Category Archives: Literary Matters
(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!
The novena booklet for Asklepios, “To Rejuvenate and Nourish: Nine Days of Prayer to Asklepios, God of Healing” is now available at createspace here.
I’m really pleased with this one, folks. It’s a small, pocket size prayer book and it looks really cool. I’m currently working on a similar prayer book to Eir. Stay tuned.
Edit: I am offering 8 copies signed and with a prayer card of your choice for $10 plus $3 shipping and handling. contact me at krasskova at gmail.com if you want one.
Ok, so I have finished writing the Novena booklet for Asklepios and I am deeply grateful for His help and benevolence over the last few weeks. On Sunday night, I’ll do the div to choose the title and then it should be available next month (maybe sooner, depending how I publish it). I’ll keep y’all updated.
I will be doing the same type of novena booklet for the Norse healing Goddess Eir. It occurred to me as I was working on the one for Asklepios that I really should honor Her too. I focused on the former because my husband isn’t Heathen and I prayed primarily to his Gods and Their relations first and then my own. it seemed fitting, but I did petition Eir as well and She deserves more cultus than She gets. So…same deal, folks. I desperately need help with a title!
If you have any suggestions for a title for a novena booklet for Eir, email them to me at krasskova at gmail.com by 11pm EST on the 17th. On that day, i’ll put them in a bowl, on Her shrine, and divine to see which She wants. The “winner” will receive a free copy of the novena booklet, signed and personalized, and one each of the Eir prayer cards. please help. I want to do right by Her, as I have tried to do for Asklepios.
Fundraising for Cards
As I mentioned earlier today, I’m fundraising for a Hypnos card, and i also want to start fundraising for an Asklepius card. If anyone wishes to contribute to making these cards possible, please contact me at krasskova at gmail.com.
Additionally, I want to run a small contest. As a thank you to Asklepius for helping my husband through his recent surgery, I’m putting together a small, pocket-sized prayer book — really more of a small chapbook containing an extensive novena to this God of healing.
I need a title! So, since I can’t think of one, I want to run a contest: please submit your suggestions for a title to my email above. Today is the 4th; on July 10, at midnight EST, I”ll put all of the suggestions in a bowl, prayer to Asklepius, and divine on which He wishes. The winner will be announced that night.
The winner will receive a copy of the prayer chapbook for free when it comes out and one prayer card of his/her choice.
Help. LOL. I’m totally stumped on a title.
Eternal Haunted Summer online magazine interviewed me for their summer solstice edition. I was asked about my current projects, including my recent poetry book. Check out my interview here.
“A Litany for the Many Dead,” by Rebecca Lynn Scott is now available here. My understanding is that it will soon be available on kindle too. This is a beautiful, at times wrenching litany of remembrance for many different groups of our dead…honored dead, beloved dead, conflicted dead, and at times heretofore unremembered dead. It’s a lovely prayer and I highly recommend the book.
I am hard at work on my Hermes Devotional, titled “In Praise of Hermes.” Several of you had expressed a desire to contribute prayers. I would love that. I’m including a section for prayers by others and welcome contributions. Each contributor will receive a free copy of the finished work. (patreon supporters who pledge $15 or more will also receive a free copy).
Because I intend to have this devotional finished by Sept. 1, I will need any and all submissions by August 30. Please send them to krasskova at gmail.com.
(image below is mine, from a House Sankofa rite).
I usually don’t write about political things on this blog. I save that for my facebook page. I’ve decided to make an exception in this particular case however, because as an educator I am so incredibly concerned about the trend I see in education in the States.
Yesterday, I read a news story (you can read it here and here) about a high school teacher in CT. This teacher, Mr. David Olio has long received accolades for being an amazing English teacher, capable of inspiring his students to a noteworthy degree. His trouble began during an AP Poetry class. For those outside the US, an AP course means ‘advanced placement’ and it is typically taught to 17 and 18 year olds as a college prep course. High School students here typically graduate at 18. Sometimes one can even gain college credit through taking these courses. I’d also like to point out that I teach college freshmen and sophomores and that’s the precise age that I’m dealing with in many of my own freshmen college classes.
During the course of the class, one of the students brought in a poem he’d read by Allen Ginsburg. The poem was “Please, Master”, a very graphic poem about a BDSM charged interaction between two men. The student asked if it could be discussed in class and the teacher agreed. The result of that discussion, within days, is that this teacher was suspended, parents were up in arms, and despite both student and community support, this award-winning teacher was forced to resign.
Articles covering this are saying things like “one mistake shouldn’t ruin a good teacher’s career.” I agree that his career shouldn’t be ruined, but I don’t think he made a mistake. A student brought a piece of poetry to an advanced, college prep poetry course and asked to discuss it. As a teacher, I would have made the same decision Mr. Olio did. I might have talked to the students about the origins of Beat Poetry, and the social milieu that birthed it, a world filled with growing racial and class tensions not unlike our own. I might have discussed why Ginsburg chose to craft powerful poems around subjects that were generally considered taboo for poetry. I might have told them that he had been brought up on obscenity charges and taken to court for his brilliant, fucking brilliant poem “Howl,” and that the judge ruled it had ‘redeeming social value’ and Ginsburg won the case. I might have pointed out that before writing “Please, Master,” Ginsburg had been locked up in a psych ward for being gay and had been subjected, against his will, to electroshock therapy and that perhaps a poem like this was his fucking declaration of independence. I might have asked them how LGBTQI people are treated socially today, and Gods know there are enough news articles about discrimination and death that I could have brought to the table with just a cursory internet search to bolster the discussion. Hell, a comparison of contemporary Russia and the US would have filled a class. I might have asked if the poem would be considered quite as problematic or objectionable were it depicting a heterosexual couple (and it might be…despite the popularity of such badly written crap as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Americans still tend to go crazy at any hint of kink or even sex in media. Puritanism dies hard, folks). For all we know, Mr. Olio discussed all those things and more.
Ginsburg, as a friend of mine pointed out recently, can be a difficult poet to read. His work is graphic, raw, and disturbing and I think it’s meant to be. I also think that’s precisely why we should read him. Higher education isn’t about having your own possibly provincial worldview reinforced. It’s about learning. Part of that is learning how to engage with ideas and concepts that one might find different, disturbing, and highly charged. If education doesn’t challenge and make one uncomfortable than it isn’t education. Part of becoming a thinking adult capable of dealing respectfully with divergent worldviews is also being exposed to a diversity of perspectives early on. Part of becoming an adult is also learning how to cope with ideas that offend and upset. Every day of my life, as a woman, a polytheist, as someone with an invisible disability (chronic pain), I face things in our popular culture, our over-culture that offend me terribly and that dehumanize me as a person. And every day I’m faced with examples of humanity with whom I really don’t want to share a planet (Daesh, the Duggars, etc. etc). Part of being an adult is facing that and how we choose to deal with situations that offend us to our core, or that make us uncomfortable, that hurt us is what determines our character as human beings.
Just last week I read several articles about students at an Ivy League school complaining in their literature classes because material was ‘triggering.’ It evoked an emotional response. It made them uncomfortable. It demonstrated values at odds with their own contemporary world. The case involved a college professor teaching a class on Ovid. One of the students didn’t “feel safe” in the class because many of the stories Ovid describes involve rape (Hades abducting Persephone for instance). I’ve read other articles in which students expect a pass while skipping “triggering” material. Leaving aside the question of how this bullshit waters down and misuses the psychological term “trigger”, let’s consider at the potential effect on education of bowing to such overactive sensitivities. How much of classic world lit is going to be discarded if we remove everything that is possibly disturbing? What is going to happen to a generation of students who have insulated themselves from anything remotely challenging or disturbing when they encounter life? If someone is legitimately disturbed to the point of feeling unsafe by reading “Ovid” in an environment filled with critical analysis and discussion then perhaps that person ought to engage in a bit of personal responsibility and seek out therapy and perhaps he or she is not ready for college. The last thing professors and institutions should do is bow to emotional manipulation, blackmail, and censorship. Better they close their doors first.
I was discussing all of this over breakfast today with my partner and he pointed out something else that I knew, but had not taken into consideration here. Christian fundamentalists (notably utter nutcases like Dominionists and Quiverfull families) have, since the rise of the New Conservatism, made it a point to get themselves on schoolboards. It’s part of their policy of attacking society at a local level. There are various areas on which they particularly focus (and I don’t’ have the stomach this morning to pollute my mind by hunting down requisite articles. I just can’t reread that garbage right now), areas including education, military, finance, entertainment industry, and politics. Many Americans don’t come out in droves to vote in local elections and don’t’ follow that quite as assiduously as the election of our president. We should. The real power is at the local level. The President may be the leader of our nation but powerful political currents start on the local level: school boards, city councils, and the like and what’s happening there is, as one of the articles on Mr. Olio called it, “a creeping social conservatism.”
I very much believe that we need to break the stranglehold and crush the back of the Christian right. Utterly and without mercy. These people believe they are warriors for their God and will stop at nothing to suck the life and freedom out of our nation, our educational system, our society, and our children. They are very bit as dangerous as Daesh, more so in many ways since they are here, among us, acting slowly and insidiously to gain control of the next generation, acting on a local level. There’s already enough in our society alone working against our students. For this and oh so many more reasons, we should be keeping a keen and eagle eye on trends just like what we’re seeing here with the dumbing down of education and the attack of good teachers. We need to be getting involved in our communities at a grassroots level. We need to be paying attention to what is happening in our schools, our school boards even if we don’t have children. We need to awake and aware and maybe, just maybe, fiercely involved.
I hope sincerely that Mr. Olio is able to move on from this debacle with his reputation intact. I hope he is able to find another good teaching position. I hope that his school and community realize what a valuable asset they have lost in allowing his resignation to go through. I fear for the pressures being put on our teachers not to teach. I fear for a generation of students being raised with no emotional resiliency, and no ability to engage insightfully with opinions different from their own. Most of all I fear for those of us who will have to live in the society this will create.
I’m taking a class this semester in medieval studies that explores the spiritual senses through the corpus of early Christian literature. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is vexing, but so far it’s not been boring and I”m learning a lot. One thing I didn’t expect was to encounter a text, with which I was heretofore completely unfamiliar, that gave me language and guidance in traveling through one’s dark night of the soul, those fallow times where the presence of one’s Gods can seem absent or so very far away.
I think this is as close to universal to the mystical experience as anything gets. The terminology I use is heavily influenced by John of the Cross because when I first went through it, that was what I had to help me understand and survive the experience, but I’ve talked to countless polytheists, (many mystics, some not,) and almost without exception, they understood when I mentioned this. There was always a tension, averted eyes filled with remembrance of their own spiritual deserts, nods of understanding, and grief, sometimes confusion and pain flickering over their features. We are so ill-prepared when this happens. We have communities where no one wants to talk about their experiences especially the ones that might brand them a mystic (working class suspicion of and hostility toward mysticism runs deep in Heathenry at least), where there is often a deep hostility toward anything not mediated by texts, and where there simply aren’t enough trained, competent clergy, clergy who have nurtured and sustained for themselves the type of devotional relationship upon which such a fallow period is predicated. We’re getting there, but with our restorations under a hundred years old, we still have a way to go and its times like this where that shows. (Though to be honest, these days i’m not sure one would find much more useful help and guidance even in Christianity…). We scramble for what we can get in terms of human guidance and all too often are blindsided and crushed when the fallow times come upon us.
That’s why I was blown away last week when I read Guigo II’s “Ladder of Monks.” I resisted reading it and put it off till the last moment but it’s a book that I think personally I shall continue to treasure for a long time. It’s written by a 12th Century Cistercian Abbot as a letter to his friend and spiritual brother Gervase. In it, with charming simplicity and humility, he lays out his process for engaging in what Christians call “lectio divina,” a type of engaged, close reading of spiritual texts that has the potential to lead to direct experience with God. While I’m still suspicious of any mysticism mediated by a text — I’ve seen what passes in Heathenry where reification and sometimes outright fetishization of the texts often supplants devotion to the Gods (perhaps in some misguided habitual desire for a “Scripture”?)— I was quite struck by the useful beauty of his four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and finally contemplation (which in this text is more or less used as a synonym for direct experience with one’s God, i.e. mystical experience). The text is also replete with lush metaphors of wine and inebriation, wherein spiritual experiences are likened to the sweetness of the grape. He talks of the taste of God, speaking to the senses as mystics do, and of longing. Most importantly of all, he provides a cogent, carefully considered reasoning for those times when God withdraws His presence and I thought of every mystic and every god spouse that I have ever known when I read this:
“There is a common saying that too much familiarity breeds contempt. And so He withdraws Himself, so that He is not despised for being too attentive, so that when He is absent, He may be desired the more, that being desired He may be sought more eagerly, that having been sought for He may at last be found with greater thankfulness.” (p. 77).
I read that and remembered when Odin cut me off from His presence. It was not punishment. Everyone else around me could still sense Him and I was able to work, but I myself was denied the sweetness and grace of His presence, something that I had rested in, partaken of, relied on pretty much constantly for years. For the better part of a year I was bereft. I think it’s the thing every Odin’s woman fears most: that she will no longer be useful to Him, loved by Him, present in Him. Divination after divination gave no relief, in fact I was told that this was very much something I had to go through, that I had to learn to trust that He was there, even when I could not sense Him, that one can rely too much on one’s senses and forget about one’s duty, that it’s easy to do as He wills when one has the “reward” or incentive of that Presence, but not so easy to do with grace what is asked when one’s spiritual life seems a barren wasteland, that it was easy to become complacent. It was absolutely the worst period of my life, even up to and including my mother’s death — they pretty much stand side by side in terms of anguish. In retrospect though, I wouldn’t change it. I grew in my devotion to Him, and ultimately in my connection to and adoration for Him in ways that never would have been possible had I relied solely on the connection as I knew it. It forced me to seek Him out, to find Him again.
In class discussion, I mentioned that I was particularly taken by how relevant this book is as a spiritual texts for those of all traditions today. One of the professors asked me to elaborate. At first I hesitated (and as someone else chimed in, hoped he would forget his question lol. I didn’t want to have to talk about my non-academic life) but he pressed the question and I explained that I work within my religion to teach people devotional practices, a religion that is not a religion of the book, that has many converts from Protestant traditions that have an inculcated expectation of Scripture, and that it’s a mess. I also explained that I taught for a year at a seminary and in both cases I’d seen the same thing: people would go through an experience of isolation from their Gods. They would go into a dark night of the soul and not understand. Many would break and leave their tradition, wounded, or struggle for years thinking they had done something wrong or were not “worthy” of their tradition. (I’ve encountered all these responses and more). I pointed out that Guigo’s text first and foremost positions this type of experience as perfectly normal to spiritual life. In no way (unlike what I have occasionally seen in our communities) is the person pathologized or blamed for the experience. It’s not only positioned as normal, but clear advice, both earlier and later in the text is given for getting through it. It’s here that lectio divina shines, and here I think even those of us who are not working in textually based traditions (traditions that have a ‘holy book’) can find merit. This is what our lore can be used for! When one is going through a period where one’s Gods are absent, reading sacred texts, studying the stories of one’s God, praying makes one’s God present in one’s heart and memory. The absence is filled by longing.
I think too many people never experience their Gods directly, the overwhelming fullness, inebriation Guigo might say, of Presence, and mistake study of lore, or sacred texts AS experienced when in fact it’s only a jumping off point. I think over a thousand years of religions of the book have patterned us to settle for the text alone (far easier to determine orthodoxy and consolidate ecclesiastical power when experience can be limited by a text). It’s good to see a text that reaches above all of that, that points the way for a progressive and potent usage of the written word, one that doesn’t mediate or block direct experience but leads the way to it, and sustains through the dark times.
“Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations” by Guigo II, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (1979), NY, NY published by Cistercian Publications through Doubleday and Co.
The inaugural issue of “Walking the Worlds” is quite close to being ready and I am very, very excited about it. It’s an amazing issue with some truly remarkable pieces, including articles by P.S.V.L, Edward Butler, Rev. Tamara Siuda, Beth Lynch, Jason Pitzl-Waters and more. I’ll post here when it’s available but in the meantime, check out the journal site. Once the prep work is completely done and we’re waiting for our proof, I’ll contact those contributors contributors whose articles have been accepted so we can get you the monies. ^_^ For those whose work wasn’t quite suitable for this issue, please don’t be discouraged but check out our upcoming themes and try again.
In the meantime, we are also prepping an anthology of articles based on the presentations given at the recent NY Regional Diviners’ Conference. I’ve already received some great contributions and we are hoping to have that out in the spring.
So stay tuned, folks. There’s lots of neat stuff happening and as my Thracian colleague often intones, it’s a damned fine time to be a Polytheist.