Category Archives: theology
A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).
I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!
One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.
I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.
I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!
As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.
- Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
- One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:
“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,
swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;
he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,
and fashions her by pressure.”
At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.
Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.
I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.
Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.
I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).
So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.
After reading my last practicum post, Chase from Nevada asked a really good question and I said I would touch on it here. Chase asked, “Quick question for you regarding the conversion from Christianity to Heathenry: what are some of the key things one is able to do to make that transition a bit smoother?”
This is a great question, but one that doesn’t have a single clear cut answer. Firstly, understand that it is a transition. Conversion is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not a matter of waking up one day deciding that today is the day and from now one you’re Heathen. Even if you are deeply devoted to your new Gods, even if you have committed to practicing your new religion and are doing your absolute best to learn what you need to learn and to root yourself in the practices that will serve you best from the get-go, problems –issues—may still arise. Truly changing everything from one religion to another can take years of careful, mindful work. There’s a deconstruction mentally that has to occur. Give it that time! It’s important to do this carefully and cleanly because it can be a messy and painful process sometimes. Now, this is an intense and weighty topic, too much to cover in one blog post, but I’m going to hit a couple of what I consider to be key points here. There is a good deal of literature on the psychology of conversion and it’s worth checking out. The one thing I would emphasize is this: be certain that you are running to the Gods, not away from the God of your birth religion. That can change everything.
Most importantly, understand –because this can really trip one up unexpectedly—the way we were all taught to see “God,” our expectations of “God,” and of “liturgy” were formed by our birth religion. Moreover, we learned how to be in relationship with our Gods, what it means to be in “right relationship” with the Holy from those self-same birth religions. That may or may not be congruent with what those things mean in Heathenry. This can lead to moments of intense discomfort, unexpected anger, and cognitive disconnect: our ingrained and unexamined expectations aren’t matching up with the reality of our new faith.
There can often be sadness or grief, not just at losing one’s religious community but at the loss of those things familiar and comforting. It’s ok to mourn your birth religion. It’s quite natural, actually and you may find yourself mourning different things at different times. That process isn’t necessarily one that will be completed all at once. You may feel incredible guilt at times, particularly if you converted from an evangelical branch of Christianity. Those fears are normal too. Just sit with it, talk about it with a supportive network of friends, journal, and most of all pray about it. Eventually, you will work your way through.
Also, sometimes there are things that we don’t want to leave behind. Prayer, for instance, doesn’t belong to any religion. Polytheists have always prayed so when people tell you that it’s Christian behavior, you can dismiss them as simply not knowing what they’re talking about. Maybe a particular prayer still resonates – that’s fine. Rework it so you can still use it. Maybe you have a devotional relationship with one of the Gods or Holy Powers of your birth religion. It’s ok to maintain that. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist. In fact, it makes you very surely polytheistic. It can, however be awkward and there are those in our community who may shame you for it and you may end up with conflicting religious requirements that need to be carefully navigated. In those cases, seek out a specialist. Polytheists have done this for millennia.
It’s a sad reality in contemporary polytheism in general and Heathenry in particular that spiritual direction is sadly lacking. This can lead not only to fumbling during dark nights of the soul – which are a perfectly normal part of any healthy spirituality – but also to incredible isolation and loneliness. You may have to struggle to find community but it is out there. The internet has really transformed this and made it much easier to connect with like-minded co-religionists. Don’t let anyone bully you. The most important thing you can do is to take the time to develop a clean devotional relationship with your Gods. That happens through prayer, meditation, offerings, shrine work. Even if you fumble (and you will. We all do.), have courage and do your best to begin some type of consistent practice. I always tell people to “start where you start” because people will struggle inevitably with different things but everyone can do something and then you build on that. New converts often get caught up in one of two things, both of which are terribly damaging to one’s spiritual life: perfectionism (what Christians termed ‘scrupulosity’) and fundamentalism. The first involves becoming obsessed or obsessively worried with getting every little thing perfectly correct and with never making a mistake. You won’t always get things perfectly correct, and you will make mistakes and you have to in order to learn anything. Almost everything else can be sorted out with a diviner or specialist if need be. Scrupulosity can destroy a person. It is right and proper to be concerned about miasma and to approach the Gods reverently but scrupulosity will cause your love and devotion to wither because all you will be worried about is whether or not you are making errata. If this starts to be an issue, change up your practices. Change your routine, your rhythms, even the way you pray. There is a spiritual discipline inherent in carefully training yourself to avoid scrupulosity but to cultivate piety, and it’s something that you can develop over time with practice. The Gods will not hate you when you make honest mistakes. You will not be a bad Heathen.
Many converts also become very fundamentalist in their new religion. They want one way of doing things and it is the only correct way ™ and if you don’t do it that way, you’re wrong/evil/deluded/insert term of choice here. This isn’t a Heathen specific thing, though Gods know we see enough of it within Heathenry (lore thumping anyone? We get a great deal of our converts from Protestant Christianities, especially the evangelical varieties, and this has had a tremendous influence on mainstream Heathen ritual structure and the obsession with lore and having something analogous to scripture.), but common with new converts to any religion. Don’t do this. Polytheism is ontologically different from monotheism. There are so many different ways to honor the Gods within various traditions. While each tradition will have its rules, when it comes to personal devotion, and what we call “hearth cultus,” or household worship, it is as manifold and varied as there are Gods and ancestors.
One thing that converts should be aware of is possible hostility and pressure from families. I have found that parents and relatives can take it very personally when a child converts. I can understand this. Were I a parent, I wouldn’t take it well should my child convert away from polytheism. It strikes at core values and there can be a deep concern for the well-being of the child. I have no answers on how to deal with this. Truthfully, each situation is different, but just be aware that it can become an issue. It helps to be mentally prepared.
Far more difficult are the tensions that can arise when one converts as a married adult, particularly if there are children involved. I think that it is crucial that we raise our children as polytheists, but if you are married to a non-polytheist and then convert, this may create significant problems. Hell, even converting may be an issue depending on the religious persuasion of your spouse. You’ll need to figure out your priorities and what you can compromise on and what you absolutely will not. This can destroy marriages, I won’t lie. It doesn’t have to though, because polytheism can encompass Christian (or other) cultus. It cannot, however, encompass monotheistic exclusivist claims and that is usually where the problems arise. If custody becomes an issue, get a damned good lawyer because it is almost inevitable that your new religion will become an issue. We shouldn’t have to fight these battles in 2020 but they’re hardly the only battle we still have to fight. Again, be prepared. This may seem harsh, but that is not my intention. I am trying here to be as realistic as possible.
Finally, converting is not just a matter of replacing one God or no Gods with many. It involves a total shift in worldview, in values, ethics, and in one’s way of being in the world. It is often quite a cognitive shock to realize for the first time the degree to which one’s polytheism is incompatible with the values of the modern (or post-modern) world. Realizing that we live in a “world full of Gods” as the philosopher Thales wrote, changes everything. It eventually transforms our values, our priorities, and the way that we ourselves choose to be in the world. Like coming out of Plato’s cave, there’s no going back to the state one was in before, and that can be very uncomfortable. One area where I have seen people really struggle is understanding that morality/ethics and religion were not yoked in ancient polytheisms. This is a really big issue. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) draw their morality from their religion, specifically their holy books. This is not the case in polytheism. The position of religion is very different. Here’s how it breaks down:
- Religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers (Gods, ancestors, spirits).
- Philosophy, custom, culture, and civic engagement were ways of developing virtue, morality, and an ethical sense.
- Soteriological concerns fell under the warrant of various mystery cultus.
Abrahamic traditions tend to roll all those things into one (I’m not sure why. I’ve never thought about it from their perspective). We do not. Religion is restricted to the Gods, the Holy, the Powers. So, when we have sacred stories that present the Gods in ways we find less than stellar, they’re not meant to be read as literal necessarily, and they’re not meant to serve as the Ten Commandments or a similar ethical guide. They are meant instead to give us windows into the Mysteries of a specific Holy Power. They can be read in multiple ways, but their purpose was never to teach ethics or virtue. That’s what philosophy was for.
So, when you run across people who say “I would never worship a God who does X.” or “If my God told me to do X I would cease worshipping Him” you know you’re dealing with someone who has no idea of how to engage with the Holy Powers, and certainly no idea of how to engage with surviving lore. Instead of squawking like rabid marmots about how the Gods don’t live up to our standards, we should instead be concerned with venerating Them. It is for us to live up to Their standards not the other way around, because whatever standards They have are not necessarily presented through the cosmological stories, but rather through the intricacies of personal engagement via devotion (also because we are not ontologically on the same level as the Gods and our purpose is Their veneration). We are tasked with undoing two thousand years of terrible propaganda directed toward polytheism, starting with dubious claims that our Gods lack virtue, claims that were made precisely because of our cosmological stories (1).
Finally, (for real this time), it can take a while to learn to be proudly polytheistic. That’s ok. If you have moments of doubt, it doesn’t make you a bad polytheist, a bad Heathen, a bad [insert polytheistic tradition here], it makes you human. If you sometimes find yourself feeling awkward when talking with relatives or colleagues and slip and use the singular when referring to the Gods, that’s ok. Note it and do better next time (if it is safe for you to do so). I find that there can be terrible pressure to hide one’s polytheism, curbing our language to reflect monotheistic mores and/or to make those around us who are not polytheist comfortable. I think it is beneficial to train yourself out of this. They will not curb their monotheistic language for you and really, neither side should have to do so. Our religious reality is different from that of a monotheistic interlocutor and that’s ok. If they are not big enough to handle that, such a thing is on them. Of course, I have flat out been asked, “You are so educated…do you really believe in Gods?” I’ve taken to responding, “Of course. It is because I am educated that I believe in Them.” This is facile though – yes, it is the most sensible thing in the world to recognize the Holy Powers, but …it is simply reality and a reality that will not be denied. Falling into linguistic patterns or marking yourself as a polytheist publicly in other ways may feel awkward at first, especially if you don’t have a support network of co-religionists, but it’s never good to pretend to be something or someone that you are not (2).
There is so much more that I could discuss about this topic, but these are just a few key points that I think particularly relevant. Also, if you have just converted: welcome. This is a glorious time to be a polytheist.
- While examples abound in early Christian writing, a brief perusal of Augustine’s De civitate dei (City of God) will provide plenty examples of this. It’s filled with purposeful misrepresentation of indigenous polytheisms and co-opting of Neo-Platonism to some degree, something that Christians continued doing well into the modern period. Augustine really set the stage for later scholastic appropriation of ancient philosophy.
- Take the time to develop a support network, of polytheists if you can, but at least of supportive, understanding friends. It is a godsend, as friends always are, and can do wonders in helping you through the rough times spiritually.
Trolling around the web the other day (one link leading to another link), I saw a question from a new Heathen: why don’t we treat the Eddas like sacred scripture. Surely, this person opined, it would give us added legitimacy amongst other religions as we worked to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Yes, that was literally what this person was saying. It’s actually a good question on several fronts and one I want to take the time to answer here as part of my practicum series.
Firstly, we are not trying to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Frankly, I think we’re far better than they because we’re polytheistic and we are in the process of restoring the ancient contracts with Gods, ancestors, and land that those religions shattered. Also, it’s not a competition. Some people will be legitimately called by those Deities. That’s fine. We need to do us, and worry about restoring our traditions with integrity instead of competing with religions that have almost zero resemblance to our worldview and way of doing things. Those religions are utterly irrelevant to us and to our praxis.
Secondly, why assume that we need scriptures? That’s not the way our tradition works. Our ethical code is drawn from our community and culture. We don’t need it ensconced in a religious text. That’s not, in most polytheisms, what religion is for (1). Nor is such a text necessary for transmission of our traditions. That happens inter-generationally through being surrounded by reverent people and seeing right relationship with the Powers demonstrated and encouraged every day (2).
Heathenry was an oral tradition. It was passed from mother to child, father to child, community to child through active practice and household cultus. Writing something down, relying on written texts as the main archive of one’s tradition creates a very different environment than the fluidity of orality. A tradition dependent on written texts is one that has closed the door to revelation and theophany. Oral traditions, because change and transition is ensconced in the very process of orality, have loopholes that render them flexible, vibrant, living.
Finally, the Eddas are not religious texts. They were not written to be religious texts. They were not even written by Heathens. The Poetic and Prose Edda and anything else written by Snorri Sturluson, were written by a Christian poet and politician to help younger writers comprehend the pre-Christian stories and kennings that filled their literature. Apparently, poets of Snorri’s time were forgetting these things because those poets were largely Christian. They are not sacred texts. They may contain windows to the holy, but they themselves are not holy. That’s an important distinction (3). These texts are highly mediated. They’re filled with elements that better reflect Christianity than Heathenry. We can draw inspiration from the stories therein but to enshrine such a text as scripture is to allow that text to limit and define one’s religious life.
I think new converts have to be careful not to cling to worldviews and ways of doing things that do not reflect our ancestral traditions. We get a lot of converts from Protestant religions and Protestantism is very focused around lectio divina and the study of sacred scriptures. There’s nothing wrong with that (and knowing how to engage with a close reading of our sacred stories is very useful but taking it to the extreme of elevating those texts as ‘scripture’ twists the Heathen worldview far out of true) but it doesn’t reflect Heathenry and leads, when such a thing is given normative power within a tradition, to a very different place than where our ancestral Worldview would rightly lead.
The Eddas are useful tools, but let’s not make them more than that. We’re not reinventing Protestantism after all; we’re returning to and restoring our ancestral traditions and our ancestors did not need scripture to venerate the Gods and see Their works throughout the world. We need to be smart enough not to cut ourselves off that way.
- In most polytheistic cultures, religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy, philosophy is where one learns to cultivate virtue and become a decent human being, also civics, and then soteriological questions are answered by mystery cultus.
- I remember a couple of years ago talking with a theology colleague who was stunned when I said we don’t have scripture (not like the Abrahamic traditions). He couldn’t grasp it and asked, ‘how do you pass your religion on to your children?’ It was a good question and I’m glad he asked and I explained how polytheisms work, about hearth cultus, the role of a pious community and tribe, etc.
- I think the stories of our Gods are sacred but they’re not ‘scripture.’ They are not unchanging revelation upon which a tradition is based. Quite the opposite given that there were multiple regional differences in cosmology, stories, and approach.
Recently I was asked why I used the term “Gods” instead of θεοι (Greek: Gods) or Reginn (Norse: Holy Powers), or some other term. My friend asked me if I would address this on my blog as I sometimes take questions from readers. I’ve been meaning to do it for a couple of weeks now, but end of term paper writing, of necessity, took precedence. Now that the term is officially over, however, I finally have time to address this.
Firstly, it goes without saying that since I’m working and writing in English, I’m going to use English terms. “Gods,” for instance, is simply the English translation of θεοι. Why wouldn’t I use the appropriate English term? I could write my blog in an ancient language, a couple of them, in fact, but what good would that do to my temper or the cognition of my readers? No one needs the pain lol.
Of course, that’s not the real question. I think what my interlocutor was really asking is why do I use a term ‘God’ so associated with the Abrahamic God. I’ve seen the same question arise with regard to words like ‘piety,’ ‘devotion,’ even ‘prayer’ (perhaps most especially prayer). It is a sad testament to how deep the damage done by the Abrahamic traditions in many born into their more evangelical or fundamentalist denominations runs. There can be a knee-jerk response, hostility, anger, hurt, distaste, disgust at certain words that were once used in one’s birth religions to hammer home a doctrine of despair, fear, guilt, shame, and a very dubious “salvation.” The problem isn’t the words themselves. It’s how they were used. The words themselves remain signifiers of important ideas and in the case of “God,” signifiers of one or more of the Holy Powers (1).
The argument that is occasionally put forth of course, is that we should not use terms like this (especially “God”) because then we can “distance ourselves from the Abrahamic concept of God.” I think this is, however, terribly misguided thinking. What we do by eschewing the proper words for these things and Powers, is that we allow the Abrahamic traditions to claim sole ownership of these things (which granted, they try to claim already); but more importantly, in discarding these words, not only are we twisting our language out of true and cutting off our ability to think clearly, piously, and accurately about our Gods, but we’re also denying Their ontological reality. We’re allowing that the Power of one family of religions (Abrahamic) is so much greater than ours (Polytheistic) that we cannot dare to translate a term accurately, a term whose English iteration is drawn etymologically from its Greek and Latin predecessors. Moreover, we’re cutting off our ability to clearly communicate with the very Powers under discussion. We are willfully stunting our ability to contemplate Divine reality.
A Word is a Doorway. It’s a window into something far greater than any collection of phonemes can ever reflect, but at the same time, those phonemes ping in our consciousness, call us to awareness, connect us to our history and our ancestral traditions in ways that we ought to be very careful of erasing. Erasure is never good, ever. Good, bad, or neutral: we are who we are now because of those who came before us and we can learn and move forward only with eyes open and hearts filled with courage.
So why do I call a God a God? Because it’s the appropriate and accurate term. Because it is not right to cede that space in our minds, in our discourse, in our hearts, in our memories (2).
- Last week there was a very rich thread on twitter (I tried to find it again but could not tonight when I looked) wherein Edward Butler was discussing the depth and complexity added to translations of Platonic philosophers when one more accurately translates any reference to θεος as the God instead of just “God,” the latter of which presumes monotheism whereas the former the thickness and rich diversity of polytheism. Not only is it far, far more accurate given that our Platonic philosophers were, by and large, men and women of piety and reverence for the Gods, but it forces our acknowledgment of that fact today, something far too often elided from current English translations and discussions. It’s something to consider whenever reading translations from the Latin or Greek. Often the singular “God” was used in a way that meant “THE God” i.e. “THIS God in THIS situation” as opposed to “The one and only God.” It’s a subtle but crucially important distinction. In Latin especially, which has no article (a/an/the), this is particularly important to consider in translations.
- In many respects, we must consciously deprogram ourselves of the subtle and sometimes quite unexpected impact of our birth religions. Sometimes there are good things we take away: Catholic or Orthodox methods of devotion for instance, or Protestant techniques for engaging with a text, but quite often it’s more troubling vestiges that arise.
Every single day we have an opportunity to make choices that bring us closer to our Gods, that clarify and nourish our devotional commitments, that help us develop in our hearts and minds, in the fertile field of our souls the type of landscape that encourages virtue (in the classical sense) and that encourages growth and clean veneration. This is Sunna’s gift to us. Every day we can begin anew.
Every day we have a choice: to fill our time, our leisure, our waking hours with things that cultivate respect and piety, to nurture attitudes of respect and graceful willingness, or to cultivate within ourselves attitudes of hubris, disrespect, contempt, and spiritual slovenliness. Every day, we can choose to be mindful or we can choose to be base, or to stop at any point in between on that spectrum. It’s up to us.
Who do we want to be in relation to our Gods and ancestors? How valuable are the commitments we’ve made to Them? How much to we keep our promises? That’s what it comes down to for each and every one of us. How much do we care, and what do we care about the most? It all comes down to the choices we make each and every day. To what am I going to give space in my mind? What will I allow to shape my feelings? On what will I spend my time and is it valuable in shaping me into the kind of human being I wish to be in relation to my Gods and ancestors…or not? Making good choices here consistently is called developing character. Each day Sunna gives us a choice. It’s up to us to make the most of it.
I work with a group of lovely Orthodox Christians and Catholics (and the occasional Protestant) all of whom are going to be miserable through Easter LOL. Seriously though, I have a ton of work-friends who are fasting, praying, and making other preparations throughout Lent, which began this past Wednesday for Latin Christians and will begin on March 2 for Eastern Orthodox. (See here for an article on why this dating difference exists). Fasting and other practices are a way for Christians to prepare for the central mystery of their faith, the death and resurrection of their God. It’s an important time for them and I’ve been hearing quite a bit of conversation about preparations over the past couple of weeks (for those interested, a friend just shared this article from the Orthodox perspective, and this one from the Catholic). All of that has me thinking about how little ascetic work I do anymore.
When I was first taken up by Odin, I connected most strongly to Him through ascetic practices (not ordeal work, that came at least a decade later), particularly fasting and prayer. I found that fasting opened me up and cleaned me out spiritually in a way that nothing else had up to that point been effective in doing. Because food is such a social thing in our culture, it also kept my devotion to my Gods foremost in my mind throughout the day providing me with opportunities, each time I felt discomfort from fasting and each time I had to think about what to eat or not eat or to pass on some social dining engagement to reaffirm my devotion to Odin and to my other Gods. I miss that. Over the past decade, I’ve really fallen out of the habit of any significant type of ascetic work.
Before I go farther, I should note that while I would often fast on nothing but water for Odin, that is not what Christians do for their God, at least not your average Christian over Lent. Also, that type of zero-food fast is not recommended for many people for health reasons – talk to your health care provider before jumping in to something that extreme. There are many different ways to fast and Lenten fasts usually involve eschewing milk, meat, and eggs, and (I think) wine in Orthodox communities (any of my Orthodox readers seeing this, please feel free to correct me if I have this wrong) and usually something of the person’s choice in Catholicism, though I think traditional Catholics will give up meat through Lent (again, Catholic readers, correct me if I’m wrong. I study ancient Christianity academically, but seriously, I stop at the tenth century lol). Either way, the important thing is that throughout all religious traditions that I can think of at the moment, there are multiple ways to fast. One doesn’t need to go without food. For health reasons now, I rarely do a zero-food fast. I’ve written more about ways of fasting here and of course during the time one fasts, that practice is paired with an increase in prayer.
Christians engage in Lenten practices, as a Protestant friend told me yesterday, to prepare to receive their God on Easter Sunday. That is what made me think deeply about how I prepare myself for our Gods. What am I doing or not doing in my life to make devotion to Odin easier, to make my religious life flow more smoothly? What am I doing to transmute my soul, to elevate myself in a way that opens the door to clear, clean experience of the holy? Unfortunately, of late, my answer has been: not much.
That’s why I’ve decided to both give up a few things this Lent (through the Orthodox Easter—I might as well suffer in solidarity with my friends lol) and use it as an opportunity to deepen my prayer practice. I’ve really been recalcitrant about praying enough lately and it makes my soul feel dirty when I can’t do the least effort to remain right with my Gods.
So, I’ll be tagging along with 40 days of mindful fasting. I’m hoping it will jump start my own engagement again and at an even deeper level than I remember.
Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.
Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.
Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.
Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,
Eternally let us praise Him.
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.