Here is an excellent piece by P.S.V.L. who really points out how the current “your religious space must be political” is inherently ill thought out and obsessively anti-theistic (among other things). This is a long, thoughtful piece. Stick with it folks. It’s gold.
I’ve been musing a lot about Heathenry the past day, what it was, what it is now, what it could be. I think we’re very lucky. For one thing, I think there is something profoundly powerful in throwing off the yoke of Christianity and/or secularism and seizing the threads of our ancestral traditions. It’s a beginning, a renewal, and a restoration and I think that is a good and holy thing. It’s the first step, a necessary step toward restoring our Gods to sovereignty in the world.
Yes. I said that. For all that I am severely critical of Heathens who use the lore to block and control their experience of the Gods, I do think we should allow ourselves to be inspired by our ancestors, by the stories in the Sagas and other lore. We should be ravening berserkers in driving back the filth of monotheism, in honoring our Gods, in offering to Them, and most of all in rebuilding our traditions. The lands of the north once belonged to Odin and His kin and they should again. I’d like to see sacrifices every holy tide in every major city in Northern Europe, and in Heathen communities in North America. That’s my dream anyway. It would be a start, a resanctification of the land and our relationship with both it and our Gods.
I remember a conversation my mother and I once had on esoterically warding our homes. She didn’t. She was ferocious in tending her space because she looked at her house as likewise the home of her gods. She said that nothing malignant could exist in her home because she made the environment one (by prayer, devotion, and quite practically and literally cleaning every day—she was what in German is called a ‘Putzteufal’ or cleaning devil) that was so hostile to filth (of every kind) that nothing spiritually impure could exist there. I wish we could make ourselves and our traditions the same, not through thought-policing, but through carefully tending to our devotions, encouraging the inter-generational process of offering and veneration, and protecting the Mysteries of our Gods’ cultus—all those things that comprise our “traditions.”
There are many Heathens that I disagree ferociously with about how Heathenry should be practiced. That’s ok. We have different traditions within Heathenry and I would stand shoulder to shoulder even with someone I utterly detested to defend our Gods and our right to practice unmolested. The traditions are more important. Seeing them thrive is more important. Re-mapping our world with a renewed awareness of our Gods is most important of all.
I want a Heathenry that doesn’t just obsess about the folk now but on where our traditions can be in a hundred years and how to best get there. It’s important to remember, crucially important I think because this is a bleak and dirty fight at times, that things can change in the matter of a generation. Our traditions were undone in the span of one or two generations. We can reverse that process. We are reversing it. We need to keep on changing it.
Midgard is a very special place. It is not that the Gods can’t simply work Their will here, but that in creating Midgard, They have given us a world where our voices and choices matter too in the forming of things, and I think They took a chance, those three creator Gods when They (perhaps foolishly) breathed life into this thing called “humanity.” I think we have been given a say in how Midgard unfolds. It was certainly the poor choice of some of our ancestors (and of others under coercion) to abandon our traditions a thousand plus years ago. We can choose differently now. I think maybe it’s part of our wyrd and if we choose to welcome the Gods, if we choose to burn down fiercely anything that would keep Their voices from shaking every inch of this world again, then we can bring those traditions back every bit as strongly as they were before, on the broken backs of those who would destroy them again if need be.
I care about one thing and one thing only: venerating the Gods, seeing our traditions restored, returning the world to polytheism. I want to see our world infused with the Gods at every level. I don’t know how to achieve that, but I do know that devotion and a commitment to our traditions is key. Maybe the Gods will help us with the rest.
So when you read things like this, put it in context. It, and so much else of the garbage floating around, is written by someone hostile to the very idea of Gods. What have they to do with any of our traditions?
(I like the mood evoked by “The Vikings.” It may not be 100% historically accurate but it inspires nonetheless.)
My husband and I were having a conversation about a couple of the pieces that I wrote yesterday on my blog at a local diner this morning when I noticed his gaze was fixed on the family in the booth across from ours and he was grinning. It took me a moment to notice what had caught his attention but when I did we both burst out laughing. The couple had given their toddler a butt-plug shaped toy to play with. I’m sure (pretty sure: our town has had a large influx of hipsters) that it wasn’t, and I’m equally sure that only a small percentage of the customers in the diner would have looked at that and had their minds go the places ours did. Which, as my clickbait title suggests, led to an insight about the ongoing debates within our communities – though not really John himself. He’s just a metaphor, a symbol expressing a certain set of ideas to which I’m opposed.
And I’m opposed to them because polytheist isn’t just a word for me; it’s a culture built on shared experiences of the Gods. I wrote about that here yesterday.
That shared experience is what makes things like humor possible and I think it just makes more sense for people to gravitate towards others with similar values and worldview and culture. These are not insignificant things. That is in part what helps to create a cohesive tradition. It’s not the only thing, but it is an important one. This of course begs the question of what is the shared experience of polytheism. I would hope that it is the experience of the Gods as Gods. That’s the thing that brings us all together despite our individual traditions and positions within the polytheist rubric. It’s the baseline that impacts everything else, every decision, and certainly our way of being in the world. I’ve seen John talk about having experiences with what we would call Gods but, in his own words, interpreting them differently. Ok. That’s a crucial difference. He’s having experiences but lacks the relational framework of a polytheistic understanding and perspective. He is not a polytheist, and that’s ok. Someone outside of the tradition can if they wish, become a good ally (of course part of being an ally isn’t trying to guide or define the development of the tradition, but that’s a different post).
Years ago, oh, maybe two decades now, I had an experience with a Holy Power that I’m pretty sure most of my Christian friends would call Jesus. It was cool, very cleansing, and my Gods were likewise very present. (I was dealing with a very wounded Christian client at the time – sometimes one must approach one’s client’s Gods). When that was done, I got on with the business of honoring my Gods. I told this to a Christian friend once and she simply could not wrap her mind around it. To her, it was a ‘born again’ experience but I was still a polytheist and still had and wanted nothing to do with the cultus of Christ. She could not comprehend. For me, the answer was easy: at best this is one of many Gods and not mine. What’s the big deal? For her, it was a mind blowing and paradigm challening thing. I lacked her framework of interpretation. Since I had zero desire to come into her religious world and space, in the end it didn’t matter but had I been trying to position myself as a member of her church, there would have been – and should have been—problems. My approach would have been corrosive and corrupting to their tradition.
That’s why I fight so hard to hold the line. Because when that’s compromised, meaning becomes diluted and confused. It’s not that I think people like John don’t have a right to exist, or to do their atheist thing (however incomprehensible that may be to me) – it’s not because they’re horrible people. Look, I don’t know John Halstead the man, only the character he plays on the internet through his various blogs. Nor has it been my intention with the majority of my writing to attack him personally. I want very much to attack and gnaw on his ideas and words. Ideas spread and have corrosive power. That being said, we really should hold ourselves to the standard of arguing ideas not people (and I fell short of that standard yesterday with one of my posts, for which I apologize. I got swept up in the argument and severely missed the mark).
Maybe in the time of our polytheistic ancestors, a tradition could grow and thrive by itself. It was a different time and a very different world. It was a world where everything in the dominant culture was also polytheistic. In our world, everything in our dominant culture is diametrically opposed to polytheism, either openly or, as some of my Hindu friends have experienced, more insidiously. There is nothing that supports the traditions we’re attempting to build. If we’re not dealing with a Christian influenced culture, we have humanism and atheism held up as normal and progressive. For them, maybe they are, but not for us, and opening the door to those things as polytheists is a problem. Those things have and deserve their own spaces. Likewise, we deserve ours. Each tradition needs uncontested space in which to grow and develop without external interference.
In the meantime, folks, please don’t give butt plugs to your children. Eostre is right around the corner, give them some chocolate eggs instead. 😉
Someone asked me just a few minutes ago why I was fighting over a word.
Polytheism is not just a word.
It is an identity, a community, a container of traditions.
For Halstead and his faction, polytheism is a word, nothing more, and one that he’s willing to twist and corrupt out of true. No one owns words after all and he has already expressed his willingness to relativize them. Words don’t demand integrity. They are flexible tools.
For me and many other polytheists, polytheism is not a word. It is a living thing. It is a community made up of a variety of specific traditions. It is synonymous with those traditions themselves.
It is not just a word (though if it were, I would still question his right to use it, given that despite the rantings of our post-modernist friends, words do actually mean things). It is so much more than that.
It is a group of traditions that stand together because we are stronger together than apart.
If we were to separate, to start speaking from the perspective of our individual traditions instead of polytheism as a whole, would people like Halstead suddenly start claiming to be a practitioner of cultus deorum, a Kemetic, a Heathen (heh. Have fun with that one, John), a celtic polytheist? Will the incursions stop? I don’t think so.
I don’t think polytheism registered on this faction’s radar until we began to work together and perhaps that is significant. Some atheists get their kicks attacking Christianity vociferously, so much so, that in today’s media it’s hardly worthy of note. Sometimes I wonder if Halstead isn’t trying to make a novel name for himself by doing the same thing with Polytheism.
Halstead’s literary and ideological incursions into polytheism are not attacks on a word. They’re insidious attacks on our religious identity, an identity that is the first line of defense against encroachment on and debasement of our traditions.
All polytheists must of necessity be gatekeepers of their traditions. That obligation is even stronger with our specialists: priests, spiritworkers, elders, teachers. If not us, who? If not now, when?
So Halstead has written another post, attempting to justify his forced incursions into polytheism (which neither wants nor needs his anti-theistic agenda) by postulating that the very fact that we see our Gods as individuals means that polytheisms are more prone to fracturing and fragmentation because we have all these hard edges–you know, boundaries, standards within our traditions, individual Gods, devotion.
Bullshit, Halstead. Utter Bullshit.
Polytheisms fracture when external force (colonization, appropriation, extermination, or just forced ideological incursion) is repeatedly applied. There is nothing inherent in polytheism that causes any type of fragmentation (as any brief exploration of history would show).
Every group with every conceivable interest in every period of history has experienced schism. You want to see real schism? Go into a fandom group and watch them disagree. It is a normal part of human nature to have this type of conflict, especially on the internet where so much of our discourse is disembodied. Is Halstead positing that his atheist and agonistic (whoops, that was a slip, but i may just leave that. i meant agnostic) groups never argue? If they don’t, that’s terrifying. It means there’s no free-thinking going on and they’re all just robots.
Halstead has an agenda. That agenda is to make polytheism look unreasonable, unenlightened, divisive, and intolerant. The only intolerance happening here, is on him. Polytheists have repeatedly repudiated his attempts to define our Gods out of existence and to promulgate the erasure of our traditions. He equally repeatedly refuses to leave us in peace. Why does he keep this up? What does he hope to gain? Who persistently butts their head into a place where they are not wanted? There’s an agenda here and people should be wondering who benefits. Hell, I’m wondering who benefits. It’s certainly not the Gods and certainly not polytheism.
Hail Loki, Truth-Teller.
I imagine a lot of you have been waiting for me to weigh in on what’s been going on with Many Gods West over the last couple days. (For those who might be out of the loop, check out my colleague Dver’s account here.
Yup. Niki Whiting threatened to call the FBI on my husband for posting a satire of the same kind of bullshit rhetoric I’ve been warning about and deconstructing over the last couple weeks. I’ve been doing this because it’s turning our communities toxic.
Needless to say, as a Heathen woman, I do not take threats to my loved ones and household lightly. But we’ll return to that later.
Instead, I want to make sure you fully understand what that means because this isn’t just a dispute between two feuding parties. This is something that could have serious ramifications and ripples throughout our communities. And you need to think about that really, really hard if you’re planning to attend Many Gods West in August.
Because of a joke, what was so obviously a modern-day version of a “Modest Proposal” which contained thoughts that didn’t line up with Niki and her friends’ agendas*, they threatened police action. (I won’t even point out the irony of a staunch left-winger threatening to wield a right-wing baton of oppression to squash dissent because this is way too serious a matter for divisive politics.)
We are minority religions. This type of overreaction is not funny. Who is going to be a target of it next? Who is going to say or think or write the wrong thing and end up with the police at their door because Niki and her friends have no sense of humor, and are so used to being cossetted by their own echo chamber every time a new or opposing point of view presents itself that they cannot abide being laughed at. Who are they going to attempt to silence and ban next? This is censorship pure and simple and it’s censorship with a hysterical edge to it that is very, very dangerous. Is this really the type of community you want to see? I’m disgusted with the whole lot of them.
The only people who made any real threat were those who pushed and tried to bully Niki into calling the authorities on someone for having a poor sense of humor. It’s ignorant, irrational, bigoted and viciously divisive.
And if you’ve wondered why I’ve been hitting the rhetoric issue so hard lately, this is why. Well, this is precisely where such nastiness leads: censorship and thought-policing and strong-arm enforcement … all under the pretense of radical liberality and “tolerance”.
It’s also why I stand in staunch solidarity with Hindu polytheists and call out stuff like the weasel worded video I had to watch recently as part of an online course. As I mentioned in my article:
This of course puts the onus for the problems and violence on Hindus, ignoring the fact that they are responding to having one of their own sacred sites co-opted, ignoring the fact that they are responding to monotheistic colonization of their spaces, ignoring the fact that they are reacting to incursion into their religious world, and ignoring the fact that they are in fact the religion originally native to the area. While it may be rooted now, monotheism of any stripe was a late comer, a foreign intruder in that land. Isn’t it amazing how “respecting all religions equally” always seems to mean allowing monotheistic incursion and the destruction of polytheistic sites? It never translates as leaving polytheistic religions in peace. Note also at the end where the narrator comments that this “all started with a tiny statue being placed in a mosque in the dead of night.” No, it didn’t. It started with a monotheistic religion laying claim to a Hindu holy space. Monotheisms have a history of destroying or claiming and repurposing polytheistic spaces. This is not an isolated incident as the briefest of explorations of fourth and fifth century Rome will show (not to mention Christian expansion north). With both Christianity and Islam (and even Biblical Judaism) it was standard operating procedure. Are the people whose religions spaces are being destroyed or polluted supposed to be grateful for it? I think not.
The aim of those who want to politicize polytheism is no different than that of the colonizing Muslims and Christians in India – indeed, they draw their dishonest rhetoric and “false flag” tactics from the same strategy book. It’s How to Make the Aggressor Seem Like the Victim 101.
Hail Lord Ganesh Who Removes Obstacles to Polytheist Devotion
This is not the polytheism that I want to see grow and take root. This is not the polytheism that I want to see nurtured. For all that we fight for our traditions, we do so knowing that there is space for us to fight: that our words are free to be heard by those who might be moved by them, that where we are free to counter and cross counter each other’s arguments, to be creative, fiery, humorous, devout.
And that’s how it should be.
Obviously Niki and I have a very different view of the type of community we would see restored. Mine actually includes freedom of speech and a respect for differences. We must fight for the rights of people like John Halstead to be wrong – and in an ideal world he would be that as far away from polytheist space as possible. I’m glad he’s found a home at Gods&Radicals. I’m sure he’ll fit in just perfectly with his friends.
* And you’d be able to read it, too, but Sannion, trying to take the reasonable and accommodating road in order to calm Niki down removed the offending content. Predictably, Niki is now misrepresenting what was said on Facebook and without the articles being accessible so folks can judge for themselves many are believing this woman’s lies and distortions. This, people, is why you NEVER give in to the demands of a bully and would-be tyrant, even if you have noble intentions. I love my husband, but I don’t always agree with his decisions.
Hail Hermes, Prankster and Defender of Free Speech
John Halstead is now writing for Gods and Radicals. That pretty much says it all for me. If I ever doubted that the political radical part of things took significant precedence over the Gods part of that equation for these people, I can put my mind at rest. It’s obvious where they stand. I’ve been noticing for a while now that this group seems to be subtly attacking polytheists who are more interested in building the tradition and in devotion than in exchanging religion for pseudo-social justice work and anarchic politics. I can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t the real reason Sannion was disinvited from Many Gods West.
After all, Halstead keeps taking digs at polytheism. His latest, which Tess Dawson brilliantly calls out here, dismisses polytheism as having been inspired by Neil Gaiman’s writing.* Apparently, we can’t simply enjoy an author’s work without having some pitiful non-theist use that enjoyment to imply that our religion is fiction. Knowing that the topic of pop-culture Paganism is a hot-button one within Polytheist circles, Halstead no doubt purposely links the rise of polytheism to pop culture, thus attempting to create animosity within polytheism itself.
Gods and Radicals, Rhyd, and those he’s allied with are free to bring any columnist they want on board their journal and site. We are free to look very carefully at their choices and to make our own decisions about what they mean. Halstead has been trying to find an entry into the polytheist community for years now, despite being a non-theist, and despite having contempt for everything that polytheism stands for. He must be ecstatic that Rhyd has welcomed him with open arms.**
It’s enough to make one ask where the Gods are in Gods and Radicals. I’m still looking.
*Modern polytheism existed in the US for decades before Gaiman wrote his first book, Heathenry and Asatru since the sixties, Hellenic and Celtic polytheisms a little after that (as any unified thing), much earlier than even this if we count the Romantic period.
**Thus undercutting the work of many other polytheists who actually give a damn about the future of our traditions.
So the conversation with Halstead on his fb continues. His recent comment, I think, reveals his innate contempt for polytheism, or indeed real theism of any kind, and also his agenda: to force polytheists to accept his version that all gods are fiction. It’s rather nauseating to read, but I’m going to share it anyway:
“I appreciate the importance of distinguishing entertainment from religious devotion. And I also appreciate the concern that some devotional polytheists have that association of their gods with pop culture symbols will trivialize their religion. But I still think gods and pop culture symbols are not that different. Superman has been around for 80 years, which is almost as long as the current incarnation of the Neo-Pagan Triple Moon Goddess and Horned God. That’s not just because he’s entertaining. He’s a symbol of something that resonates deeply with a lot of people. And while Superman is not the focus of a great deal of explicitly religious devotion, he could be. And I don’t think the origins of the myths of pagan gods were much different than Superman’s. They started with storytellers and poets, as “deliberately created” and “human constructed”. The ancient pagans had their bards and poets and we have Hollywood.”
It is trivializing and also inherently destructive. It is incomprehensible to him that the Gods may have inspired the bards and not the other way around. His starting point is skewed, and, if I may, incorrect. For him, as for so many humanists, it’s always about humanity first. They are, like Plato’s parable of the cave, incapable of seeing beyond their own darkness. The Gods are never more than symbols for people like this, things to be used to spur our own self-aggrandizement. It is a phenomenal lack of vision, but I am not surprised. I think that if people so committed to this worldview ever do have a direct experience with a God, they doggedly find ways of explaining it away as something else. Their agenda seems, to this polytheist at least, ever and always to be that of reducing the Holy Powers to the level of humanity, if not subservient to humanity’s needs and will. It is a violent twisting of theology into some uber-Durkheimian paradigm that has no resonance outside of human consciousness. Halstead would (in fact did in our discussion) argue that by reducing divine experience he wasn’t rendering it insignificant and that is true. He was reducing its significance solely to the limits of himself.
In the course of our conversation he said that he realized it didn’t matter to him whether it was Gods first or author first, the result was the same. It isn’t though and that difference is crucial and I find it immensely sad to encounter someone so apparently hungry for the benefits of religious experience and so incapable of accepting (not receiving, but accepting) theophany at the same time.
This is going to be short and sweet. Really, there’s not a lot to say when a ham-handed attempt at rhetorical manipulation comes flying across one’s computer screen. It looks nice, has lovely pieces, is relatively well-crafted, says everything so many people want to hear. It draws one in…and is rather like sitting down to dine on a beautifully plated pile of shit. Yes, dear readers, light a match. I’ve taken a look at Halstead’s latest post. I guess I can skip my daily dose of BeneFiber tonight.
In this tour de force, Halstead (obviously a product of the American school system) is attacking not polytheism directly, but the dictionary. Now, one may ask, what did the poor dictionary ever do to him? Well, apparently words having clearly defined meanings rains on his post-modernist parade; [and yes, I realize I’m probably taking his bait here – and I almost didn’t bother reading his article, it was so obvious what he was going to say–but this precise issue has arisen before and I think it’s worth addressing in and of itself. I’ve seen it even from those who call themselves allies. In fact, I think the prevalence of post modernism within our communities – whether we consciously recognize it as that or not—is one of the biggest problems we face in establishing sustainable traditions).
Now, I am not a post-modernist. I’m not even a modernist truth be told. I’m a staunch traditionalist. The only reason my ideas seem at times radical is that we’re dealing with a community influenced (I would say infected) with postmodern ideas. What does that mean? It means a Weltanschauung based on deconstruction of meaning, on relativism, and an absence of clearly defined boundaries. What does that mean for Halstead’s article?
I’ll be very explicit: he’s attacking the dictionary because for any educated or sensible person it is the first place one goes to lay out the parameters of a discussion, when terminology and language are in dispute. His “problem” with the dictionary is that it establishes clear parameters of debate, wherein both parties have a working operational understanding of the language involved. This is foundational for meaningful dialogue. Words actually do mean things and to ignore that is the worst sort of postmodernist sophistry.
The real question is why Halstead is so invested in relativizing our religious terminology.
That’s really what’s going on. He’s complaining about polytheists clearly and carefully defining our sacred vocabulary (including the word ‘polytheism’). In doing so, we are establishing a clear boundary and we keep having to do this. Perhaps that’s what we should really be looking at: why is this constant and adamant defining of terms so necessary ad nauseum?
The answer: because people like Halstead insist on repeatedly attempting to tear down the walls of our tradition, to insert their own ideas, their own secularism, their own atheism into the heart of our traditions. It’s an attempt to co-opt, to poison, and to stop any meaningful restoration in its tracks. He, as his past attacks on polytheism and polytheists have shown, wants to redefine polytheism, gods, paganism, etc. in a way that allows him access and control, so he’s attacking the very structure of our language: its common meaning, and he’s doing it by using buzz words guaranteed to get people’s panties in a twist. He’s talking the dangers of shutting down differing points of view, of oppression, and framing his narrative as one of resistance. Bullshit. Clearly defined linguistic parameters are only oppressive to people with an agenda of manipulation, desecration, and harm. The only reason to attack meaning is to insert oneself and one’s agenda into the thing or space or idea being discussed and twist it out of true.
A colleague of mine and I discussed this briefly and he offered the following, with which I completely concur and with which I shall close:
“Despite his claim about power, it is frequently people who possess some sort of power who encourage relativism, because it strips people who have only the power of their voice and their ideas from gaining any purchase, from having any access to power, because nothing means anything. And that’s what we see here. It’s the people with the power who are claiming that the essentially powerless are engaged in a power play. Words are used to *do* things, if you don’t have other means, and relativism is a way of preventing that, and consolidating entrenched power.”