Category Archives: theology
For Heathens, this is one of our holy symbols. It may, in fact, be our holiest of symbols and it’s certainly the one that the majority of us wear to indicate that we are Heathen (in much the same way a Christian might wear a cross or a Jewish person a star of David) (1). I’ve been meditating a lot on what the Hammer means, especially since it seems I cannot wear it these days without questions and occasionally direct hostility. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this gift, crafted by the duergar, given by Loki, wielded by Thor for the good of the worlds is the most important symbol we will ever bear.
Thor is a God Who brings holiness. There is nothing foul or polluted, wicked or spiritually wrong that He cannot conquer. He renders His protection without contract or stipulation. For this reason, He is called “Friend of Man.” More than any other God, He watches over Midgard – the human world, our world – ensuring that it maintains its integrity (despite our own depredations of our home). He travels with Loki, the God most gifted at finding loopholes. I think this is particularly important. I think that very special care must be taken when the Gods act directly in our world, that doing so promiscuously threatens to weaken the very scaffolding They seek to maintain, and perhaps Loki is Thor’s favorite traveling companion because between the Two of Them, They can find all those loopholes too, never missing an opportunity to drive back evil and entropy threatening existence (2).
I often think that Thor is one of the Gods most often underestimated. Despite one of His by-names being “Deep-Minded,” despite the fact that He is the Son of Odin, despite the fact that He is the son of the earth (Fjorgyn), the Goddess Who provides all we need to sustain our world, He’s quite often dismissed as … a dumb jock. He’s pigeon-holed in a way that I also see with Goddesses like Freya. We reduce Him in our minds to a one-dimensional character in a book. I don’t think this is purposeful or intentionally disrespectful, I think it’s what we’ve been programmed to do by popular culture, by the way our Gods are treated in academic writing, by the way they’re treated in comparative lit., and by the way They were treated by the working-class founders of American Heathenry. But our Gods are not characters in a set of stories. They are living Holy Powers, Immortal Beings, the Creators of our very existence and the space in which it plays out.
Consider a few of His by-names (heiti ): Atli (The Terrible), Einriði (One Who rules alone – in other words, I interpret this to mean that He is more than capable in and of Himself of purifying and rendering holy, and carries the blessing of the sovereignty of the land through his Mother), Harðhugaðr (strong spirit, fierce soul), Rymr (noise, which makes me think of how sound, like rattles, drums, bells, chanting, etc. is often used to clear spiritual pollution and purify people, places, and things), and last but not least Veurr (Hallower, Guardian of the shrine). Thor hallows. Wherever He is, whatever He touches, wherever He chooses to make Himself manifest, there He hallows and in hallowing creates space where the enemies of the Gods simply cannot exist.
Thor’s hammer, then, is a sign that the Gods are engaged with us in the ongoing process of creation. It is a sign that They guard us, that Thor girds the world against dissolution, against entropy, against all that would threaten the cosmic and divine architecture. Like His mother, Thor provides. He sustains. Like His Father, He battles back the enemies of the Gods. Like He, Himself alone, He renders holy those places He has been, those spaces through which He has passed. When we wear the Thor’s hammer, we are signaling that we too are aligned with divine order. We are signaling that we stand with Him in maintaining, protecting, and most of all nourishing that which the Gods have created.
So, wear the hammer proudly. When people ask you about it, or the ruder ones challenge you for wearing it, explain exactly what it means and hold your ground. We must not give up a single inch of space, not in mind, not in body, and not in soul. That hammer signifies that we are hallowed ground, reclaimed, rededicated, consecrated to our Gods, committed to Thor’s protection. Wear it proudly, wear it mindfully, and every time you touch it, give thanks to this God Who sustains His Father’s creation.
- Some Scandinavians will wear it as a cultural symbol and then of course it’s endlessly misappropriated by individuals who have no faith in the Gods, but you see the same thing with other religions’ symbols too, at least the latter use by the godless.
- I think there are cosmic rules that the Gods adhere to, blocking how directly They may act in our world. This is hinted at most fully in the Homeric corpus but I believe it holds true amongst our Gods as well, that the more they violate those structures They Themselves have put into place, not only the more They weaken the cosmic architecture, but more importantly, They provide openings for the Nameless, that unnamed force – the Kemetics called it Isfet, Native Americans had different names for it – that ever hates and threatens divine creation to also come in. I think there’s a cosmic détente and no God is better at finding ways to act without violating that détente than Loki.
So, already the stupidity has started. This time around the idea of a tradition and what it is. I’m not sure why this is difficult but I do know that it was one of the issues that predicated the online schism c. 2012 leading to many Polytheists refusing to use the word “Pagan” (even though the two words should be synonymous). It would be comforting to simply dismiss it as “stupidity” of this group or that, but to do so is simply not accurate, and more and more I realize that when we speak with those who are not polytheists (and sometimes, sadly, even with those who are) we’re simply not speaking the same language.
This is particularly true when discussing “tradition.” It was this word and the argument around it that really drove home for me today the huge disconnect between those of us who value this as polytheists and those coming from other, less structured traditions. “Tradition” is a key word for us, a highly-charged word, and it denotes something extremely sacred (1). We use this word differently. When I speak about a tradition, I am speaking about a careful scaffolding passed down from the Gods and ancestors, protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers, a way of doing things that is licit, clean, that creates reverence by its very structure. It does not come from us, though we are tasked with maintaining and preserving it; it will pass on after us and it is our sacred obligation, our duty to pass it on to our students and our children in as clean a way as possible. This understanding of tradition draws on the Latin etymology of the word as something that is passed down from one generation to another.
A tradition however is more and it’s that more that I find really difficult to articulate. There is more to it. There’s the Mystery element, there’s the unchanging, eternal element, there is that which it is not in our remit to alter at our whim. It is not transient. Tradition is eternal, a thread in the skein of a people’s wyrd, protected, cherished, that is essential to the expression of piety and reverence for specific Gods in specific ways. It involves lineage because it is a living thing, passed from elder to student, parents to child, teachers to neophytes and before all that from the Gods to the people They cherish. It is a language, a dialect, a grammar, a syntax of the sacred. It defines us in our interactions with the Holy. We enter into it and it changes us, it changes our grammar of the sacred. It changes the very language we speak. It becomes the lens through which every single part of our world is filtered and articulated.
Neo-Pagans have never experienced this level of tradition (2). Trying to explain it to them is like trying to explain the color “blue” to someone who is blind. I don’t say this to be nasty. I say it because over and over again, this is precisely the disconnect I have experienced in inter-religious dialogues (or let’s be honest, arguments). I think this is why so many of them see nothing wrong with coming into our spaces and attempting to define our traditions for us, or dismissing our traditions’ requirements with things like, “there are no rules,” or “just do what you want,” or “there’s no right way to practice.” Well, within a tradition yes, actually, there is.
That doesn’t mean that it’s static and unchanging. A tradition is a living thing and each generation adds to it by their piety and their presence. There are protocols within traditions to allow for necessary change, the thing is, what drives a tradition is the Gods from Whom it comes, not us.
I’m still not capturing everything inherent in that word ‘tradition’. I could write a dissertation on the subject and I would still not be able to capture everything. “Tradition” is something that has been imprinted on our souls. It is like the walls of Asgard that the Gods spared no expense defending. It is our job to upkeep it and see that it is not breached. Understanding that comes with terrifying obligation. Maybe that right there is the problem and why so much is “lost in translation (3).”
- There is a difference between “I have a tradition of lighting candles every New year’s eve” and “my tradition dictates that we approach sacred space in this way…” or “within my tradition, we have x protocol for approaching this Deity for the first time.”
- Which I understand; what I don’t understand is why, just like so many anti-theists, they think nothing of coming into our spaces and conversations with words about how traditions have no rules, but when we call them on it, they inevitably lose their shit and accuse us of being angry, judgmental, Christian, etc. The thing is that for us, “tradition” does have rules. It has requirements. It has a governing, sovereign power because it is that which the Gods have given us to allow for clean, healthy communication and gnosis. The problem that we as polytheists face then is different from that of Neo-Pagans but no less vexing: we have to restore threads that a generation of our ancestors cut, dropped, or had torn away from them with the spread of colonizing Christianity (or in some areas Islam). This is also a problem and one that complicates our understanding of what it means to live in a lineaged tradition, that weight and responsibility and moreover how to do that cleanly and well.
- Way too many people want the benefits of what tradition has to offer without the obligations. Tradition is a loaded word, it’s powerful, sexy, it can make one seem “better” than other people but in reality, it comes with responsibility and duty to preserve and maintain and pass it on; and we live in a world that for a very long time has been very hostile to any kind of responsibility, even in the most mundane sense. If we can, after all, shirk even our responsibilities of being competent, adult men and women why wouldn’t we shirk this too? That’s the lesson that we’ve been taught in our modern world: that we don’t need to be responsible for anything. That this is a lie that diminishes us each and every day we let it take up space in our mental worlds doesn’t change that it defines the field on which we live and breathe and fight.
I intended this piece to be an exploration of prayer but then I really thought about what I’ve experienced in Heathenry over the last three decades. I thought about how powerful and potent the traditions of our ancestors once were and the horror of having those tradition destroyed, swept away, or willingly tossed away like garbage. I thought about the future generations and what we’re leaving them, and most of all I thought about the debt we owe those ancestors who fought for their traditions and the Gods Who sustained them and the debt we owe to both. Then I got a little bit upset.
I believe that our community is at a crossroads. For fifty plus years we’ve been fighting the same ideological battles, going back and forth over the same ground, and making very little headway in restoring anything approximating a tradition. Why? Because like a plague riddled corpse, Heathenry is infected with way too many who eschew devotion, prayer, piety, and even the Gods Themselves; and if they kept to themselves it would be one thing but they don’t, they try to take leadership positions in our community, they hold themselves up as decent Heathens, they try to destroy whatever flickers of actual piety and religion might burn anywhere – because Gods forbid someone, somewhere might actually be honoring the Gods. It’s sickening. Our Gods deserve more.
This ongoing pushback against prayer is a typical example. Bring up prayer and inevitably someone is going to say, “our ancestors didn’t pray.” Well, first of all bullshit. We have plenty of examples of prayer in the surviving lore (not that I put any particular weight in a body of evidence written by Christians well after conversion and solely for literary or political ends). Even if we have the occasional example of a denial of prayer, why elevate those examples of Heathen ancestors filled with enough cowardice, impiety, degradation, and willingness to accept their own ideological slavery that they rushed headlong into conversion and then bragged about it by writing it down? Instead, why not elevate those who were devout and who held true to the Gods? Our community interprets out any piety, any devotion, any prayer, any mysticism found in the lore because they’re at heart the worst kind of Protestants. Devotion is too much for them. Scandinavian Heathens can’t get past having a culture, and American Heathens can’t get past their envy of one. In neither equation do the Gods play a part.
People in our communities who refuse prayer, devotion, veneration, sacrifice, and basic piety are parasites. They want the blessings and good things the Gods and a religious community can give without the potential inconvenience of having to show basic respect. How do you build a tradition on that? Better that we aim to emulate Ottar. In the Lay of Hyndla, Freya praises him for making so many prayers and sacrifices to Her, that the altar upon which he sacrificed turned to glass from the heat and overwhelming number of the offertory fires (stanza 10). Even the lore sometimes gets it right.
Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe the problem with prayer isn’t general laziness and impiety, a desire to take and not return even the most basic courtesy to the Gods. Maybe it’s lack of comprehension about what prayer is. Therefore, allow me to clarify.
Too many people define prayer solely as asking for something. I’ve always balked at this. If you only pray, after all, when you want something from the Gods, then you’re like that relative that only shows up for holiday dinner or worse, bail money. If this is what constitutes prayer for most Heathens, then don’t pray. I totally support your lack of prayer because this is not piety.
A more accurate definition of prayer is (to quote Merriam-Webster dictionary): “an address to a God in word or thought.” That’s it, end of story. It’s some form of communication, of verbal address to a Deity. It’s an act that lays the groundwork for any type of relationship with our Gods. It’s what raises up our awareness of our religion to something other than role playing. It is a reaching out, with the petition being that we are heard. It is taking the time to put yourself in Their presence, taking the time to reach out, to step away from mundane consciousness and acknowledge that there is something more. It is acknowledging moreover, that the Gods are more than capable of engaging with us and affecting our lives. Maybe that’s why so many pseudo-Heathens have an issue with it: it acknowledges that the Gods are real and that we can be in relationship with Them. Moreover, it reifies our place in that hierarchy.
This entire autumn has raised awareness for me, in a theological sense, of something that I never considered before; namely that, when speaking of our Gods, it is incorrect and grossly unethical to state categorically that “Deity X likes [insert belief or behavior here] (1). It’s one thing to share insights into a Deity’s nature within the devotional relationship (always implicitly mediated by our own human understanding), and quite another to project our own opinions onto a God.
I think we recognize this right away when the sentiment being ascribed to a God is something like the Westboro Baptist Church with their “God hates F*gs” rhetoric. It’s hateful, gross, ugly and of course we all agree, the Gods, including theirs, don’t think so. That makes sense, right? Well, the opposite is also true and it kind of blew my mind when it was pointed out to me.
I was auditing a class and when the professor noted this I and several of the other students almost fell out of our chairs. We were reading a piece by Rowan Williams (chapter one of his On Christian Theology).Williams notes that (in theological or political discourse – he briefly noted the latter as a segue into his theological discussion) “to make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for retention of power (2).” This is true regardless of which end of the social scale is utilizing this tactic. What that means, essentially, is that to speak for God is to grant oneself the absolute agency of God. Williams goes on to discuss what constitutes honest and potentially fruitful theological discourse, namely that it invites discussion and response, and most importantly of all, it does not claim to speak in any unqualified way for God. In the course of the class, we were going to be reading MLKs “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the professor pointed out that just like Westboro Baptist Church is making absolutist claims about their God, so is MLK (3). We happen to agree with MLK (and I think, rightly so!) and because of that, such a rhetorical choice slips by us.
It’s easy to see the lack of integrity when the sentiments expressed are so incredibly vile like Westboro Baptist, but what about when they’re something we completely agree with, like homophobia is bad. Or, what about, to give an example that was recently brought to my attention, someone who firmly believes “Thor hates racists (4).” My understanding from reading Williams is that he would push for interrogations and reconsideration of those statements too, perhaps most especially because we accept and agree (thus removing the apparent need for further and deeper consideration).
I also think such rhetoric, potentially elevates our divisions and categories as something embedded in our cosmology and in the desires of our Gods which in turn reifies those divisions in ways that also reify the problems caused by them. But there’s a bigger question at play here. Why is it so important that our Gods ratify our decisions not to be complete assholes? Why do we need our Gods to tell us that racism is bad? Shouldn’t we be able to reason that out for ourselves? The bodies we wear, after all, in all their glorious brokenness, are part of the condition of being human. It does not follow that such corporeality is relevant to the condition of being a God (5). Are we so ill-prepared for moral reasoning that we have to push it all onto our Gods?
I think this goes right back to the place we have been conditioned to ascribe to both religion and morality. In the polytheistic world, religion was not about determining ethics and morality. It was a set of protocols for engaging properly with the Holy Powers. Developing virtue, character, one’s morality, one’s ethics – all of that came from education, culture, and most of all philosophy. It’s only monotheisms really that traditionally elide all these things under ‘religion,’ but we’ve grown up in a monotheistic society and we ourselves instinctively default to this same equation as “normal” and “correct.”
There’s a larger issue at play here too. In speaking from the POV of the Gods, unqualified, unmediated, and doing so while at the same time ascribing our opinions and politics and feelings to those Gods, we are distorting the role of religion. We are making it instead a clique – and this is true regardless of what side of the political spectrum we’re on, regardless of what feelings we are expressing, regardless of what issues are at play. We are setting up a litmus test for determining who might approach the Gods. We are determining who is licit in Their eyes. We are determining who can pray to our Gods. We are blocking those who do not fit our agenda from cultus, even if they themselves are fulfilling all the requirements of proper religious practice (6).
Then there is the reality that taking responsibility for our moral choices deepens our character and our ability to stand on our own two feet in performance of our religious obligations too. It makes us better, fuller human beings on every level. Devotion is not a weapon. It should be the one place we can come together in unqualified veneration of Gods within our traditions. It matters how we talk about our Gods and it matters even more when we presume to speak for Them.
- I think it’s fine to say “Freya seems to like strawberries.” That’s passing on information that will help another devotee make a good offering. But to say ‘Freya hates TERFS,” well, probably, but I still think it’s wrong to state such a thing as unqualified fact. You don’t know. You’re assuming. You’re projecting your own opinion onto a Deity and presenting it as unqualified fact. If we are looking at lore alone, we could say Freya is a Goddess of women and I think this can open up a very fruitful discussion about trans issues, and I think that there is enough in the lore about Frey and Freya to make the assumption that neither Deity would support gender exclusion but I would still argue that one should qualify that as extrapolation and inference, not unqualified fact. It’s one thing to say, for instance, that Odin is the God of soldiers. We know that from the lore. It’s quite another to say that Odin * likes * soldiers. He may. It’s not an illogical assumption, but it’s pretentious assuming the perspective, the point of view of Odin to infer His emotional register and preferences. It’s projecting our own limited way of looking at the world onto the Gods and that is a conscious choice to likewise limit the Gods themselves, putting us in Their place and granting to us Their authority. It becomes more complicated since we are religions of diviners and oracles, but even there, there is an obligation to be as clear as possible, to assume nothing, to make sure that the interstices of our humanity are articulated without ambiguity.
- His argument is fascinating, complex, and thought-provoking – far beyond the scope of this blog post but I encourage people to read the book, or at least the first chapter. I read it in September and it’s been percolating in my brain and affecting the way I write about the Gods since, because I think he’s correct both in the theological inaccuracies such language promulgates and the power play that so often lies behind its use. Now I do think it is perfectly acceptable for an elder or teacher within a tradition to speak to the boundaries and practices of the tradition, because their sacred work is specifically nourishing and sustaining their religious tradition and helping to pass it on in a clean and thorough way. That is different though from saying, “Deity X thinks…” with no other categorization. Even saying, “within the bounds of this tradition, this is how we interpret thus and such a story about God X” opens up the discourse in a way that taking on the role and voice of a God simply does not. The latter is a presumption bordering on hubris.
- If you haven’t read this, go here and read it now. It’s one of the key documents of the 20thcentury civil rights movement and a powerful indictment of the moral fence-sitting happening amongst white clergy during protests against segregation in Alabama. It is where we get King’s famous dictum, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- This blog has been problematic for a while. The owner has a bug up her ass about me and my work despite the fact that, to my knowledge, I’ve never met her. So, given how much and how often she slanders me, I’ve no problem using her as an example here lol. She’s constantly posting unqualified statements like ‘Freya hates TERFS’ and ‘Thor hates racists.’ Can we infer that? Probably, BUT it’s simply wrong on a very deep theological level to state such a thing without the qualificationof “I think that,” or “From my experience,” etc. Doing so implies that we know the feelings, opinions, and will of a Deity fully and as human beings, that is simply never the case. It puts us in the position of our Gods.
- Since our cosmology teaches both that we were created carefully by the Gods and endowed with certain characteristics (breath, warmth, and sense, i.e. the ability to reason) and also that the Gods moved amongst us further fathering children, I think one can make a carefully reasoned and coherent theological argument against racism. I would still word it very carefully however, when alluding to what the Gods Themselves might feel or think, no matter how sure we think we are. It’s good practice, a good habit to get into.
- For instance, while I find Fred Phelps and company utterly, irredeemably vile I can think of no one who more “needs Jesus” or some other God, the leavening influence of cultus, the elevating influence of proper religious observance to cultivate what little humanity the troglodyte has left.
In our previous discussion, Neptunesdolphins hit the nail on the head perfectly, so perfectly, that I am pulling her comment out to highlight it here:
“Sigh, once more modernity and Monotheism strikes again. I know lots of Pentacostals and Catholics who take exception. How else are you slain in the Holy Spirit or see the Mother Mary, unless you engage with God?
Problem is that living in monotheistic culture is that all Gods are false except for the “One True God.” If the Gods and other Divines are treated as fiction, then engaging with fictional characters is considered mental illness. Unless it is pop culture Deities.
The other is that monotheistic thinking flattens the world into human, and only human. Since there is a singularity of life, people cannot imagine engaging with a plurality of Beings. It is beyond their imaginings.
The other thing about tumblr which highlights problems in Paganism – the Deities are smaller than people. People are the Deity. There is no Other, there is only them and themselves.
And of course, Progressivism as it is practiced is a religion. What is happening in Paganism is that everything is being homogenized by Progressivism. So we have the preoccupation with who is a Nazi and who should be thrown out for impolitic thoughts. Monotheism in action – thought crimes and the flattening of thought.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I would also emphasize that the attitude expressed on the tumblr page I was discussing yesterday is not limited to Polytheisms. I know plenty of devout Catholics, Orthodox, etc. who have run up against it too. Thing is, their traditions’ structures are able to support and deflect this nonsense far better than ours. We have people taking it in wholesale and building a hollow practice around it and wondering why they’re getting nowhere.
I’m afraid I’m going to be very blunt here, because in thirty years of teaching and serving as clergy, I have never seen such utter garbage spreading like wildfire throughout our respective communities as I do now, not even when I first became Heathen (and believe me, the level of bullshit in the Heathen community at that time was a thousand times worse than it is now – and that’s saying something). Part of the problem is the pseudo-progressive contingent on tumblr, and part of it just the sad lack of adequate education in North America today. It’s sometimes hard to see where one begins and one ends.(1)
When someone tells you that actual engagement with the Gods is wrong, that being able to sense or hear Them is mental illness—even one single moment of theophany, that one cannot be claimed by a Deity, called as a priest, function as an oracle, that being a godspouse is mental illness, not only are they completely willfully, and egregiously ignorant of the history of their religion, but they are speaking impiety and attempting to do violence to the pious. They are butchering the religion to fit their own misguided ignorance and attempting to damage those actually building up their traditions. The best advice I can give when encountering such filth online is this: Avoid the impious. Ignore them. Also, consider their motives (2).
Inevitably these people will say “we’re all of equal importance”. Well, no, actually we’re not. Equality is a myth they tell themselves to excuse their own mediocrity before the Gods. We are all unique in our devotional relationships. If, by equality, one means that we are all valued and loved by our Gods then yes that is true; but if by equality one means that we are all exactly the same and that no one has any deeper devotional relationship or more talent in a particular area of religious specialty, then that is nonsense and should be ignored (3). Moreover, it smacks of Protestantism, where demonstrated virtue is a sign of being “elect.” The corollary of course, is that if one doesn’t have a vocation or any of the signs of being “elect” then it means one is of less importance to their God. Well, we’re not Protestant and it’s time we stopped behaving like half-assed Calvinists. Our polytheistic ancestors honored and respected their specialists: those called by the Gods, mystics, clergy, shamans, diviners, oracles, spiritworkers – technicians of the sacred known by different names in different traditions. Why is basic piety so damned hard for us?
We need to strongly resist the push of people more concerned about virtue signaling and politics than venerating the Gods when they attempt to excise from our religions the natural life of devotion. Basically, if it’s on tumblr, it’s probably inaccurate, wrong, and possibly impious. Always, always consider the source. Consider what they contribute. Go to your Gods, go to prayer, and don’t be afraid to tell such people to take a running leap off the nearest cliff (4).
- Religion is not the place for politics. It is about honoring the Gods. Religion is a set of proper protocols for engaging appropriately with the Gods and ancestors. Be as political as you want, but don’t mistake your civic impulse for religious cultus. Social and political engagement is what we do as adult human beings. We shouldn’t need our Gods and religion to make such engagement licit.
- It’s not surprising that these things would be condemned, after all, if we’re actually engaging with Gods and ancestors, if we have the benefit of good priests, competent oracles, if we honor our mystics and godspouses then we’re less likely to listen to their political bullshit when they attempt to bring that garbage into our sacred spaces.
- There is a lovely anecdote in St Therese of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul,” that was told to her by her sister Pauline. As a small child she asked her sister if God loved saints more than regular people. The sister took a thimble and a wine glass and filled them both to overflowing and asked the child, “Which is more full?” The answer: they were both full to utmost capacity and so it is with the love of one’s God as well.
- This does not, of course, absolve us from developing spiritual discernment, from questioning ourselves, from doing the work, including the work of therapy if need be. Piety, however, is not mental illness nor is being called (κλῆσις)to a vocation.
Over the past week, I’ve encountered quite a few references to religious fasting. Out of the blue, I’ve had fruitful discussions with several Orthodox colleagues who fast regularly, come across a couple of articles on the topic, and had more than one person email me with questions related to doing this in a polytheistic context. It’s actually funny. I used to fast all the time as a devotional technique for Odin but as my health has declined over the past 15 years, I’ve fallen out of the practice (1).
When I first came to Odin, I worked very hard to open myself up to Him, to develop good discernment, and to discipline myself in my devotion in ways that were productive to developing piety, respect, and receptivity to the Gods. Because of my background, I gravitated toward ascetic practices like fasting and would often engage in fairly severe fasts for Him. I found it extremely beneficial (2). Eventually, discernment and experience also led me to other ways of engaging devotionally but I’ve never forgotten how effective fasting practices where. They worked on several levels: they taught me discipline of my appetites, to subordinate those appetites and desires to my devotion and ultimately to what the Gods wanted, they helped me to cultivate a keen devotional impulse, and they really helped in opening me up mentally and emotionally to the Gods. Also, perhaps because eating is such a tremendously socially charged activity, every day I was forced to consciously recommit to the Gods, to Odin specifically. I was forced whenever I saw friends or coworkers going for lunch or snacking, whenever I myself wanted to snack or would normally fix a meal, to call to mind instead the Gods that I love and to Whom I had dedicated this period of fasting (regardless of the type of fast I was doing).
It’s a potent tool, one used by nearly all religions at one time or another for spiritual purposes. There are many ways to fast too. I used to think it was complete abstinence from anything but water, and for years, that is how I would fast but more recently I’ve been easing back into a gentler practice: on Wednesdays, I avoid meat, animal products, and sugar. One can fast by omitting a desired food or drink. One may fast for one day or several. Or, if one cannot fast due to medical reasons, one may fast from speaking or social media instead of food – a particularly potent practice today (3). I’ve realized over the years that it need not be limited to absence of food alone, though that is the traditional fast.
It’s important to fast for the proper reasons: honoring the Gods, disciplining oneself in Their service, purification, cultivation of piety. Fasting is not a means to weight loss. That’s not the proper (or healthy) reason to do this. It’s important to be clear in one’s mind why one is engaging in any particular spiritual practice. We must, above all else, be clean in our work. I always advise consulting a doctor first to make sure there are no health problems that preclude fasting and if one has a history of eating disorders, this is absolutely NOT the proper spiritual technique to use. Yes, it might make fasting easy, but it muddies the waters of intent. Even if you can do it easily and well, if there is a history of any eating disorder, I would not include fasting in your spiritual work. If you truly feel called to do so and are absolutely sure that such a calling is coming from an authentic and clean place, then do this only under supervision of a teacher, elder, or perhaps even a medical professional (4).
Fasting should also always be done in conjunction with prayer. I know that when I fast, I rise earlier to pray before heading to work. I tend to keep my head covered for that day, something that puts me in deep devotional headspace. I spend more time throughout the day and certainly when I am home in prayer. My day will be bracketed, more so than usual with prayer and shrine work. It both roots and rounds out the practice. Fasting by itself can easily become a thing of ego and arrogance, something that is done not for the Gods but to test ourselves, to compete with ourselves, to see how much we can do, and then it becomes something that cultivates a negative type of pride. Prayer is the key to keep us from falling into such headspace. Also, fasting is not in any way to be taken as a statement on the body. There is nothing wrong with being corporeal, with having flesh, with being in a body. It’s not evil, it’s not sinful. Fasting isn’t done to scourge or punish the flesh. Its purpose is to engage in a discipline of both body and soul, and of our appetites, for a specific reason: reaching ever and always toward the Gods. It strengthens us in our commitment to the Holy Powers. It strengthens our will to maintain practices even under duress or difficulty. It teaches us to endure inconvenience. It purifies the spirit of certain types of miasma. When we fast, we are choosing to nourish ourselves with something other than food. We are choosing both to nourish our devotion and to allow that devotion to nourish our souls. After all, if we cannot discipline ourselves to bear inconvenience for our Gods, what good in the long run, are we (5)? All relationships worth having involve some measure of inconvenience. That holds true for those relationships we cultivate with our Gods most of all.
- Since I know we have those in our communities who will look for any reason to condemn any devotional practice that might somehow, possibly, in some way inconvenience someone or you know, prioritize devotion and the Gods, I should note that my declining health has to do with spinal damage and chronic pain, not anything related to fasting.
- No spiritual technique works for everyone. The ascetic’s path can be very beneficial and fruitful but it’s not something that will work for every single person. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t and there’s no harm in that.
- One very powerful fasting practice that one of my students once told me was the most difficult exercise I ever assigned was a three-day media fast. From sun-down on Friday to sun up Monday, no email, computer, phone (or other communication device), tv, radio, etc. The time should be spent praying and journaling, meditating, shrine work, and doing things that deepen one’s devotion.
- I also advice that one not begin with a difficult and/or extended fast. Start fasting the way my Orthodox friends do: one or two days a week, avoid certain animal products (meat, milk, butter, eggs). Once this practice has become natural, then perhaps consider a full (no food) fast or a day or two, and if you choose to go this route, ease into it by slowly decreasing one’s food intake over two or three days, and ease out of it the same way – break the fast with broth, for instance, not with a full meal or your body will express its displeasure in ways you will not like!
- Again, not everyone will be able to fast and that is perfectly ok. There are other, equally useful spiritual techniques that can be employed to similar ends. This is one technique of many.
This morning a friend and fellow theologian said to me, “It’s not fashionable to believe in God anymore but I certainly do” and I told him that I quite agree. My belief in, love of, and veneration of my Gods is the axis mundi around which my entire life revolves. I believe it is our reason for being as human beings, and a good and potent thing. My response to him was this: “I think we need to look at why it’s no longer fashionable”(1).
All of this was in response to a conference panel that I attended earlier this week, one that I found very rewarding. It was a panel dealing with sexual diversity in Orthodoxy. Several students asked me why I was there (not being Orthodox. They weren’t being mean, they were honestly surprised and/or curious). I told them that I found it interesting and above all else, there is not a single issue in early Christianity the results of which my communities aren’t wrestling with now, and in many cases the same issues are affecting all communities of faith, regardless of tradition, today. Plus, I wanted to support my colleagues for whom this continues to be a matter of grave importance within their tradition and who had put in a tremendous amount of work over the last year discussing and debating the topic.
I don’t think, theologically speaking, that sexual diversity and LGBTQ+ rights are an issue in polytheistic communities overall. There is no underlying theological position being used to condemn or bar LGBTQ+ people from becoming clergy or participating in rituals (2). Likewise, I don’t think we see men or women being barred from clergy roles on account of their gender (3). In polytheistic traditions, I think the topic of sexual diversity is a non-issue (at least when one compares how highly charged a matter it is in monotheistic circles). I was happy to see the issue being discussed and the panel raised really good and thoughtful points. It really made me reflect on what our traditions do well and where we have a bit farther to go still too. One thing, however, bothered me immensely and I think we see it in our communities quite a bit, so I’m going to mention it here.
It seemed that “modernity” (in any particular iteration) was being accepted unconditionally as an unmitigated good, and its values as progress by pretty much everyone (4). I really don’t think that it is. I’ve never viewed the values of modernity as particularly conducive to devotion, tradition, and faith; in fact, I think those values, which place humanity at the top of the ontological food chain in ways that do not help us cultivate humility, virtue, kindness, or piety, are actually quite destructive – to culture, to tradition, and most of all to developing anything resembling devotional consciousness. They encompass a way of looking at the world, of relating to each other in the world that positions us if not antagonistic to then at best outside of divine order. That same divine order fills the world with bounty, richness, and elevates us all as beloved creations of the Gods. It grants us dignity as created beings, venerative beings, homines fideles. It does not deconstruct into meaninglessness, but creates and restores and nourishes that which has been created.
I think the many iterations of modernity have, in some way, taught us to look at devotion – particularly when we are reconnecting to our respective indigenous traditions, reconnecting to our tribal realities, reconnecting across divisive lines and when we’re reaching instead into the wondrous sense of being and becoming within the hothouse of ancestral consciousness, within the seedbeds of our religious traditions, in ways that have terrifying and much-needed potential to transform the world—as primitive. We are ever and always oh so horrified that we might look primitive, to outsiders and most of all to ourselves. It’s time to get over this.
I will say again what I have said so many times in my writing. Those of us coming from European ancestries have two deep ancestral wounds that we must uncover, acknowledge, examine, and heal. The first is that Christianity came into Europe, spread across the lands that our pre-Christian ancestors and their tribes called home and eradicated our religions, co-opted our cultures, and subordinated those cultures to divisive political ends. The second, and we are much less willing to look at this one, is that our ancestors then drank that terrible poison, came across the ocean and did unto others precisely what had been done to them. We have a debt to our dead just as much as they have one to us and to our world and until we accept and acknowledge that, our traditions will continue to wither on the vine and our world will continue its descent into chaos, and we ourselves will continue to suffer and to inflict suffering on others.
We are our ancestral lines walking, for good or ill (for good and ill). Modernity may tell us this is primitive thinking. It may tell us to scoff at bowing down before our Gods, Gods Whose blessings have the potential to lift us up and plant out feet firmly on the ground of restoration, it may tell us that honoring the land, the mountains, the rivers, the trees is silly. I think, however, it’s time to take a good long look at “modernity” and ask the question: what have you given us that is better?
I’ll stop with that question since I have a class starting in fifteen minutes. We carry our ancestors with us, yes, their mistakes, but we carry their wisdom too and maybe, just maybe if we honor that, we can find a way out of the mess we’ve made.
- You want to be an atheist, rock on with your bad self. I have no problem with that provided you’re not coming into our polytheistic communities and trying to take on leadership positions, or shape and change liturgical and/or theological structures. You do you: the atheist sandbox is not my circus and y’all are not my monkeys. I have my hands full with polytheists lol. Just stay in your own sandbox.
- An issue came up a couple of years ago with Dianic Wiccans at Pantheacon but my understanding of their theology is that they are not polytheists.
- There may be specific temples that are gender restricted for reasons relevant to that particular cultus, or a particular Deity may be served by only one gender – Pudicitia being served by married women for instance, but those are relatively rare exceptions within a broad and rich family of polytheistic traditions. Those exceptions likewise have to do specifically with the nature of the Deity and His or Her hypostasis being honored in a particular way or place, not the inherent rightness/wrongness or goodness/sinfulness of a particular gender.
- One person even flat out equated modernity with technology in a way that I found both reductionist and a-historical. The ancient people’s hand technology (Romans had heated floors, running water; Greeks had steam engines for instance). Modernity is not about technology. It’s about values, systems, and ways of being in the world.
The more I study theology the more I see just how effectively contemporary Heathens have been colonized by monotheism, in their minds, in the way they look at religion, and most importantly in what they reject. Too often, and especially among less reflective Heathens, anything remotely theological- anything that discusses the nature of the Gods, that discusses our position as human beings created by the Gods with respect to the Gods (i.e. theological anthropology), anything that delves into our cosmology as something more than stories to be memorized, anything that discusses devotion – is immediately dismissed as Christian. Why? Because only Christians have theology? Only Christians cared to discuss the nature of the Gods and our pious obligations toward Them? Only Christians ask questions about why they are here and what their Gods want and how they can be better people in relation to their Gods? Only Christians cared about their traditions and positioning themselves rightly within their cosmological framework? Only Christians (for this is what such Heathens are saying though they don’t realize it) have actual religion?
Of course, all of this is nonsense. Theology existed well before Christianity was a blip on the world stage. Our ancestors were not foolish. They weren’t oblivious to the implications embedded in the very cosmology that defined their religious lives. They too had questions about what it meant to live as people of devotion. The thing is, many of the questions that we want to shove under the umbrella of ‘religion,’ those same ancestors would have instead given to philosophy or relied on engagement with mystery cultus to answer. Morality, for instance is not a religious question for us; (To be fair, of course how I engage with my Gods and what that teaches me about being human will impact my morality greatly but) as polytheists (of nearly any stripe) our ancestors would not have looked to their religions when the question of morality arose. Those questions were for the realms of philosophy, ancestral custom, and law. One of the great simplifications of monotheism was yoking morality to the question of which God to follow and how. For ancient polytheisms, that was not a healthy or natural pairing.
Instead, polytheists developed schools of philosophy and rich intellectual milieus in which one could discuss, debate, and develop ideas about ethics, morality, and what it means to live as a fully realized human being. In similar fashion, Mystery cultus often engaged with soteriological questions but religion, religion was about right relationship with the Gods, tradition, and all the protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers properly and well. At some point in one’s life these things might all connect and play off each other, but they nonetheless at their core remained distinct spheres.
It is a shame that literacy came to the North only with Christianity. The only significant records we have post-date conversion by at least two hundred years. This is problematic. Many of our converts today, and we are still a religion of converts primarily, come from Protestant denominations and they do so want a holy book, a scripture, some normative, written authority upon which to rely. This can lead to one hell of a cognitive disconnect because polytheisms don’t work that way. Heathenry certainly doesn’t for all that we try to force lore to fill the gap.
Heathens are, to put it bluntly, afraid of theology. Our religious traditions function very differently than the monotheisms A) with which we were raised and B) that form the primary lens through which our culture defines what constitutes licit religion. We are likewise living in a culture very different ethically and morally from the cultures in which our ancestors lived and in which our religions thrived (and different in ways not necessarily better, healthier, or more just). This makes the interstices where religion brushes up against morality more difficult for us to navigate and while our cosmological scaffolding can help in these moments, one has to understand that scaffolding as something other than a cycle of stories to be memorized and regurgitated for that to be effective.
You are not absolved from theological questioning because you are Heathen. You are not absolved from engaging with theological ideas that make you uncomfortable and that challenge the often lazy, unexamined ways in which we choose to live in the world. Heathenry, like any religion, demands such consideration be done again and again. Theological conversations (and that is what theology means: discourse about the Gods) are the lifeblood of our religion in a certain respect. It is what will drive our traditions forward, that ongoing point and counterpoint by which we are better able to see and consider what it means to be devout in the modern world, how best we might approach our Gods, and what our sacred stories tell us about the nature of those Gods (for though I don’t believe lore is sacred, I do believe it contains unexpected windows and keyholes into something sacred).
Why is this important? Aside from the need to root our traditions sustainably, in ways that will allow it to grow strongly and well into the next generation and beyond, these questions allow us to determine what it means to be in right relationship with the Holy Powers and what that might mean in our daily lives. Granted, each God is different and each devotional relationship unique but that should give us all the more impetus to do this necessary work.
Why? Because when we are in right relationship with our Holy Powers, then we are constantly reifying that moment of creation. Then, that moment when the world of ice and the world of fire ground Being into being, when the Gods tore apart Their own ancestor and set in place the scaffolding of reality, of the cosmos, of all the worlds, when They breathed sense and life and warmth into us too is happening again and again, constantly being reaffirmed and we are, in a tiny way, sustaining and participating in it and that is the holiest work we will ever do.
What theology cannot do, of course, is help someone see why that is a good thing, an important thing, a necessary thing. It cannot make one want to be in right relationship with the Gods. It cannot make one value devotion. It cannot make one value the Gods. It cannot make anyone address their own moral and spiritual disorder and I’m afraid on that terrifying fulcrum the future of our traditions may rest.
(some thoughts that I’ll likely be fleshing out over the next year…)
Someone mentioned today in a discussion on twitter: are we never then to question our Gods?
There is, I responded, a huge chasm between questioning as in, ‘I don’t understand. Can You explain further?’ and projecting our values, morals, and expectations onto the Powers, expecting Them to adhere to our sense of what is correct and right relationship rather than allowing Them to define those things in relation to us. There is a huge difference between questioning in confusion, desperation, or in piety for greater clarification and questioning in a way that elevates us to Their level, even if just in our own self-righteous moral minds.
We are not equal to the Gods. Let me say that again for those in the back: WE ARE NOT EQUAL TO THE GODS. I’m not sure why this is so very difficult (oh wait a minute: modernity, post modernity, marxism, popular culture, and a thousand other fragments of our culture). We are, of course, charged with using our common sense, developing our devotional relationships to the best of our abilities with the tools we have at hand, and developing discernment. Understanding that a natural hierarchy exists between us and the Gods shouldn’t have any impact at all on whether or not we cultivate discernment. If we are uncertain about something we have received in prayer or through personal gnosis, then there are avenues by which we can seek clarity (elders, diviners, etc.). The tradition itself provides a scaffolding by which to support such discernment. That is, in part, what it’s there to do. That is not, however, the way or reason many people question. They don’t want clarity. They want to reify their presumed position as equal to or above the Holy Powers. That is when questioning becomes impiety.
The question that followed was this: Do you believe the Gods are perfect?
I was taken aback by this question because…it’s just not all that relevant. Do I believe that our Gods possess what I call the “three omnis” that Christians commonly ascribe to their God: omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience? No, I don’t. I can think of no more selfish or horrible thing to project upon our Gods (for reasons beyond the scope of this paper). That being said, considerations of Their perfection or imperfection automatically place us in the position of making a value judgment over Their worthiness and that is problematic for me. On some level, within Their sphere of power, I do believe that the Gods are perfect in and of Themselves. Is that perfection the same as what we humans mean when we trot out the term? I don’t know (nor care). Odin is Odin and that is enough. To fixate on divine perfection or lack thereof is a strawman, a rhetorical ploy to again avoid positioning ourselves vis-à-vis the Powers in a subordinate position.
I’m not sure why the idea of having something above us in the celestial hierarchy is so problematic for some. I understand that there may have been issues with clergy in their birth religions, or damaging parental figures, or problems with authority but that’s what secular therapy is for –and I’m not being sarcastic. If there is damage like that, therapy can be a godsend. While the Gods are more than big enough, I think, to take our projections onto Them of whatever issues we might be working out, or simply our own arrogance and lack of humility, we are denying ourselves right relationship with the Powers. We are hurting ourselves.
Then of course, I was accused of having incoherent theology. Sweetheart, if you think theology is coherent, you need to read more of it because let me tell you, it’s anything but. On this point, however, it could not be more coherent. Our Gods created a beautiful cosmological hierarchy, the scaffolding sustaining all creation, all the words, and They created us too. There is an essential ontological difference between humanity, created by the Gods and the Gods Themselves. That difference is beautiful and profound. It underscores the Gods’ care of Their creation, including of us (all the more so since our stories tell us They went out of Their way to travel amongst us fathering children). There is the potential for a very fruitful devotional relationship there. I would go so far as to say it is our duty and obligation as fully realized human beings, as functioning adults to honor Them.(1)This is not punishment. This isn’t some horrible tyranny. It should be a beautiful fulfillment of the potential of that divine connection.(2)
Within the devotional relationship, further situated within the cosmological scaffolding of our traditions there is tremendous coherence and it is just that coherence that enables us to develop spiritual discernment.
The day that we put our reputations above doing right before our Gods, above venerating Them well, above following Their wishes as revealed to us through discerned gnosis is the day that we have sacrificed all integrity as polytheists, Heathens, and as human beings.
Let this be my prayer today and every day: may I have the courage not to care, or to care and do what the Gods want of me anyway. Let devotion be the fire that inspires my courage. Let it be the fire that burns away all fear and all cowardice. Let me do what it is my Gods have set forth for me to do even if in fear and trembling and may I never yield.
1. One of the most beautiful passages of lore occurs in the lay of Hyndla where Freya’s man Ottar is praised for having made so many sacrifices to Her that the rock of the shrine turned to glass from the blood and ostensibly heat of the sacrifices (it implies to me that he made the offerings and then burned them).
2. That it is so often fraught I blame on a society that has tainted and misrepresented the entire concept of sovereignty and hierarchy.