Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
(I had to read Beowulf for a class recently and I had this moment where I realized that as a Heathen, I had a surprising understanding of many of the practices represented in the text. The piece below encapsulates some of my initial thoughts upon reading through Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation (I had read his translation before, but not for many years, so I was able to approach it fresh). To be honest, I never cared for Beowulf before, but reading it this time has completely changed my mind. It finally hit me how important a text it is for us, and how Heathen and the whole thing just opened up. So, I share a few of my thoughts with you now. By the way, read Headley’s new translation. It’s absolutely brilliant and if I ever teach this text to undergrads, that’s the text I’d use).
In Chapter five of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Friedman offers (in part) a brief analysis of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf, suggesting that their “heritage from Cain and Ham” is of particular significance in explaining both their monstrosity and their hatred for the “men in the mead-hall”(1). For Friedman, this biblical and cursed ancestry, adds a “moral dimension” to the story, one lacking even –as Friedman opines – in Beowulf and his allies (2). While not disputing the dramatic effect of such a lineage, this paper examines the way that lineage was likewise utilized by the author of Beowulf as a gloss for Heathen elements, religiously, morally, and culturally still extant, at the time of Beowulf’s composition, in English society (3).
What precisely makes Grendel and his mother monstrous? It cannot be their violence, because throughout Beowulf the reader is given multiple examples of equal violence and indeed treachery perpetrated by or against the Danes. After Beowulf’s victory, for instance, at the celebratory feast, the minstrel performs the story of Hildeburgh, Finn, and his sons. Truce is offered between Finn and the Danes but clearly only due to circumstances, not actual desire for lasting peace, and the feud is renewed at earliest opportunity with much attendant bloodshed (4). Another feud is detailed in the story of Freawaru’s wedding (5) and feud with violation of hospitality in the death of Heardred (6). Clearly, violence and bloodshed are not a determining factor in what constitutes a being’s monstrosity. Nor would inhuman appearance alone be enough to summon a group of heroic warriors. I argue that the monsters in Beowulf serve as the embodiment of the cultural anxieties inherent in society-wide conversion (7). In his book Monster Theory, Cohen positions “monsters” in part, as “harbingers of category crisis” and cultural difference (8). It is my assertion that the transition from indigenous Polytheisms to Christianity created just such a crisis of identity and category, manifested in a community that was neither fully Christian nor fully Heathen any longer. This religious (and cultural) ambiguity is reflected in the text of Beowulf itself (9).
The words used for Grendel are not necessarily reflective of this culture crises – with the exception of eotenas, a word whose etymology is connected to beings venerated in the Pagan world (10). Words like ellen-gaest(powerful spirit) andgrimma gaest (grim spirit) are colorful, but not specifically Pagan (though Heaney translates them most frequently as ‘demon,’ which has a much more specifically Christian and negative context than the original Old English terms). More significant is the note that such creatures, including eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas (ogres and elves and orcs and giants) strove with God (Þa wið Gode wunnon), indicating that they are part of an order set against the will of the Christian God, though whether this is by their nature, their ancestry, or their own will is left unspecified (11). Only in line 137 are the readers told that Grendel is “malignant by nature.” This in turn leads to a violation on the part of the men of Heorot: they sacrifice at Heathen temples, making offerings and oaths to Heathen Gods while praying for someone to save them from Grendel (12). To Whom are they praying? It is only after these prayers that Beowulf, their hero and savior arrives. Heathen cultusis momentarily foregrounded. Furthering this metaphor, in line 431, killing Grendel is described as “purifying Heorot” (Heorot faelsian) (13).
Equally important is the geography surrounding Grendel and his mother. They are outliers, in fen, moor, bog and other liminal places outside the community and specifically outside Heorot (14). Giving them a heritage descended from men who violated divine order, first Cain in the killing of his brother (already a child of Adam and Eve who violated the direct prohibition of their God), and then Ham who showed disrespect and impiety in his treatment of his father Noah, highlights that they have no place in a society defined by its Christianity. If Grendel and his Mother are in truth representative of indigenous polytheistic religions, then what is “malignant by nature” to the men of Heorot is not the beings themselves, but the larger Polytheism/Heathenry that they represent, a body of traditions that by the eighth-century had been relegated to the periphery of accepted society. In line 851, Grendel is even referred to as having a “heathen soul” (haeþene sawle).
This contrast between pre-Christian religion and Christianity is only one of many pairs juxtaposed within the text. After Beowulf kills Grendel, Hrothgar offers praises for Beowulf’s mother (15). This is then followed by the introduction of Grendel’s monstrous mother. In line 942, Hrothgar calls Beowulf the “flower of manhood,” in contrast to Grendel who was “demonic” (line 730) (16). The Danish queen Hildeburgh (17) who’s story presages bloodshed and feud, is contrasted with the appearance of Wealhtheow, who brings peace and hospitality to Hrothgar’s hall (18). Later in the text, Wealhtheow is contracted with Grendel’s mother specifically in the horror she shows when Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head (19). Finally, Hygelac’s queen Hygd is contrasted with the terrible queen Modthryth (20).
Finally, in the end, despite Beowulf’s valor and Grendel’s mother’s savagery, it was “holy God” (witig Drihten) who unambiguously decided the outcome of the battle (21). When Beowulf dies, however in line 2574, it is fate (wyrd), not God who denies him victory. In his book, Friedman notes a powerful contrast between the classical view of monsters, one of curiosity and tolerance for “ethnic diversity” versus a later Christian view of “monsters” that is “hostile and harmful,” and that positions monsters as not only outside the accepted order of the world, but as cursed, corrupted, morally degenerate, and even evil (22). This reflects the shift from indigenous religions, largely polytheistic to monotheistic Christianity, which is in many respects a shift from a diversity of divine beings, to a worldview in which there is only one God, and one acceptable religious perspective. It should come as no surprise then that differing worldviews, those who embrace them, and those whose appearances violate the norm should be viewed as monstrous. Such a shift in perspective might well be considered inevitable.
1Friedman, 106. It should be noted that this descent from Ham would also make these “monsters” black. See Friedman, 101.
2Not having read Friedman’s entire book, I am not certain if he is implying that there was a lack of that aforesaid moral dimension in the cultures, communities, and community norms represented by Heorot and its men, one that could only be supplied by Christianity or not, but I do wish that he had defined what, precisely, he meant by ‘moral’ somewhere in this chapter and how or if he was tying it to religion.
3I know the date of Beowulf is contested, but if, like the Greek epic the Iliad, the text has oral antecedents, and if one takes into account that scholars like J. R.R. Tolkien argued for dating the written poem to the 8th, century, then that would place it within a generation (or two) of Christianization. Conversion is never a clean process and it is almost inevitable that holdovers and syncretization would have occurred. See R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 182-3 and J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2015, p. 328.
4See from line 1080.
5 See from line 2030.
6See from 2380.
7See Cohen, p. 4 for a discussion of the monster as a cultural body.
9While it is well beyond the scope of this brief response paper, religion and culture are deeply intertwined. This can be clearly demonstrated, for example, in a later Icelandic Saga, the 13thcentury Njal’s Saga, which contrasts the Pagan social code and legal mores with the newfound Christian ones. The action in this saga takes place during the conversion of Iceland (which actually occurs during the action depicted in the multi-decade story). The same type of agonistic tension echoes (or maybe lurks since we are dealing with a monster text) behind the monsters in Beowulf. I know I need to examine this more closely, especially since I’m much more familiar with later Icelandic literature (Iceland converted in 1000 C.E.) but I found the many of the echoes of indigenous Pagan religions in the language of Beowulf, which shared largely the same cosmology as Pagan Iceland, striking, particularly the dogged presence of Wyrd throughout the text.
10Eotenas is cognate to the Old Norse Jotun. The Jotnar were a tribe of divine beings in Germanic Paganisms, often associated with chaos, elemental power, and natural phenomenon. Their veneration in contemporary Norse polytheism today (Asatru, Heathenry) is a point of denominational conflict. See my own work on the subject A Modern Guide to Heathenry, Newburyport, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2019. There is, despite modern theological controversies in the religion, ample evidence for their veneration in pre-Christian Scandinavia (particularly the deities Skadhi, Gerda, the moon God Mani, Sun Goddess Sunna, and Loki) and to some degree England. See Stephen Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2017.
11Heaney, lines 112-113.
12See lines 170-178.
13The word faelsian is particularly connected to liturgical purification of sacred space. Nathan Ristuccia, in his article (available here: https://www.academia.edu/4129419/Fælsian_and_the_Purification_of_Sacred_Space_in_the_Advent_Lyrics)notes that it is a relatively rare term, with over half its known uses occurring in either Beowulf or the Advent Lyrics. See Ristuccia, 6. The text likely existed for generations as an oral epic before being committed to text. It can therefore be viewed as an initially Pagan text later Christianized as the society changed. The Christian elements are marginal and it would be interesting to
14I think an argument could be made that Heorot itself represents the sacred enclosure of a fully Christian community, with outliers to that community also outliers to that creed.
15See from line 940.
16Heaney translates this line as “and his glee was demonic” but þa his mod ahlog actually means “then his heart laughed.” Regardless, Grendel is laughing over the slaughter of Heorot’s men.
17See from 1070.
18See from 1161. There seems to be a subtle connection between women and vengeance, both with stories like that of Hildeburgh but also Grendel’s mother and her quest for vengeance. I’m strongly reminded of a brutal line from Njal’s Saga, occurring when one of the main female characters demands vengeance for a kinsman: og eru köld kvenna ráð (cold is the counsel of women). Is the anonymous author implying that women are potentially monstrous because of this inherent desire for vengeance?
19See line 1649.
20See from line 1932. Many of the obvious contrasts are between the female characters. I cannot help but wonder if women were a point of particular anxiety when it came to Christianization. They would, as mothers, grandmothers, nursemaids, be in a very influential position when it came to inculcating religious values in children. Inter-generational transmission of religious traditions is crucial to creating a sustainable religious community. Might this point to anxiety over potential Pagan influences in women? Or is it simply that women were traditionally frith or peace weavers in the mead-hall, and brutality and violence are a violation of that traditional role?
21See line 1593.
22Friedman, 90 and 107. Moreover, monsters are now evil, not through any moral choice of their own, but through something completely outside of their control: their lineage, connected now, as in Beowulf,to Cain and Ham.
Cohen, Jeffrey, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MH: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Friedman, John. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
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.
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.
Today is the bookversary of my more academic bent book, Transgressing Faith, which was originally submitted as my Master’s thesis in Religious Studies from NYU. 🤓
An eye-opening and balanced presentation of the history of the Heathen revival in America and its attendant conflicts over where to draw the boundaries concerning belief, practice and identity.
Though this restoration has only been going on for a few generations there is tremendous tension within the community concerning areas such as gender, race, normative social presentation, sexuality and questions of religious authority.
All of these are explored with a special emphasis placed on how the community treats those who don’t quite fit in or are called to intentionally transgressive roles.
Who has read it? What were your thoughts on it? Your questions?
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.
(This rambles…a lot lol. You have been warned).
So, I’ve been in New York City the last couple of days attending a theology conference. The title of the conference is “Faith, Reason, Theosis” and so far, it’s been pretty amazing. The scholastic currents being discussed (at least in day one) are well outside of my wheelhouse so I won’t discuss them here save to say that the entire idea of theosis makes me deeply uncomfortable. I did have an interesting talk with a Jesuit professor of philosophy (I took his course on Augustine a few years ago and it blew my mind) who agreed that, at least in part, ideas of theosis for Christians were influenced by pre-Christian concepts of deification. Still, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when it’s applied as a goal of faith, especially when post-modernists remove the sacramental scaffolding and even at times “God” from the equation. Thank you, no. If I want that, I can listen to a ceremonialist drone on and on. Lol. (Granted, this isn’t my area, so I may be grossly minimalizing the issues here and I’m drawing the questions and comments below largely from only a single day of speakers – there’s still two more to go. At any rate, the focus of the conference is discussion of Orthodox and Catholic responses to the idea of theosis). I was tired when I arrived at the conference, and at first, despite excellent presentations, I was a little bored (Thomas Aquinas—not my thing) but then the Q&A started and that was absolutely fascinating. It was almost enough, almost, to make me want to hold another polytheist conference. Hah. Don’t hold your breath.
Anyway, during the opening talks, I was scribbling notes and several questions arose from the speakers. Ignoring the pages of my journal where I kept noting that “Modernity=Nihilism”, (I also made crazy little sketches of presenters – idle hands after all and all that) the relevant things I want to discuss here are as follows (I will reframe from the singularity of the Divine articulated by the speakers to a more natural and appropriate plurality in my responses):
• How can a conscious spirit be anything other than a desire for God?
• God owes His creatures grace within the terms of creation (the grace to achieve theosis) but it’s a debt owed only to His own goodness.
• How can there be “excess” in loving one’s God? Many modern philosophers/theologians seem to speak of the “excessive qualities of the cross” in ways that seem to imply that they want to erase their God from the process and goal of theosis and replace the sacramental scaffolding with the human ego.
The first question, I believe, comes from Neo-Platonic influences on religious (in the case of the conference, Christian) thought. I don’t argue that our souls and the fullness of our being should be comprised, materia prima, of longing and love for the Gods. I think it is the only part of us that truly matters. When we peel away the dross and pollution of modern living (hell, just of living because let’s face it, the ancients wrestled with these issues too), at our core I firmly believe that (when we are rightly ordered), our spirits are expressed longing for the Gods. I also think that every single thing in our current world teaches us to obscure, deny, and annihilate that longing.
I will admit, listening to this particular speaker, I did think “well, aren’t you a bit of an optimist about the human condition” lol but it’s important to remind ourselves not to mistake external ephemera for the true, essential nature of our beings. I also suspect that this statement: that at the core of a soul is longing for the Gods may make some readers angry. If so, consider why. Why would you not long for the Gods with every fibre of your being? I think the real challenge of our various spiritualities is not only the discovery of that longing, recognizing it as our essential state of being, but also cultivating it, tending that fire, stripping away the dross, feeding it, and allowing it to burn away everything else.
A day or so before I came into the city for the conference, I was watching a movie with my husband and a friend and the lead female reminded me strongly in appearance of a student – call her H.– I had over twenty years ago. This student was three or four days away from her initiation and bailed. She became pissy about it too, justifying her decision by trashing the idea of the experiential devotion inherent in the initiatory process (as being only relevant to specialists. “Not everyone needs to be a mystic” blah blah blah. No, not everyone does, but baseline devotion does not a mystic make). A friend of mine who was hanging out with us asked me why this woman would do such a thing. I said “at the eleventh hour she realized initiation would change everything.” My friend agreed but didn’t see the problem (unlike H. my friend is not a spiritual coward). I explained that “H. didn’t want to make the Gods a priority in her life. She was afraid it might interfere with her secular, job-related priorities of climbing the corporate ladder and making money. She didn’t want to become the kind of person she thought could live a devoted life and she didn’t want to have to reprioritize her life.” My friend asked the most salient question of the night, “Didn’t she realize that putting the Gods first makes everything better? On the basest most crass level, They help us in our work in the world. They fill our lives with bounty and blessings.” And that is the question. My only response was a poem by the Islamic poet Rabi’a:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
(Rabi’a, “[O my Lord]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).)
I will let this stand for now and move on to the second question or comment really, since I wrote it down because I have very strong feelings that the Gods owe us nothing. They may give us everything but They don’t owe us. We ought not give sacrifices and offerings just to get things, but because it is the right thing to do, because it honors Them, because those relationships are the most essential we will ever have and it is right and proper to make windows into the world through which the Gods may walk. It isn’t and shouldn’t be about us. Yes, at times offerings and devotion may follow a do ut des model – if I need something from a Deity, I won’t approach with empty hands. It’s rude. But that is not the only nor the most essential model of veneration. To imply that it is cheapens our traditions and frankly spits in the faces of our ancestors. It shouldn’t be “I give in order to receive” but “I give because I have received” or maybe better still, “I give because I love.”
Returning to the bullet points I noted, I was struck by the idea articulated in bullet point #2 that God owes humanity His grace by virtue of the contract of creation but the debt is NOT one owed to humanity itself but rather to His own goodness. In other words, God owes Himself. It’s a nice reframing and re-articulation of an issue that plagues the Heathen community: the entitlement we all too often feel before our Gods. We are not owed a god damned thing for the paltry devotion we deign to show. We have been given everything and it is a debt we cannot hope to replay. The devotional relationships that we ought to cultivate with our Gods aren’t for the purpose of getting things, or even with any hope of repayment of a contract. It is our natural, good, and rightly ordered state of being. It is our purpose, the highest and most natural expression of our souls.
Finally, one of the issues that kept coming up in post-modernist pushback against scholastic and pre-scholastic ideas of theosis was this language of “excess” in devotion. One source talked about the “excess of the crucifixion” rather the excess of devotional response to it. I see this in some modern Catholics. Case in point: I recently gave a Catholic relative L. Montfort’s classic devotional text on Mary and while she is very devout she really struggled with it, because it wasn’t Jesus focused in the way that many Protestant “devotionals” might be. The idea of giving reverence and specifically heart-felt devotion to the Mother of God—in the way that was traditional, licit, and universal within her tradition for generations– was uncomfortable (and I blame Vatican II and its bullshit for a lot of this but, not my circus, not my monkeys. I do find it complicated though. Gods know that the weakening of the organizational Catholic Church is not a bad thing for growing polytheisms, but then on the other side of that, I think that any weakening of devotional fervor is a win for evil and doesn’t serve us in our devotions either so …my response to that all is rather complicated). It seemed “excessive” to her. Post-moderns would, I believe, cast any devotion as excessive. This is problematic.
Personally, I do not believe it is possible to be too excessive in one’s fervor and love for one’s Gods. That is exactly what ought to fuel our soul’s longing, feed it, nourish it, encourage it. Whenever I hear Pagans or Polytheists (and especially Heathens) talk about how one is too excessive in one’s devotions (and it happens, less now than a decade ago but it still happens) I really just want to laugh in their faces and tell them they are theologically unschooled. Not today, Heathen child, not today. This is a bullshit free zone. Still, I think it’s important to think about what it is in our culture (that has seeped into our traditions) that would teach us that devotion, any devotion particularly the messy, emotional, embodied kind is ‘excessive.’ What does that mean? When loving the Gods is our souls’ reason for being, how can there be any excess?
This last question I’m going to explore more fully and hopefully will have time to do so over the next couple of days. Right now, I’m going to bring this to a close since it’s running rather long and I actually need to get my butt up and get out the door for day two of this amazing conference. Enjoy your day, folks.
I just had an academic book review published on the AAR (American Academy of Religion’s) ‘Reading Religion’ website. The book I reviewed is Sacred Britannia by Miranda Aldhouse-Green and I would highly recommend it to any practitioner of Celtic or Gaulic polytheism. It would be one of my first go-to sources. Aldhouse-Green also has several other books on Celtic history, archaeology, and religion that I would likewise recommend. My review may be read here.
Orthodox Ritual Praxis
This morning I read an article on Greek and Russian Orthodox Church services and it was fascinating. The services, particularly around holy week can be quite grueling. They last for hours and in the most traditional churches people are standing that entire time. Of course, they don’t just stand: they pray, they sing, they move to various icons and light candles and pray some more as the spirit moves them. It’s interactive and quite physically demanding. Here’s the article I read, which actually downplays quite a bit the physical exertion and discipline required.
So I read this and think: we can’t even get people willing to offer water without them whining about how put upon they are, and how they feel being expected to actually DO something is elitist, ablest, classist, insert ‘ism of your choice here.
If people cared about their Gods as much as they cared about the latest cause or video game or Dr. Who episode maybe we’d actually be getting somewhere but I look at articles like the above and realize exactly how far we have to go to hit even a bare baseline of active devotion.
The Vikings Didn’t Need Islam to be Religiously Fulfilled.
Then there’s this little gem. Apparently, the Arabic word for God (Allah) was found on some Viking textiles and a group of academics is using this as an opportunity to normalize Muslim invasion of Europe, and to erase our indigenous religions. The scholars involved are claiming that Vikings were influenced in their burial practices by Islam, extensively influenced, because of course Heathen religions couldn’t possibly have complex and fulfilling beliefs about the afterlife. Of course, the Vikings would have had to turn to a monotheistic religion for that. It’s utter bullshit and frankly bad scholarship along with being subtle pro- Muslim propaganda. It goes without saying a certain portion of our communities are celebrating this.
Yes, religions communicated. We know this. No religion evolved in a vacuum and there were borrowings across history. This is a normal part of the conversations that happen culturally between different groups, including religious groups. That, however, is not what the article is saying. It’s flat out giving Islam credit for Viking burial practices and doing so with zero evidence.
Why were there Islamic textiles in the Northlands? Most likely trade. And frankly, given that silk is a luxury item, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s found in burials. Why wouldn’t you want to bring back and give pretty, rich things to the dead that you love before sending them off? (I’ve seen this before though in academia. Secularism and/or atheism holds such sway in certain fields, along with the blanket assumption that if you’re educated you will not be religious, that I’ve actually attended lectures on religious topics like pilgrimage wherein the speaker put forth every possible explanation for why someone would undertake this difficult and expensive process…except devotion and piety. There is a swath of academics who simply cannot conceptualize devotion. It’s quite sad and leads to some seriously shady scholarship or at the very least, scholarship that misses its mark significantly).
Why is that surprising? This is right up there with archeologists finding multiple burials of women having died of war wounds, having been buried with weapons – repeatedly—and acting confused, claiming that perhaps the burials were contaminated because women can’t have been warriors to the degree they’re finding. There is a level of obtuseness and flat out stupidity in this that I find mind-blowing. The standard attitude of academia toward polytheism in the ancient world (they hardly ever acknowledge it in the modern) is to insist it didn’t exist, to insist it was solely a matter of praxis, that there was no meat or belief or devotion or passion there…despite quite a lot of evidence (linguistic, literary, archeological, etc.) to the contrary. The contemporary academic response to polytheism is, essentially, erasure.
Bringing this full circle, it’s bad enough when academics try to erase our devotional worlds. It’s bad enough when they damn our ancestors and their traditions like this. You know what’s worse? When we do it ourselves by simply not giving a damn.
For those of you who are my patrons over at patreon, i’ve just updated my blog there and I’m offering a small gift as a thank you for your support. Go check it out. 🙂
A friend just asked me what I was planning on reading in between school terms and looked positively shocked when I answered. LOL. Before the term ended (and after some of the crap that I dealt with here) I reached out to my friend Edward Butler for suggestions on what I should read to give myself a crash course in Plato and Aristotle (because I’m taking a course this coming term in philosophy — Intro to Augustine–and because, as previous posts have noted, it’s becoming more and more relevant to my theological work). He recommended some texts which I’ll share in a moment. An academic colleague and I also decided we’d each read the other’s favorite Euripidean play (mine is the Bacchae, his was Medea and talk about it when term starts again) so I’ll be doing that too.
I just want to say, before I continue, that it is crucially important for us to reclaim our philosophical traditions. Philosophy, Literature, the Sciences, Medicine, these things were born in the polytheistic world. In an effort to appropriate them, Christian scholasticism attempted to erase the Gods from the inventors and proponents of these disciplines. We see that in academia today with the dogged insistence by those who should know better that of course men like Plato and Socrates were atheists. Of course they couldn’t possibly believe in the Gods … when we have ample evidence that they did, quite piously in fact. There is an ongoing agenda of erasure and appropriation here and it’s high time we step up and stop it. Edward has been doing powerful work as a philosopher for years and years now (shout out to you, Edward, for your inspiring work). I”m sure there are others too. This year my goal is to better educate myself so that I can likewise do my part. For those of you unfamiliar with Edward’s groundbreaking work, check out his book here. He also has an academia.edu page and recently had a piece published for the general reader in “Witches and Pagans” in their issue on polytheism. go. read. This work is awesome.
Now the texts I’ll be reading over the next two weeks, for those who likewise might want to join me are (aside from Euripides’ “Medea 😉 ):
“Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals” by Richard Bodeus
“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” translated and with commentaries by Hippocrates Apostle
“The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics” by Joseph Owens
“Plato’s Gods” by Gerd Van Riel (there are some translation issues with this one, just minor things that annoy me, like translating τέχνη as ‘technique;’ and at one point he insists that the Greeks didn’t have a commitment to personal belief in religion (p. 12) and then spends the next six or seven pages contradicting that rather reductionist statement, as the evidence clearly DOES contradict it. That being said, it’s still a really good book).
Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Plato’s “Timaeus” (been a good 20 years since i’ve read either) and probably ‘Ion’ and ‘Euthyphro’ in the original Greek.
If anyone wants to add any suggestions, by all means do. I’m not a philosopher and I’ll admit to being rather nervous about taking a philosophy course this term, but it’s unavoidable for anyone wanting to work in theology and if this past term taught me nothing else, it taught me that immersing myself in Plato and Aristotle and really understanding them as polytheists is essential going forward.
i’m going to end with a quote from Plato’s Laws that I just love:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. (Laws IV, 716e).