Apparently Emily Kamp, this month’s “Polytheistic Voices” interviewee, is getting a bit of harassment on her tumblr page because she was interviewed by me. Really pathetic, folks, but unsurprising (though I constantly marvel at the lack of nuanced reading comprehension in some of my critics. Wow. There are resources that can help you, folks, really. I’d look into that if I were you. I can hunt up a list of organizations that focus on increasing literacy if you like).
At any rate, one of the criticisms is that I apparently “devalued the Holocaust” by comparing it to “willing conversions.” Firstly, buttercups, I never said anything about the Holocaust. I said, if I recall correctly, that the destruction of our traditions, the destruction of our shrines, temples, groves, and sacred places, the forced conversion and religious genocide that occurred as a consequence of monotheism, specifically of Christianity marching through Europe and later Islam through the middle east (and for a time into Europe) was a holocaust. I stand by that statement. The destruction of these sacred covenants with the land, the ancestors and the Gods, the destruction of our traditions and the corruption of the world into monotheism was a terrible holocaust, one from which we have yet to recover. The word, my dear readers, existed long before World War II. A simple search of the term on dictionary.com yields the following:
- a great or complete devastation or destruction, especially by fire.
- a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; burnt offering.
3.(usually initial capital letter) the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II (usually preceded by the).
4.any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life.
If I were to give a sacrifice to Odin, and after slaughtering the animal, commit it to full immolation that would, technically be a holocaust. The ruthless destruction of our traditions and those who practiced them is likewise a holocaust. Isn’t it interesting how context, indefinite articles, and capitalization (or lack thereof) actually matters grammatically? English is neat that way. (The emphasis in the above dictionary.com quote was in the original. It was not mine).
Secondly, if anyone actually thinks that Europe converted willingly, you all need to read your history a little more thoroughly. Moreover, if you think our polytheistic ancestors abandoned their traditions and Gods so readily then why are you even bothering to practice any type of polytheism now? Those who saw the rise of Christianity did not, in fact – despite generations of Christian propaganda to the contrary (including a deeply embedded idea of hierarchy of religions that places monotheism or atheism at the top)– go gently into that good night. I often wonder what it was like for the generation that was forced to bury their sacred items and images, or give them over to the bog in order that they might not be desecrated by Christian hands.
Let’s see, off the top of my head:
We all know about Hypatia, the philosopher tortured to death by Christians, but have you bothered to read about Olvir of Egg, a Scandinavian martyr tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson (may he be ever damned) because he would not abandon the Norse Gods? How many of you know about Charlemagne’s continued persecutions against Saxon Heathens, culminating in the massacre of 2500 of them? Or the forced conversion of the Orkneys – let’s round up all the children while the men are out working and threaten to kill them if the village doesn’t convert? So Christian. So very, very Christian.
Then there’s Raud the strong, also tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson, again for refusing conversion. Likewise there’s a Norwegian chieftain and priest – unnamed I believe in the sources – who was tortured to death by –guess who—Olaf Trygvasson again for attempting to protect the sacred images of Thor and the temple in Maeren when Trygvasson destroyed it.
We have the Stellinga, still practicing their polytheism under duress in the ninth century. There’s Eyvind Kinnrifi, tortured to death by…wanna hazard a guess? …Trygvasson again, for refusing to convert. No wonder the Christians canonized this fucker. He sure kept busy butchering the pious. May we be as efficient in restoring our traditions as he was in destroying them – and preferably without all the bloodshed.
Saints’ lives are always sickly entertaining reading, if one wishes to see what polytheists faced during the spread of Christianity. Take the life of Martin of Tours for instance. I can barely stand to read it (and I’ve had to multiple times in various theology classes). Just from memory, I recall he interrupted a Pagan funeral procession, desecrating the ancestral rites because he wanted to make sure the Gods weren’t being venerated. He destroyed multiple temples and shrines, and chopped down trees holy to the local Pagans. Each time, people protested up to the point of riots. This is not an isolated series of incidents. This was standard operating procedure for these missionaries and each time there is recorded resistance.
My favorite account is the wonderful resistance by the Pagans at Lyon in the second century who, frankly, were just sick of Christian bullshit. (Eusebius writes about this in his Ecclesiastical History and of course it’s framed as persecution of Christians. Yes, defending one’s ancestral traditions, refusing to abandon one’s Gods, and driving out the people who are desecrating one’s holy places is persecution, but monotheists coming into a place engaging in wholesale destruction of sacred spaces and attempting to force conversion isn’t? Obviously, these early Christians had the same literacy problems as some of my tumblr readers).
Blood was spilled to defend our Gods and our traditions. That Christian writers later presented conversion as inevitable and willing does not mean that it was in fact so. It was anything but.
Intrepid tumblristas are also protesting that I support human sacrifice. Obviously, this is ludicrous. What I’m not willing to do, however, is condemn our ancestors because it was occasionally practiced. They lived in a very, very different world and had reasons for doing what they did, reasons that we may now find abhorrent. I’m not suggesting we return to giving human sacrifice, but neither do I think we’re more advanced than our ancestors. We may have better technology but we’re so much more disconnected from the land, the dead, and the Gods that in no way do I think we’re particularly evolved. So take that for what it’s worth.
I do think it would be a good and holy thing if we were able to lay ourselves down before our Gods in offering and die in sacrifice to Them if that is what we wish, (you know, consent matters in some things) and how we wish to die but given the state of euthanasia laws in this country, that’s not going to happen in any of our lifetimes so what I think on this matter is largely irrelevant. Likewise, if I were a soldier, I would, in fact, dedicate my kills to my Gods. Why not? I belong to a God of war and I’m not wasteful. But you know, that’s all contextual, theoretical, and nuanced as opposed to blanket support for human sacrifice. No wonder my tumblr readers found it confusing to digest. (Though let’s be honest: given how our society treats its most vulnerable, the blanket callousness and cruelty with which we treat our impoverished, the pointless wars in which we’ve been engaged for what? Almost 20 years now…one wonders if we don’t’ have a culture that supports human sacrifice wholesale and for far less relevant a purpose than honoring the gods. In fact, I think we have very little room to condemn our ancestors when we have turned the world that we inherited from them to shit).
Remember, folks: reading is fundamental.
So I was contacted by a colleague today and asked my opinion on the term ‘spirit-worker.’ Apparently it’s become a fad to use this term when one is not, in fact a professional. I thought it might perhaps be wise to clarify for those who are confused.
This term came into being in 2004 at a gathering of shamans and spirit-workers hosted by Raven Kaldera. We were looking for a term that legitimized the work of those bound to the Gods and spirits, people who were doing the work of a shaman–engaging with Gods and spirits in a larger, more meta way than a devotee is called to do and doing so specifically for clients and communities– but who had not undergone the death-rebirth trauma of a traditional shaman. After much discussion, someone suggested ‘spirit-worker.’ It’s an apt term, one that refers to a person who works for the Gods and spirits (regardless of tradition).
It is a specialist term.
It is not a term for laity no matter how sensitive or skilled that lay person might be. I may know how to pop an abscess or suture a wound (i do in fact know these things) but i’m not a surgeon.
There’s apparently a great deal of confusion, or so i’m told (I myself haven’t seen it) surrounding this term, particularly with the G&R crowd currently trying to purge the devotion and piety out of polytheism reducing it to mere transactional relationships with random spirits. One might in fact be high psi, one might be very sensitive to the Gods and spirits of one’s devotion but unless you are snapped up into active service (which presupposes not just a binding agreement but training and binding obligations), you’re not a spirit-worker. The only workable difference between being a spirit-worker and a shaman is that psychic shattering of the death/rebirth (or with some shamans madness/restoration) experience.
The last thing we need is to see “spirit-worker’ get parsed out into ever smaller and more specific categories — you know, how some people at both patheos and G&R are trying to do with ‘polytheist.’ Such linguistic splitting is a matter of rendering the whole irrelevant and it should be resisted, at least in these cases. It does not help or bring clarity. This is not a difficult thing. If you’re not a specialist, not a professional, you’re not a spirit worker. Embrace what you ARE. Do that which is given to you to cultivate be it tending your shrine, engaging in prayer, maintaining ongoing devotion. that’s important, in fact that’s crucially important. It may not be shiny and sexy but it’s fundamental and our traditions could not exist without the laity doing that work.
I’m cranky today. It’s in the high nineties and i’m working in a studio that has almost no air conditioning. If my tone here is brusque, I apologize but I will also say that I’m getting massively sick of problems being created where there aren’t any. maybe this all goes back to the ‘words mean things’ debacle of the last year and you all know where I stand on that.
The title is a riff off a video I’ll be discussing toward the end of this article. Still, while I may be engaging in a bit of expressive rhetoric myself with it, there is likewise truth in the concept. Polytheisms today are religions under siege. This is true not just in our communities but for indigenous polytheisms like Hinduism too. There is a trend, and that trend is gross whether it is manifesting in ways large (Hinduism) (1) or small (us).
When the subject of polytheism comes up in community discourse, there are inevitably nay-sayers, non-theists, secular-pagans and the like who pounce in proudly with “but there were non-polytheists in the ancient world too.” They will bring up pantheism, monism, atheism and the like as though this somehow strengthens their attempts to dismantle our traditions.(2)
I think the time has come to address some of this ideological undercutting because while what they say is technically accurate, it is presented without context and that context is important. We live in a very different world from our polytheistic ancestors. We are an occupied people. Our world is doggedly, demonstrably, and sometimes violently monotheistic. Those ancient Polytheists and others living in a world where the dominant paradigms were all polytheistic had a luxury we don’t have. They could entertain questions about divine ontology and metaphysics, turning polytheism inside out in their arguments solely for intellectual excitement without risking harm to those polytheisms. The world was polytheistic and that wasn’t going to change (little did they know) so what harm was there in batting ideas around? One could even indulge those who didn’t believe in the Gods so long as they remained outside of religious discourse and participated in the civic rituals.
Two caveats to that: when faced with a religious worldview (Christianity) that desired exclusivity and extinction of polytheism, our antique forebears had the good sense to impose a litmus test to ferret out the destructively impious. That litmus test was sacrifice to the Gods (something that I have seen all but pathologized by parts of the community). It was, as I have noted before, crucial to the proper practice of the faith, was the first thing targeted when Christianity gained supremacy, and was also the one rite held up as a standard against which non-polytheists were judged.
Secondly, yes, our polytheistic ancestors were – with occasional exceptions– tolerant of every possible approach to polytheism. Look where it got them. Exterminated. So maybe we might want to rethink reifying “tolerance” of every assed up, non-theistic view put forth as ‘polytheism.’ We have clear evidence of where such tolerance leads. Perhaps we can afford to be tolerant when we’re not under siege but that day is not today.
I’m taking an online course in world religion in my off time and this week we were assigned to watch and comment on this video. It is a short video. Take a few moments and watch it. Note the rhetoric.
I was appalled that such a biased video would be promulgated in an academic course. Of course I shouldn’t have been. How is it biased? Were you able to parse it out? Yes? No? Well, I’ll help you. Note the following language:
India must reflect “on what kind of country they want to live in; one dominated by Hindus or one that respects all religions equally.”
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.
In the TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I posted last week, she notes that if you want to dispossess a people, start with “Secondly.” In other words, if you want to dispossess Native Americans, don’t start telling the story with the incursions and violence of European invaders, start with the arrows shot by Native warriors and make it look as though it was without provocation. If you want to dispossess polytheistic Hindus, start with the statue in the mosque, not the appropriation of a site of Hindu reverence. The way a story is told matters.
The community involved is currently involved in a legal battle over their sacred site, and that battle is in its third generation. They are fighting to defend their tradition, and they are fighting to protect their sacred spaces. I think we could learn a lot from them especially in the type of perseverance required in this work.
Nor am I suggesting, as much as I sometimes think it might be a good idea, that we have any type of litmus test for polytheists. Sacrifice is our most sacred rite, but there are those who are not permitted to do it, by will of their Gods. I respect that. What I do not respect are attempts by otherwise sensible people to attack and discredit the practice of sacrifice, which is so integral to polytheistic practice.
I posted this with the video because we’ve been having discussions of rhetoric over the past week, and it gave such a dramatic example of how even someone we assume to be unbiased (a news commentator) can speak from a specific agenda, one that has its biases, and one that is willing to cast a foul light on people fighting for their own religion. We have a lot of buzzwords today that get our backs up. All it takes really to raise people’s ire is to use language that makes readers think one is on the wrong side of certain ideological debates (doesn’t matter if a person actually is or not, that’s the point of effective rhetoric). All it takes is fashioning a public persona for oneself that oozes tolerance and conciliation, and subtly positioning the other side of that debate as radical (note how so many of us were demonized about a year and a half ago as ‘radical polytheists’, specifically to make people assume and then to think that our positions were untenable and extraordinary if not dangerous). Rhetoric is powerful. Words have a life of their own. It pays to be aware of that. (3)
- Hinduism is not monolithic, with its many sects representing a radical diversity of viewpoints which managed for millennia to more or less peacefully co-exist before the arrival of militant Islam and Christianity. Even so, they managed to incorporate elements of these traditions, especially on the folk level. It is those who declare there is one god and one way to worship that god who are inherently divisive. For every Hindu who says they are monotheistic, there is one who says polytheistic and even again those who argue that the push to define the polytheism out of Hinduism is in fact, pandering to the West.
- And as if these were all the same things, which is rather insulting, I think, to those who hold these diverse beliefs.
- Not that I support censorship either. Only the cowardly are afraid to engage directly with unfriendly words.
A powerful meditation on the power of language by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“if you want to dispossess a people, tell their story and start with “secondly…”
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.”
Piety is a hard word for a lot of us. I don’t have a particular problem with it, but I suspect that’s because I had good models personally and I’ve also spent the last ten years immersed academically in ancient texts wherein piety was a good thing, and presented without the baggage both of Christian influence and modern disbelief. Words mean things. They’re important. They’re building blocks of communication, and containers of culture and experience. To speak is an act of translation — a process that right there is already fraught with the potential for grievous misunderstanding (there’s an Italian saying, known to every translator: “translator:traitor.” The translator always betrays the original material by the very act of translation, necessary though it might be). We are translating our experiences and desires from the immediate but abstract realm of our own interior world into something that can influence others, even if only by evoking a response. It helps to use the same lexicon. It helps if we all understand the words we’re using. It helps if we’re all speaking the same language.
One of things that I’ve been fascinated by as I study Classics is the linguistic shift that happened when the dominant structures of the world went from being polytheistic to monotheistic. Long before our temples were closed and our practices outlawed, long before polytheists were put to the sword for their faith, early Christian writers seized control of the language of faith itself. My favorite example of this is the word “anathema”. To us, it means something evil or bad and has occasionally been used to even imply a curse. Originally, to polytheists, it was the word used for devotional offerings set before the image of the Gods. Think about that. Really step back and think about what a drastic shift in worldview the theft of one little word implies. Control the language and one controls the way we are able to conceptualize our experiences. Control the language and you control how we are able to conceptualize our Gods. Control the language and you control the common expression of the people. Why do you think it is that contemporary polytheists fight so hard over the word “polytheism”? We’ve seen where the theft of words leads.
“Anathema”, of course, wasn’t the only word co-opted and I’m going to talk about one more in the body of this post: piety. Yes, early Christianity stole piety. They didn’t just steal it, they redefined it. This actually came as a huge shock to me. I only recently discovered it in a medieval theology class that I took last term. We kept reading through the early church fathers and I would see the word “pietas” (which means ‘piety’ in Latin. It’s where our English word comes from). When I would read from Latin to English, I’d just use the word “piety.” But as I started cross referencing with published English translations, I began to notice that this word was almost inevitably translated as ‘love.’ I asked the professors about it, and they confirmed that this was the way Christians interpreted that word. I was floored. There are many, many Latin words that can be translated accurately as “affection, regard,” or “love” but “pietas” is not one of them.
I’m still a little flabbergasted by this translation even now, months later, as I write this. Let me share with you the way pre-Christian polytheists (particularly Romans from whom we actually get the word, though you see this idea pretty much throughout the ancient world) approached and defined “piety.” Looking here (I used perseus so those of you without a Latin dictionary can read for yourselves), with respect to the Gods, piety means duty. It’s one’s obligations to the Gods, the ancestors, the community, one’s family, and oneself. It’s loyalty and conscientiousness. You don’t see it used as ‘love’ ever with the Gods, and you don’t even see that definition really coming into play until quite late.
I’m going to reiterate that. Piety is one’s obligations to the Gods. It has absolutely nothing to do with emotion. It does not rest on what one might feel in the moment. It is not defined by whether or not one loves one’s Gods. It is defined by maintaining one’s obligations to the Gods. I think this is a very, very important difference.
To yoke piety to one’s emotions is a rather insidious means of shaming a person into feeling (or faking) what one considers “appropriate” emotions. This is something that I’ve been reading a lot about with respect to evangelical Christianity, and the Quiverfull movement. I’ve seen articles that talk about how there is an expectation in these homes that one will be or present as happy and grateful, and that if one doesn’t it is viewed as a moral failing. That type of emotional manipulation and the anxiety it can produce has no place in one’s spiritual life. We all have our spiritually fallow times. We all have our lazy moments. We have those times where we might be really angry at our Gods. Even for the most devoted person in the world, it’s not always a bed of roses. One should not feel guilty for feeling or lack of feeling in this respect. I think there’s potential here for great harm. One cannot command affection and leveraging piety as ‘love’ can too easily be used as a means of emotional control. Of all the places that we walk, surely with our Gods, we should be able to be and feel in a way that’s authentic.
If we return to the original definite of piety, that of duty and obligation — doing what is right and what we’ve promised, then what we feel in the moment is irrelevant. There’s no shame attached to not feeling a particular thing and feeling blasé at any given time is not a moral failing. Our feelings, which after all can be transient, are no longer the arbiters of our spiritual life. Now, it’s a glorious thing, those moments when one feels the fullness of love for one’s Gods. It’s a powerfully transformative and motivating factor when one is overcome by love and longing for Them. The fallow times, however, will come. What then? Then, there is piety. Then, there is doing all the small practices that make up devotion: praying, meditation, shrine work, offerings. Every day cannot be a conflagration of feeling. What gets us through when the only thing we may be feeling is tired? Piety. What makes us toe the line when the last thing we want is another argument about offerings? Piety. What is the most foundational building block of a tradition? Also, piety. It’s doing our duty by the Gods. That’s not such a bad thing, though I suspect for many reading this, ‘duty’ might be as highly charged a word as ‘piety.’
Aristotle said that excellence is a habit. It’s something we can choose to cultivate within ourselves and our practices. Piety, I think, is making that choice. Repeatedly, day after day. We need to reclaim the language of our devotion. That too, is restoration, and we can start with piety.