Category Archives: polytheist.com
Markos Gage, the Dionysian Artist has written a powerful call to creative and artistic arms here. He talks about the importance of art, the jadedness that comes of being saturated to overflowing with crap mainstream images, and the possibility that we can reverse this trend, offering us the rallying cry:”Maybe, just maybe, if we can work together to produce good art for our gods we can break the jadedness of mainstream culture…”
Food for thought, folks. food for thought. This is partly why I’m so committed to my prayer card project.
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.
(another oldie but goodie:)
I recently read an exchange online between a polytheist (what type, I do not know) and a Heathen that to my mind, highlighted what I consider to be the biggest issue in Heathenry. The exchange was a simple one. In the course of the discussion, the Polytheist commented that he was seeing a lot of people talking about human sentiment and human feelings but he didn’t see anyone considering what the gods might want, or what They might feel about the topic at hand, one that had the potential to significantly impact ongoing religious praxis. The Heathen fired back that this errs into the realm of UPG — unverified personal gnosis– and was better left undiscussed.
I could not disagree more strongly. Those are precisely the questions we ought to be asking, ever and always: What do our Gods want. This is where divination comes into play. This is where your mystics and spiritworkers are essential. This is where we are all served by cultivating a strong practice of prayer and discernment. Whenever I hear Heathens disparaging UPG — and this happens quite a bit–I just shake my head. All religion is unverified personal gnosis, if we look at it objectively. Of course community practices evolve out of a need to find some way of approaching and engaging with the sacred as a community. If enough people are having the same experiences then we might get a common range of accepted, mainstream praxis. Those community practices, however, will only ever be the reflection of the lowest common spiritual denominator, those areas of experience where the most number of people can participate with the least effort expended. Personally, I’m deeply ambivalent about this. I’d like to see that bar held higher, but that too comes with its inherent problems not the least of which is alienating a number of otherwise good folk. That being said, personal gnosis is sacred. It’s the fuel that keeps a religion vital and alive, relevant, and sustainable. It reminds us that the point of what we’re doing is right relationship with the Holy Powers. It places Them at the center of the equation, and encourages us to fuel the fires of our own devotion.
I often think that part of the ongoing hostility toward gnosis, i.e. toward direct experience of the sacred unmediated by community ritual, is the mere fact that one person is having experiences that another isn’t. It’s often a matter of ‘you’re doing something I can’t, so you must be wrong, bad, perverse, not Heathen, or [insert epithet here]. It comes down to two equally vexing things: spiritual envy and having one’s personal prejudices and world view challenged. I tend to think that if the latter isn’t happening fairly regularly, then maybe something is amiss with the depth (or lack thereof) of our spiritual praxis; the first however, is one of the most hurtful and destructive spiritual issues that I’ve encountered; and it’s hurtful not for the one being envied, but to the emotional and spiritual integrity of the one consumed by it. Given our Protestant-influenced worldview, it seems that we all too often we ascribe moral superiority to intense gnosis, we impose a hierarchy of value where in fact, none exists. There’s a lovely story told by St. Therese of Lisieux in her autobiography that touches on this. She recounts that as a small child, she asked her sister if God loved saints more than regular people. The sister — in a moment of inspired brilliance–got a wine glass and a thimble and filled them each to capacity and asked the little Therese, ‘which is more full?’. The child got the point that we each experience the sacred to our capacity and “more” is a very subjective matter.
I also believe that part of the aversion is a problem with authority. Someone having direct engagement with the Gods is a danger to human structures of authority. A mystic, a spirit worker, a shaman, even a priest who has a strong devotional life (as all priests should ,but sadly don’t) is a specialist. A specialist is, by experience and training, an authority in his or her field and that is problematic when that field is religion, a field where we’ve been taught to eschew standards in favor of subjectivity. If something is subjective then it doesn’t really lend itself to external evaluation and challenge. Beyond your specialists, someone, — your average jane and joe– having direct engagement with the sacred has the potential to challenge the comfort of our unexamined practices, to argue for piety over dubious ‘progress’, authenticity over personal comfort, and engagement over ego. Those direct experiences upend our value system, the value system of middle working class *Protestant* America, the value system mired in its own lack of vision.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think part of it also comes down to the inherent distrust our modern, post-Reformation world has with the deeply spiritual, particularly when it touches the emotions. Devotion is not only déclassé, but suspicious. We’d rather pathologies it as a culture than accept that the Gods are powerfully real and can and do interact with Their devotees in ways that mirror every bit the mysticism experienced by some of the ancients. Instead, we all too often avoid the experiential, fearing to look foolish, primitive, fearing to make the mainstream uncomfortable and the result is that we cull the depth out of our practices until what is left is at best a shallow shell.
With this restoration, we are charged with resacralizing our world. Personal experience, what Heathens call UPG and what many other religions refer to as mysticism is central to this process. An anti-experiential attitude goes hand in hand with a desire to purge every bit of mystery out of our traditions, to render them as dull, mediocre, and ultimately as shallow as we possibly can, to render them innocuous, to render them profane.(1) It is our mystics who keep the rampant desacralization of our world from devouring the budding flower of our traditions wholesale. It is those who embrace their own potential — however great or small–for experiencing the sacred who hold a line with their very minds, hearts, and spirits against this excision of the sacred.
We need our mystics desperately. We also need those who are not mystics, but who have a deep piety and desire to maintain right relationship with the sacred. We need that tension to force our own evolution and healthy growth. We need our mystics to remind us to keep the Gods central to our praxis, to ask “what do the Gods want here?” and we need our devotees, who may not be having deeply intense religious experiences but who love the Gods and ancestors, to remind us that there’s a human equation too. This organic balance isn’t happening in Heathenry. Instead, the mystics (and I’m using this term broadly as a gloss for those whose praxis is primarily informed by direct experience with the sacred) are marginalized and the human-centric raised up in place of the sacred to the extent that I’ve even seen it posited that the Gods don’t interact with us anymore, that this was something that happened only to our ancestors, long ago and far away.
People who are intent on venerating the Powers and on active, experiential engagement have the potential to be living windows through which the sacred may seep back into our traditions, and ultimately into our world. Not only is it important to ask, as we go about restoring our traditions, what the Gods want, it’s crucial; and if that upends the world of many gnosis-phobic Heathens out there, then so be it.
1. I use the term profane in a similar way to Mircea Eliade: as the mundane balance to the sacred.
(This was initially posted at polytheist.com. I plan to be posting a series of articles on Heathen theology over the next month and I want to start with my older pieces so I’m sharing them here).
What is this thing called Heathenry? What is this body of religions that many of us are trying so avowedly to restore? I suspect if you asked ten Heathens, you’d receive ten different answers but I’m going to explore this question a little bit here, as I see it, because over the twenty – plus years that I’ve been Heathen, my understanding of the nature of these religious traditions has changed dramatically.
Note, by the way, that I try very hard to avoid referring to Heathenry as one religion. I don’t think it is, nor do I think it would have been so during the times of our polytheistic ancestors. Today we talk about religions having different denominations, each with different theological foci; in the past there would have been regional cultus. The way “Heathenry” was practiced would have varied, sometimes quite drastically, from locale to locale with different Gods taking precedence, different social mores, perhaps different ritual structures at the very least. This is a good thing too. It lends color and texture and vibrancy to a tradition. I think that Heathenry then and now is big enough to encompass such dramatic diversity; in fact, I think such diversity to be one of polytheism’s greatest strengths.
It’s also worth pointing out that neither would the word “Heathen” have actually existed as a specific religious identity. We moderns have taken a word that was used as an insult – Hæþen – hearth dweller–in much the same way that modern Pagans seized upon ‘paganus, a, um’ or country dweller.(1) These words weren’t always used in a derogatory fashion. Once they simply meant someone who lived in the country, but with the advent of monotheism, and the advance of Christianity across Europe (which went hand in hand with the scouring and destruction of indigenous traditions), those who had abandoned their ancestral ways for the new religion of Christianity needed a way to diminish and condemn those who held onto their traditional beliefs and so they called them the equivalent of hillbillies or hicks. It was an effective rhetorical weapon for transforming a complex religious tradition into silly, outdated superstition in the minds of the people. It was a means of erasing the power of a generations-old set of practices.
Moreover, until the coming of Christianity, there was no need for people to use any type of name or word for their religious traditions. This was what people did. It was what their parents did, their grandparents, their great grandparents. It was the natural way of being within one’s community and tribe. Differentiation of one’s sacred identity from one’s tribal identity happened only at the hands of the enemy. Today, living in a very different time and place from our polytheistic ancestors, the need for differentiation is a useful (I hesitate to say important, though I think in many ways it is) part of building, repairing, and restoring our traditions. Now, we seize on these terms to tear ourselves away from the dominant religious culture, the Abrahamic faiths, specifically in the US, Christianity. It’s a way of marking our territory and slowly but surely redefining space for these battered traditions to re-emerge. Words of self definition have become a tool, a lever by which the window to restoration might be cracked open just a little bit wider and I find this rather ironic, given how once the very same tool was used to crush our ancestral ways. But I digress.
When I think of Heathenry today, I recognize that I’m engaging with the modern permutations of what were once indigenous traditions. To be indigenous means to be native to a place. When most of us hear that word today, we think (not incorrectly) of First Nations Peoples. Each one of us, however, came from somewhere. If we look far enough back, before Christianity, before monotheism, we each came from a tribe and each tribe had its ways, its beliefs, its practices, the lens through which it engaged with the world. (2) All of those practices and shared worldviews that make up what we would today call “Heathenry” were once part and parcel of the indigenous traditions of numerous peoples occupying what is now Germany, England, Scandinavia, Iceland, and perhaps even parts of Switzerland.(3) The practice of these traditions was rooted in tribal consciousness, and tribal places. You see this with many ancient polytheisms: there was a certain geographic positioning to their praxis. The way a specific Deity was honored might change depending on where that Deity was honored. The way Odin was venerated in what is now England, for instance, was vastly different from the way He was honored in the forests of what is now Bavaria. The land was an important means of translating and ordering praxis for the people.
I personally believe that there is a certain amount of tension and anxiety within contemporary polytheisms in the US, perhaps most especially Heathenry, because we now lack that self-same tie to specific ancestral pieces of land. I have, over the years, come to believe that many of the more fundamentalist expressions of Heathenry have at their root a certain geographic insecurity. Whereas our ancestors’ practices would have developed in relationship with tribal lands, with the land itself an interlocutor for us and our Gods, contemporary Heathenry has developed in the United States, in uncomfortable relationship with US culture, at its heart, a fundamentalist, Protestant Christian culture. Nor do I see a resolution of this tension in the future though I think the key may lie in engaging deeply in ancestor cultus. I think our dead are able to bridge those gaps for us, as they likely did for those of our ancestors who traveled far from their native homes as well. We carry our ancestors with us, after all, bound to us through blood, bone, and DNA. That’s not a connection that can be severed, regardless of whatever other locational disconnect we might experience. Given that our presence in what is now the United States comes with a tremendous blood debt, it’s no wonder that there may be some unconscious and existential anxiety present in rooting our native traditions here.
As we work toward our restoration of our traditions, I think it’s important to keep these things in mind. All of us are coming to this work from modern cultures diametrically opposed to the mindset of our polytheistic ancestors. We have been patterned to respond to the world by means of that modern mindset. Part of that modern contamination is an unconscious positioning of the ins and outs of our ancestral religions as ‘primitive.’ (4) As we work toward restoration, I think we need to be very careful to explore how our culture has taught us to engage with the sacred, to position the holy in our lives, how we’ve been taught to respond to emotional experiences, and the idea that one may directly experience the Gods. It’s all too easy to respond in a way that makes us comfortable (condemning mysticism, fixating on the written word, i.e. the lore, holding to modern gender, racial, sexual orientation biases and so forth) but that would have been quite alien if not in direct opposition to the way our ancestors approached their world and their traditions. It’s all too easy to allow our comfort zones to become what determines overall Heathen praxis instead of having the courage and integrity to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable while at the same time looking past the lens of modernity for the way our ancestors would have actually related not only to their world, but to their Gods as well; and if that sounds like a challenge, it is.
Modernity after all has taught us to be very dismissive and exclusionary to our Gods. This has only been exacerbated by the Academy and social thinkers like Emile Durkheim (perhaps one of the most influential minds to the development of both Sociology and Religious Studies) who defined religion as little more than an expression of the social glue that binds a people together.(5) Religion has come to be viewed through a social lens rather than a devotional or pious one. Yes, religion can serve as the binding force of a community; yes it can bestow tremendous benefit on a community, and yes, religious festivals and observances are a chance for a people to come together in shared experience of the sacred but that is a far different thing from positioning the community at the apex of importance in things religious. This is one of the places where I think modern polytheisms, including Heathenry (perhaps most especially Heathenry) get things really, really wrong. As moderns we betray the authenticity of our traditions in so many ways, but none more egregiously than this.
In my opinion, putting anything but the Gods first in a religious tradition is a betrayal of that tradition, just like we see with the Christian right that pushes a conservative political agenda above the gospel message. That’s not to say that we can’t enjoy socializing and coming together in celebration and sharing our experiences. There is a difference though between focusing on the Gods during religious rituals (and not truncating those rituals so one can get to the socializing faster) and then socializing before or after, and using the time of a ritual as an excuse to socialize. It’s been my experience that little thought is given to what the Gods might want (and yes, one can know…that’s what your spiritworkers, your shamans, your diviners are for). A sense of respect, reverence, and awe for the experience of the holy is not cultivated amongst our folk. Perhaps because large swaths of Heathens (not all but many) look so doggedly toward the lore instead of toward the reality of their own devotional experiences as the be all and end all of their religion, the Gods for far too many seem to remain solely ideas in a handful of medieval tales compiled by a pissy Christian politician who happened to be a poet too and who did not want the poetic metaphors, stories, kennings, and allusions of times past to be lost for up and coming poets of his generation.
I think above all else, it’s important, no matter where we are in our faith: a newcomer, or someone who has put in twenty, thirty, forty years or more, to cultivate a sense of awe and reverence for the Gods, for the sacred, for the interactions that we are in fact able to have with Them. These things should be given priority over the lore because we are not, in fact, religions of the Book. We are religions of lived sacred experience and there is a vast difference in worldview between the two. At the heart of any viable and sustainable restoration must be the reclamation of that ancestral mindset, one that valued (and perhaps feared) the Gods, but never doubted Their presence, or the possibility of Their attentions.
We’ve lost our way in two thousand years of Christian hegemony. We’ve forgotten what it is like to live in sacred trust with our ancestors, our land, and our Holy Powers. The most important facet of restoration that we can do, over and above reconstructing any particular ritual, over and above almost anything else, is to work like hell to restore and relearn *that* once more and the way to doing that is not going to be found in the lore. It’s going to be found in the laughter and tears, the trembling and terror of our own devotional experiences, those moments when we connect in utter vulnerability with our ancestors, and hopefully eventually with our Gods. It’s going to be found when we are able to translate those experiences back into public praxis. The hostility toward the sacred, toward the mystic, toward ecstatic cultus is not something naturally ingrained in Heathenry itself; it’s an offshoot of the poison of our own entrenched modernity, a modernity poisoned by monotheism and a disconnect from our dead.
1. paganus, a, um: of or belonging to the country or two a village. May be used substantively to indicate villagers, peasants. It’s also used as a contrast to military life and in this case may be translated as civilian. See here. The etymology of “heathen” is not too different. A search of several etymological sources noted that it was of Germanic origin (Old English form is hǣthen) and as an adjective meant ‘inhabiting open country.’ Our word ‘hearth’ comes from the same root.
2. Native American activist John Trudell talks about just this thing here.
3. This in no way means that one can only be Heathen if one’s ancestors came from those places. Firstly, the Gods call whom They call; secondly, ancient polytheisms were phenomenally flexible. They by and large lacked the xenophobia that has crept into contemporary reconstructions (a response, I think, to the need to both wrench ourselves free of monotheistic oppression and to differentiate ourselves from various Paganisms and other polytheisms–we lack the regional ties, the binding locus of cultus that would have been integral to polytheisms of the ancient world. Instead we’ve substituted in many cases, a hostility and fear of “dual tradition,” something that would have been incomprehensible to our ancestors). One venerated the Gods of one’s people and ancestors, the Gods of the place where one might live (if that differed from one’s ancestral traditions), the Gods of one’s household (then as now, I’m sure blended households existed–Christianity certainly used this to spread its poison via maternal/wifely influence in mixed marriages), and then the Gods of whatever mystery cultus one might choose to initiate into. It was remarkably polyvalent. To use one’s Heathen identity as an excuse for racism of any kind is not only not supported by the lore so many Heathens love to deify, but goes against any polytheistic notion of piety. It’s a modern misunderstanding of the role of ancestor cultus, a misunderstanding rooted in the fractures, damage, and racism of the modern world.
4. I very much believe this is at the heart of such rabid, raving hostility toward devotional work, Deity possession, God-spousery, and ecstatic ritual of any sort — these things not only challenge the known status quo, but we’ve been taught, by a school system and culture infused with Protestant ethics and white privilege to view anything remotely outré (to Protestant Christianity) as ‘what those superstitious savages do over there.” and we believe at a gut level that we’re better than that. It is a triumph for the Filter that we denigrate and denounce the very medicine we need to do this restoration cleanly.
5. See É. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965 )
I’m recycling a piece I wrote last year for my polytheist.com column because I’ve been getting quite a few questions lately on lore and how I think we should be approaching it as Heathens. (carefully and with a grain of salt generally).
Now anyone who’s read my work knows that I have significant issues with the way mainstream Heathenry and Asatru utilize the lore. We’re not religions of the book. We do not have revealed scripture as part of our theological foundation in the same way that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at the average Heathen group. We want our devotional insights and damn it, we want them to conform to lore too despite the fact that positioning lore as any type of religious authority is a deeply flawed premise to begin with,and for a number of reasons (not the least of which is that much of it was written by Christians). Not to mention our ability to interpret what we do have tends to be limited by our comfort levels and imagination. One might say, for instance, that there’s no evidence for possessory work or godspousery in the lore. There actually is, but we tend to interpret it out, because those aren’t things that fit nicely into our landscape of “modern” religion. (Yet another reason to reevaluate what it means to embrace a “modern” perspective).
There is, however, a way to use lore effectively to deepen one’s devotional practice and Heathen identity. In a way, we’re reverse engineering things. As I said in my article:
“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.”
For more of my thoughts on this, as well as specifically my suggestions on how to utilize lore in a way that furthers devotion instead of narrowly blocking it, read the full article here. (it’s free).
Polytheism.com is the only pan-polytheist forum currently in existence today. It is a meeting place for multiple polytheists from a variety of traditions, where necessary theological work is being done. Check it out here.
There’s been some predictable Heathen push back on my latest polytheist.com article: “Towards a Heathen Theology.” It’s been fascinating reading Swain’s article right after posting my own: his piece so neatly demonstrates precisely the type of blind sophistry that I was discussing in my piece that one could almost think we were working together to better make the point about devotion. I could almost thank him for providing such a clear example of everything that is so amiss with Heathenry particularly in the realm of theology (and perhaps reading comprehension).
Firstly, Swain posits that the only reason to be devoted is to gain some boon from the Gods. Right there, he and I are moving from two very different perspectives. Whereas for him, at least according to his writing, the only purpose in prayer or devotion is mercenary, for me it’s part of being a responsible adult. We engage with devotion not because we want something, but because it is the right thing to do. It’s a matter of maintaining right relationship with the Gods, with the Numinous, with the Holy Powers. This idea that the Gods are too busy to bother with us is one of the most destructive ideas currently in play in contemporary Heathenry. It negates from the start the possibility for any type of in depth relationship with the Gods. It nullifies the need for devotional work at all, which I’m sure is the reason it’s such a popular load of crap. One thing that comes through in reading ancient writings is that the Gods were real to these people. Swain and those Heathens like him reify lore without ever considering the mindset of the people who are supposedly reflected in its pages. The thing that we struggle with the most: the reality of the Gods is the thing that was a given to the ancient world. We are the ones lacking and it is specifically in the area of devotion.
Secondly, honoring the ancestors does not preclude honoring the Gods. This is a typical Heathen argument that crops up frequently in this type of discourse and it is founded in a false dichotomy. In reality, these things work hand in hand.
Thirdly, devotion and prayer for their own sake, as expressions of reverence for the Gods are not Christian concepts, or rather they did not originate with Christianity. Pre-Christian polytheists had complex theologies and the earliest prayers that we have on record date from Sumer. That we do not have reams of prayers from early Heathens points more toward their having an oral culture rather than a lack devotional consciousness. Otherwise we are forced to conclude that in comparison to nearly every other polytheistic culture extant prior to Christianity, pre-Christian Heathens were backward and shallow in religion and we have Roman sources noting that this was hardly the case. Tacitus talks about the piety of the German tribes, piety that was lived every day, not just when it was convenient to have a festival.
Swain writes at the closing of his piece:
“In closing, I think Krasskova is either trying to purposefully lead folks to believe those that do not practice devotion to the gods the way she does do not believe in the gods, or perhaps for some reason she actually believes this. Either way makes no difference to me as I feel Krasskova has put little to no thought into why we should practice such devotion, just that we should. And I feel all evidence points to her the ideas of such devotion as coming from Christian ideology. There are far too many similarities. If she can come up with a well thought out, reasoned piece drawing on the lore on why we should practice such devotion, then I might be able to understand. but to simply say we must have such devotion, or we are non-believers will not do. Simply, because many do not do as she does, does not mean we believe in the gods any less.”
I would hope that those reading my work are far better and more deeply ensconced in their devotion than I. It is not a matter of creating cookie-cutter spirituality. Even if we were devoted deeply to the same group of Deities, each person is going to express that uniquely. It will be a unique relationship for each and every person engaging in devotional work. The desired commonality lies in value and prioritization, in other words valuing a devotional life which Swain’s brand of Heathenry does not.
It is common in Heathenry to dismiss uncomfortable ideas or ideas with which one might disagree as ‘Christian’ ideology. Swain should perhaps study ancient history, or even early Christianity. The Christians had as much discomfort with the idea of an informed devotional life (one not easily brought into submission with prevailing orthodoxies) as contemporary Heathens. Hence why holy people like one of my favorite mystics, Mechthild of Magdeburg were as often excommunicated and sometimes even executed as they were canonized.
Finally if one believes in the Gods then it follows that belief should affect behavior. Given what one can so obviously see in Heathenry (evidenced beautifully in Swain’s post), it’s difficult to conclude from behavior any great depth of belief or caring. Swain may attempt to obfuscate the issue by ridiculing or misrepresenting devotion in general and my devotion in particular and he may hold up a lore based defense of devotion as his golden calf (ignoring again my argument that lore is not scripture and we should not need lore to show us how to behave respectfully to the Gods if we are adults) but in the end it comes down to this: Swain and others like him devalue devotion because they simply don’t want to do it. (1) Perhaps the enormity of what the Gods are makes them feel small? I don’t now, but the only right relationship with the Gods that they acknowledge is one in which the Gods barely exist.
- I’ve noted before in other articles that the endlessly quoted verse from the Havamal “Tis better not to give than to give too much…” is inevitably always quoted out of context. Read this in context and it clearly refers to negotiating with the rune spirits, not Gods and not ancestors. It’s a perfect example of the misuse and mis-interpretation of lore to edit out anything that might point to devotion or to skew it out of context and true.
My latest article is now available at polytheist.com. Here I discuss the need for articulated discussions and explorations of theology within Heathenry, and the ongoing tension between praxis and doxa. I talk about the need to go past flat discussions of ‘lore’ and provide a few concrete examples of how to begin the process of moving from conversion mindset to something closer approximating that of pre-Christian Heathenry. Ultimately I ask the question, so aptly synthesized by the editor at polytheist.com, of “where does theology dwell?” Why do we need these discussion so desperately and precisely what is it that will allow us to build a sustainable, inter-generational tradition?
Check it out, folks and feel free to leave feedback either here or at polytheist.com. This is a continuation of the discussion of tradition and what it means to prioritize that over the individual, and what it means to keep the Gods at the heart of it all.
I just read Edward Butler’s latest at polytheist.com — which can be found here–and as always it has given me a great deal of food for thought. I highly recommend taking time to read this carefully. He highlights another layer of restoration with which we as polytheists must, of necessity, engage. I give you a snippet here:
“Modern commentators have inevitably, in attempting to grasp the genesis of these disciplines in ancient polytheist thinkers, either separated these theological concerns from their proto-scientific activities, as though these were in some tension with each other, or have used the presence of polytheistic theologies in these thinkers as proof that their concepts had failed to cross a crucial threshold of scientificity. A perspective informed by polytheistic metaphysics can, by contrast, restore the integrity of ancient thought. Moreover, in restoring the continuity between polytheistic theologies, wisdom traditions and the beginnings of scientific speculation, the polytheist can correct an excessively Eurocentric account of the development of the sciences, because the fundamental intellectual and ontological basis of the sciences is seen to exist in every culture, though historical contingencies have led to certain aspects being developed further in some cultures than in others.”
There is some ground that we should never, ever cede. Working in both Religious Studies and Classics I have absolutely seen the academic dismissal of the polytheist perspective in approaching these philosophers and it is both unfortunate and something that I think we must endeavor to correct, if only in our own approach to these works, works which evolved out of a deeply pious and polytheistic culture. Let us take these philosophers at their own words and instead of explaining away their piety, explore what it means that these men of science were also men who could proudly exclaim that we live in a world full of Gods.
My March column is now up at Polytheist.com. I’m particularly excited about this piece and I will be writing more on our cosmogony.
Here’s an excerpt from “In the Beginning,” at polytheist.com.
Our cosmogony begins with a Big Bang. This is a very modern term, and perhaps a bit too prosaic to describe the type of collision conveyed through our mythos. (1) Well before the Gods became, there is violence, a grinding together, there is noise and sound, there is excitement, there is confusion, there is change and exchange. — a maelstrom, but a maelstrom with purpose. There is a coming together that resulted in a change of potentiality into matter, and matter into the seed of unnumbered possibilities. Does it happen slowly or all at once in a huge crash? We have no way of knowing for sure, though if we look at the Gylfaginning, and examine the fragments of cosmogonic lore left to us, it would seem to point to a slow interaction over an extensive period of “time.” (Even so, certainly there would be that one micro-second, that tipping point where interaction or collision gave birth to something new). What we do know is that something happens that forever changes the very fabric, the space, and materiality of Being. (It brings potentiality of being into temporality of being). Something happens and it is irreversible. The world of ice and the world of fire collide and from that explosion of oppositional forces the cosmos begins to unfold. This is our starting point. What existed before this? Where did Muspelheim and Niflheim originate? What prompted this collision?–it’s not important. It’s not relevant to the discussion. Our starting point is the engagement of oppositional forces. It’s that tension and what comes from it: its fruitfulness, not where it happened or what preceded it that we are meant to focus on. Our starting point instead is the blinding explosion of force: fire and ice, action and stillness, movement and stasis, heat and cold, expansion and contraction, light and shadow, projection and retraction…and everything in between.
My latest column at polytheist.com is now available here. I am very pleased with this particular article. In it, I discuss how to engage with lore in a devotional context, drawing on my recent academic study of a process called ‘lectio divina.’ It is a way not just of studying or memorizing lore, but of using it as a springboard to open oneself up to direct experience of the Gods.
I often criticize Heathens for being far too dependent on the written word. We are not, after all, religions of the book and I think there is a regrettable tendency to default to a certain reification of what we term “the lore” in place of seeking out the direct experience of our Gods. In fact, i think all too often we use study of the lore to keep the Gods at arms length. I talk about why this may be so in our community, and provide an alternative that allows for the use of lore but encourages the reader to go more deeply into the devotional experience at the same time, using study of lore as a map for the journey.
I remain deeply suspicious of any experience that is mediated by a text, but at least I’m seeing some good models — albeit it medieval ones!–for how this can be done to augment rather than block the mystical experience. Anyway, check out my article and feel free to comment, either at polytheist.com or directly here.