Last week I had a FB discussion with a former Heathen, who has since left Heathenry to become agnostic. We were arguing over the death of that missionary who tried to pollute the Sentinalese. I considered his death well deserved and my interlocutor disagreed. I had assumed that I was arguing with a co-religionist but it was almost immediately apparent that our worldviews were drastically different and finally it came out that he was agnostic. He had left Heathenry because the community was mean (whine whine), and there were white supremacists, and blah blah SJW talk blah. Dealing with Heathens of all different approaches and opinions apparently proved too much of a challenge to his “progressive” values. Ok fine. Bye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I wish you well. But I also said that our disagreement, in light of this, made perfect sense. At which point, he first starts trying to explain why he’s become agnostic (I do not care. In fact, I could not possibly care less why you chose to abandon your Gods and I certainly don’t want to hear your life story unless you’re paying me to provide pastoral counseling and probably not even then) (1) and when that wasn’t well received, opined “don’t you think my path is as valid as yours?” um, no, I don’t.
Firstly, it’s a mistake to fetishize community. Yes, we all want it. Yes, it’s important. It is not, however, equal to the Gods. Religion is all about being in right relationship with the Gods. That a community is not, should not impact the faith of the individual. That’s a hard thing, I know that but I don’t think anyone should belong to a particular religion solely because of the community. People are fallible and it’s inevitable that at times they will disappoint, sometimes deeply. One’s faith should not rest on the infallibility of any human creation. One’s faith should instead rest on experience of the Gods and ancestors, devotion to Them, and a commitment to veneration.
Secondly, why on earth would I consider an agnostic (or atheist, or anything else, including other religious positions) point of view as valid as that of polytheism? From the perspective of devotion, it’s simply not. One either believes in one’s tradition and Gods and values those things as the highest good or one doesn’t. If one does, then that is obviously the healthiest and best position one might hold; and while I may not condemn someone for making a different choice, neither do I have space for them in my emotional or spiritual world (and we’re not even talking potential miasma). From the perspective of faith, all religions and choices are not actually equal and what’s more, they don’t have to be. We are not, after all, attempting to build one overarching religion. Everyone does not have to agree. I think we’ve all been brain washed by a society that elevates “tolerance” over everything, including moral courage. I prefer “respect.” I respect your right to follow a different tradition. I will even fight for your right to do so. I do not, however, have any need of your company and I may think you are very misguided, foolish, and possibly deluded in my heart of hearts.
Finally, as a person of faith – at least on my good days ;)—I don’t see the point of allowing those who do not share my worldview to take up cognitive space. I’d rather expend my rather limited energies on building up a devout community, on engaging with co-religionists, and on doing what I can to honor my Gods and ancestors. I remain astounded that someone would think that I would consider any other faith or lack thereof to be equal to polytheism. Our traditions are not interchangeable after all. Our Gods actually matter.
- Inevitably those who have chosen lack of devotion and impiety insist on explaining themselves, but this is usually merely a means of gaining our support and approbation. There’s really no reason to care. I’m not in the business of proselytizing. Nor am I in the business of encouraging atheists and agnostics to proselytize in my presence. I kind of side with the Sentinalese on this one.
My husband kept reading me excerpts from various articles yesterday, both of us shaking our heads and cussing about how amazingly stupid some people insist on remaining. Several of those pieces annoyed me so much that I decided to write about them here so be warned: bad language is probably sure to follow.
The first was this gem from the Columbia Daily Spectator. This idiot girl-child feels that a Classics degree is classist because – boo-fucking-hoo– one has to learn Greek and Latin. She opines that her more successful colleagues (which given her attitude is probably just about everyone) have the money to hire tutors and take summer programs to up their language quotient, whereas she has to worry about money. Yeah, right, sister. Grow the fuck up. I’ve taught Latin for ten years and did my time in a classics grad program. I never had money for extras either. I taught myself Greek and Latin. I didn’t take any special programs. I applied myself. No one is forcing this girl to do a Classics degree. If she can’t meet the requirements, she should pick an easier major like, oh, I don’t know, basket weaving. You see, unlike in your gender studies classes, no one is going to hand you this knowledge on a silver platter. You may actually have to work. Radical thought, I know. You’re at fucking Columbia. You are not oppressed.
Then there’s this from Sarah Michelle Geller. She had to apologize for noting that she was trying not to overeat at Thanksgiving. This is, apparently, fat-shaming. WTF? As an overweight woman, I applaud Geller for setting an example of thoughtful moderation. The last thing she should have done is apologize. Let’s face the facts the “fat positivity” movement doesn’t want us to know: fat is NOT actually healthy nor is eating so much you make yourself sick, which is specifically what she was trying to keep herself from doing. Now I don’t think anyone should be shamed for being fat – there are a lot of different issues surrounding why one may be overweight, and some people may find it more attractive. Rock on. But let’s not shame others for actually giving a damn about their health. We need examples of people setting healthy boundaries for themselves.
Finally, there’s this: a Christian missionary got shot by a tribe that wanted nothing to do with his poison. They warned him multiple times (by means of a rain of arrows) to stay the hell away from their island. He got what he deserved (missionary work is nothing more than cultural and religious genocide. Frankly, if his family and church knew about his trip to the island and did nothing to stop him, they ought to be prosecuted in international court as accessories to attempted genocide) but western media is presenting him as the victim. These tribesmen have made it clear for HUNDREDS OF YEARS that they do not want to be bothered by outsiders. Why is that so damned hard for outsiders to comprehend. LEAVE THEM ALONE. They don’t want the diseases that you might bring, diseases for which they have no natural immunity and they don’t want the disease of modernity or monotheism. I applaud their use of deadly force to keep these bastard missionaries out and hope they continue to do so. Does no one find the characterization of this tribe as primitive or sex crazed by western media a little offensive? Or the violation of the tribe’s wishes and consent by this lunatic being presented as though the missionary were the victim (only thing he was victim of was his own fucking hubris and stupidity). Colonization by religious conversion is still colonization, folks. It’s as though moderns and monotheists just cannot stand that there might exist some little corner of the world, some tiny little corner uncorrupted by their bullshit. Rock on, North Sentinal people. Keep your arrows nocked and ready.
That’s it for today. Fight on, my good readers, fight the bullshit. It’s pandemic.
EDIT: and then there’s this utter piece of blasphemous shit by Karl Siegfried, PhD in double base I might add, not anything relating to Norse mythology. It’s the most sickening and disrespectful thing ever written about a God as this fool tries to work out his own issues with Loki. He should be ashamed and so should wild hunt for publishing this unmitigated piece of garbage.
Today I was checking my Facebook and I came across this gem:
“Notice to my friends-I will not be taking part in or hosting or organizing any [Pagan denomination name’s] rituals or [name of Heathen denomination]’s rituals until I start getting the things I have coming from the Gods and Goddesses. I have grown weary of communing with them, giving them offerings etc to have nothing in return for my connection to them. In my world there is suppose (sic) to be reward or at least confirmation that what I do for them is being put on the balance sheet. So until the scales get balanced in my favor I am withdrawing from all ritual work to honor the Gods until they start to fucking recognize and reward what I have done for them over the years. I will honor my class obligations but beyond that I will be ignoring the Gods.” [I am omitting the name of the author as well as his denoms.]
I’m sure the Gods can hardly contain Their upset at this guy’s decision. SarcasmI sincerely hope this person gets the things he “has coming” from the Gods. Oh, I sincerely do. The level of obtuseness here irritates me but also makes me very sad. Someone hasn’t had very good spiritual direction, at the very least. Now I’m not posting this to shame the poster (If I were, I would have included his name) but because I think this attitude permeates, to varying and lesser degrees, large swaths of our community (especially Heathenry). I rarely see it as clearly articulated as the above, but it’s there coloring, all too often, our devotional lives. I probably should have more compassion but I’ll be honest, I don’t. We should be well beyond this by now and one of the biggest issues with Heathenry today is that we have zero structures in place to provide proper spiritual guidance, to provide good, devout models of how one should engage with the Gods, and most of all, we have zero infrastructures that challenge this outlook. We allow atheists to claim community privilege, we shit on the very idea of proper clergy and specialists, we reify the lore as though we were bible thumping Protestants, mock and spit at devotion, and at every turn we give our Gods nothing. While it’s marginally better than when I first became Heathen thirty years ago, there’s still a terribly long way to go and there shouldn’t be.
We all have our peevish moments before our Gods. Those momentary lapses are not a bad thing. We’re human and our Gods’ awareness and understanding must encompass that, given that They made us. The problems arise when this is a default spiritual setting. WHO THE FUCK ARE WE TO ASSUME THAT THE GODS OWE US ANYTHING? This guy whines about all the things he’s done for the Gods. What? What have you done that possibly abrogates your responsibility as an adult for venerating Them? We do not honor the Gods and ancestors because we want things in return – not unless we’re shallow, selfish, underdeveloped, pathetic human beings. We honor them because it is the right thing to do, because it is our privilege to do so, because establishing and maintaining right relationship with the Powers transforms everything. It elevates us and brings us into balance with the cosmological order that the Gods Themselves established. The Gods OWE us? No, on the contrary: we owe Them EVERYTHING.
Attitudes like those expressed in the quote above are poison. They corrode the health of any spiritual relationship. Devotion shouldn’t happen only when it’s convenient to us. It shouldn’t be predicated on getting our way or getting rewarded in some way – it is not our place to dictate to the Gods. I can hardly believe that I’m having to write this. It is not our place to dictate anything to the Holy Powers. We can ask. We can beg. We can even have our occasional temper tantrums but in the end as adults we must realize that They do not operate according to our whims and whining. I can only imagine what this person’s life is like if this is the attitude he takes with those in it. Our Gods are patient and wait for us to come to Them properly. They wait and encourage us to order our minds and hearts in healthy ways and if we allow ourselves to recognize it, often provide us with everything we possibly might need in order to do so.
The Gods do not require our devotion. We, however, are the better for it. Attitudes like the above, even when one is going through the outward motions of ritual and respect automatically close the door to any blessings They might bestow. And really? Why should They bother? That They so often do is one of the most profound graces of our lives. The least we can do in return it learn to center ourselves rightly before Them. Let us know, now and always, our proper place before the Gods. We’re only hurting ourselves otherwise.
I suppose all examples are valuable, even the negative ones and here we most certainly have a perfect example of how NOT to engage with the Gods, how not to position ourselves vis-à-vis our devotional work, and the attitudes and behaviors not to encourage …if we give a shit that is about our Gods, our traditions, our ancestors, our communities, and our faith.
Today on facebook I saw an image that had an heroic looking warrior on it and the words ‘There are no Nazis in Valhalla.’ I stopped and looked at the image for a very long time. I do appreciate where the artist is coming from – the rise of political insanity (both right and left I might add) of late is terrifying and bodes ill for our future as a cohesive nation. I understanding wanting to reclaim space from anything smacking of neo-nazism. That being said, from a theological perspective, I think the image is, at best, misguided. It might make us feel good now, pointing out that Heathenry is nota haven for white supremacy and that most of us find neo-nazism disgusting and vile but if one looks at the purpose of Valhalla theologically, I’m afraid I would have to make the argument that yes, there probably are those who were Nazis in life, in Valhalla. The question is why?
Valhalla is the hall of Odin. Its name literally means ‘Hall of the Slain.” Staffed by Valkyries and peopled by warriors slain in battle, it is where Odin collects the best of the best [fighters] in preparation for the inevitable battle of Ragnarok. That preparation is to battle and stave off the destruction and unmaking of the order the Gods have carefully created, a destruction far worse than anything of which humanity can quite conceive. That is Odin’s primary goal: protecting the order of creation. That is His primary agenda and nearly everything He does throughout our mythos is designed to further His ultimate success. In furthering that particular agenda, Odin is absolutely ruthless, as His particular stories clearly show.
To fill His hall, Odin sends His Valkyries out to collect those skilled and brave fighters who fall in combat. Half the slain goes to Odin and half to Freya (the result of an agreement the two of Them made – note that Freya has nothing whatsoever to do with the Valkyries). To think that this God would put any political affiliation ahead of fulfilling His goals goes against both common sense and His essential nature. There is no specification given in anything written about Valhalla in the surviving lore that points to Odin excluding valiant fighters on the basis of their political affiliation. It would be foolish, in light of the purpose of Valhalla, to do so and one thing Odin is not, is foolish.
Given Odin’s goals and the nature of Valhalla, it may be expected that He will snatch up anywarrior of mettle regardless of that warrior’s living allegiance. Death is, after all, a great equalizer. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Valhalla is peopled only by soldiers who share our favored political stances. The only point of discrimination indicated in stories of Valhalla, is that of skill in battle. The only requirement, that one die in combat.
To assume, moreover, that the Gods share our political affiliations is incredibly narrow minded and naïve. It might help motivate us to become involved politically, it might allow us to feel a certain connection to whatever Gods we venerate, it might even make us feel better but it is a terribly humanizing view of Powers that are well beyond our factiousness, or the limitations of temporality and human foolishness. It’s really a shame that we insist on bringing our Gods down to our short-sighted level (and I think we all do this at times).
The purpose of Valhalla is to prepare for a war beyond the scope of human imagining. Death relieves those warriors there of any political allegiances they may have had in life and they become part of the Einherjar, the warriors of Odin, ever-training to protect that which the Gods have wrought: creation. A God as ruthless and far-seeing as the All-Father would be, I think, unlikely to pass up an able addition to this group solely on the basis of politics. Everyone has the right to honor the Gods, and I think it’s a grave mistake to project onto those Gods a political litmus test, or to use Their stories to further our agendas. We can fight for what is good and right, I think, without doing that.
The other day, I posted this documentary on facebook with the comment that I wish our communities were as committed to intergenerational longevity and growth as the Jewish communities depicted in this documentary seem to be. Part of that, I noted, indeed one of the most crucial parts, is firmly being unwilling to marry outside one’s faith and being absolutely committed to raising one’s children within one’s faith. The inevitable pushback to these ideas never ceases to amaze me. Yet, it’s the only way that any type of sustainable restoration is going to happen. This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important that we establish in-person, geographically distinct communities where we can practice our traditions and raise our children in ways that reinforce our religious and cultural values. Religion doesn’t happen without culture and right now, we’re all living and working in a post-modern culture deeply antagonistic toward the very idea of Gods and devotion and especially toward challenging the status quo in the way that true restoration would do.
One of the biggest push-backs I get on the subject of marrying within one’s faith is that the pool of viable mate-material is sadly very small and scattered. This is true. See my point above. In the facebook conversation about this documentary, someone also mentioned the sad fact that finding a “Pagan” man/woman who isn’t an “utter loon” can seem a downright impossibility. (Maybe it’s time good, devout polytheists reclaimed the word ‘Pagan,’ away from non-theists, new agers, atheists, and the terminally confused). That it is difficult does not change the fact that it is essential. It’s less of a problem when one is not planning to have children, though even there being what some Christians term ‘unequally yoked’ can be problematic; but when one plans on having children, issues of religion and religious upbringing that may not have seemed a problem when it was just the couple, quite often become a divisive issue. I’d go so far as to say that if one must marry a non-polytheist, have a pre-nup that specifically states the children will be raised polytheist. I’m a big fan of marriage contracts. So many issues can be countered by a well thought out marriage contract.
I think it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we think the purpose of marriage might be. In a tribe, a unified community with a shared tradition of piety and faith, it’s not just about the happiness of the two people involved (though that is an important factor to consider). Marriage is the building block of a healthy civilization and it ensures uninterrupted transfer of one’s tradition to the next generation. It’s there to unify houses and strengthen the community, to provide for the next generation, and to be a stabilizing force within the community. In a healthy community, I’d actually support arranged marriages (provided no one was forced. That arrangement would, of course, involve consultation with elders, diviners, senior family members, careful evaluation of compatibility, goals, working out of the dowry, etc. and the marriage contract). This is not to say that everyone must have children – far from it. Those who choose to remain happily child free have important roles to play within the community as well. I would think that even if one was not planning to have children, one would not wish to be unequally yoked to a non-polytheist if one could help it. Our generation may have no choice but I’m thinking ahead to future generations, to fully functioning communities, to the restoration of tribes and traditions and what it will be like then. Furthermore, the non-polytheist (in polytheist-monotheistic marriages) must submit to polytheism. After all, unlike monotheism, there’s nothing in polytheism that says they can’t worship their Gods but to reject the Gods wholesale is to challenge the very foundations of a community and that community is more important than individual needs and happiness.
The other issue brought up was that there are different polytheisms and then the question arises of which one gets elided. This is easy to answer: neither. There are more parallels between the various polytheisms than there are between that and secularists or monotheists. I think that within polytheism, if we look at how it was practiced in the ancient world, there was zero conflict in honoring the Gods of two different *polytheistic* traditions. Neither would have to be diluted. but there’s a huge breech between polytheism and monotheism in outlook and an even bigger one between that and secularism. It’s a question of shared worldview rather than specifically shared Gods, one of shared worldview and religious values.
That being said, when it comes to polytheism vs monotheism, all religions are not the same and frankly, we should consider our own to be the best and most necessary. They’re not interchangeable. If we are devoted to our Gods and committed to practicing our traditions for those Gods then it should, in a rightly ordered mind, be absolutely unthinkable to raise one’s children any other way.
I think the push back against these two ideas really shows us how far we still have to go in building communities and restoring our traditions. There is a necessary shift in worldview that happens when one is rooted fully within one’s polytheism. That polytheism becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed and the thing that delineates our priorities. It’s a very different way of living than what we’ve been raised with in monotheisms within a secular state. We will never have proper restoration and reconstruction until this is no longer an issue, until it will be unthinkable to either marry outside polytheism or raise our children outside of it. We struggle now because we lack intergenerational transmission of tradition, well, this is precisely how that intergenerational transmission happens: by marrying within the religions and by raising children within them. There is no other way, short of conquest and forced conversion, and I don’t think anyone wants to do that.
Owlet asks: “How do you make right after participating in a ritual or group that is disrespectful?”
This is a really good question and I’m glad you asked it here. It’s something that I’ve had to learn through a lot of trial and error, especially when I was much more open to participating in rituals outside my House, and when I was working in the interfaith world. My answer is two- fold.
Firstly, what you describe (which I quote further below) is the real danger of community involvement and I am so very sorry to learn that this happened to you. It hurts my heart to know that your own devotion was impacted by this. It can be very, very hard to come back from such a thing but I will say this: as we learn better, we do better. You’ve had a valuable experience about what is NOT proper community. That will serve as an incredibly useful lens through which to evaluate every other group with which you consider becoming involved in the future. That can be a great blessing. Hopefully, also, others can learn from your story as well.
Now, you ask what one can do. Firstly, ideally, don’t participate in those groups. It is far, far better to remain solitary than to pollute yourself. I think that the desperation to communicate and share with like-minded individuals sometimes pushes us into these situations and it’s so important, early on, to commit to not compromising where piety and respect for the Gods, ancestors, and land are concerned. In this, compromise is nota virtue. Evaluate their theology, their politics, their values, their lifestyles, the choices they make large and small. Separate your personal feelings from these things, because a person can be nice and friendly but in the end, poison ideology leads to poisoning of the tradition and our lives. Do the choices they’re making serve the Gods and the tradition or do they seek to elevate the people and ego-stroking, etc. etc. Is it all about the human condition?
It is absolutely lovely to find like-minded polytheists, and to build communities – and in truth, I don’t think our restoration can endure intergenerationally without lived community. The thing is, it’s important that those communities prioritize the Gods qua Gods and if they don’t, shun them like poison. I would add that we’re never really alone. We have our Gods, we have our ancestors and we can learn from Them and hopefully when we’re ready, They will guide us to working, solid traditions that will augment our relationships with the Gods, not shit on them.
So first and foremost, I would say, avoid these senseless or impious groups. That means making conscious devotional choices about what to prioritize, and about your religious life, and with whom you share that. It means doing some research, asking uncomfortable questions before participating. It means being willing to walk away from groups and people that do not nourish one’s piety. That means weighing everything and most of all being absolutely unwilling to compromise on the key fundamentals of polytheistic practice. I think with the influence of pseudo-progressivism in our communities, we’ve been indoctrinated to think of ‘compromise’ as a virtue across the board. It’s not. If I’m in a ship and the hull is compromised, that’s not a good thing. That is in fact, life threatening. It’s the same with the type of pollution that we can all too often find in certain places.
Owlet’s post continued: “I spent many years as a solitary pagan and polytheist, because I lived in an area where the culture was unusually hostile to such things. When I moved to a large urban center and university town, I immediately got involved in pagan events and groups. I was desperate to be a part of a community. To one group , in particular, I donated hundreds (or more) volunteer hours, a great deal of money, handcrafted ritual items…everything I could give. As I learned over the years, the people running and organizing these events and rituals often did not believe in the gods as anything more than thoughtforms or maybe archetypes, or were at the core monotheists or Christians with a thin overlay of pagan dress. Their disrespect spread from their relationship with the gods, to their relationship with the land, to the ancestors, and to other people, and I played along and became complicit. Now that I’ve left and can stand back, I feel heartsick at the compromises I made to please these groups. The service I gave to these communities distracted from and damaged my relationships with the holy powers instead of strengthening them.”
Again, it hurts to read this and my heart goes out to you, but look at it as a learning experience. It’s often difficult, especially when we’re all hungry for community and companionship, to recognize when something or someone is problematic. We learn, often from harsh experience. I would encourage you to not carry guilt over this. Go before your Gods and ask Their forgiveness if you feel the need, and do a ritual cleansing and then commit to doing better. Sometimes, it’s really, really important to have these bad experiences so we have a baseline from which to clearly and accurately evaluate practices. The most important thing in what you’ve sadly experienced is that now you can look on these things clearly and make better, informed choices. There’s no need for shame about any of that. You contributed to a community that you thought shared your piety. That’s a good thing to do. It’s not your fault that the community was not what you thought. Please don’t carry the guilt from this. Sometimes we appreciate devotion and piety and right relationship all the more when we’ve had an experience of its opposite and the effects of that.
What I would suggest is prayer – we cannot pray too much—and regular cleansings. Whenever I find that I’ve been exposed or have inadvertently exposed myself (and sometimes my spiritual Work requires this) to pollution, I will pray and cleanse myself, sometimes using divination to figure out what type of cleansing is needed. I always suggest going to the Gods, going to the ancestors, going to the land and reconnecting. Ask Them for help and cleansing, ask Them for guidance and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with would-be communities.
Last week an academic friend and colleague, who is soon to be teaching a class on Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, asked me a rather complicated question. My friend L. plans to include a brief survey of contemporary Pagan and Polytheistic religions as part of the course, to show that these traditions did not completely disappear but continue to have import and impact in the modern day. As prep for the course, L. asked me, “What is the difference between Pagan (or Neo-pagan) and Polytheist?” I had previously mentioned that use of these terms is somewhat political and charged in our communities.(1) Here is what I told my colleague.
“Oh, it’s such a mess.
The two words, in my opinion, should be synonymous but in today’s communities, they’re not. Polytheist means someone who believes in and venerates the Gods as individual, Holy beings. The logical and necessary corollary then, is the rightness of regular devotion and cultus. One would think this is self-explanatory. The meaning, after all, is embedded in the etymology of the word itself: πολύ (many) θέοι (Gods). We have, however, had atheists who call themselves “Pagan” try to claim the identity “Polytheist” on occasion, but for now, every time they crop up, we manage to beat them back (rather like a demented game of whack-a-mole). It’s almost as though the moment the devout make space for themselves, it comes under attack, and this isn’t just an issue in polytheism (2).
While the definition of ‘Polytheist’ is self-explanatory, ‘Pagan’ is more complicated. Some polytheists will use the term. But maybe four years ago there was a huge inter community explosion over it.(3) There were growing attempts A) to allow for “Pagan” to include non-theist, anti-theist, atheists, etc. as well as pop culture ‘pagans’ who can’t tell the difference between fiction and devotion and other questionable um…characters (Mind you, L., I’m hardly unbiased in this and I was right in the middle of these arguments.) and B) to force polytheistic traditions under the “Neo-pagan” umbrella, which at its core was an attempt to erase our traditions, esp. the piety of our traditions, and to force them to open their boundaries to anyone and anything.(4) The “battle” raged over blogs and newsgroups and finally many leading polytheists (against my better judgment) decided to yield the term ‘Pagan’. So now anyone who has any connection to any god or goddess (regardless of whether or not they believe in Them to be archetypes as opposed to reality, or this nonsense about all deities being one, or whether they are only interested in nature or whether they’re Marxists interfering in our communities for their own political agenda, or whatever kind of trash you may have) can claim the word without having a core of any type of tradition or devotion. So, ‘Pagan’ has become a catch all term.
Most devout polytheists I know, especially those who fought through this, won’t use the term “Pagan” now. The Gods and Their devotion are at the heart of our practices. ‘Pagan’ has become a term where that is no longer necessarily the case. Of course, the moment we ceded the term, the non and anti-theists started trying to claim “Polytheist” too, but so far we’ve successfully beaten them back. It’s never ending but there are those of us who will hold that line until we are all of us dust. Our Gods and traditions deserve that at least, from us.
I’d also add that part of the problem is that Polytheism involves traditions, which are closed containers. Neo-pagans scream that this is elitist and amounts to policing devotion (unless we’re talking about one of the African Traditional Religions when they are less likely to complain, because that might be construed as appropriative and racist.). Polytheists respond: that’s the way traditions work, either adapt yourself to them or fuck off. And so it goes. It’s a nasty, ongoing feud with those who care about what their Gods might require and those who barely register that Gods exist.
So, unlike in the ancient world where ‘Pagan’ referred to someone practicing their ancestral tradition and/or initiated into various mystery cultus, today it refers to someone practicing any of the many …religions…which may or may not include devotion to the Gods…that grew out of Gerald Gardner’s explorations into Wicca and occultism in the fifties and later out of the counter-culture movement in the 60s and 70s in the United States. It may also refer to those practicing and restoring various Polytheistic traditions like Heathenry, Asatru, Kemetic orthodoxy, Hellenismos, Romuva, etc. but in majority quarters, it is no longer the term of choice, particularly in the US community for such.
Heathenry, (Norse polytheism), always eschewed the term because it was always an umbrella term for a mishmash of traditions and practices, many excessively liberal, or diametrically opposed to devotion, or containing ethical standards (or lack thereof) that Heathens and other polytheists found problematic. The problem is more complicated in Europe where the various romance languages have ONLY the term ‘Pagan’ to cover a broad spectrum of traditions.
Basically, the conflict is about modernity, religious identity, and a push back against devotion and piety.
As a caveat, you will still find people who aren’t very much online using ‘Pagan’ when they are very devout…it depends on how aware they were of the online arguments. Our hashing out of orthodoxy, because of how spread out our communities are, tends to happen online but one should not think that the online world encompasses the whole of any tradition or practice. There are many devout Polytheists (and probably Pagans too) whose practice centers around hearth and home, land, community, and their Gods and whose window into the greater world of practice doesn’t necessarily come through the internet.
It should also be noted that there are Polytheists who obstinately refuse to cede the term Pagan and still use it, solely to spit in the eye of the impious. I like these folks. 🙂 And newbies coming into the communities also tend not to be aware of the political fault lines either.
It’s always worth querying when someone says “I’m Pagan,” what they mean by that. The answers might surprise you.”
- Especially now since Isaac Bonewits is the one who originally pioneered usage of the terminology “Neo-Pagan.”
- The problem isn’t atheists per se. If someone wants to attend a ritual and behaves respectfully that’s fine. The problem is ad nauseum, atheists who come into our communities, demand leadership positions, but refuse to accommodate the traditions or bow themselves to the beauty of devotion. Instead, they endlessly attempt to twist the religion to their own lowest common denominator. This isn’t a problem only in Polytheistic traditions. It’s happening in various Monotheisms as well. For a case in point see here. (I particular love how the minister in question complains her church puts theology over ethics. Um, yes. It’s a religion. Theology matters and moreover, you’ve already proven you have no ethics by impersonating a Christian and minister).
- I would estimate between 2011-2014.
- Polytheisms tend to have far more traditional values, sexual ethics, and much more of a focus on devotional piety than any generic Paganism. They also tend to encompass mystery cultus, which are exclusionary by their very nature, solid lineages, and strict ways of doing things. They are not generally religions in which “anything goes” spiritually or morally, all too often unlike their Pagan counterparts.
With Yule coming up, I want to take a moment to suggest that we shop within our community as much as possible. We should be supporting our polytheist artisans. What money we decide to spend on non-essentials should, as much as possible, be recycled back into our own communities. It’s one of the things that can help to make a community vibrant and strong. If i could, I would only do business with polytheists. Now, that may not be possible yet and probably won’t be in our lifetimes, but inasmuch as we can, I think we should consider doing so. To that end, here’s a list of some of the shops and artisans that I like and that I”ll be looking at as Yule draws near. (I’m tired — have been studying most of the day– so this is not a complete list. If you are an artist, artisan, shop owner and we know each other and your page isn’t here, post in the comments!! Any omission is not intentional and not intended to hurt. My brain is just fried from studying Syriac all day!).
Likewise Readers, if there are shops and artists you’d like to suggest, please post in the comments. If any of you reading this take commissions but do not have a formal shop, also post in the comments and let us know. ^_^
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.
So I had a discussion this evening with someone about syncretism. Apparently, there had been some push back recently over certain Gaulish Deities having been treated to the interpretatio romana. It really made me think about the process of syncretization, how it works and why it’s an important way of engaging with certain Deities.
For the most part, the Romans were very respectful of indigenous religions. The times when they oppressed or legislated against a particular tradition it was never (despite how Roman propaganda may have spun the issue) purely about the religion. It was, without exception, due to political issues. For instance, four examples spring readily to mind: there was the persecution of Bacchic Cultus in the second century B.C.E. Southern Italy was a hot bed of resistance to Roman rule and much of that resistance was fomented by leaders of that particular cultus. Likewise with the Druids and the Isle of Mona. It was central to resistance to Roman rule. The cult of Isis was briefly prescribed by Octavian but this had little to do with the cult itself and everything to do with the aftermath of the civil war with Antony, in which Cleopatra (who positioned herself as an incarnation of Isis) was central. Then of course there was Christianity. That rather, in my opinion, speaks for itself. Romans were a bit horrified when they found out what the cultus of Cybele entailed but they never prescribed it. There was a period where Roman citizens were forbidden from becoming galli, but the cultus itself was otherwise allowed to flourish uninterrupted. For the most part, the Romans attempted to respect and engage with indigenous religion. They were very pious people. Quite often this was done through the interpretatio romana.
When Rome took over a province, they would often append the names of their Gods to that of local Deities. For instance, we have Sulis-Minerva, Mars-Lenus, and Tacitus in his Germania gives us an account of Germanic Deities where suddenly Odin becomes Mercurius, Tyr becomes Mars, and Thor becomes Herakles. This was not done out of disrespect but as a means of finding a keyhole, a window, a doorway to understanding and engaging with these Deities. This was especially true for those Romans who settled permanently in a territory. Looking at Britannia or Gaul or any other province, the syncretism became a meeting point for both the indigenous people and the Romans and it gave the Gods more power.
Moreover, insofar as the Romans went, this was done as a mark of respect, an acknowledgement of the Deity’s power. Gods are powerful and the Romans ever and always acknowledged that in their religious and military practices. They had several specific religious rites performed by their military to ensure that the Gods of those people they conquered would support the Roman cause, rites like evocatio, which invited those Gods to join the Roman side. In this respect, it seems the Romans used the names of Their Gods almost as titles. If they saw a particular aspect of an indigenous Deity that in their minds connected that Deity to one of the Roman Ones, then it was easy to augment that connection with syncretization. For instance, with the Gaulish God Lenus, there is significant martial symbolism. Therefore, the Romans logically
equated connected Him with Mars. In other words, They were putting Him in a place wherein He would receive the same attention and awareness as their own Deity Mars. It is almost as if the names were titles, markers, placeholders wherein the Gods might dance. It was also on the Roman point of view, a mark of respect. Rome was the greatest power in the world during its time, and to acknowledge a Deity with a Roman title was one of the most respectful things to the Roman mind that one might do.
Now, I will admit, as I once told my [academic] students: syncretism is not a simple term. When it comes up, it means that something happened. There was movement, interaction, migration, colonization and that might happen naturally and organically or it might be a matter of conquest. It should never be taken at face value. Where there is syncretism there is a story, and sometimes a bloody history. Like it or not, however, syncretism is part of the history of polytheism. Sometimes in fact, that syncretism was spurred by the indigenous peoples themselves and not always under duress. Points of syncretism became a point of weaving culture, religion, and a meeting point for the indigenous communities (be they Celts or Gauls or Britains, etc.) and the Roman people. Ignoring syncretism takes away a place of power from the Gods in question and ignores that complex history of Their worship.
All of this, of course, raises questions for us about whether or not we should include Roman imagery in our icons of various Deities and more importantly whether or not we should venerate syncretized Gods. I think it is important that we do. The syncretic form and space in which the God or Gods (because after all, we don’t know what deals the two deities in question might have made with each Other regarding that form) are honored is part of that Deity (or Deities’) history. It’s part of Their cultus. It is a huge part of how the ancestors for generations engaged spiritually. To cut that off, to ignore it, to demand that it be erased is deeply disrespectful not only to the Gods but to the ancestors as well. It is nullifying their religious experience of their own Gods. It is also nullifying a point of peace, neutral territory if you will, between the Romans and the various peoples they conquered. In some cases, it is nullifying the horror and pain our ancestors experienced (i.e. in the Middle Passage which gave us religions like Lukumi, Candomble, and Voudoun) and the fact that their Gods followed them into exile.
Returning to the question of specifically Roman syncretism, if nothing else, we should remember, I think, that we owe the Romans a debt. For Heathens at least, we know the names of certain Deities (including the Matronae) largely from Roman inscriptions. This is not because Rome destroyed sanctuaries (they didn’t) but because literacy was not widespread in the northlands until the Christian invasion. Knowledge of certain of our Holy Powers exists because Roman men and women were grateful to Them, prayed to Them, petitioned Them, and then left markers and offerings of thanks. They did this in their own vernacular. They did this via interpretatio romana. If the Gods in question could accept it and allow Their cultus to flourish, can we do any less?
Shutting that out and excluding all of that in the hopes of having some illusionary purity of religion shuts out all of these complex conversations that we could be having about the subject and ignores a very uncomfortable reality: there was never any such pure practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Religions and cultus always developed in conversation with each other.
If I were confronted with a syncretic form of a Deity I venerate, and I were uncertain as to whether or not I should venerate this God or Goddess via such a form, I would simply divine on it. That is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Polytheisms ancient and modern were always religions of diviners. In the end, this isn’t a difficult question at all. It comes down to one thing, between the individual and their holy Powers: what do the Gods want? That answer should define practice not the opinions of so-called community members you’ll never meet face to face, who will always find something to be critical of in your devotion usually reflecting the paucity in theirs.