Category Archives: theology
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).
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.”
(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.
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.
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.
So I’m working on a paper about St. Jerome and his anxieties over his love of Pagan literature and thinking about my final paper for my Asceticism and Monasticism class, which has been focusing on the desert fathers and as I’m outlining, I’m thinking about how to lay out clearly the complexity of the Pagan and Polytheistic world that preceded and overlapped early Christianity. Certainly until Christianity did its damndest to obliterate it, the Pagan world was synonymous with education, learning, and civilization. This created serious tension for early Christians (a tension with which I have zero sympathy I might add) as they attempted to define, develop, and refine a cohesive group identity.
I was talking to a couple of my theology colleagues at school last week and we were chatting about our paper topics and they were teasing me (I’m obviously the only polytheist in the class, and these two knew that so we were throwing good natured zingers back and forth) about being a polytheist who studies theology and I said something to the effect that we’re taking it back. That actually brought them up short and one said “but you never had it…Pagans didn’t have theology.” I’ve been pondering that (erroneous) statement ever since because it’s not an uncommon attitude in academia.
Firstly, by Pagan, we’re talking Polytheists and those who practiced their various ancestral religions and mystery cultus in the ancient world coincidentally with the growth of Christianity, so we’re talking, c. 3rd and 4th centuries. It is true that scholasticism and the academic discipline that we term ‘theology’ didn’t develop until the medieval period (with the rise of the university) but that does not mean that the Polytheistic world lacked theological inquiry.
I think a couple of things went on in the Pagan world. Firstly, many of the questions that today would fall under ‘theology’ were instead addressed by the various philosophical schools.(1) Beyond that, there were lived mystery cultus. There was an experiential component to the hammering out of theological inquiry that went hand in hand with philosophical exegesis. (2) To say that Pagans didn’t have theology is to imply that they asked no questions about the origins of their world, about the Gods, about the nature of the holy, and a thousand other questions that today would fall under that category and we simply know that this is not true. They did ask these questions and we have enough surviving material to prove it.(3)
To assume that Polytheists didn’t make these inquiries is to dismiss their religions as less than monotheism. It’s to say that they did not care about their traditions, or that there was something lacking in those traditions that precluded deep thought – all assumptions we know to be patently false. I don’ t think that my colleagues meant to imply these things at all, but the paradigm in which they’re working is based on precisely that implication.
One of the articles I’m reading in research for my paper kept putting ‘pagan’ and ‘pagans’ in quotes, and I almost had to trash the article this annoyed me so much. I had to sit and think about what the writer was saying about the extant religions that Christianity was so hellbent on replacing. Was he denying that they were legitimate religions? Was he questioning the uniformity of any one Paganism? Was he just objecting to a term applied to people by their enemies? I don’t know because he didn’t footnote his reasoning. What I do know is that whatever that reasoning might be, it diminishes the polytheistic identity that existed, however varied it may have been, prior to Christian obliteration and it misses the point that the final generations who led a protracted resistance to Christianization did adopt “pagan” as an identifier, whether it was imposed on them or not.(4) These things matter. Just like capitalizing the first letter of pronouns relating to our Gods matters. It sends a powerful psychological message and levels the playing field.
One of my professors was confused when I spoke about the diversity of the divine inherent in polytheism and I realized that he’d never considered what it meant to be polytheistic. It was a word, an idea, a placeholder until Christianity could happen for him, not a reality. These are the unspoken paradigms with which we’ve been taught to approach our world. No wonder this restoration is so hard. Our very ability to think has been crippled.
So now I’m going back to outlining my paper. Jerome goes on quite a bit ‘What has Cicero to do with the apostles? What has Vergil to do with Christ?” Nothing and I can think of no better reason to read them. Go read some Homer, Virgil, Cicero…it’s a good tonic to so much of the crap.
1. The influence of Hellenism and Neo-Platonism on early Christian theologians cannot be overestimated. Early Christian thinkers like Origen, particularly in the East, were deeply influenced by Hellenistic culture and philosophy to the point of integrating some of these ideas into their own writings.
2. Keep in mind that even that shining star of Christian theology and scholasticism, Thomas Aquinas, based much of his work on reworkings of Aristotle.
3. Plato’s Euthyphro for instance hammers at the idea of the holy, what is the holy and what makes something holy.
4. I shouldn’t be surprised since the article was trying to make the case that religious violence against temples and shrines wasn’t that bad.
I’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.
This is not a topic I expected to write about but it came up in conversation today and this gave me a chance to organize and articulate my thoughts on the topic. A couple of days, a colleague sent me this article about a Catholic woman who has formally taken vows as a sworn, consecrated virgin. This is the second woman this year that I’ve read about making this commitment and while I have my own thoughts on being so public about such a personal devotional act, it did make me think.(1)
Now this isn’t something that the average Pagan or Polytheist has to worry about. For the most part, we don’t have requirements of celibacy for our priests, shamans, holy people, and certainly not for laity; in fact, I’d say the opposite was almost expected.(2) Still, it’s an interesting topic and one that provides a jumping off point for a meditation on the discipline of devotion.
I say this because the Gods can ask all sorts of things of us to deepen our devotion, and for mystics, spiritworkers, et al, it can be more grueling still. Celibacy can be one of those things. So how does one do that? It’s a horrible thing to demand of a person. It really is. I have several academic colleagues who are Catholic seminarians and they have a hard and possibly lonely road ahead of them. It is a very demanding thing to give over the pleasures of sex, eroticism, intimacy (no, one doesn’t have to sacrifice intimacy but sadly in our culture, we all too often tend to reserve intimacy for sexual situations). I’ve known my share of spiritworkers who had this particular taboo as well and it’s painful, not because one is forbidden for whatever period of time from having sex, but because if one isn’t having sex or behaving in an outwardly sexualized manner in our culture, one may be treated as strange, backward, or other. It can be very alienating and unless one is living in a monastic community (which none of us in our communities are) where everyone is fighting the same battle, it can be very, very isolating. I have heard people of all genders complain that after a certain time it’s damned hard to be single in this culture without being looked at like a ‘freak,’ but celibate? That’s beyond the pale for most. In many respects, the same can be said of many taboos and religious restrictions. Many of them set one apart or they’re inconvenient or, in the case of something like fasting, impact one’s energy levels.
I think that it is a powerful thing when we give ourselves over to reverence in this way: by doing what the Gods ask of us in demarcating our lives as being in devotional service to Them. It can open us up, draw us deeper into communion with the Holy, and elevate us spiritually. It can also be damned hard and confusing and sometimes that which brings us to the point of despair. As someone who carries numerous religious taboos, (not celibacy these days, thank the Gods! – though that was not always the case) I want to share something I’ve found helpful when it becomes really, really difficult and that how one’s mindset toward these restrictions (often willingly promised restrictions) can dramatically help in dealing with the bad times. Recontextualize the problem.
Think of it this way: maintaining one’s taboos each and every day gives one the chance to reconsecrate oneself to one’s Gods every day. Every single day again and again. It’s a process of making an ongoing offering, of giving something difficult and valuable every single day of your devotional life. That’s pretty cool.
The first article to which I link above actually talks about that a little bit:
“Sometimes people think of consecrated life as saying no to something – saying no to sex – but actually it’s saying a huge yes to a much richer life,”
I agree with that, and it’s something to remember when the dark times come. And they will come because no matter how willing we are to give our best to the Gods, to commit fully each and every day, we’re human and we have needs, wants, and desires that sometimes conflict with our best attempts at devotion. So it begs the ongoing question: why are we doing this? What do we hope to gain from it? What is this all about? The answers to those questions are one of the things that enables the devotee to stay the course, hopefully joyfully but if not joyfully then at least fiercely.
Of course, to bring this back to the article that prompted this train of thought, celibacy is a particularly difficult path to walk. For someone bound to celibacy whether permanently or for a specific period of time I’d offer the following thoughts. It’s ok to fall in love. It’s ok to love. This is normal and human and you will be the better for it. Closing yourself off to the possibility of love will harden your heart and I don’t think that’s what the practice of celibacy is about. Allow yourself the joy of natural human feelings. The caveat is that if you’re sworn in this way, you have to choose very carefully how to act upon that love and if, like the Vestal Virgins of old, or Catholic priests today, you’re sworn to celibacy then sexual activity is not within the scope of possible choices.
Also, find ways to get human touch. Even if it is a massage once a month, find an outlet because this is a human need without which we aren’t healthy. There have been studies that show that babies die if they don’t get enough human touch. Why should adults be any different? We may not die, but I think lack of intimacy can warp us in very problematic ways. It’s ok to be bound to celibacy and to be affectionate, in fact it might even be healthy and necessary.
I don’t know what promises my readers have made to their Gods, or what the Gods Themselves have asked of Their devotees. I do know something of the ferocity with which taboos can descend upon shamans, spiritworkers, mystics, and godspouses, so if any of this is a help to those you reading, then I am very, very glad.
- My colleague had sent it to me because I’m a godspouse, but I’ll be the first to admit that celibacy is not required for every godspouse, nor even always permanently for those who do walk that road. The first article that I read about Catholic consecrated virgins may be found here. The article, linked in the body of my post, actually points out that consecrating one’s sexuality in service to the Gods did not originate with Christianity. It was found in polytheistic cultures too.
- Save in particular cases of individual godspouses, spiritworkers, et al.
Kenaz has a new post up here. He points out that John Beckett’s posts on purity, sin, and miasma have spurred many interested discussions in the blogosphere.
It’s certainly sparked amazing examples of poor reasoning and illogic from rhyd wildermuth. i wonder what it is like in his head? i’d love to know how he equates maintaining proper ritual purity before the Gods to genocide against Jews and Romany. I mean, does he look down on Jews and Romany to the point that this is where HE would go, and thus cannot conceive of motivations that focus specifically on the Gods? Or is he rather tryign to bring up a straw argument, to damn those who do care about the Gods, traditions, and keeping themselves clean and in a state of proper receptivity to the Powers?
Apparently basic religious standards are now “oppression.”
To quote Kenaz:
Piety sees the state as an integral part of things. Rhyd and his cabal see the state as a tool of oppression that will ultimately wither away. Piety treasures the things which set you and your people apart. Rhyd and his see those differences as war waiting to happen and want to sand them down.
It’s perhaps time, we considered the full implications of their agenda.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about miasma of late. I’ve seen discussion threads and articles and posts cropping up all over the place. Unfortunately it seems that many of the people writing on the topic lack the faintest idea of what miasma actually is.
The idea of miasma and spiritual pollution is absolutely crucial to our practices. It’s important therefore not to stretch the meaning to fit some political agenda, not to misidentify and mis-equate one thing with another, and not to transfer monotheistic ideas of sin and shame onto these pre-Christian religious terms. It’s important to understand precisely what we’re talking about, why it’s so important, and how best to put it into practice. So let’s start with what miasma actually is.
Miasma is spiritual pollution. I’ve written on it before here, and here and here. Likewise I wrote about the Roman idea of ‘nefas,’ which is somewhat analogous to ‘miasma’ here. (I think that the biggest difference between the two is that nefas has a definite and very negative charge, whereas miasma is neutral. Even positive things can carry miasma as we shall see). I think that while these pieces have been a good starting point to the discussion for me personally, my understanding of the topic has deepened and become far more nuanced over the years.
The seminal work on miasma is a book titled “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” by Robert Parker. In that book, he discusses miasma thusly, looking first at the root of the Greek word:
“The basic sense of the ‘mia—‘ words is that of defilement, the impairment of a thing’s form or integrity.” (Parker, p.3).
This is crucial information right here: miasma is about integrity. It is a twisting of things out of true. If we think of it as some impairment to the integrity of a person, place, or thing, then that can help us move away from thinking about miasma as ‘sin.’ One does not have to do anything wrong to fall into a state of deep pollution. It is the natural side effect of certain experiences. For instance, if I spend an extended amount of time in the company of people who are themselves in some way polluted spiritually, then I may also end up miasmic. Why? Because miasma is a spiritual contagion; just like dirt or germs, it is easily passed from one person to another. If I am in lengthy company of someone miasmic, I may find myself influenced by their words, ideas, and actions. I may start behaving, thinking, or approaching the Gods similarly. Without ever meaning to, my spiritual integrity may be corrupted. Drama is not a necessary component to this at all. What is necessary is attention to what we absorb, to whom we pattern ourselves after, and to the influences in our immediate social world.
I recently fell into an intense state of miasma after reading a book. A colleague had recommended this book detailing the incredibly abusive upbringing of the author. It was extremely well written but the subject matter was searing. I read through it in one sitting and found myself upset – furious on behalf of the child—jagged, and so out of balance within myself that there was no way I could even think about approaching one of my shrines to pray. I didn’t realize what was wrong, only that I felt this terrible ugly energy, as though I had been coated in grossness. I was talking to my husband about what I’d read and how horrible I felt (it had a tremendous impact on me) and he told me to go do some cleansings. I did and felt immediately a thousand times better and I realized that one can end up in a state of miasma from things experienced second and third hand – they still have the ability to shift one in head and heart and spirit out of integral balance. Anything that closes us off to the Gods, that clogs us up like dirt in a drain is problematic. Anything that shifts us out of true, “impairs” our inner “integrity” can put is in a state of miasma. (1)
I’ve had the same thing happen with watching certain movies. I felt spiritually polluted afterwards. It was the same when I witnessed an act of verbal blasphemy during a ritual. I, everyone there, and the space itself were polluted simply by having been present when such a thing occurred.
Miasma doesn’t have to be from things so obviously – dare I say it? –dramatic though. In his book, Parker goes on to note:
“Things that in English we term ‘dirty’ are a common source of such defilement, but there are defilements deriving from things that are not dirty in themselves, or not deriving from matter at all. Miaino can be used for the pollution of a reputation through unworthy deeds, or of truth through dishonesty, justice, law, and piety are in danger of defilement. (p. 3)”
This clearly points to how one positions oneself in their world. How do you carry yourself, behave on a day to day. How are you situated with respect to your neighbors? All of these things combined to create what we might term ‘character.’ Part of good character to our polytheistic forebears involved piety.
Of course, as my friend L. pointed out, the roiling energies of community drama can create situations that may lead to miasma but so can a wedding. Seriously, amongst the list of things that put one in a state of spiritual pollution are weddings. These are happy things, the union of two families, a building block for one’s community and its longevity but (like birth and death) they create imbalance. They create pollution. There’s nothing bad at all about them, but they still put those present in a state of miasma. Some situations just do that. We may feel perfectly fine. We may even feel happy (for instance at one’s own wedding) or celebratory but we are no longer in a state of spiritual attunement.
Miasma is considered an extremely dangerous condition (Parker, p. 4). For this reason it’s important not to misinterpret it as being reliant on our emotions, how we feel in a given moment. Can one often feel the pollution? Yes, but not always. This is why it’s so important to have and maintain proper spiritual protocols with respect to cleansing and purification. Have your traditional protocols intact and try not to deviate from them and then this takes care of itself. Of course it also helps to take equal care in keeping your environment clean and surrounding yourself with people who are themselves not polluted.(2)
Why is miasma so crucial? Its effects are long term. It’s not like the Gods are going to smack one down for being in a miasmic state after all, but it corrodes and compromises one in one’s relationship with Them. It impairs signal clarity and a lot of times the consequences of it aren’t immediately noticed, in fact, may not be felt at all until suddenly the spiritual relationships that were once so vital and present and true are blurry, distant, and hard to reach.
It impairs luck and health. It twists all that is spiritually balanced and good, beneficial and ordered into something plebeian, mundane, and gross. It lowers us in the eyes of the Gods and part of the reason that people may not recognize when they are in this state, or approaching it, is that our world is so out of balance. Our world is riddled with spiritual pollution on every level. In a society where people are blowing up mountain tops from sheer greed, poisoning our food supplies, where children are picking through mountains of garbage for food, and the Kardashians are considered role models it’s difficult for people to recognize such spiritual disease. When once piety and purification were the expected adult norm, now it’s the exact opposite and people look askance, even in our communities, when one seeks to take proper precautions around one’s spiritual health by insisting on healthy boundaries.
Not only do we need more conversations about this, we need to take more action, especially when we’re doing group rituals and gatherings.
- For those wondering, would I still have read the book knowing all of this beforehand? Yes, absolutely but I would have gone in with my eyes open and would have prepared myself better and immediately cleansed afterwards.
- Two further comments on this that I’d like to offer: 1. This is where divination can be extremely helpful, if one is uncertain of whether a particular person, place, or thing might be polluted and 2. What to exclude, whom to avoid are not decisions that can be made for an individual by anyone else. What is miasmic to me, may not be to my husband and vice versa for instance. We serve different gods, have different levels of purification expected of us. What to allow into one’s world and whom to associate with are decisions that each person must make for themselves after careful consideration and perhaps prayer and divination.