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We are Heard and Our Gods are So Very Present

I was at the physical therapy rehabilitation center today visiting my husband, who is recovering from sepsis. It’s a dismal place. The staff is overworked. They’re ok and do their best but with pain and illness comes miasma and left untreated it erodes hope and depresses the spirit. Hospitals and healing centers, rehabilitation centers and such are not clean spaces. They should be, but we have a long way to go. It’s not the fault of our medical teams, who are working under stressful circumstances, often with little time to rest, and always it seems understaffed. I pray for them often from the janitors who clean the trash, to maintenance men who fix the windows, to the nursing assistants, nurses, and all the various doctors and medical professionals as well as the administrators who are tasked with keeping such places up and running. I pray all the time for them and when I am there, in my husband’s room, I do small rites of purification and ask for blessings throughout the space. 

These places are dangerous spiritually. We have forgotten that with illness comes that which would feed upon illness and make it worse. I will speak as a spirit worker now and those who can hear and understand, let them. Those who cannot, well, I hope you will pray for our health care workers, and for those in their care that each receive what he or she needs to emerge whole and hale. I say as a spirit worker that in these places there are bottom feeding spirits-evil spirits, nasty wicked things that feed on the vulnerable and there are those who are even beset by such things, twisted evil entities who torment those suffering, adding to their misery and pain (1). I did chaplaincy work in my twenties (I was terrible at it – what does a twenty-year-old know about life and counseling those in pain? There is the will but not yet the experience. I look at medical residents who seem so painfully young and see the same terror at confronting patients in pain that I myself experienced when I was first sent up to the cancer ward as a volunteer chaplain) but hospitals and medical centers are so much worse now. The walls reek with misery, despair, loss, confusion, pain, anger, and exhaustion. It is a breeding ground for anything but healing. I cleanse before I walk in. I ward myself while I’m there including wearing the best piece of spiritual technology I was ever taught: the white headwrap. I cleanse and make offerings when I leave. Hell, sometimes I carry a spritzer bottle of khernips and cleanse everything I can. I bring cookies to the nurses and tell them how much I appreciate their work—it lifts their spirits and I do appreciate how hard they work. I do what I can to better the space. 

One of my allied spirits was a healer in life, long, long ago. He accompanies me sometimes and becomes furious when he sees what passes for Houses of healing. In the hospital, he looked around when we came in and hissed that this should be a House of Life and he blessed it all in fury at how dehumanizing to staff and residents alike the hospital was. One of the things that horrifies him is the lack of prayers, blessings, and purifications done on the space throughout the day. Then there is also the endless noise. How does one heal in such an environment? Only by the grace of the Gods. Even the staff are beaten down. It infuriates him to see men and women who don’t realize (or if they do realize it, are blocked from acting upon it by the demands of the modern medical apparatus) that they are there to restore and bring life and healing when they can, and a respectful holy space for death when they cannot. 

The rehabilitation space is better – the hospital was a trauma center so there was death and terrible injury, people being brought in by helicopter and that was a much more intense level of spiritual miasma than the hospital at which I once worked. Still, the nursing home/rehabilitation space is still not clean space. It is filled with suffering and despair. When I walk in to visit my husband, each day, I walk past a room where an elderly woman lies, screaming, face distorted in a rictus of pain. She is tormented both by the decay of her body, the confusion of her mind, but also by an attack upon her being by a wicked spirit. It roared as I passed, and the noise never abated. I wanted to go in and lay hands on her in blessing, to pray, to purify, to do whatever I could to bring her back to herself and free her of her torment. It is one thing to have dementia or whatever is bringing her confusion and another to have atop that a beast that feeds on and augments that. One of the nurses said she keeps a journal where she records the weird, “supernatural” things that she has seen since starting her job. Some of them have frightened her.  Going in to engage with that patient, however, was not my warrant, and I did not do it, but it physically hurt to do nothing, to see her in such anguish (and she was not the only one)(2). The spirit tormenting her writhed at the presence of a spirit worker and orpheotelest and shrieked taunts to me and my husband, yelling out things the woman herself could not know. Such is the way of these lowly, debased creatures (and by this, I mean the spirits not the women, who deserve compassion and care). 

So, when I left, I walked down the hall praying to all the healing Gods I could. “Apollo, please bless these people.” “Jesus” – after all most patients are probably nominally Christian, “please keep them safe.” “Eir, please watch over those in need of healing.” “Hermes, please protect the staff.” “Asclepius, please bless each and every resident here.” And I lingered on my prayers to Asclepius because it seemed right to do so and He seemed particularly present. 

Just as I was approaching the doors to the ward, which were closed, a man appeared. He had not been there before. He was a tall, late middle aged, very distinguished black man, with the kindest eyes and the most elegant manner. He was carrying medical equipment and I just remember his eyes.  He radiated peace and such a tremendous sense of well-being it took my breath away. I believe this man was Asclepius, that I met a God upon Whom I had called in my need. We exchanged a few words and with those words He blessed me. As I walked to the elevator, having thanked him for his kindness, so much of the weight and miasma I’d been carrying disappeared and I felt that He had cleansed me of all the long term, never-ending miasma that seeps into one’s very skin in such places. His smile was like the warmth of a parent’s hug, a cool drink of water, the warmth of a wink of sun on a cold, overcast day. My words and poetry fail me. My prayers were heard, and I was given the gift of seeing a God take flesh. Later, my husband told me that where things were usually a battle with constant delays and problems, today was different. Things got done, and we had a particularly special nurse come in to tend him who really saw and understood one of his medical issues. I am so intensely grateful. When I got home, I immediately made an offering to all the Gods to which I had prayed and most especially to Asclepius in thanks (3). 

The Gods hear us. They hear our prayers and those prayers matter. I wish that I could share with all of you, the sense that is so deeply ingrained in my bones and heart and mind and spirit, born of experiences like this, born of the gift of theophany given unexpectedly and certainly without any merit of my own. I wish I could ingrain in all of you how deeply, deeply loved we are by our Gods, how They listen and hold our pain as Their own. They hear us and we matter so deeply to Them and it is good. If nothing else, I wish that I could share that heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul with each of you, my readers. 

I met a God today and other Gods protected me on my journey to and from the center. I was reminded again how very important our prayers are and I was reminded again that our Gods always walk with us because we are Theirs, carefully crafted by Their will and hands and our prayers matter more than I can express. So, pray for those you love. Pray in thanks to your Gods. Pray that those who work in healing remember that they are healers and that they be sustained in that knowledge. Pray for our health care workers, for those sick and injured in their care. Pray and say thank you and know that our capacity to reach out for our Gods is one of the greatest privileges and joys in our lives. 

I said to my husband when we spoke of this on the phone later (texted really, I not being much of a phone person). We are so very lucky. We are so blessed. We are living in a terrible time, and we have to sometimes face terrible things, but nonetheless we are so incredibly blessed. I pray myself, that I never forget to give thanks. 

Notes: 

  1. I wonder if being trapped in the body of someone already suffering isn’t a type of punishment for the evil spirit too. I heard one howl and cry out in utter anguish and what must it be like for a creature of spirit to be trapped in wounded flesh? I understand after this experience, so much better Origen’s idea of apokatastasis and wonder at the free will of such beings.  
  2. I am not saying every sick person or person with dementia is tormented by evil spirits. That is not the case at all. I am saying instead that there are bottom feeding spirits that take advantage sometimes, in some cases. I wonder if this old woman and a second one who was also tormented, had particularly rich and creative lives that attracted the attention of something hungry to augment pain, or if it was just being sick and fragile and having no one to protect them, and being vulnerable. What does it do to the staff to be in that environment all the time – because some of them sense it too? As we treat body and mind, I think there is a need to address the spiritual too and that starts with blessing and purification so that we may serve our Gods in peace and liberty, without interference, so that healing may occur without this other, unseen fight. 
  3. I don’t generally see this God as a man of color, but I think Gods can show Themselves however They wish and I am so grateful to Asclepius for today. I pray to all of our Healing Gods, especially Asclepius, Eir, and Apollo regularly yet I feel as though my heart has been turned open and inside out with a gratitude toward them so enormous it is painful. 

Reader Question about Mythology and the Gods

I received a really good question about devotion and the Gods a few days ago but this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to respond. This is a really good, basic theological question about why and how we view our Gods and I thought it deserved its own post so here y’all go. 

P. asks: I’m wondering how, as a devotional Heathen, you envision/understand the gods especially because all we have of the Northern deities is the myths and like the Greek and Roman myths, they’re not very flattering sometimes. I was listening to a podcast you did like 3 years ago and you mention this as well, that the Greeks for example, have other material like the Neo-Platonists, or the Romans the Stoics, where the gods are discussed philosophically. Of course deities are not bound by human confines and I know what is meant by, say, siblings mating/marrying (that They are equals, etc) and a nature goddess being promiscuous but, perhaps I never had a new-age, free love mindset EVER, the lack of morality sometimes gets to me whilst reading the material. This is true for most myths of course, not just the Northern tradition. But AFAIK, those are the only material we have. And, on a similar note, the gods are usually so…mean, it’s difficult to like them (not all, obviously!) I’m not being frivolous, and I hope you don’t get this the wrong way, gods are gods and not besties obviously but to have a devotional relationship I feel like there needs to be some sort of affection?”

There are actually several good questions here so let me try to take them one by one and I’ll do my best. 

Firstly, here is an earlier article I wrote on, amongst other things, reading theologically. I would suggest reading that piece first. Here’s another piece on lectio divina

I don’t believe the myths were ever meant to be taken either literally or as exempla of how to behave as human beings. I also detest the new age, free love crap fwiw. I find it morally and spiritually repugnant on every possible level, and there were Deities that I really struggled to honor for precisely that reason. Either the devotees that I had met were gross or Their stories presented a morality with which I simply could not accord. It took me many, many years of devotion and study to realize that the Deity is not confined nor even particularly well represented necessarily in His or Her stories (or by Their devotees!).  The myths are not revealed scripture and they do not function as the unerring Word of God ™. 

How we approach the myths and center them in our minds matters. It matters because it sets the framework for engagement both devotionally and liturgically. These stories contain windows to the sacred but they aren’t sacred in and of themselves in the same way that a Christian might hold the New Testament sacred or a Muslim the Qu’ran (and we are primed in our culture to not only give precedence to the written word over other forms of tradition transmission but also to expect all sacred stories to function like such “scripture.”). The myths that we have are more pliable and I think they may point to different facets of our Gods’ personalities, or certain immutable lessons (like the danger of putting oneself above the Gods) but often storytellers wanted to tell a good story about human events that were shaped in part by their understanding of the power of the Gods to impact our lives (I’m thinking of the Iliad here). The same story can serve many different purposes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doorways to the sacred, but they aren’t holy in and of themselves. Many story tellers including the poet or poets otherwise known as Homer, were soundly criticized by later philosophers for the way in which they presented the Gods in their writing. It was considered impious. I tend to think that in such cases it was more a nod to the ways in which the Gods are able to inspire us and act in the world. Also, Norse culture particularly was an oral culture. What we have written down, what we consider “lore,” i.e. the Eddas, Sagas, etc. is but a bare fraction of what actually existed. There are some serious lacunae. One can get glimpses in art and material culture of stories that we simply no longer have. In oral cultures like these, sacred things were not the types of things that would’ve been transmitted via the written word because to write it down traps and closes the circle of the narrative. It removes the possibility for future revelation.

When I read a myth about one of my Gods that rubs me the wrong way, I sit with it and look for the greater cosmological lesson (1). What does this say about the nature of my God? What does it say about how that God is able to act in the world, but most importantly, how does it reflect creation and the impetus and actions of our Gods therein. Quite often, there is something in these stories and their presentation of the Gods that hearkens back to the creation narrative. I’ve written about that here

Are there any patterns that recur in the story? Where do things start to go awry? All of these are important textual markers for places that may serve as windows for something holy or for a mystery belonging to the Deity in question. Stories are never just stories if we’re reading theologically (2). 

I think the highest form of interpretation is through the lens of devotion (not philosophy and certainly not recitation of lore) but one text that might be helpful is Sallustius’s “On the Gods and the World.” Sallustius was a friend of Emperor Julian, and this was written, if I’m not mistaken as sort of a primer of how to read poly-theologically. It’s not a bad place to begin. As he notes, the myths never happened and are always happening. That is the essence of Mystery. 

I love the Gods. I believe that They are eternal creators of all the worlds, that They are good, essentially, ontologically *good*.  I was thinking of this when my assistant Tove played this song for me and we had a long discussion about how *no one* is unloved by the Gods. That is the profundity of Their nature. They imagined us, willed us, crafted us into being. We are Theirs in ways we can barely imagine. 

Tove, when I asked her, because we are sitting here discussing this, added, “Our Gods are ineffable and limitless, and the scariest thing is that They see the fullness of our potentiality and the closer we come to Them, the more we see that potentiality juxtaposed against the reality of who we are now. They love us in our whole form, including who we CAN Be and there’s a challenge there: how far can we stretch, how far can we grow. I believe They want, like all good parents, want us very much to grow. This is probably why people say it is a scary thing to be loved by a God. It forces one to be bigger, to be more.” 

I have rarely if ever experienced a Deity being “mean.” At least, I’ve never experienced it as being mean just to be mean. Sometimes I have had a God or Goddess push me in some way beyond my limits, push me to the point of challenge and then one step farther. That is a good thing. It is only by pushing against our limits that we grow stronger. I have seen very wounded human souls incapable of experiencing the power of the Holy Ones save through the lens of their own terrible abuse. That is not something that the Gods did. That was a damaged soul unable to see divine love as anything other than terrible…and still something to be longed for jealously. Of course, I belong to Odin, the personification of ecstatic frenzy. His love is the tip of a spear penetrating the heart and it is glorious. 

In devotion, the relationships we develop with our Holy Ones may start out in fumbling awkwardness but they grow. Like any relationship they grow in intimacy, in trust. That’s what is really key: trust. We learn to trust our Gods, to let Them in a little more, to go a few more faltering steps forward in devotion. “Affection” is too small, too weak a word for what the Gods are capable of evoking in our hearts. Their love is like the blood beating in our veins. It is like breath forcing itself into and out of our lungs again and again. It is all that sustains us, and all that challenges us to be more. 

Notes:

  1. While one may argue that some myths like Homer were ancient fanfiction, I think the difference between then and now lies in the fact that the culture of Homeric Greece (to give one example of “mythology”) was infused with veneration of the Gods at every level. The tradition was deep and intergenerationally embedded. That is not the case now, quite the opposite. So much in our world is hostile to devotion of any sort, esp. media which often makes a mockery of it or puts humans above the Gods. 
  2. For pre-Christian polytheists, religion was about devotion and engaging in some way with the Gods. Soteriological concerns were handled via mystery cultus, and building character, virtue, learning how to be a decent human being both by community nomoi but also in some cases philosophy. The myths aren’t examples of virtuous living for mortals because that’s not the correct place upon which to put that weight. That’s not the purpose of religion. Religion is about engaging properly with the Gods. Now, they can teach virtue by dint of teaching what is proper behavior, but it’s through custom, upbringing, and philosophy that one really developed those things…otherwise, the purpose of religion is subtly shifted in unhelpful ways. It goes from being about the Gods to being about us, humanity. It becomes vanity.

Two Prayers, Written by Request

To Apollo, in Thanks for Your Care and Healing

In 433 B.C.E., the Romans raised their first shrine to You. 
They hailed You as God of the sun and of light,
but they called that temple, first of many, 
the temple of Apollo Medicus, 
and above all else, they honored You 
as the best of physicians. 
That is how I honor You too. 
You drive out pollution.
You drive our miasma.
The brightness of Your presence purifies.
You restore the body to harmony and health. 
You restore the mind. 
I hail You, now and always, as Iatros, 
Apollo, the doctor. 

I have to admit, I never thought I’d be writing a paean to the Roman God Sterculinus. He’s the God, no joke, of doing useful things with poop. Lol. Initially, He was largely venerated by farmers, because manure was used to fertilize the fields. We do the same thing today, but our fertilizer has been prepared for us by this company or that. 

Prayer to Sterculinus

Hail to You, Friend of Pomona. 
Hail to You, Friend of Flora. 
Hail to You, Friend of Ceres. 
Hail to You, Friend of farmers always and everywhere. 
Your gifts and teaching are beyond price. 
You taught our ancestors how to make their fields fertile. 
You taught them how to use refuse, recycling it 
through the alchemy of the earth, enriching the soil,
and in so doing, filling their larders and pantries with abundance. 
You, Great God – for all Gods are great—teach us to respect
even the lowliest part of creation, 
because creation too is filled with wonder. 
You are a healing God also, though little do we think on it,
until we need Your blessings. 
You keep us healthy, helping the ecology of our bodies
to remain in harmony. You bring surcease of pain. 
You even rid the body of pollution.
For this and so many other reasons, 
for myself and for every one of my farmer ancestors 
who once praised You by name, or recognized 
Your gifts and glory, I hail You, now and forever.
Hail Sterculinus, called Stercutus, called Sterculius,
May Your praises ever be sung. 

Bookversary: Of Bow, Lyre, and Prophetic Fire: Nine Days of Prayer to the God Apollo

Affiliate Advertising Disclosure

Today is the anniversary of the publication of my devotional book to Apollo.

Nine days of prayer, offerings, ritual and divination in honor of Apollo – the God whose holy light drives off illness and miasma, inspires music and oracular utterances, protects the young, and profoundly touches each worshipper who approaches Him in devotion and supplication.

Don’t have a copy yet? Get it from amazon, or through bookshop which supports independent booksellers.

Bookversary: In Love’s Winged Harbor

Affiliate Advertising Disclosure

Today is the bookversary, the second in fact, for a devotional I published to Anteros during the first year of the pandemic.

“Son of Aphrodite and Ares, member of the Erotes – divine manifestations of love – and God especially of requited love, Anteros has received little attention from modern polytheists until now. With this heartfelt devotional, Galina Krasskova introduces the reader to Anteros and offers a nine-day ritual of prayer and worship for Him. Giving honor to Anteros can lead to a deeper connection in our spiritual lives as a whole. As Krasskova writes, “Love must be given and received and doing so ennobles, lifts us up, and opens us up to the Gods.”

Do you have a copy? You can find it on amazon.

Happy Belated Father’s Day

A very happy belated Father’s Day! 

A blessing on all good Fathers today and every day. Fathers are the backbone, the protection, the support of a family and good fathers sacrifice so much to make sure their families prosper. When I think of a good model for a father in our cosmology, I think of Njord, the father of Freya and Freyr, and in my tradition, the foster-father of Sigyn (1). The enormous love that He has for His children, His willingness to do whatever He must to see that they are safe shines through in His every surviving story. What a wonderful support and strength, what a wonderful example to have at one’s back growing up. 

I think of Thor, Whose love for His children is ferocious and legendary, or Loki, Who is a loving Husband and Father (and the only one of our Norse Gods Who is also a Mother, having given birth to Sleipnir). Going back to Njord, we even have an example of a friendly, responsible divorce – His marriage to Skadhi did not last, but They remained allies and friends. In fact, it was Skadhi Who first noticed when Freyr became lovesick over Gerda. I think of His kindness in recognizing how miserable She was (She hated living in Noatun) and His generosity in helping Her return to Her home – He even tried to live there too, but it just didn’t work. That is a beautiful example of a loving man. 

On the Greco-Roman side of things, I think of the God Ares, who loved His daughter fiercely. When She was raped by the son of another God, Ares took vengeance for Her as a good father should, defended His decision before a court of the Gods, and won. Zeus too is a marvelous Father to His daughters Artemis and Athena, and to many of His sons as well. 

I could go on, but these will suffice. I’m not generally in favor of taking moral exempla from the stories of our Gods. That’s not what they were for, but in this case, I consciously make an exception. These exempla the Gods have provided us are important models of masculinity and fatherhood, models that are all too often sadly lacking in our world today. Lack of a good masculine role model is one of the number one factors in whether or not a child will be successful in life. We need good mothers, good fathers, and where, for whatever reason good or bad, one of those is lacking, role models of till the gap. This is what guarantees that our children will be healthy. We need cousins, uncles, aunties, grandpas, grandmas but none of that really takes the place of a father. Just as we honor our mothers and mother figures on Mother’s Day, I think it equally important that we honor our fathers and father figures on their day.

Feel free to share your stories about your dads or father figures here. By their presence or absence, we are formed, and it’s up to us what we do with that. 

Medieval images of Njord loosing the winds

There is a devotional to Njord available here

A New Blog to Pan

I just found out about a new blog devoted to Pan (and also to a degree Hermes and Artemis). I love seeing the Gods get more spaces through which They can seep and move and transform the world. Here is the blog in question for those of you who might be interested. 🙂

Hermes with Infant Bacchus

I saw this on twitter (courtesy of Astro Museum). It’s a medallion with Hermes (Mercury) holding the infant Bacchus. It’s electrotype by E. Hannaux, French. c. 1895-1905. I just love this image so much, the strength and tenderness in Hermes comes through so palpably.

Medallion with Hermes holding baby Bacchus

The Way We Speak

I’ve been sitting on this for a while. Around the autumnal equinox, I started to see gross postings in various places (tumblr, facebook, twitter, etc.) mostly about Persephone and Hades, putting in crude terms Her cyclical return to the Underworld. I don’t have cultus to either of those Deities but nonetheless, reading the trashy memes and comments really disturbed me. I think it says something about the paucity of our culture that we so blithely speak not just of sacred things, but of Holy Powers and Their mysteries with such casual disrespect (and I don’t think this is just a polytheistic problem either). Nor am I condemning all memes -– I’ve seen some that are lovely and some that are humorous without crossing the line into disrespect. I think that’s fine. I think that’s healthy and it’s really wonderful to see art and cartoons and prayers and imaginative renderings of our Gods. This is the way we develop iconography and build religious cultus and culture. It’s a good thing. It can be done without disrespect though. In fact, it can and should come from a place of love, adoration, and deep, deep devotion to the Holy Powers. That devotion is the core of every healthy tradition. 

Of course, there are some (usually Hellenics but occasionally Heathens will chime in too) who will argue that Homer wrote stories that presented the Gods in less than salutatory manner. Yeah, whoever (and it may be more than one author—but we’ll stick with “Homer” for convenience here) actually put together the Iliad and the Odyssey and other Homeric works did, but A) this corpus was criticized for that very potentially impious presentation by later philosophers; and B) there are also beautiful and deeply pious prayers and hymns within the Homeric corpus. I rarely see that latter coming from the same people who post garbage about the Gods. Often, I want to shake these individuals, and just flat out ask, “if you feel so deeply disgusted with our traditions, traditions you too claim to practice, if you want to erase all mystery and actual cultus, if you hate our Gods so very much why are you here?” I’d be very interested in the answer. When your entire blog or online world is devoted to tearing down and spitting on our traditions and the Holy Powers from which we received those traditions, why are you here? 

To put it bluntly, we should speak of our Gods with respect. That shouldn’t be a difficult or contentious thing. These are GODS. These are our Holy Powers. These are the Bestowers of mystery, the Givers of blessings, the Immortal Ones Whose will, and kindness crafted the worlds. These are the Powers from which our souls proceed and to which we will one day return. These are the Good and Gracious Gods from which all our blessings flow. When we speak of Them or render Them into art, we can do so with love and respect. If we have no respect for sacred things and for our Holy Powers and Their Mysteries, I ask again: WHY are we here?  

(I completely agree with the comment to this video that says, “This dude should mobilize and bring his healing slaps to the general public.” LOL. Please come to contemporary polytheisms. Please. We need those healing slaps. A lot of them. Repeatedly and with alacrity. Slap the hubris out of us. A-fucking-men). 

A Cautionary Tale

I don’t usually advocate reading our sacred stories for moral exempla. I think that in polytheistic religions the relationship between lore and living morality was complicated and polytheists tended to draw their moral code from their community and country values more than from their cosmological stories (1). In many cases, they were sensible enough to know that in no way can the Gods ever properly be submitted to human morality or authority. Our insight is too narrow, our understanding too limited. For us to drag our Gods down to our level is often gross impiety.  Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t examine and work out various types of exegesis for our myths. We may infer, examine, and certainly, I think we are also expected to use our reason. After all, Hoenir gave us cognition and just as we engage with our world through the corporeality of our sensorium, we also engage with it through our capacity to reason, through Hoenir’s gift; and it is by means of that engagement that we hone our characters. To submit the Gods to our morality though, is to elevate ourselves above Them in the cosmic architecture. That is something that twists that sacred architecture out of true. It is not our rightful place, and we are not equipped to hold it—no matter how arrogant we may be, we are not equal to the Gods (and that this needs to be said every so often in our communities just fills me with sadness). So, while I usually wouldn’t engage in the type of reading that is shortly to follow, every so often, there is a story that stands out, either as a positive exemplum of piety (Lay of Hyndla, where we see Ottar praised and rewarded for the incredible devotion and depth of his piety to Freya) or, to turn my attention to the Greco-Roman world, where we are given a clear warning of the dangers of impiety (the story of Hippolytus). It’s this latter that I would like to discuss today. 

The lesson in Hippolytus is one that some of us take for granted, but it’s also one that I know I’ve struggled with in the past. It’s not immediately intuitive. I’d like to say that’s because of the way monotheistic religions permeate our culture, or because of the influence of modern popular culture but I don’t think that is actually the reason. If it were, we wouldn’t see this being teased out as an issue by ancient authors. I just think it’s possible to love one’s primary Deity or Deities so much, so deeply, that it can be very, very difficult to also see other Deities as equally holy—especially if those other Deities have areas of expertise diametrically opposed to our own “Patron” Gods. We are shaped and formed after all by those Gods that we love and to Whom we are especially devoted. One of the beauties of polytheism is that there is no expectation of devotional exclusivity. Moreover, often what is correct for one devotee to a particular Deity is forbidden to another devotee of that Deity. It can be confusing. It can be difficult to say: “these practices that my God encourages are holy but so are these diametrically opposite practices the devotee of God X is doing over there. Those things just aren’t holy for *me*.” This was a powerful lesson that I actually learned by reading a medieval Christian mystic. 

Years and years ago I was taking a medieval studies class wherein I had to read the works of Italian mystic Angela of Foligno (1248 C.E. – 1309 C.E.). While I love my medieval mystics, I’m not a huge fan of Franciscans in general (she was a Franciscan tertiary) but that wasn’t where the lesson came in. Angela often worked with lepers. These were the lowest of the low in the society of the time. They were marginalized, forced to live away from the community, and generally treated like garbage. (This was partly because there was, at the time, no cure for leprosy and people feared contagion. For those wondering, a cure was discovered in the 1940s and 50s). Angela would go and minister to them, bringing food, treating their wounds, even bathing their wounds. At one point, while she was washing a leper’s legs and feet, she had this interior vision of Christ, and she realized that the leper was Christ, that she was never closer to her God than when she was caring for these men and women. Some of the damaged tissue had peeled off the leper and had fallen into the bowl of water she was using to bathe him. Get ready for it. In devotion to her God and in a moment of ecstatic revelation she drank the water. The first time I read that I was utterly, thoroughly, and in every possible way revolted. I think I even got physically ill from reading it. I still find it one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever read. At the same time, for Angela, this was an intensely holy thing. It was sacred. It drew her closer in devotion to her God. It was not holy for me, but it didn’t have to be. This was something between Angela and her God. Learning to hold that paradox (?) in my head, to acknowledge that something like this was sacred work, a sacred act, but just maybe not for me personally with my God was a huge insight. For one thing, it’s been a tremendous help when I acquired an apprentice who was as far away in her devotional orientation from the ascetic practices I prefer as one could possibly be. I was having the same aversion and disgust that I had with Angela when the same lesson hit me like a two-by-four again: this is holy for her and her God. It isn’t for me and that’s OK. It’s that last part that I think a lot of us struggle with, the part about that difference being OK. 

Why am I bringing this up now? Because one does no honor to one’s God by spitting on the mysteries of another Deity and recently I’ve been seeing a lot of that in various fora. I’ve already written before about how none of us get to speak for our Gods with impunity. If we aren’t willing to qualify our statements, to acknowledge the fallibility of our humanity, and to step back from using our relationships with our Gods (be it as devotee, mystic, godspouse, god-servant, priest, or shaman – or anything else) as a club to attack the cultus of other Deities then we are betraying those self-same Gods and our work is deeply compromised. See my previous article titled “Theological Integrity.”  It’s quite easy to share one’s religious experiences and even to discuss and argue about what our own experience has taught us about our Gods provided we qualify it instead of making normative statements intended to shut down religious discourse and silence other devotees, specifically if this latter is done by calling into question the integrity of their Gods. It is never our place to assume the right to submit our Gods to our puny authority (2). This is where polytheism gets really complicated, though I suspect every religion faces this in some way, shape, or form, especially with practices labeled as falling into the ‘mystic.’ 

While we have plenty of positive exempla in the Norse lore exhorting piety and devotion, exhorting humility, and common sense. I’m going to look instead at a Greco-Roman story to make my point, because it is very well known and very, very obvious in its intended interpretation. I would like us to consider the story of Hippolytus. 

Hippolytus was the son of Theseus. He was an ardent, passionate, deeply devout devotee of Artemis. Because She is a virgin huntress, Hippolytus wished to remain chaste and virginal for Her. He was disgusted by sex, dismissive of marriage, and deeply contemptuous of Aphrodite and Her mysteries. He was so contemptuous that Aphrodite grew angry at his hubris. She cursed him (and one may infer that She had the consent of Artemis in this matter). His stepmother Phaedra fell madly in love with him, pursuing him to the point that she was physically ill in mind, body, and spirit. Hippolytus, utterly revolted, rebuffs her so violently that in some versions of the story, she kills herself, after leaving a suicide note accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus, who has been granted power by Poseidon, curses Hippolytus and Poseidon sends a sea-monster to attack the young man’s horses. Hippolytus is flung out of the chariot, and tangled in the reins, is dragged to death. Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus and establishes cultus for Hippolytus so that his memory and story will not fade. 

What is the lesson we ought to take from this? Well, I think it shows us that while it is right and proper to venerate and love our Gods, to have deep and specific devotion to a Deity (as Hippolytus did to Artemis), it is NOT ok, and is in fact a polluted and curse-worthy act to use that devotion to revile the mysteries of another Deity. 

We should not ever diminish the relationship between Deities to petty, human relations. They are GODS.  It’s not for us to ever criticize our Gods. It’s for us to look for wisdom in Their stories. To think that we are equal to the Gods, to think that one can be a God is the height of delusion. It is a moral and spiritual sickness. Avoid the impious. Avoid the contamination they put into the world like shit with every breath.

Notes: 

  1. Herodotus for example, in talking about what makes a people, clearly separates “honoring the same Gods,” from “following the same nomoi, or customs and laws.” This is picked up by multiple ancient writers and reflects a different hierarchy of understanding. Religion did not do the work of defining our morality (upbringing, paideia, philosophy did those things, albeit it in many cases likely informed by devotion). Religion was protocol for engaging with the Holy Powers, for engaging with the sacred and the holy. 
  2. Each God or Goddess is equally holy. What is complicated for devotees is that They don’t often agree, are often at cross-purposes, and sometimes have opposite agendas for Their devotees, or opposing taboos, etc. This is messy but that’s polytheism. We don’t have a single holy book telling us precisely how to do things from which there shouldn’t be any deviation because we’re not monotheists. (Hell, they don’t even have perfect accord over how to interpret their own holy writings). Heathenry is not, as much as some people would like it to be, Protestant Christianity.  Something a God gives to a person can be perfectly right and true *for that person*. There are few universals save that piety is good and we should cultivate it.