “ecumenism” of course –doing its best to cull its more mystical elements, including devotion to Mary on the grounds that it’s not textually authentic. I find it depressing and sad that a rich, complex, mystical theology would be exchanged for a pseudo-rational, unemotional, modern, scripture based approach. But that’s just me. When this was restricted to the Christians, it wouldn’t be something I felt the need to address, but it’s been a struggle over the past twenty years to avoid having this same reductionist approach dominate Heathenry. We are raised surrounded by the cultural and social trappings of Protestant Christianity. That is the dominant voice of American culture, even amongst our intellectual “elite” — even if one is not Christian. One of the unspoken facets of this is that we assume religious experience to have a textual base. We look for “Scripture” to tell us what to do, what to believe, and whether or not we’re doing our religion right. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to examine our religious expectations, to drag all our unspoken, ingrained assumptions about how a tradition works and how we ought to engage out into the light. There will be parts useful and parts not, but it’s important to see it all clearly. (1)
So with Heathenry, we have a contemporary religion trying to restore what is a conglomeration of ancestral traditions. That’s awesome. What we need to take into account, however, is the influence of our over-culture, birth religion, and the fetish we seem to have for “progress,” and “modernity.” Sometimes it isn’t and sometimes, what we are expected to trade for the trappings of “modernity,” is too high a price to pay for what we get. I don’t think we’ve quite all figured that out yet. It’s so much easier after all when humanity is at the top of the hierarchy, the center of the world, the apex of experience and we don’t have to worry about pesky Gods. It’s so much easier when engaging with the Gods as individual Powers is viewed as déclassé. It’s so much easier when our only obligations are social ones, oh, and reading an authorized text of course.
I’m being more sarcastic with the above statements than I initially intended, but this is the lay of the land in Heathenry. It’s ironic, given that such an attitude would have been utterly incomprehensible to our Heathen ancestors, who knew the wisdom of piety and reverence, and when to go on their knees in the dirt before their Gods out of awe, and when to sacrifice without bitching about giving too much, and that the Gods were Powers capable of impacting our world and us.
In a way, we’re having to do now, what the very early Christians had to do in order to grow their faith. It’s ironic, this role reversal, but it struck me during my reading the other day: early Christians developed their monastic traditions and powerful traditions of interiority and prayer because they had to worship in secret, or at best in small groups away from the public eye. It wasn’t until later, once they’d gained political power that they were able to effect large churches and public spheres of worship (and oppression). First, there were small groups, and individual prayer. This made the hunger for texts, I would think, all the more powerful. If i can’t be celebrating my God with a group of my co-religionists, then allow me to summon that community, and the presence of my God to my memory by reading stories and accounts that we all share in common. Let the absence be filled by memory evoked by engagement with the text. Let me engage with my community –spread out and hidden–in a unity through that very absence as it were. Now, Christians are everywhere (everywhere *sigh*) and it is the polytheist contingent that meets in small groups, often quite spread out, and perhaps — i’m speculating here–we also find ourselves deferring to written texts for prayer and meditation more than our polytheistic ancestors may have done, ancestors for whom the core beliefs of religion were contained and transmitted via intergenerational household and social practice. They could see their religion and veneration for the Gods reinforced all around them. We who don’t have that, depend much more on written media. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Christians engaged with their texts every bit as assiduously as the best (worst — i suspect it depends on your pov) Heathen lore thumper. They didn’t just read and take pride in their ability to memorize and regurgitate (as many a Heathen lore-hound has been known to do). They engaged in a certain amount of exegesis. Each reading opened the door to meditation and prayer, and that in turn opened the door to the potential at least — with the grace of God–for direct experience. Each text, led one on a meditative journey with the goal of drawing closer to one’s God.(2)
This really came home for me when I had to read an article about how small prayer books were used for personal devotion in the medieval period (c. 11-12 Centuries) when there was a shift in focus from communal liturgical devotion to private, personal prayer. I won’t quote the description of the process one would go through when using a Christian breviary for private use, but I am going to re-contextualize that process for a Heathen audience. (3)
Firstly, and this is something Rachel Fulton notes in her article, to own a book was to participate in privilege. Now, I realize that may not be quite the same with us today, especially not with the proliferations of e-readers, but there are parts of the world where reading and writing are a gift, and a privilege. Also, there’s magic there. Think about the first of our ancestors who realized that potential in making marks on the surface of a rock or bit of bark or clay. Think about the work that went into the book you hold or read, it was first formed in the mind of its creator, brought into being, translated to text, and pushed through the publishing process, disseminated online or to bookstores and finally ended up in your hands. This process was much more laborious in the medieval period, but each book is still a miracle, still an act of creation and craft. There is something very special in text that ties us to each and every reader who may likewise be influenced and inspired. This is all the more true of religious texts where the readers share a common cosmology and devotional approach.
So drawing upon and expanding upon the description offered in Fulton’s article, here is how — were I as a Heathen to engage in lectio divina–engaging with the lore might look.
Many medieval prayer books, like prayer books today were drawn off of scriptural readings, as well as set prayers. So using that as my paradigm, I’ll choose a section from the Poetic Edda focusing on one of Odin’s mysteries, the Runatal section of the Havamal. (I should note, the same process that I shall uncover below might be used with a prayer too, to equal effect). Here’s the text for those who might be unfamiliar with it:
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.(4)
First, I might read it quietly aloud in Norse and English. There is a rhythm after all, to the Norse verse that the English translation, however well done, lacks. Certain of the Norse phrases I might have (in fact personally do have) committed to memory. These I might linger over, letting the tones of my words resonate through my body. Odin is, after all, a God of empowered speech, of galdr, of poetry, of incantation. I would strive in my private prayer to make of these phrases, whichever I choose, an incantation that reverberates through the memory hall of my heart, that strikes at the core of my soul, kindling devotion, opening me up, bolstering a desire to connect, to reach outward to Him.
Perhaps I have recently read academic commentary on this section that brought some insight applicable to my spiritual life to light. I might mull that over for a time. My mind might segue to an image of a Tree that calls to mind Yggdrasil. Perhaps I’ll parse that word out: “Steed of the Terrible One.” What does that mean about this Tree. What does it mean about its agency and awareness? When I think of Odin hanging, there are a thousand images that come to my mind. Perhaps I have included one, a prayer card, or even a photocopy of the image in my Edda where I can look at it as I read and pray. Or perhaps I have an image on my altar or shrine, and I am praying and reading with this in my sight.
In my case, part of my ordeal cycle was a hook suspension in imitatio of this exact experience. It is Odin’s greatest mystery and the point of most powerful (for me at any rate) connection to Him. When I read about the windy tree, I think of the november night that I underwent this ordeal. I think about how cold and damp it was, what effect that had on my skin and my muscles, how I watched the sun set with growing dread. I wonder what it was like for Odin approaching the Tree, what preparations He might have made, and what it must be like to be a God and still be afraid.
I have a chant that I use for Him that recounts His time on the Tree and perhaps that will come to mind and if I am alone, I might even offer it to Him aloud. We don’t yet have the tradition of devotional images to which medieval Christians could turn in illuminating their psalters and prayer books, but we do have some. Many, particularly older images show Him in armor on the Tree, or at least a helmet. I wonder why when it was the moment of His greatest power but also His greatest self-chosen vulnerability. What does it say about a God who would choose that? I think about all the images I’ve seen of Him on the Tree—does He have both eyes, or has the artist portrayed Him as already having made His offering to the Well? What do I think of that? What does my own experience tell me there about the variations of mythic time?
maybe I cross-reference this with articles or passages about the sacrifice of His eye. Was this presaged by His encounters with specific runes? Had He been trained for this? What about the fact that Mimir is His maternal uncle? That was a powerful role in many cultures including the early Germanic. What do I know of Mimir? What do I know of the wells that sit at the base of the Tree? Are they all one well, or many? Why are they located with the Tree? What does that mean? What came first: offering to the well or offering to the Tree and does it matter?
When I read the line about Him being wounded by His own spear, I think about sitting beneath my tree, the hooks going into my flesh: how that felt, what it did to me, where it allowed me to go. I remember the disorientation of swinging beneath the branches of the tree, watching the world fall away as I was lifted off the ground. What did He see when He rose into its boughs. I recall other experiences with Him in the woods, and the sound of His body falling sharply down through the boughs.
I remember some of His heiti, his praise names, particularly one’s having to do with the Tree. I think about how the Tree is always nourished in blood, and what such an initiation would mean. I think about the runes and why it took this type of ordeal and sacrifice to win them. I might call to mind the rune poems and see how they too are connected to the Old Man. Maybe, if I am in a mood to do so and if, in the flow of my contemplation, it feels correct, I galdr the rune itself with the goal of being given insight into that moment, that time, that experience.
I read and think on Odin, and think about all the parts that went into suspending me in my tree. How was He suspended? Did the Tree itself grasp Him up? Did the branches pierce HIs flesh and hold Him true until He was empty of screaming and could be filled by something else? Or was that process too an ordeal to be surmounted, a tactical challenge to be met?
I might turn to prayers that I have written or collected that tie to that experience in some way, that bring to my heart’s mind and senses, Odin on the Tree. I might say them, and then return to the Edda passage going over those lines again, rooting out connections to other things, all so I can find my way to Him. If emotion comes, I will sit with it and allow it its voice. That too can be a connection to Him.
The passage talks about the roots of the Tree. Images of ancient Trees with huge, gnarled, tangled roots come to mind and I let them. I think about how when I was lowered to the ground again after my ordeal, after however long I hung suspended in the tree, my feet touched the ground and there was relief, release, and pain, such pain as the muscles in my lower back went into full, several days long spasm. (The angle of the body when hanging in the type of suspension is not the best for those with bad backs. I knew this going in). I wonder if it hurt Odin just as much when He was released from the Tree as when He ascended it to be taken up. I think about all the things that can never be remotely comprehended save by initiatory experience and how it breaks one’s world into a before and an after and how there’s never any going back. I wonder what regrets He left at the Tree, or whether He didn’t have them until later, or whether He had them at all. I wonder how He contextualized the experience that of necessity must have changed Him so in its aftermath.
I pray to be opened up to understanding, to greater connection to Him knowing that it will change my life and I contemplate how far I might go in my devotions to ready myself and make this possible. I think about how far He went. I return to some of my personal prayers, that I’ve written for Him at various times as well as my extempore utterances in the moment and I offer these up to Him again, moving away from the Runatal text and back again and again and again.
I happen to have this particular text memorized, which adds another layer to the experience of engaging physically with a written text. The text is already present in my memory, but I involve my sensorium (sight, touch, sound if I choose to read aloud) when I’m looking at a book and that ads another layer of both engagement and meaning. Being a language person with more than a smattering of Old Norse, I might also ponder both meaning and syntax and grammar of the original to see what can be gleaned there. We all bring different experiences and skills to the table in our devotional life and I think it’s good to use what you have to begin these practices.
I could go on from here, line by line with the Edda, or with any other text, but I think the process is relatively clear. The important thing isn’t being well-read in lore, the important thing is to read lore — if it’s a tool you find helpful–always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: veneration of the Gods, developing a devotional relationship with the Gods, calling Them into the seat of the heart, developing greater understanding of that place in which one dances in relationship with Them. If you’re going to use lore, understand that it is not an end in itself. It’s a map and as with any map, there is a goal external to the process.
1. For more discussion of the Protestant attitudes dominant in American secular culture see “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobsen and also “Secularisms” by the same authors. For information on the impact of Vatican II on the devotional life of the Church, and the absence of Mary see “”Missing Mary” by C. Spretnak, “Alone of all Her Sex” by M. Warner, and for the focus of the Protestant Reformation I highly recommend E. Duffy’s “THe Stripping of the Altars.”
2. Guigo II “Ladder of Monks and the Twelve Meditations” Cistercian Press. See also the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, works of John Cassian, Anselm of Canturbury, even Origen if you can stomach it.
3. Praying with Anselm at Admont: A meditation on practice by Rachel Fulton. First published in Speculum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul, 2006), pp. 700-733, published by Medieval Academy of America.
4. Taken from Carolyn Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda.
The current issue of BBI Media’s “Witches and Pagans” is all about polytheism and it is awesome. (1)
Of particular note is the article “Polycentric Polytheism” by Dr. Edward Butler. If I could hold every single Polytheist and Pagan in the world down and make them read this article, I would. Hell, I’d happily hold down every academic working in Classics or Religious Studies and make them read it if I could. It’s positively brilliant and provides a solid and thought provoking philosophy of polytheism that is both spot on and terrifyingly elegant.
I highly suggest picking up a copy of this issue just for Edward’s article. Read it, share it, discuss it, contact him and discuss it some more. It’s a very, very important piece.
1. Despite having the occasional article by authors who have no business writing anything whatsoever about polytheism, it is an outstanding issue.
(I received permission from the Editor of BBI Media to post the un-edited version of my essay in the current issue of Witches and Pagans. This is an excellent issue and I highly recommend picking up a copy. Thank you, Anne Niven, for allowing me to post this here).
Over the past couple of years, the term ‘devotional polytheism’ has become a popular one. I’m partly responsible for that, having written a book of the same name and having engaged in my share of online debates and discussions. In fact, for many of us, it’s difficult to parse the line between polytheism and devotion in part because of the nature of polytheistic practice in and of itself. In many ways, the two things are inherently connected. In this article I’m going to talk about why that is and what it means as a polytheist to term oneself ‘devotional.’
Devotion can be a highly charged term in our communities. Certainly there can be quite a bit of disagreement on what it is and how to do it well. It goes hand in hand with piety, an even more explosive term. There can be a tremendous discomfort, ambivalence, and even hostility around these words, in part because we are reclaiming our religious language even as we set about the process of restoring our traditions and all too often the language we start out with is tainted by negative experiences within our birth religion. When piety has in the past been used as a weapon of control, it can be tremendously difficult to explore it with any neutrality. We are, as ever, a work in progress. Devotion, however, is an expression of piety.
Piety itself comes from a Latin word perhaps best translated as one’s obligations or duties: to the Gods, ancestors, and within one’s community. Early Christians shifted the meaning of the word to ‘love.’ (1) Issues arise of course today over the question of who gets to define what is pious within our religious communities and in many respects it’s a very individual thing. We are re-learning what our Gods expect of us, both individually and within our traditions overall. This is not without its pitfalls, but it is devotion – our desire to do right by our Gods, to honor Them well, to grow in our relationships with Them and our ancestors – that often sees us through. As polytheists we are people deeply engaged with our religions.
There are a few things inherent in being a polytheist, before we even get to the devotional part of the equation. First of all, we believe in many Gods. The word itself means just that. It’s from the Greek πολύ (many) and θέοι (gods). Not only do we believe in many Gods, but we believe and venerate Them as active, independent entities. They do not depend upon us for Their existence. They predated us, are greater than we in the cosmic design, and our sacred duty as human beings is to give Them proper veneration.
This is where devotion comes to the fore. Polytheism changes everything about the way one walks in the world. To acknowledge that there are actual Gods and spirits (ancestors, nature spirits, etc.), that we live, as the Greek philosopher Thales once said “in a world full of Gods,” carries with it an essential shift in perception. To embrace polytheism is to intentionally and passionately re-sacralize the world. To acknowledge the Gods is to acknowledge our own place in the universal hierarchy, and to acknowledge the rightness of devotion: those acts that bring us closer to the Gods, that place us over and over again into right and active relationship with Them.
Devotion becomes then everything we do to celebrate that reality. Every polytheist today is in the position of being a co-creator with the Gods…not of the universe or our world (this is not some post modern “theology” that deifies the self after all) but of our traditions. Living as we do in a world where the very idea of active devotion is all but pathologized, living a life that prioritizes maintaining right relationship with our Gods is a radical act. Pouring out offerings and raising our voices in prayer to the Holy Powers, the Immortal Gods, the Immortal Goddesses, and our beloved dead is a radical act. In doing so we are forcing change on ourselves. We are re-patterning our minds and hearts and hopefully eventually our world too. That is part of what restoring our traditions is about. Being a polytheist has consequences.
It’s not enough to say that one IS polytheist if one’s essential mindset remains the same. In joining one of the growing number of religions that identify as polytheistic traditions, we are being asked to consciously change the way we engage with everything in our world. To acknowledge the Gods is to acknowledge our obligations to Them and that means changing how we behave in the world at large. Devotion becomes both a celebration of our Gods and an act of tremendous courage.
What one does, the specifics of devotion is a very individual thing. Our Gods are not interchangeable after all. They are individuals and so is each and every devotee. The relationship that each person forges with his or her Deities is unique. This is a given. What one Deity wants may vary considerably from person to person, even within the same tradition and with the same Deity. We have diviners and oracles to help suss this out when problems arise because that is also part of polytheism: the Gods are ready, willing, and able to communicate with us.
We in our modern world, having come of age in a time when there was the ignorance of fundamentalist religion or the dogged agnosticism (or sometimes atheism) of “progress” and modernity seem to have a particular suspicion if not outright dread of “UPG” – unverified personal gnosis (despite the fact that, as any Religious Studies scholar might laughingly tell you, * all * religion is, at its heart, personal gnosis). The idea that the Gods can communicate with us directly can be a deeply discomfiting one. Mysticism is no longer an acceptable part of daily life. Polytheism shatters the mechanization of that paradigm. We are religions of mystics, religions for whom the idea that the Gods can and will communicate with us in a plethora of ways is a normal, recognized part of our religious life. This does not, of course, mean that it won’t be terrifying if it occurs! Our ancestors understood that the sacred could never, ever be made safe.
That is the hardest thing to train ourselves out of: the expectation that our religion will be safe, that it will cosset and serve us without ever demanding that we grow and learn and expand and sometimes shatter into a thousand bits so that our Gods can dance in the light of that refraction. We are asked as polytheists to rise above spiritual mediocrity, to challenge ourselves to sit with our own discomfort until we are able to see all the cracks in our world, cracks that betray the devastation that once befell the world of our ancestors when their religious traditions were thrust into obliteration by the spread of monotheism across the world.
We are asked, through the work of our devotion, work that at times may be full of longing and beauty, ecstasy and pain, joy and celebration to help shepherd our traditions into the world anew. The Gods also lurk in those cracks, dancing, laughing, raging and sustaining the pieces of a world that we –our forebears and we ourselves—broke. It can be an awesome responsibility, to take up that burden of restoration, of returning ourselves first and foremost of all to right relationship with the Powers. The way to do that though is through devotion. Scholars of religion will tell you that polytheisms were always praxis oriented. It’s not enough to simply say that you’re a polytheist; we must be men and women of action.
I suspect that this may all sound very intimidating in writing but in reality it is a very different thing. It is a process, a partnership. The very acts and desires of devotion bring one back to the reality of the Gods and ancestors and with that reality comes the knowledge that we are not alone in this work of re-enchanting ourselves (the world after all has ever and always been sacred whether or not we have always been able to see that) and restoring our traditions. The Gods are there and as we live out our devotion in ways large and small, They bestow Their graces: of Presence, of blessing, of support. As we re-learn how to live pious, devoted lives, our ancestors are there for us too and each time we raise a voice in prayer, each time we pour libations, each time we engage in the work of living religion they do so in tandem with us. We become part of a huge community – those living with whom we share our faith, and those unseen Gods and spirits Who support us in devotion. We take our place in a glorious matrix of co-creation, of celebration, and, as we learn, devotion. When we truly realize, and oh how devotion helps this process occur, that the Gods are real, nothing in the world is ever the same again, least of all ourselves.
1. Which I personally find problematic–of course piety and devotion should be an expression of the love one has for one’s Gods but to secure one’s devotional practices in the vagaries of emotion seems dangerous to me; after all, what about the fallow times when one is struggling to feel love for one’s Gods or loved by one’s Gods? What then? Does one simply abandon one’s religious obligations? I would hope not!