Category Archives: theology

Brjóta ekki bein (Don’t Break the Bones): Sacrifice in the Northern Tradition

(I know that this is going to be a challenging topic for some of you. If you are bothered by frank discussions of religion and animal sacrifice, stop reading and go watch this cat video. Here’s some pussies for you to play with. For everyone else, let’s have an adult conversation).

Years and years ago (at least fifteen if not longer) when I was still Theodish, I remember many heated discussions over the proper way to perform sacrifice. Those among us who were trained to perform this ritual were split about the proper way to dispatch the chosen animals. Some favored shooting the animal in the head first (as a mercy) and others using a clean cut at the throat. One of the reasons given for preferring the traditional method (the cut of the knife) was the story of the Thor and His goats.

Thor’s chariot is driven by two goats: Tanngrisnir (snarler, one who bears his teeth) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder). When necessary, Thor is able to kill, cook, and consume these goats who will then be restored to life with His hammer provided their bones are left intact. The prose Edda tells the story of Thor’s visit to a farmer. He and Loki stop for rest, and Thor (perhaps knowing that hosting two Gods is a bit much for a poor farmer) offers up His two goats in sacrifice to provide the evening’s meal. There’s one caveat: the bones must not be cracked for their marrow. They must remain intact. The farmer’s son Thjalfi can’t resist and cracks one leg bone to suck a bit of the marrow. When Thor restores the goats to life, one of them is lame. In reparation for this, the peasant offers his children Thjalfi and Roskva to Thor as servants. It’s an entertaining tale and Loki, Thor, and the children go off to have adventures. For our purposes, however, the important point is the emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the bones.

In the Theod, we solved the initial debate by choosing to sacrifice in the traditional way (and in retrospect I’m very, very glad we did so). At the time, I didn’t see the problem with shooting the animal first. It seemed merciful and kind but over the years I’ve completely changed my position. Partly, I’ve had so much more experience with proper sacrifice and I’ve become far more confident in making sacrifice myself, and I’ve had far more exposure to other traditions where this is likewise common. I learned several things, not the least of which was that if a cut is done cleanly and correctly, it is actually all but painless for the animal. I’ve also come to realize how crucially important this story is to the ritual scaffolding in which sacrifice must take place.

When we do these ritual actions, like sacrifice, we’re re-enacting our cosmology. We’re bringing to life the communal mysteries of our tradition. A living tradition exists in those currents and it is the obligation of those practicing it to renew them regularly.

This is also largely why I no longer believe it appropriate to shoot the animal before cutting its throat. A) it’s far more humane to cut properly and B) any other method is a violation of ritual protocol. The bones must remain intact. I went back and forth on this for years and I used to come down on the side of shooting the animal first if one felt one must but now, I think that is incorrect. As we learn better, we do better. A sacrifice is more than just a collection of mechanical techniques. It is the living expression of a tradition. It is a sacrament.

For the blotere,(1) there are three parts to any sacrifice that must be carefully learned and understood: the mechanics (how to make the cut and to do it painlessly for the animal, and effectively), how to do the divination to determine how to dispose of the sacrifice and whether or not it was accepted, and the ritual itself, in other words, how to infuse the entire procedure with the holy, how to make the conscious connections between the cosmic structures in which we’re working, the ritual being done, the living tradition, and the Gods Themselves. This is a ritual process. It’s not enough to simply cut an animal’s throat, or kill it in some other way, and give it to the Gods. There is a proper ritual scaffolding for the act, an act that is our holiest and most important of sacraments.

It’s not just that you’re giving a life to the Gods; the act of sacrifice is an imitation of primordial creation: Odin, Lodhur, and Hoenir create the world out of the slaughter of Ymir. Sacrifice is tapping into that, recreating that act, everything that it encompasses, bringing our traditions into being again and again and again and that’s potent magic.(2) It must be approached in a proper way, with purity and focus, and attention to every detail. It’s not enough just to slaughter. We must understand what we’re tapping into and why.

This all came up recently within my lineage when one of my apprentices received inspiration for a sacrificial song. We had long felt that there should be some sort of song sung when the animal is being sacrificed.(3) In fact, it’s rather odd for our traditions not to have one; after all, the ATR have a special song that is sung when an animal is given and so did many Greek and Roman traditions. It was part of the procedure in many IE traditions and it always seemed rather odd to find the Norse and Germanic ones lacking. I was delighted when L. came to me with his song and when I did divination to confirm its appropriateness, the sense of it was overwhelming. Our tradition regained one of its songs. Think about how profound that is for a moment. When our traditions were destroyed by Christianity, our songs fell silent. Our procedures were lost. The scaffolding that supported our traditions was broken. This is one step back to full restoration and that is incredible.

It brings home the necessity, the crucial necessity of re-sacralizing our ritual procedures. It’s not enough to do, rather we must understand how to invest these actions with the sacred and why – otherwise, it’s pointless. (4) We must open ourselves up once again to awareness of the Holy. Our Gods are counting on us. Our traditions demand it.

The next time I take up the sacrificial knife and prepare myself for this ritual, I will think on this: Thor had two goats given over to nourish both Gods and man. Their bones must always remain unbroken and they will be restored to life. As I take up the blotere’s blade, with each offering, I am calling our traditions back to life again, and again, and again. May they flourish.

Notes:

1. sacrificial priest
2. this article is about ritual sacrifice to the Gods only. Sacrifice for magical purposes is a different matter all together, not covered here.
3. It doesn’t matter to which Deity the animal is being given, or how the animal is disposed of afterwards: the act of sacrifice itself taps into certain cosmic grooves within the tradition.
4. and a mockery of our ancestral ways.

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What does it mean to be a lineage-carrier?

One of my apprentices asked me this question not too long ago. Since then the topic has come up a couple of other times and I thought I would answer it here. It’s important.

A lineage-carrier is one A) to whom the Gods have entrusted the burden and weight of a tradition and/or B) who has been initiated into the Mysteries of specific Gods within specific traditions. Initiation then carries with it certain obligations to the tradition itself and often to one’s elders as well.

Initiation moreover, brings one into the Mysteries, rewires and reworks one’s mind and soul so that one may be deeply immersed in carrying those Mysteries, and so that one may be tied into the Tradition directly, carrying both its beauty and the twin obligations of protection and transmission. Connecting to the Tradition in this way makes one a part of that Tradition’s lineage.

Before I go farther into what a lineage is, I want to first touch on what a Tradition is. I think it’s far too easy to think of a Tradition as just the particular flavor of polytheism that one might practice. Sure, it’s that but it’s much, much more. It is a living container for the Mysteries of the Gods Who Themselves shaped and created the Tradition. It is a conduit from the ancestors and from the Gods to us – to those who will take up their positions within this tapestry. It’s not inactive or static or un-alive. It is sacred, ordered space, a nexus where we and the Powers meet. It overlays our world and when thriving and strong imprints the traces of our Gods upon it. It sacralizes and shapes our perceptions in ways that continuously repattern us to receive the Gods. Even if you haven’t been initiated into any Mysteries, when you make the commitment to begin honoring specific Gods, you are entering into the outer chambers of Their specific traditions. You’re doing your part.

Lineage is what flows through and sustains a Tradition. It is the living conduits—those people who have worked and lived their lives centered within their Traditions’ borders. It is all those ancestors who venerated these Gods and carried these Mysteries, us now working to restore and properly root these things, and all those who will come after us into the Mysteries, into the Tradition, into the sphere of the Gods. (The same Gods may be part of multiple traditions, there may be regional variants…there may be multiple threads within a single tradition, as different elders initiate their students and receive different parts of the whole). None of this is metaphorical. It is a blistering, heavy, often painful reality. It consumes the entire sensorium at times. It is as palpable as the earth under our feet.

A Lineage-Carrier, particularly an elder (one who has received the push to restore a tradition, refound a tradition, who carries it, teaches it, and is authorized by the Gods and possibly other living elders to initiate) carries the tradition on his or her back, in the heart, bears the voices of the Gods and dead in memory and mind. It is not metaphorical. One in this position is directly tied into the flow of past-present-and future of the Tradition. It’s a constant companion, a mandate, and obligation. Those on whom the burden of the Tradition rests (including now the burden of restoration) are directly responsible to the Gods for planting the seeds of restoration, nurturing that seedling, for protecting the Tradition from those who are ill prepared, impious, who would twist and pervert it for personal gain, they are likewise responsible for passing it on to those who are prepared. Ultimate loyalty must always be to the Tradition itself, over and above any personal sentiments. This is something so much bigger than any individual person.

To be a lineage-carrier is to live for the Tradition: to sleep it, eat it, breathe it , to be bound to it mind, body, and soul. It is to wake in the middle of the night with the screaming of the ancestors filling your mind, shrieking in your head. It is to feel the push of the Gods constantly to do more. It is to know that your every action must be one that restores a little more, strengthens a little more, builds integrity and character – not as we think of those things today, but as our Gods and ancestors think of them. We cannot restore a tradition without also recommitting to and restoring the values and cultural awareness that shaped our ancestors who were born, lived, and died within these Traditions. It means throwing oneself willingly into a complete reordering of one’s inner life. Everything comes to serve the Tradition and more importantly to serve the Gods.

The result is that this changes everything about the way a lineage-carrier moves in the world. It changes everything about how he or she prioritizes interactions and the things of this world. We become connected to the flow of the Tradition itself and that has a tremendous impact on how one prioritizes. There is always something bigger like a cosmic sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head: how is an action taken today furthering the Tradition tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow, or a year, or ten years, or twenty? We have to see that.

It’s dizzying after an initiation to be dropped into this. Suddenly ‘lineage’ isn’t just a word. Suddenly there’s a palpable sense of thousands upon thousands of people, a whole tribe at one’s back and they may or may not be happy with you (the paucity of values and foundation and comprehension that we have as moderns is often quite vexing to them. There was a basic foundation that even the most ill prepared person coming to a Tradition in the ancient world had, by virtue of growing up in a polytheistic culture that we lack and this is a real problem). What they definitely are is there. Likewise, for those who had the Gods drop a lineage on their backs with the mandate to see it flower, there is a constant awareness of that weight. Eventually that weight might be shared as others become lineage-carriers but even then, for those who are by default elders the fire of having one’s world remade by that living ordered space into which one has been tied can be overwhelming. Those of our lineage living before our traditions were destroyed (by monotheists) lived in cultures that to some degree or another support these Traditions and all that they teach. That is not the case with us today. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is how it was put to me a very long time ago: We are pearls in a gleaming thread that stretches behind us as far as one can possibly imagine and before us also as far as one can possibly imagine. We hold that space and hold that space and hold that space. In aeternum.

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Schrödinger’s God

loki-meme

A colleague posted this image on facebook and it got me thinking and I’m going to share some of those thoughts with you now. The statement in the image implies that since at some point Loki was bound, He cannot now be an active part of the pantheon. The corollary to that of course calls into question the integrity and veracity of those who claim devotion to Him. That’s what this meme is clearly stating.

Loki is a polarizing figure in contemporary Norse and Germanic traditions. Some denominations venerate Him, some don’t, some excoriate Him, and some will pour out offerings to Him when Odin is given offerings but only because of a single line from the Lokasenna.(1) They pour them out, but they don’t like it. I think it fair to say that no other commonly recognized God evokes such strong feelings (one way or another) as this one. (2)

Assuming however, that because Loki was once bound, that He is always bound, or that in being bound, He loses His capacity to act in our world is a bit problematic from a theological point of view. It makes for nice apologetics for those who detest His veneration and want an excuse to mock those who hold Him dear, but theologically it doesn’t quite hold up.

Firstly, to make the assumption described in the photo is to assume that the Gods are bound by substance, corporeality, and temporality in exactly the same way that we as human beings are bound.(3) We know that the Gods are outside of these things because They created them, existing before these substantive things ever were. This is all the more so if Loki and Loðúrr are indeed the same Being. While not all Gods may have been involved in that particular moment of fixing the materiality (and by extension temporality) of the worlds, there are Three Who were: Odin, Vili, and Vé or Odin, Hoenir, and Loðúrr, the latter of Whom I hold with the skalds to be Loki. If temporality then has no hold on Them, in the way that it does for us as human beings, if Their nature as Holy Powers is by necessity different from ours (which I’m going to assume for sake of this discussion it is. If you want a proof, I can play Anselm later), then it follows that Loki, like Schrödinger’s Cat can be at once bound and unbound. Time would not be a mitigating factor here.

That is the key to something called ‘mythic time.’ Perhaps part of Loki is always bound as part of Odin is always hanging on Yggdrasil –but here we veer into the realm of Mystery. He is bound and not bound. Loki devotee Kenaz Filan says, “For me the binding of Loki is one of the greatest sacred Mysteries of our cultus, and Sigyn’s loyalty to Her spouse one of the greatest examples of piety the Nine Worlds has ever seen. It’s not something to be joked about.” (4)

In the Eddas, Snorri, writing as a Christian two centuries after conversion carefully euhemerized the Gods. In other words, he presented the stories he was telling as though the main figure, the Gods, were at one ancient time, people. He stripped the sacred from our tales because he was not Heathen. He was writing a guide for poets who were, having been Christian for two hundred years, forgetting the meaning of the various kennings employed in Norse poetry. He was not a devout man and though we owe him a debt for preserving what he did, it would have been better had we never been exposed to Christianity in the first place. We have fragments of what was once invariably complex and nuanced body of regional practices. Snorri reduced our Gods to human. Why are we so eager to do the same? Mythic time is not our time. The Gods are not people.(5)

Nor are our stories morality plays. So much of medieval Christian literature served as morality plays for the listeners, readers, or viewers. That is not the case with our sacred stories. They were never intended to be taken as a guide to life or to inculcate values.(6) They were intended to teach us something about the Gods. They were keys to the Mysteries of the Gods.

Loki is, whether some Heathens like it or not, a key figure in our cosmology. He is a catalyst – the enemy of entropy. He is a helper to the Gods, essential in acquiring for Them Their primary attributes (Odin’s spear, Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s boat, etc.). If He is indeed, as the skalds maintain, Loðúrr, then He likewise has a powerful cosmological role in re-ifying creation within our mythos again and again and again. He carries the holy, the numinous into our world and along the rainbow bridge to all the worlds, traveling with Thor, Protector of Midgard. Given the strength with which His cultus has grown over the past decade, across denominations, even across religious boundaries, it may be that the question of whether or not He is still bound, is effectively moot. Res ipsa loquitur.

Notes:

  1. Lokasenna, stanza 9.
  2. To the point that some Heathens even question whether or not He is a God. The most common refrain along this line of thinking is “He’s nowhere called a God, He’s a Jotun!” Actually, for those who need a reference from the surviving skaldic materials, Loki is actually referred as ‘Ás’ in Gylfaginning, chapter 20. (The cry then goes up from some Heathens, ‘well, Snorri didn’t mean that!” And thus interpreting out of the material all the inconvenient facts that would make your religion something other than polytheistic Protestantism begins. * sarcasm *) Ás of course, refers to a member of the dominant pantheon of the Norse, the Aesir. We could say that it means ‘god’ but that’s not exactly its primary translation (there are other words in Old Norse that one could use for that). It implies one of the holy Powers, specifically one associated in some way with the Aesir, that tribe of Gods responsible for ordering the cosmos.

Of course the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jotnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jotnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás’…unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers (of Whom Loki may be one – more on that in a moment) decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order (and there’s enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumezil certainly thought so), then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable (all Aesir having begun as Jotnar perhaps?) and we likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, Whose cosmological focus is different. One wonders at the mutability of membership in these divine clans.

In the creation story, Vili and Vé are sometimes called Hoenir and Loðúrr. The identification of Loki with Loðúrr is not universally accepted but there is skaldic evidence. As Dagulf Loptson notes in his article here:


Völuspá 18


Þrymlur I-III 21

“The identification of Loki as Loðúrr is one that has been highly debated, though in reality becomes perfectly blatant if one reads the Icelandic rímr, which are epic ballads from the 14th century. One of these ballads, Þrymlur (which was written roughly between CE 1300-1400) follows the same basic storyline as Þrymskviða. Both stories are an account of how Þórr’s hammer Mjöllnir was stolen by the giant Þrymr, who demands Freyja as his bride in exchange for it. Þórr is then persuaded to disguise himself as Freyja in order to reclaim his hammer, and Loki accompanies him disguised as his bridesmaid. In the Þrymlur account of the story, Loki is directly referred to by Þrymr as “Lóður” when he comes to visit him.”

  1. It is also to assume that we possess the full canon of sacred stories. We know that we do not. We likewise know that the stories we do possess were, to one degree or another, Christianized. This has been an ongoing problem within Heathenry. Because most of us grow up in religions bound by “scripture,” I think there’s an instinctive desire to have the same type of written authority and written legitimacy in our polytheisms. It doesn’t work that way though and for our ancestors never worked that way. One may use the lore to provide something of a scaffolding for one’s practice, to keep one from going off the rails (see here or here) but to assign it the authority of the Bible or Koran is stupid, anachronistic, and ultimately deleterious to the traditions. It is a source of information, information that must be carefully picked apart and analyzed. It is not the word of the Gods.
  2. We don’t, I think, see the Gods interfering with and specifically undoing the work of another God. That would be a violation of Their sphere of influence, a breach of cosmic order. The question may be thus raised of how much of Loki’s power to act is bound when He undergoes this ordeal, as well as for how long. In Greek mythos we have one story of Apollo violating cosmic order to avenge His son. He is banished and has to serve a mortal for a specific period of time. The banishment and service is temporary however which raises the question of the imbalance that might be created by permanently binding a God’s power, as well as the question of whether or not such a thing is even possible for the Gods to do.
  3. To reify Snorri is the equivalent of treating some fanfiction on tumblr authored by someone who can’t tell the difference between a marvel character and a Norse God as scripture; or let me correct that, perhaps it’s better to say the equivalent of treating Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” as scripture since Snorri did , unlike most on tumblr, have talent.
  4. Almost without exception in polytheistic cultures that role was taken by philosophy. We don’t know what type of philosophies the Northlands would have developed, had they been left unmolested by Christianity. But we do have the examples of Greece and Rome, as well as the Celts with their Druidic class, not to mention Indian traditions, that point to a differentiation between religion which is about relating to the Gods, and wisdom traditions like philosophy which are about developing oneself as decent human beings. There’s no reason to think that the Norse, amongst all the extant IE traditions, would have differed in this regard.

 

 

Musings on Polytheism

Polytheism is the belief in and veneration of many Gods as independent, sentient Beings. Across cultures, it most often incorporates some degree of ancestor veneration and animism as well. At some point in the flow of religious history, all of us came from polytheistic traditions. Our ancestors prior to the influx of monotheistic contamination were polytheistic. The particularities of that polytheism, to paraphrase a noted anthropologist, went without saying because they came without saying. (#Bourdieu) People were raised in an entire community inculcated with the framework of polytheistic belief. It was the way people viewed the world. It shaped their values. It didn’t require self-conscious analysis. We today don’t have that.

Because of this, it’s incredibly easy for that monotheistic contamination to taint our work. It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, to allow contemporary ideas that may not be rooted in either a polytheistic world view or any sense of piety to take the place of right behavior and relationship with the Gods; (#notashamedtobepious) and because we are not just rebuilding traditions of veneration but the religious communities and cultures as well, I believe it’s absolutely crucial for polytheists to network, work together, and speak out, to take a stand, to draw a line and hold it hard and fast. I don’t mean political activism. I mean Gods-driven activity, devotion, and work. (#Kony2012) It’s more crucial now than ever before save perhaps when our traditions were first destroyed. Why? Because there is momentum behind the restoration now. We have a chance, slim though it might be, to throw open the doors of our world to the Gods again and drive back the depredations of monotheism, modernism, and Marxism (#evilms). At least a little. At least more than we have had for thousands of years — if we can haul our heads out of Facebook long enough to make an occasional offering that is. (#noevilms)

This is sacred ground. Our traditions are sacred repositories of wisdom. They are treasures passed down from our ancestors, ours to tend and cultivate. (#honoryourancestors) This goes beyond *us*. This is about the Gods, the ancestors, and restoring balance to the world. It is about rebuilding our traditions in the wake of monotheism, modernism, and Marxism and in the wake of its retainers: colonialism, racism, devastation, and genocide – its bastard spawn. We need to move beyond the models that we’ve been given. I believe part of the knee-jerk reaction against piety and belief and devotion comes from a very understandable place. I’ve seen people so harmed, so hurt, so wounded by the monotheisms in which they were raised that the word “God” causes them physical pain. I’ve seen people so hungry for spiritual connection that it’s almost a constant pain inside of them, but when it is proffered, when the opportunity is present, these same people respond with condescension and contempt, arrogance all as a protective measure because they have been brutalized by the monotheism in which they were raised. God and piety and respect and humility have become synonymous with an erasure of human potential and creativity. I’m here to tell you it was not always so. (#notalwaysso) Right relationship with the Gods, an acknowledgement that the Gods exist enhances human potential, human creativity, human joy. At its best, when we as humans don’t muck it up, it causes every other thing in one’s life to fall into glorious place. The way these things are now, twisted and maimed by centuries of monotheism, modernism, and Marxism in which “God” or celebrities or the proletariat hold goodness over our heads like a perverse sword of Damocles from on high, is not the way they always were. We need to go back and restore the original meaning of things. (That is what modernism and post modernism does, you know: it destroys meaning and value leaving us prey to predatory philosophies like Marxism. If all truth is relative after all, and 2+2=5, you have no bulwark against mental and ideological tyranny. #nothingtolosebutyourmind).

Let me give you an example. Take the word ‘anathema.’ We use that today for something awful, blasphemous, foul. Do you know what it meant before early Christians got their hands on it? It means “an offering placed before an image of the Gods.” This, when I first learned it, was a key in a lock mentally for me. There are many more words that were obviously changed but when we talk about the restoration of polytheistic devotion, we’re dealing even more, with shifts and changes that aren’t so obvious. When did humility for instance stop being associated with making fertile the mind and soul and spirit by right behavior and come to imply debasement and mental enslavement? When did piety become something perverse? When did the reality of the Gods become something to fight against? When was tumblr made? We need first and foremost to take these things back (except tumblr. They can have that cesspool. #notmycesspool).

In the long flow of humanity, monotheism is but a blip. It is a very young mutation. Our world was polytheistic far, far, far longer than most of us realize. That is important. That tells me that the way things are now is not the way they have always been. Moreover, it’s not the way they have to be in the future. Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales put it best when he said that we live in a world full of Gods (to the perplexity of modern philosophers who go through intellectual gymnastics trying to prove he didn’t mean what he said) and he was right. (#worldfullofgods) We do and when one truly realizes that, everything changes for the better and then it’s just a matter, despite our stumbling, of getting ourselves into right relationship and it’s not so hard really when that first illusion has been cracked, the illusion that we are the highest power in the cosmos. More and more I think it has to start with addressing the fundamental damage done by monotheism, damage that strikes at the heart of our collective capacity to experience a healthy devotional life.

I have no answers here. What I do have is a renewed commitment toward developing a strong and enduring polytheistic consciousness in our world. Let us aim for a post-monotheist, post-post-post-post modernist, and a world that doesn’t even know what Marxism is. We need to know the lay of the theological land and then we need to take it back. (#decolonizeyourbrain, #takeitback, #polytheistworld, #livedeliciously).

How About A Big, Fat NO

There is one question, just one, that I find in 98% of cases, tremendously irritating. It’s a question I don’t want to receive, one I’m not particularly nice at answering, and one that I’m going to be discussing today.

“How do you know the Gods and spirits are real? How do you know They’re speaking to you and that it isn’t some trick of the mind, hormones, pain, drugs, etc. Prove it to me because I’ve tried, I’ve gone through (insert name of three to five different practices here) and have never gotten anything. So, convince me.”

It’s that last little bit, the ‘convince me’ part that sets my teeth on edge more than the actual question itself, so I hope y’all will pardon me for being a bit blunt.  The question isn’t so egregious by itself. I mean, I understand how people who have not had much contact with the Holy Powers, or who are just starting out, might be moved to ask it. People, I’ve found, want to be sure they’re doing it right…whatever the ‘it’ of their spiritual lives happens to be. I get that. Hell, I want to be sure I’m doing it right! I don’t ever want to offend one of the Powers. So insofar as the question itself goes, generally it stems from not unworthy motivation, particularly when one is concerned about being in right relationship with the Gods and spirits. 

My problem is inevitably with the corollaries that all too often accompany it, corollaries that have absolutely nothing to do with getting oneself in right relationship with the Powers and everything with abrogating responsibility for one’s own spiritual life.

To those people I say the following: Just because you’re incapable or unwilling of doing the necessary work to engage with the Powers, don’t suppose that’s the case for all of us. Just because you’re too mired in your post modern bullshit to open up into devotional headspace don’t assume that’s the case for all of us either. Just because you value your post modern politics more than devotion and piety, definitely don’t project that onto us.

Newsflash: Just because *you* can’t sense or know something, doesn’t mean it’s not true. I don’t understand particle physics but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it exists. Your limited world is not the be all and end all of existence-not even for you. If you’re not experiencing anything when you do your seeking perhaps you’re too caught up in “belief”, perhaps you’re not listening, perhaps it’s not your wyrd, or perhaps YOU are the problem. The Gods after all, don’t owe you a response and I don’t either. Maybe spend less time floating through traditions and asking foolish questions with the expectation of immediate answers and more time honoring your ancestors and making offerings to the Gods and approaching whatever living elders you have within your tradition with a modicum of humility. Spend more time doing the work and honoring the Powers and less time worrying about whether or not your ego is being adequately stroked. 

In case you can’t tell, this question aggravates me on a number of fronts. 

Firstly, it presupposes that the Gods and spirits are there for our benefit. It presupposes that one is owed some sort of grand cosmological response. It presupposes that such knowledge can just be handed to one without effort, and it prioritizes the questioner’s identity an will over the idea of right belief, action, and devotional practice. 

I usually get this from people who say that no matter how hard they have tried, they can’t find evidence of the reality of the Gods. They’ve gone through half a dozen traditions. blah blah blah. 

You know what? Try committing to one. Stop assuming that you’re owed anything. Stop assuming that the Gods and spirits should prove themselves to you. Stop assuming it’s all going to be handed to you immediately. Stop. Just fucking stop. 

Secondly, this type of attitude demands explanation of mysteries that can only be acquired through experience and the grace of initiation. It is demanding access into a body of knowledge to which one has no lawful right. It is demanding what does not belong to one by right or by grace. 

This is an impiety. Initiation is not something to be demanded. Mysteries are revealed when the Gods and ancestors deem it time. One does not demand access without discipline and devotion. Asking this question as so many do is an attempt at a short cut and it doesn’t work that way.  

We have a perfect example, upon which people may meditate of just this level of hubris in the character of Pentheus from Euripides’ ” Bakchai.” This is a powerful mystery play and it highlights, amongst other things, the inviolability of sacred rites. Initiation — and by initiation I am including knowledge and wisdom gained through experience, practice, and the grace of the Gods as much as any formal ritual that breaks open the head and heart to the sacred — is not a thing to be demanded. It may be sought through devotion and commitment, but not *demanded* and there is always a spiritual price. Moreover, even were I to answer the question, what could I possibly say that would be comprehensible to someone who ranks their comfort, their ego, and their own ingrained paradigms over the Powers? What could I possibly say? Those who have directly experienced the Powers speak a different language from those who have only experienced the metaphysical masturbation of their own egos. 

Finally, by demanding “convince me,” it foists the responsibility for one’s spiritual life off on me. “Do the hard work and all the thinking for me” is what the questioner is actually saying. You know what? I’m too fucking busy doing my work and honoring my Gods. It’s not my *job* to convince you. Do the work yourself. 

Too many people want access to the mysteries, they want access to power without any obligations to the Powers. It doesn’t work that way. Why should the keepers of any tradition reveal its secrets, why should the Powers reveal Themselves to someone unwilling or unable to commit him or herself to devotion? There’s the old saying: you can’t always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need. I think that holds true and what most of these people seem to need is to be told NO. 

So let me oblige: no, I will not answer this question. NO I will not hand you knowledge gained only through experience. NO I will not pat you on the head and tell you that jumping from tradition to tradition demanding wisdom and paying no homage to the Powers is the way to go. No I will not do your spiritual work for you. Neither I nor the Gods took out a fucking franchise in Burger King. You do not get to have it your way. 

You want to try working, learning the process of devotion, learning how to love and honor the Gods and ancestors? I’ll go to the wall for you then. I’ll answer any question you throw. I’ll do my damnedest to help you get sorted and help you succeed.  Don’t come to me demanding, “convince me” though, because my response will be short. My response will be a big, fat “NO.”

Gender, Runes, and the Great, Yawning Gap

 

(Most of this is drawn from a conversation I’m having with several other spirit-workers and NT shamans. We’ve been discussing and exploring our cosmology, specifically the Norse creation story. I write a bit about that here and this delves a bit deeper into some of the ideas expressed in that piece. This is speculative, posted mostly to give myself a record of my thoughts).

I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize the importance of our cosmogony. I think any understanding of the way Heathenry and the Northern Tradition works must start with an exploration and understanding of our cosmogony, because that is the lens through which we are expected to engage with the world, relationships, and everything in between. I’ve occasionally seen the primal Gap (Ginnungagap) described as a ‘womb’ but I really do not like the image of a ‘womb’ for the Gap. It’s too much a gendered term. The Gap is a crucible and for many reasons that I’ll be discussing here, precedes any idea of gender.

Likewise with the runes: one often ascribes gender to them (and they can in fact present as gendered) but I think it’s perhaps a mistake to assume that any gendered presentation represents the actual nature of the rune itself, and for many of the same reasons as with the Gap.

I’ll start with the runes because in many ways, they’re easier to touch on than our cosmogony. From my experience, some specific rune spirits might take on a gender, but as a whole, they’re not what we would term masculine and feminine in their essence. I think this is important…I don’t think that like the Odu, (with whom I have seem the runes often compared) they’re building blocks of creation. Instead, I think they in some way expand and expound from the Gap, almost like agents provocateur, instruments that carry that synergy wherever it needs to go, especially at the points where wyrd begins. This is all speculative theology but the runes are not of this world. They were never of the human world (at least not the elder. I have suspicions about the younger. I suspect that the younger were born of the elder, and born to be a more direct bridge to this world, are more inherently connected to this plane of existence). They take on gender, or can take it on, when they enter our world/state of being but within their own natural realm, the Gap, it is an alien idea.

I think we really have to be careful of co-opting gendered language for these things. That’s immediately a category and a limitation and for those things that are beyond temporality and even materiality, it’s important to resist that urge. All the more so as those terms carry so much weight in our culture. We reduce the power of these Forces (the Gap, the worlds within the Gap before creation, even the runes) when we make them feminine or masculine. We reduce their nature, blocking it off and culling it down, parceling it out when we ascribe to it those categories that limit with respect to substance and manifestation. Sometimes it’s inevitable. We need a means to discuss these things after all, but I think with the runes, we can deal with them as they are, and the Gap as well without projecting our own gendered language onto them. (I do think that within the rune families, rune spirits will choose to appear in a variety of genders but I think it’s an assumed guise for our sake. Half of learning how to work with the runes is a matter of us learning how to communicate with them, and them learning our interior symbol system, i.e. how to communicate with us. Taking on gendered forms may improve communication). When we begin exploring our cosmogony, we’re challenged to move beyond ideas of gender as these somehow inherently meta categories of universal structure.

The first actively gendered force that we have is Audhumla, the sacred cow and that is crucial. Once materiality is yoked to temporality, once it’s out of the Gap and into Being, once there is substance, it’s filtered through Audhumla, that feminine force that brings Ymir into being and starts the process of embodied creation

I remember thinking about the creation story and thinking, “where the fuck did the cow come from?” but it’s an IE motif: the active principle of embodied creation, once things have moved into materiality, is a cow: a feminine, or rather female force. Cows were wealth, abundance – we see this in the runes too with fehu, domestic cattle and wealth (versus Uruz, initiation and the challenge of the wild aurochs). It’s potentiality for abundance, the power of manifestation (I believe even Audhumla’s name means ‘wealth.’). That’s a different level from the moments preceding creation and again from creation itself, at once removed from the Otherness of the Gap. For most of us, I think that when the runes present as gendered, that’s here, in our world/state of being, not in the Gap, not their origin point and that difference is significant. It may be that there is how the runes are there, and how they can choose to be here, or how they are filtered through here.

I think we need to step back and examine how often we contextualize based on gender. The moment you ascribe that category, you’ve put a limit on something. You’ve also humanized it. Now sometimes that happens. Our Gods taken on gender for instance…note I said ‘take on.’ I don’t’ want to limit Them by assuming They are bound in any way to it. They take it on. When we start talking about cosmogony, we’re pre-human, pre substance, pre material and categories (like gender) no longer apply. They don’t exist yet. So for this, we have to move away from how humans experience the world, and our assumed position of necessity to its order, and look instead at how things are without filtering it through humanity as a necessary lens – because these things we’re discussing here existed/came into being, well before we did.

To further complicate things, Old Norse, like many IE languages is a gendered language. This means that nouns have grammatical gender (they can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. It doesn’t have anything to do with what that noun might be usually, but instead is a way of categorizing based on morphological terminations). In some respects, looking at grammatical gender can be enlightening. It’s one more level of analysis but certain concepts and ideas, certain types of being are beyond gender, beyond any human category. When we’re talking about something similar in so many ways to the Platonic Agathos, Nous, and Psykhe, we’re not dealing with something yoked by gender. Gender is a material limitation. I do with the runes, think of them as gender fluid to some degree, but largely because I ‘m not sure gender has any relevance in THEIR realm…whereas it’s part of ours, and like a costume they can put it on or take it off at will to communicate specific things in their interactions with us.

Once we start looking at cosmogonic principles, however, up until the point of material creation, the point where suddenly there is materiality and temporality, and *substance*, gender has no meaning. Once we get to substantive realms/states of being, then gender becomes a thing, because then, by virtue of being substantive, there is already limitation.

Insofar as we have substantive concepts, I think bringing gendered language into it can be interesting (both grammatically for analysis and ideologically). As noted above, it’s another level of analysis when we’re doing theological exegesis. The cosmogony, however, before the moment when materiality comes into being as a result of friction between worlds (opposing forces) doesn’t exist as we might comprehend it.

 

Savage Gods – Part II

There is nothing better than mornings spent with the Gods, whether in devotion to Them or fruitful discussion of Them. Today was one such morning. My friend Markos posted this awesome quote by Walter Otto on his facebook this morning:

“No single Greek god even approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which near witness to a savagery that is absolutely without mercy… He is called the “render of men”, “the eater of raw flesh”, “who delights in the sword and bloodshed”. We hear not only of human sacrifice in his cult, but also of the ghastly ritual in which a man is torn to pieces. Where does this put us? Surely there can be no further doubt that this puts us into death’s sphere. The terrors of destruction, which make all if life tremble, belong also, as horrible desire, to the kingdom of Dionysus. The monster whose supernatural duality speaks to us from the mask has one side of his nature turned toward eternal night.”

~Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult

We both love Dionysos dearly (and if I’m not mistaken, Markos actually belongs to Dionysos whereas while I love this God, I pay cultus from the fringes). This quote encapsulates some core elements of His nature. He is a terrible God, in the old sense of the word, as One Who brings terror.

Another friend Paul C. mentioned that He is also “nice,” and I have to agree: He can be immensely nice and gentle (and we agreed that sometimes that is more shattering than any cruelty He could bring to bear on the transformation of our souls). Paul said:

“I’ll say that when I first started with Dionysus I didn’t expect him to be nice.

It was the niceness of him that was almost hard for me to handle at first. Due to my background of abuse and other unfortunate things I have a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem issues. His acceptance and love was unexpected and clearly not coming from myself. It was hard because of the whole host of new ideas and perspectives that I had to confront As your husband (Sannion) explained it and I think he’s right that was the God’s own way of molding and helping me.

So niceness isn’t always painless like you think it would be. Sometimes it’s more painful than cruelty when it runs counterbalance to what is in one’s head.” — Paul C. (quoted with permission)

Still, as I pointed out, it’s never the “nice” that people try to elide from their Gods. It’s the Power. I was asked to explain and the conversation that followed was meaty enough that I wanted to share highlights of it here.

People will go to any lengths to make their Gods sweet, nice, and unthreatening, to insist that their Gods aren’t savage or vicious, violent or bold. We want our Gods civilized and ‘modern.’ We want Gods we can control, or at least Gods that don’t challenge us, that don’t drag us down into the morass of our own shit and force us to look at it, and deal with it. We as a culture want Gods Who won’t interfere with our lives and the priorities we set for ourselves. We want Gods of peace so that we never have to stand naked, afraid, trembling, and possibly bleeding and snot faced before Them. We want characters in a storybook. Just look at any of our communities.

Of course positioning a Deity as any one thing alone is always problematic. A God, any God is never just savage or nice. They *are*. They are in a fullness and complexity of Being that I don’t really think we as human beings quite have the capacity to comprehend at all. We may catch glimpses, but the totality is too immense for us to do more than gnaw upon. Think about the story of Dionysos’ Mother Semele. When She was tricked into forcing Zeus to reveal Himself in the fullness of His power it burned Her to ash. A human being, as we are now, simply does not have the capacity to behold the Gods in Their fullness. The masks They wear are necessary but every so often, oh every so often we get a glimpse of some of the roaring Power that lies beneath.

So yes, Dionysos is nice. I can also attest He’s been incredibly nice and gentle with me. but …that’s not the part the average person is going to erase in their minds, I think. We know He’s nice. That’s not the part most people want to forget.

I saw this over the years with Odin. Any mention of Odin’s darker sides — and oh, He is a terribly savage God. Anyone who thinks His veneer of civilization and culture is anything more than a carefully calculated mask is deluding themselves.—His penchant for ordeal, His violence, His savagery inevitably led to claims that I was making this God into a sadist. “That’s not my Odin.” (#notallOdins) No, buttercup, but it is Odin. Maybe it’s not what He’s showing you, but it is absolutely His nature. The best of us learn to revel in it. Those who can’t? Well, there’s always British TV, fanfiction, and pop culture.

There’s a movie that several people in the conversation brought up, one that has strong Dionysian overtones: “The Witch.” In this movie, the Devil in the shape of a black goat drives a rather neurotic Puritan family to ruin. Well, they drive themselves to ruin, and the goat just does what demonic goats do. (#goatlivesmatter). In the end, the goat transforms into a man and asks the surviving daughter: “Do you wish to live deliciously?”

We agreed that this is Dionysos.

This is the Liberator. I have my suspicions that many of the medieval images of Witches’ sabbats were cultural memories of Bacchanalian frenzies with all the potential savagery that might entail. (#livedeliciously).

We should be careful what we do to our Gods. One thing I’ve learned venerating the Norse Gods is this: if we insist on allowing Them only one avenue of manifestation, only one mask, They’ll take it but it won’t be the best outcome for us. We will get the Gods we deserve. When we deny Them the fullness of Their being, we start denying ourselves too and as that movie so beautifully showed, repression never leads anywhere good. (#lokiwivesoftumblr).

So maybe let us live deliciously.

Especially where our Gods are concerned.

Philosophical Monotheism? … um, NO.

I have the deepest respect for my colleagues like Edward Butler who are philosophers and polytheists. Until today, I had no idea of what you guys face every day, and the fight that you’re engaged in to reclaim our philosophical traditions from monotheistic depredation – and it is outright depredation.

I’m still stunned at what I experienced today. I was in a theology class and we got around to discussing Aristotle. We were each giving a brief presentation on what we’re going to write for our final papers and I was up. One of the students could not comprehend why I would not embrace Aristotle as a monotheist, paving the way for later Christianity. (Excuse me while I throw up). Another was convinced that ὁ θεòς in Aristotle was absolutely referring to a monotheistic God. Nothing I said about how the singular was common classical usage when discussing the particular manifestation of a particular God at a particular moment made a dent in their dogged insistence that the writers they admired from the ancient world must, of course, be monotheists. (No, sweetheart. Actually we have medieval scholasticism to thank for twisting and corrupting ancient philosophy in such a manner. Many of the philosophers were deeply pious). What some of these students did to henadology would make a polytheist weep.

Everyone else in the class was absolutely convinced that A) Aristotle, Plato, Cicero (and we mentioned one other philosopher but I don’t recall at the moment which one. I think it was a Roman, and yes, I know Cicero isn’t a philosopher per se but he came up in the conversation) were atheists or monotheists only paying lip service to religion which was B) only state run, no belief, no devotion, nothing of substance. And then I had to listen to them discussing the natural victory of Christianity. I had to listen to the blanket erasure of both my religious traditions and the philosophical schools that those religions birthed. It was revolting. I’ve seen complete lack of understanding of polytheisms as religions with their own theologies in Classics, but not to this degree. I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced the incredible blindness that I saw today.

This all started when I mentioned the “inherent plurality of polytheism” (it’s relevant to my paper topic). I think those words and concepts are pretty self-explanatory but apparently not. Not a single person in the class grasped what I meant, not even the professor. It was completely outside of their learned experience to consider ancient polytheisms as legitimate, richly textured, living faiths. They were absolutely incapable (not unwilling I think, but incapable) of seeing them as anything other than brittle state funded apparatuses and place holders for monotheism. I think I’m still in shock.

Random Thoughts While Outlining a Paper on St .Jerome

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.

Notes

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.

What Early Christianity Can Teach Us About How To Be Good Polytheists

I’m taking a class this term on Medieval communities and in addition to the mass of social theory we have to read, we’re also reading some of the early Church Fathers and other theologians. This week it was Augustine, Jerome, and Peter Damian.

I like Jerome (something that causes several of my academic friends to raise surprised eyebrows): he’s curmudgeonly; I’m curmudgeonly. He writes in beautiful (for a Christian) Latin, I like Latin and wish I could write like that. He seems to value the spiritual well being of the lay people with whom he corresponded and didn’t condescend to them or truncate his letters, instead he included a substantial and nuanced theology in his responses, even when writing to someone as insignificant in the Roman world as an unmarried teen aged girl. I was very impressed by that, even though I might not agree with the positions he was espousing.

Apparently he was quite a bastard. Palladius in his Lausiac History comments that Jerome’s assistant Paula is much more spiritual and learned but will surely die soon “just to get away from him.” This only makes me like him all the more. I can relate.

I think reading him really impressed on me how important it is to wrestle with all the nuances our theologies present. I think we’re accustomed to both accepting but moreover wanting the easy, neatly compartmentalized answers. We like things orderly and I get that. I like things orderly too. Religious experience isn’t though, at least not at first. It’s messy, explosive, confusing, contradictory and wonderful and I think we need to not be afraid to delve in, to examine and accept those contradictions, to discuss and discuss and discuss. In a way I envy these early Christians. They had such a vibrant network of communication and support for their little death cult. This unknown Roman virgin was corresponding with one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day as a matter of course. When this girl had questions, she didn’t hesitate to reach out to this scholar. That unified sense of purpose, that willingness to work at understanding and faith, to sacrifice, to struggle, and to reach out in mutual support was one of the things that helped Christianity grow. I think this was especially true when they were a nascent sect wisely condemned by the Roman state.

It really highlights for me that contemplation of all the permutations of praxis and faith is not something just for scholars or theologians. It’s something for all of us engaged in and desiring a devotional practice. We should care about these things. We should want to know what those scholars and theologians amongst us are saying. We should want to learn more, to talk about it, to grow and expand our understanding of what it means to be a polytheist today.

Before I wrap this up – I don’t want to go on too long tonight – I want to note Peter Damian’s take on the soul. This is simplifying dramatically but in a nutshell, he talks about the soul as being an empty house. What he means by this, at least insofar as I’ve read to date, is that for a person of devotion (and I think this analogy can be applied to us as polytheists too), we are making, through the practice of faith and right contemplation, our souls a fit dwelling place for our Gods. For this reason, it’s important to take care with what we choose to fill that space.

There’s a discipline in these early religious reformers (for that’s what Damian essentially was) that served the development of a fierce faith. They believed it was important to take care over what filled one’s waking thoughts, what occupied one’s time, what honed the way one approached the world. That’s what it was about largely: creating a mind and heart that made the holy a central point of reference for living in the world (of course Christians often took this to a rather nihilistic place, never being particularly comfortable with the world, despite their god having taken human flesh).

To bring this back to Jerome, he wrote a letter to a young Roman woman who wanted to take a vow of perpetual virginity to Christ. He was offering this contemplative advice on how to do this well and cautioned against the habit of showing off, performing piety for the adulation of others, and most of all against putting herself in situations where she might be exposed to temptation. For Jerome, one could lose one’s virginity not with the deed but with a thought (the thought being parent to the deed, though Jerome is quoting the NT here – I forget which book—where Jesus tells his apostles that one who has lusted after a woman has committed adultery just as much as if he committed the deed in true – and boy aren’t we all screwed, if you’ll pardon the pun). He’s urging her to take care of her surroundings and to foster relationships that encourage and nurture her spiritually, to develop daily habits that do the same rather than fighting against a daily regimen that is in opposition to her religious goals. I think that part of laudable.

Doing devotional work right, remaining in right relationship with our Gods takes work and effort – ongoing work – on our part. It’s a process and a huge part of that process is completely within our control to do well, to ignore, or everything in between. It takes work not because our Gods are petulant, capricious, and punitive – I do not for one moment believe that They are. I think they are, in fact, anything but. It takes work because that is the nature of the soul. Because neither we nor the Gods are stagnant creatures. Because we are human beings with all of our faults and imperfections and we have been given the complicated grace of free choice in these things. Because service and devotion that is compelled has little value. Because the best things, the things most valuable in one’s life take effort. Because it is right and proper to want to become the best people we can be for ourselves and for our Gods too, and because that house of the soul, like all dwellings requires maintenance. (How’s that for a list of run on sentences?)

There’s a term that many of these early Christian writers used extensively: ἄσκησις. We get our word ‘asceticism’ from it but before you get your panties in a twist over what you think that word means, consider its original meaning, one which the early Christians, for all their terror of a proper education in literature and rhetoric, knew well: training, practice, and exercise, also ‘mode of life.’ They may have taken it to frightening (and inefficient) extremes, but this idea of spiritual life taking work is an important one. We must exercise our souls in the pursuit of devotion. The men and women who discussed and indeed practiced this weren’t clergy. They weren’t shamans. They weren’t specialists of any kind. They were lay people, lay people hungry to serve their God well. I know plenty of lay people within polytheism who share an equal hunger to do right by their Gods.

Now I’m not advocating ascetic practices (unless one feels so called – it is a powerful path for some). What I am advocating is that we take the time every day to recommit ourselves to this work, to the craft, practice, and mode of life of polytheistic devotion. The exercise of our souls, like exercise of the body, hones and strengthens: our devotion, our faith, our ability to serve our Gods well, our desire to do so – yes, most importantly our desire to love and serve Them well—and of course our discernment. These are good and necessary things and they are not things that should ever be reserved for the specialists. They encourage mindfulness and proper ordering of one’s life, so that one’s life reflects one’s values and priorities. Nor are they things that we should barter away for the ideological whim of the moment.

I think Christianity gained dominance precisely because it was originally marginalized. It was forced to network to survive. It was forced to come together in unity (such as it was – they did have a remarkable preoccupation with heresy) because it was unsupported at the State level. Those Pagans and Polytheists happily going about their business did not have to worry about their faith, or thought they didn’t. They had come, I believe, to take it for granted because it was the way of the world and had been for generations. Perhaps one thing we should always remember both in working for restoration and in maintaining it once it is firmly established: the world was not always as it is now. Take that as hope. Take that as a warning. Because it wasn’t always thus, it need not be this way in the future. That’s a convoluted way of saying that we should value our Gods and traditions and damn it, we should fight for them, first and foremost in the battleground of our own minds and hearts. If we are unwilling to do that, then perhaps we don’t deserve the Gods or Their holy traditions. We need, I think, to remember the lesson of that last Pagan generation: what you don’t consciously hold precious, what you take for granted (however understandable and good the reason), what you do not fight for you will lose.