I just returned from a conference at Villanova this past weekend. The Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) conference is one of the leading theology conferences held every year just outside of Philadelphia. It’s really my favorite conference, the one I really, really try to do every year. It’s a lovely group of people and I always learn so much when I attend. This year the panels were so good (they pretty much always are) and I feel I have new things to gnaw upon, so much productive feedback to integrate into my work, and so many new books to track down and read. I can’t wait for next year (and for me to say that about any conference is miraculous. I might enjoy them but they generally wear me out. This one, well, I was sorry when it ended).
This year I chaired a panel and presented a paper. Usually I work in Patristics. My ongoing area of interest is developing a cultural poetics of the eunuch, looking at early Christian sources and the way ideas of the self and the holy were mediated through the figure of the eunuch. Because this conference covers more than just late antiquity, however, I was able to present a side project, one that is rapidly becoming a major secondary area of interest for me. I first gave an iteration of this paper, titled “Ravens in the Mead-hall: Rewriting Faith in the Wake of Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars” at last year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Conference and in between then and now, I’ve tweaked it considerably. This paper discusses Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons and their consequent forced conversion through the lens of post-colonial theory. It utilizes the Heliand, the 9thcentury Saxon translation of the Gospels as a lens through which to explore the re-positioning of the Saxons as a subaltern people, and the ways in which their indigenous religious traditions remained vividly relevant within the framework of Christianity. It gets a little darker than this implies, discussing things like forced child oblation, genocide, and the erasure of indigenous religious cultures too (and these darker threads are things I intend to continue exploring with this line of research). It was remarkably well received.
This is partly my way of holding space as a polytheist for our ancestors. Yes, it is useful to go to professional conferences. It’s a chance to explore these side topics, to get valuable feedback, in an atmosphere that – at least in this case – is fairly relaxed and congenial. Yes, I really want to look more closely at the ways post-colonial theory can be applied to Charlemagne’s atrocities. The more I learn about forced child oblation, forced exile, forced conversion and all the various ways the Franks impeded on and erased Saxon religious culture, the more I’m convinced that it’s here specifically that structures were first put in place that came to be used throughout the conquest of the New World, six hundred years later. Before all of that, however, I am holding space for the dead.
This is important. This is part of our history as contemporary polytheists. This is the story of our traditions, what happened to them, and why we are in the position we’re in today of having to reclaim, rebuild, and restore. If we do not understand what happened and where we came from, then we will never truly appreciate the importance of that restoration, of holding staunchly to our traditions, of cultivating piety and respect and reverence for our dead.
Why do I do this? Let me give one small example: during the Q&A, one of the attendees, a senior scholar who herself later presented a fascinating paper on a piece of Arthurian lit., said to me very earnestly, “I think it’s important to remember that the Franks had good intentions.” When I picked my jaw up off the floor I responded, “I’m sure that makes all the difference to the five thousand plus Saxons butchered at Verden.”
I’m sure that makes all the difference in the world to the men, women, and children who fought to maintain religious and cultural independence and instead ended up exiled, impoverished, with their children forcibly interred in monastic “schools” where they were Christianized and denied a Saxon identity religious or otherwise. Are you fucking kidding me? That is like saying Hitler had good intentions too. Who the fuck says that? Yet here we are in 2019 and I’ve an intelligent, educated scholar in all earnestness urging me to remember: the Christians had good intentions. That’s why I do this, because that attitude is everywhere in academia. It isn’t genocide if it occurred before the 19thcentury and was blessed by the cross.
Of course, not everyone thinks that way and most of the scholars that I work directly with would be equally appalled by such a thoughtless comment, a comment that erases the religious and cultural genocide of a people. Still, there are enough who do not question the narrative of the goodness of conversion, of Christian expansion, who do not realize that such expansion came with a heavy price, writ in blood, who do not realize it was forcibly done against the will of numerous peoples, or who do not care, that it is important to hold the line openly and at times vociferously. The evidence is there for those scholars who care to look. It is my obligation to do so. The intentions of those who destroyed our traditions really don’t matter. The results speak for themselves.
For those interested in reading my article in full, it will be coming out in the next issue of Walking the Worlds.
As I’ve mentioned before in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve just started PhD work in theology. I attend a Jesuit university (it was my first choice and I really love the program) and to my knowledge, I’m the first polytheist to be admitted to their theology program. I work with lovely people, most of whom are either clergy or in some way very active in their own religious communities, and my classes are really thought-provoking and actually quite relevant to the work I do within my own tradition. One of the things I intend to do as I move through the program is share my experiences and thoughts, those relevant to my position as a polytheist in a traditionally monotheistic discipline, here on my blog. So, this is really the first of what I suspect will become an ongoing if occasional thing.
I’ve been in coursework now since the end of August and I’ve begun to notice a few things about myself.
Having taken theology classes in the department even while doing my MA, I knew that it was surprising to some people to meet a polytheist who was also a theologian. I also knew that for every person who took it in stride, I’d meet those who dismissed my religion or were condescending or mocking (the latter two are definitely in the minority at my school). I was ready for that and for the most part, I get asked really good questions and then we have equally good theological discussions. It’s great. I really like the people with whom I work. What I wasn’t prepared for and what isn’t so great – and I want to make it clear that this does NOT in any way come from anyone in the department nor the department itself, it’s completely my own psyche—is that I’m starting to feel a certain insecurity and defensiveness about my legitimacy being a Heathen priest, compared to and when surrounded by Orthodox and Catholic priests and other devout but monotheistic clergy. I have also been feeling not only on edge (some of which may just be normal as a first-year PhD student), but somewhat ashamed, as though I’ve in some way failed my Gods –though there was no reason to feel so: I’ve never once hidden or denied my faith. It was really weird and it took me awhile to realize what was happening.
I started getting a push from Odin to be more visible as a polytheist. I thought, I don’t hide it at all, how much more visible should I be? Am I being given a new clothing taboo or something (I have certain religious taboos by virtue of my work as a vitki or shaman, mostly around the colors that I’m permitted to wear)? That didn’t feel right and I took it to divination last weekend. That’s when all of this got sorted and I realized how I was allowing myself to be affected. I was pushed, not just by Odin but by other Gods too (including Athena, Whom I’d consulted for a client) to remember who I was and that as a priest, my position is every bit as licit as those other clergy members with whom I work. Moreover, our traditions have ancient roots. I was urged to remember that we are rebuilding now specifically because our traditions were decimated by the spread of Christianity (and later Islam). I was urged to fight off this mental miasma, which is precisely what I was told it was, and keep in the forefront of my mind that they have very little they didn’t steal from us. Their religions are built on the remnants of temples they destroyed, on the graves of our polytheistic ancestors, from fragments of our mysteries. I am there representing not just myself and my own tradition but our collective polytheisms. I’m the kick in the teeth, by presence alone, that says you did not succeed and your way is not the only way. I carry the rubble of every sacred space destroyed by the spread of monotheism in my soul. I walk with a thousand upon thousand ancestors who remember their sacred ways. I am there to remind you that you did not win, you will never win, and one day we will outnumber you all. On that day, things will change. Polytheists invented theology and I am the first of what will become a steady flood ready to take it back. We are here and it’s our time to have a seat at this table.
I am very fortunate however, that this is a department in which being devout is not an issue. That is not generally the case in academia in general. In theology, we are not generally your “secular moderns.” Pretty much every single person that I’ve encountered is in some way connected to a particular religious tradition and/or active in their devotion and praxis. It’s always interesting to see what I’ve always assumed to be true being played out: two or three of us who are very devout, even if we come from dramatically different religious traditions, have more in common overall than a devout polytheist would with someone who was atheist or agnostic (though there are always individual exceptions). That opens up the ground for conversation and I think we learn from each other and that is good.
I thought long and hard about writing this and even longer about posting it. What decided me was that I know of several polytheists either in theology or religious studies programs or contemplating the same (and that we so often get pushed into the latter field rather than theology proper is a conversation in and of itself). I know several polytheists in other graduate programs, including at my university, and have encountered a few undergrads as well. The mental pressure of opening up previously monotheistic spaces is real and on the off chance that I can help prepare others and spare them some of the cognitive disconnect I experienced the last month, then I felt it important that I post. I am in a very, very supportive department. I’m completely open and out as a polytheist. If I reached out to my advisor or any of the professors about this, they’d be the first to offer support and the same with my student cohort. That is not going to be the case in every grad student’s life. It’s important to be prepared for these things. Pressure often comes from unexpected places and I would never, ever have considered this to be one of them.
My solution to Odin’s request that I be more visible as a polytheist is to simply speak more openly about it. Yesterday, a fellow student asked me what I did this past weekend for instance, and I told him I’d done a good deal of ritual work, that we have a moon God (Mani), venerated extensively in our house and with the beautiful harvest moon it was the perfect time for rituals to Him. Last week when I was questioned about a brooch I was wearing, I said honestly, “It’s a shrine piece. I wanted to feel closer to our moon God today so I decided to wear it to keep me in devotional headspace.” I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation. Monotheistic students, as far as I know don’t have to think about this in a theology department. As a polytheist, I do. It’s no one’s fault but simply the status quo as it stands. I am grateful that my Gods trust me to do this and I am grateful that I recognized what was happening (it’s good to have a tradition that has the sacred art of divination!) before it had eaten too deeply into my confidence. For those of you in grad school, develop a good support network. You never know how the stress of the work you’re doing will affect you. Sic itur ad astra.
The autumn term started for me last week and already its pace is frenetic. I love my studies but adapting to my new schedule is a bit like being punched in the face. As I see incoming freshmen and new grad students, taste their excitement and also their nervousness I wanted to reach out to those of you, my readers, who may also be heading back into academia’s hallowed halls (or to vocational school, apprenticeships, etc.).
Where ever you’re going, know that you belong. Imposter syndrome is something we all often wrestle with, no matter what our academic or technical qualifications. I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I learned about six weeks into my first MA: no one in your year group knows any more than you do. Lol They’re ALL feeling just as insecure and challenged. They may be hiding it better, but you are in no way alone in any uncertainties you might be feeling. Persevere. You CAN do this. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to other grad students, your advisor, and campus counseling. That’s what they’re there for and with your peers especially, we’ve all been there. We may be crazy-busy, but most grad students I know are more than happy to lend an ear to newcomers. Don’t be afraid to rely on the resources available to you. Also, make sure you have a good support network. School can be really stressful (when the term started, I looked at my husband and said ‘nice knowing you. See you in December. LOL, which is funny and yes, I was joking, but the number of hours and stress we put in can really strain relationships). Don’t neglect your most important relationships. You may not have a lot of down time, but cherish that which you do.
If you have learning disabilities, (I do, I have dyscalculia) anxiety disorder, chronic pain, physical impairments of any sort please, please register with your office of disability services. It’s usually pretty easy to do and it will allow your professors to provide accommodations that you may need as the semester progresses. Don’t be embarrassed to do this and don’t put it off. This office is there to ensure that you have the most productive semester you can possibly have, and more importantly, to ensure that the university complies with all legal requirements related to disability. This benefits you – take advantage of it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and for those of you in grad school, I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me from day one: this is your career. It’s never too early to start treating it in that light. There’s a wonderful book that I highly recommend (read it sooner than later – I really, really wish I’d found it when I started back to school) called “The Professor is In.” it gives invaluable advice on navigating the often-confusing terrain of academic life from graduate school to professorship. The author (bless her!) also has a very active blog and it is really a god-send. You can check that out here. She gives advice on everything from how to dress for success, to writing a book review, a CV, to your first job interview and more. I recommend this site to everyone, not just academics. It’s been life-changing for me.
Here’s some advice that you probably won’t take, that I should take more of, and that I’m going to say anyway: GET REGULAR SLEEP and don’t stint on meals. For me, this is crucial as lack of regular sleep can tip me over into migraine territory at the drop of a hat. But this is something that is important not just for those of us with chronic pain. You’ll do better in your studies if you sleep. For years, I lived on about four hours of sleep a night. It was my husband who pointed out that this contributed to my migraines. It killed me to admit it, but he was right. It also stunned me at how much more I could remember from studying when I got 6-9 hours of sleep a night (chronic pain makes sleep problematic, but for those of you in the same boat as I am, do your best). Do not stay up all hours cramming. Do not wait to the day before a test and pull an all-nighter. Nothing is more important than getting regular sleep. Nothing. Nutrition and exercise are important too – again, do your best as the semester progresses – but sleep is the most important gift you can give yourself. Naps are your friend.
Finally, work as hard as you can but if you’ve given your best and still get a less than perfect grade, that’s OK. A bad grade will not kill you. It will not ruin your future. I got into my top choice PhD program with two poor grades on my transcript (in both cases, I knew the class would be really challenging and had taken it for the challenge, because I knew that while I wouldn’t do well, I would learn and get better in that subject, and I did. I can honestly say in both, I gave my best effort). Don’t slack off, but don’t think you have to be always and ever absolutely perfect.
Academia is a weird little world, just like any other vocational setting. Each department has its own unique culture. You’ll find your way. Just remember: you belong, just as much as anyone else there. Don’t ever forget that.
Good luck with your studies, my readers and for those of you not in academia or going back to school in some way, but who have people you care about who are, well, maybe taken them food once in a while (Seriously. There is nothing better than coming home from class utterly exhausted and not having to cook) and understand that they’re not avoiding you. They’re just exhausted and probably overwhelmed with work. Seriously, feed them once in a while! ^_^ They will thank you for it and just knowing that you are there and understand and support them can make all the difference in the world.