A professor at my university posted this piece on twitter (he’s orthodox and this is a thought-provoking piece of relevance to modern orthodoxy) and it raised for me a number of thoughts concerning our own traditions too. First, go read the original article because much of this post was prompted by it or is in response to it and it’s nice to be on the same page for any discussion.
I work in a tradition that encourages head covering (of both men and women) during religious rites. I want to emphasize that it is encouraged, not required. Working in a blended tradition as I do, I find that in cultus deorumpractices, we almost always cover, and within Heathenry, generally only for ancestor stuff but this may vary depending on the way in which one is devoted to one’s Gods. I’ve known Heathen women who covered once they married, and Heathen men who do so out of respect for particular Gods but within Heathenry it’s not a common thing. In cultus deorumit was tradition for both men and women to cover their heads during offerings and religious rites, and that is one that at least within my branch of the tradition, we maintain. There are also times in which one might cover for purification purposes in general.
This piece piqued my interest, however, because over the past ten years I’ve come across a growing number of polytheists across traditions who are choosing to cover their heads, not just during religious rituals but out of modesty and piety, all the time (and kudos to any woman who can do this with a migraine. I’ve always wondered what those who veil or cover do when they get a migraine because I sure as hell can’t stand anything on my head then!). I think we should be encouraging modesty in our people (which does not mean that one need to cover one’s head to be modest) as a general rule, whatever that might mean.
One of the things that I very much appreciated in the article, which I otherwise found rather vexing, is the comment that modesty wasn’t about how long one’s skirts are or whether or not one covers one’s head, it’s a “line in the heart.” Some time ago, I read a Christian article on modesty by a mother of a young child. She said that her child had put on a new dress and was standing in front of the mirror commenting that she could not wait until her friends saw her and how nice she looked and the mother despaired. She despaired because she realized that no matter how modest the dress might be, the child wasn’t: her heart wasn’t modest. She wanted to show off for others and receive attention that way. It was one of the more nuanced discussions of modesty that followed, one that wasn’t about clothing, that I’ve read in a long time). Our ancestors had a deep sense of morality and propriety. Unlike so much of modern Paganism, it wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ culture where every manner of sexual impropriety was encouraged. Multiple partners, promiscuity, immorality, molestation – all of which seems way too rampant in modern Paganism (Kenny Klein anyone? Or better yet, find me outspoken monogamists within the community—please. We need more of them.) were not held up as licit in the ancient world. Of course, all of these things may have occurred (we are a terrible species), but they did not represent the accepted norm. Instead, decorum, gravitas, piety, and modesty (for both men and women) were encouraged. What the hell happened to us? We have a culture in which women are proud to be called “sluts” and marriage is considered outmoded, young people are ‘hooking up’, a culture in which devotion is ridiculed, but reality TV a cultural pastime and we call this progress. I’m not going to rant too much on this – I think y’all know my feelings on these matters and I want to get to the article in question – but suffice it to say that I think in restoring our traditions we have a seriously uphill battle and not just because of monotheism, but because of the utter lack of focus on character building in our culture. We’re starting so far behind the starting line that I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were appalled.
To get back to the article, it discusses head-covering in Orthodoxy, past and present, between converts and cradle practitioners and the politics thereof. My initial reading of the piece is that the author elides what should be a nuanced and complex topic into something more black and white. She accuses converts who choose to express their piety by actually obeying the customs of their religion, as dismissing the experiences of grandmothers and older generations of women within the faith. In doing so, I think she dismisses the religious experience and devotion of the converts to which she is referring. Covering one’s head is not just a political act. It’s not about feminism or assimilation. First and foremost, in the context in which she’s talking it is about an expression of piety and submission to one’s Church/church doctrine. By presenting it in one light alone, she’s not only attacking converts, but eliding the deep complexity of this practice, turning it into a social or political action rather than a licit expression of devotion. She is asking (or rather demanding) that converts place political considerations and submission to the experience of other women, above the dictates of their conscience and faith. I find that…misguided to say the least. And, as one commenter on twitter noted, she’s turning this practice into a fashion statement (if others around you wear the scarf, wear it, but if they don’t, then you don’t either or you’re self-aggrandizing – my paraphrase) rather than an expression of religious piety. Her own experience of wearing a headscarf (in Egypt) was one of convenience that she quickly abandoned when Egyptian women pointed out the struggles they and their mothers had endured in fighting against growing fundamentalism is not, in my mind, analogous to covering in Orthodoxy. She was covering in Egypt to avoid harassment, not as a religious mandate for herself.
To abandon a religious practice like covering one’s head in church because it is not popular, because it marks you out as religious, because it is not feminist-approved, or for any other reason, is ceding sacred space to modernity. It is saying that devotion and our Gods are not important enough that one is willing to be a bit uncomfortable. Devotion is always an embodied practice: through song, dance, ritual gestures, clothing choices, bowing our heads in prayer, prostration, and so forth. The act of putting on a head covering for some women can be a significant indicator that they’re shifting into sacred space and I wonder if some of the objection to that isn’t some of the author’s discomfort with drawing boundaries and elevating personal piety as a priority.
It always comes back to what takes precedence: the Gods or our own human bullshit. The author of this piece cannot even seem to conceive of a motive in the converts to which she is referring beyond wanting to draw attention to themselves and she focuses on them as a way to delegitimize the practice, a practice she herself apparently finds personally offensive. I do think that when we do those things that mark us out as pious we have to be careful that they are actually done for the Gods and out of devotion and not to draw attention to ourselves. She has a point there. One shouldn’t cover because it’s popular, not cover because it’s unpopular, but one should do what brings one closer to the Gods and what is mandated by one’s tradition. Next, she’ll be suggesting we engage in sacred dance by twerking in the aisles before the monstrance.
As to women who cover all the time, quite often it’s a desire to maintain some sense not just of appropriate modesty, but of connection to the sacred. It reminds them to privilege that, it brings their bodies into a space of accommodation with their devotion. Yes, we must charge ourselves to avoid immodesty, to avoid spectacle, to avoid showing off, (I’m all in favor of these things in devotion, when it’s for the Gods, but not ever when they are for the glorification of the person). but that doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have served since antiquity. Finally, if women are to have self-determination of practice and being-ness, which they should!—then we have to accept that sometimes they’re going to make choices with which other women may not agree. It’s never as easy as this author wants to make it.
I was thinking about the ‘Lay of Hyndla’ today. There’s a beautiful, haunting passage where Freya talks about the piety of Her servant Ottar, whom She has transformed into the boar, Hildsvini — apologies to Old Norse readers. I’m typing this directly into WordPress and can’t figure out how to do the accent marks. In Stanza 10, She tells Hyndla about Ottar, indicating why, perhaps, She is willing to help him on his quest. She’s arguing with Hyndla, who is basically a Goddess of genealogy,(1) so that the latter will recite Ottar’s ancestry, enabling the hero to tap into his ancestral blessings. It really shows how important it is to have proper relationships with the Gods and ancestors, and that if you have one, They’ll help with the other.
10. “For me a shrine | of stones he made,–
And now to glass | the rock has grown;–
Oft with the blood | of beasts was it red;
In the goddesses ever | did Ottar trust.
In other words, Ottar made so many sacrifices, and committed those sacrifices to immolation on Her altar, that the heat of the fires turned the stones to glass. Note that it’s his piety that wins Freya over, not some great heroic deed. May we take him as an example of good, religious behavior.(2)
- Not everyone in the Northern Tradition views Hyndla as a Goddess, but my particular tradition does.
- * sarcasm* I guess that makes Ottar one of the original members of the Piety Posse.
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In a private discussion, a colleague told me that someone argued against the need for cleansing on the basis that Gods like Hela and Ereshkigal were Gods of rot and corruption and decay. Another person brought up compost heaps, where decay fuels further growth, all apparently (unless I misunderstood what my colleague was saying) in order to object to the idea that cleansing pollution is fundamental to healthy spirituality (you know, like bathing is fundamental toward not smelling like a dung heap).
This is going to be short and sweet. I have neither the time nor the patience for a long article breaking this down so allow me to get right to the point.
The Gods of the Underworld are not Deities of corruption. They are Deities that guard and nourish the dead. They are often likewise Deities of initiation, and/or Deities that in some way govern the mysteries of the earth and its wealth. It is true that in some cases the Heavenly Powers may not be able to cross into the dwelling of the Underworld Powers (Odin, for instance, cannot cross into Helheim though His sons can. Minerva cannot cross the threshold of the Erinyes’ dwelling. Inanna must undergo purification and ordeal to cross into Ereshkigal’s realm). This is largely because the positions and the power Each holds is so different. To maintain proper boundaries and proper functioning of Their respective realms, there can be no breach of protocol. It would upset the natural order of things.
Corruption is likewise different from rot. Rot is a natural part of the cycle. It is that which allows substance to be repurposed by nature. In this way, yes, I would say that some of these Underworld Deities like Hela are Gods of rot, but not in a way that transcends the need to be mindful of miasma. They allow for the transformation of souls, for the earth to receive what it needs from the rotting bodies of the dead. In its own time and place, that is good and holy. For us, being neither Gods nor dead, contact with that process is miasmic. It is not however, bad or corrupt.
I will say again, as I have many, many times before (perhaps pretend a man is saying it and then it might make more sense to some of you, hmm?): Miasma is not necessarily bad. It is a neutral thing. Sometimes miasma happens as a natural result of coming in contact with something that in and of itself is good (cemeteries, weddings, babies for instance). That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to cleanse. Rotting for instance, is a natural process. One would not, however, (I hope) stick your hand in a rotting piece of road kill and then eat finger foods without a serious engagement with soap and water first. This is no different.
I think to honor the Gods of the dead with the rituals of the Heavenly Powers and vice versa would bring miasma, because that is twisting things out of their natural order, but those Gods Themselves are not “concentrated miasma” as one critic averred. That which is Holy is not miasmic. That does not mean that we might not be rendered miasmic by contact with certain Beings, holy or no. The Holy carries with it a contagion. It marks us and changes us and we have to be careful bringing that back into everyday space. Sometimes it is appropriate to do so, but sometimes not.
We do, in the Northern Tradition have a Holy Power that is fully focused on transmuting Rot, Nidhogg, the great dragon. She takes in rot (like the compost heap) but it doesn’t remain ‘rot’. It’s transmuted, just as purification transmutes.
To quote Kenaz Filan: “Even rot and decay are not in themselves miasmic. A compost heap is a fine thing. But when you put a compost heap in the dining room you have miasma.”
In the end, polytheism is large and flexible enough to contain exceptions such as sin-eating and working with spirits of decay, but these exceptional things don’t invalidate the general need for purification. It is unfair to apply the standards of a rare form of devotion (like sin-eating) to every single polytheist out there. Because that transgressive work, and the necessary flouting of conventions and precautions which doing so requires takes a tremendous and sometimes devastating toll on the devotee. Why should Jane Heathen, who just wants to make offerings to her household Gods, have to endure those problems, which is what you’re advocating when you suggest casting aside ancestral tradition and things like purification rites? Way to shoot yourselves in the feet, folks.
(Piety Possum, walking away from all your bullshit)
I hate identity politics. I find them utterly inane and it appalls me to see how much they’re seeping into the fabric of our communities. I was thinking about this today as I was studying and contemplating our communities and the Gods. Identity as anything other than a servus or serva deorum (to borrow and slightly amend a term from late antiquity) is, to my mind, both short sighted and sad.
The only identity that should consume us, drive us, define us, envelop us is as a devotee of our Gods. Anything else is irrelevant, limiting, shallow. What does it matter what gender, orientation, race, size, etc. someone is? These things are variable in comparison with the soul. These things can change. These are things of man. The only identity that matters is whether or not we’re in clean service to our Gods. Be one laity or clergy or somewhere in between, we carry our Gods and Their mysteries with us. We are carriers of Their Mysteries. We carry Them and it’s incumbent upon us to do it well.
I support indigenous cultures, and the right of each of us to participate in the restoration of our indigenous polytheisms because those are specific expressions of the Mysteries of the Gods. They are containers, sacred and beautiful for those things the Gods may give. Maintaining them is part of being in right relationship with our Gods. They are important but to obsess over genitalia or with whom someone might choose to partner…not so much. Those things are fluid. What do you do then if the Gods tell you to change those things? The flesh is beautiful, pleasurable, sacred, and sometimes even holy but all things of the flesh are transient. It is the Gods that are eternal and immortal.
Our society, our world more and more is becoming narcissistic, shallow, secular, and soul-warping. Why? Perhaps because when people are like that, they’re easily manipulated. Obsession with identity politics is part and parcel of that. If you have no grounding in anything else other than your ‘identity,’ you can be sold products, you can be divided into opposing camps, you can be rendered irrelevant. Having a grounding in nothing else makes it that much easier to spit on the sacred.
I’ll give you a perfect example. A few days ago Wild Hunt posted an article about the suicide of Pagan artist and shaman Seb Barnett. A “regular commenter,” some foul piece of shit by the name Damiana decided to use this memorial piece as the venue to attack Barnett’s memory. Why? Identity politics (and apparently lack of compassion, piety, sense, and the ability to form a critical argument) to violate this memorial space. It was disgusting to read and very sad. Instead of remembering this poor kid’s death, someone desecrated and dismissed it. Their priorities were not the sacred, not remembrance, not propriety but mindlessly chanting their identity politics to the world (while challenging the opinions of those who are actually of the identity Damiana purported to be defending, at one point even questioning whether or not a commenter was actually Native…because they disagreed). THIS shows exactly what happens when you prioritize identity politics, human nonsense, anything not only above the sacred but also above common decency. One shouldn’t have to be told to respect the dead and the space in which others remember and grieve. If you do, I not only question your identity but your right to call yourself a human being.
The only thing worth one iota of our fervor is the Gods. There’s a wonderful quote by Catherine of Siena, which I’m slightly pluralizing for obvious reasons: “Be what your Gods meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” This world of products, prefabricated identities, and gross irreverence needs to burn. Putting the Gods first would be the truly revolutionary act.
I rather like the term that our detractors so gleefully use for those of us who value piety, so I’ve commissioned buttons that I’ll be selling on my etsy site (I’ll post here when they’re available at etsy). For those of you who are interested, you can pre order here by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The buttons are 1.75 inches, one/$3 or two/$5. Wear them with pride, folks. Wear them with pride. Piety is not ever a bad thing.
The morning has been fruitful. Part 8 of these ongoing conversations is now live on Kenaz’s blog.
You can read it here.
GK: I’m seeing an undercurrent seeping into the community (courtesy of the G&R cabal) of devotion, living a life of devotion, and focusing on devotion to the Gods as being an act of ‘privilege.’ Now obviously I disagree and in many cases this idea is being supported by individuals with a history of giving themselves excuse after excuse for why they cannot do the most basic acts of devotion to their Gods – which is ironic, considering the person who is speaking the loudest about privilege is currently on a European vacation paid for by his readers. So I understand that in some cases, there’s a self-serving motive here, a desire for an acceptable loophole. Excluding those cases, why do you think this narrative is otherwise gaining such traction? We saw the beginning of this a couple of years ago in the Pagan-Polytheist arguments about offerings. Those of us talking about making offerings (even something as simple as a shot of water) were damned as elitist and classist (despite the fact that many of us in favor of offerings — and moreover of not consuming offerings given to the Gods and ancestors–were ourselves at one time very poor). I think that was the beginning of seeing the language of oppression being used to justify abrogating devotion, and not just that, but of attacking those who were talking positively about offerings and devotion. This was the beginning of all of us being termed the Piety Posse (still cracks me up. I’ll happily bear that accusation. It’s a hell of a lot better than the opposite). What do you think is going on here, other than the obvious use of this argument as a red herring to distract attention (or perhaps even to justify it) from the G&R attacks on polytheism as a whole? Obviously it’s tapping into the insecurities of parts of the community. What do you think is going on?
KF: Haitians building enormous creches for the lwa in the poorest Port-au-Prince neighborhoods are exerting their privilege? Working-class Mexicans setting up enormous shrines for their ancestors on Dios de los Muertos are being elitist and classist? They are reaching, aren’t they?
First of all, I think “privilege” started out as a very useful concept. It explained how you might miss injustices that your class, race, etc. shielded you from. But instead of using that knowledge to fight injustice, privilege became the secular world’s original sin. It also became a great debate tool: you could disregard anything that came from the mouth of somebody “privileged.” It’s no different than their efforts to link spiritual purity to Nazism and ethnic cleansing. If you throw enough mud some of it sticks sooner or later. And when you’re working within theo-economic systems like Communism and Capitalism of course “rich and privileged” and “poor and powerless” become synonyms for “good” and “evil” — the only disagreement is on which is which.
GK: why is there such an attachment to a poverty narrative within polytheism? There’s nothing wrong with being poor. There’s nothing wrong with being well off. What any of this has to do with honoring the Gods escapes me. Do you think it a hold over from a Protestant work ethic narrative? Though that would lend itself more toward contempt for those who were poor, as it ties in with the Protestant idea that if “God” favored one, then one would be wealthy and successful (which in turn places financial gain as the pinnacle of ‘success,’ which…I would not, nor would many people that I know and which has devolved today into the ‘prosperity gospel’). I do know it’s a narrative being manipulated by our Anarcho-Marxist buddies. It brings me to something though that I’ve seen an awful lot, this idea that we honor the Gods to get things. that we pray to ask for things. that every level of engagement devotionally is mercantile and if we are talking about furthering devotion then we must be getting something out of it on a tangible, financial level, that devotion then becomes synonymous with greed. I know that the idea of ‘do ut des’ underlies the sacrificial paradigm, but that was less about acquiring gain than maintaining right relationship, an ongoing exchange of gifts that kept the contours of that relationship strong. I find it curious that many of the G&R people, but not only they, are eager to project on us this mercantile ambition when it comes to the idea of furthering devotion. It’s as though they are incapable of comprehending doing something because it is the appropriate thing to do, or doing something out of love for the Gods, or doing something out of piety and for no other reason than because we are engaging with Gods. I’m trying to parse out the influences in this incredibly mechanized, dehumanizing vision of relational engagement.
KF: The poverty narrative is one part reaction to the Protestant work ethic and several parts cultural Marxism again. To be wealthy means you are stealing from the poor; to be powerful is to be an oppressor; to be successful is to be a sell-out. And when Marxism meets millennial entitlement you get people who pride themselves on their poverty whilst thinking the world owes them a living, otherwise known as the couch-surfing antifa activist who keeps eating your vegan leftovers. As far as any inability to see Human/Deity relations in any but mercantile terms, that’s not surprising at all. Both Communism and Capitalism reduce all human experiences and interactions to economic terms: neither Marxist polytheism nor capitalist Plastic Shamanism can see the Gods without thinking of price tags.
GK: Also, I think there is a level of hubris, of contempt for the Gods in our opposition that I simply cannot fathom.
I was just reminded of something that happened to a colleague recently: who wrote an article on why we shouldn’t name pets after the Gods and was challenged to prove our Gods are real? While in that case, it was a generic atheist, I’ve seen the same type of attitude within the anarcho-marxist and humanist pagan groups and I think that bespeaks a level of hostility and growing contempt for the Gods that I find appalling. And these people wonder why we are so concerned about miasma.
KF: So true. I read that article and some of the responses made me cringe. As L. said, we’re in the Kali Yuga. Even a simple example of devotion like “don’t name your pet after your Gods” gets met with hostility and push-back. They think that they’re escaping the Monotheism filter by getting away from “Christian ideas” like devotion and piety. But all they’re doing is feeding it: they’re buying into the idea that only Christians can be devoted to their Gods and only Christians can be pious. Rome knew about pietas centuries before Christ and St. Augustine’s City of God is very clearly modeled on the Roman Empire. And some devotional practices coming out of the Indus Valley predate not only Jesus but the Pyramids.
They can’t stand the faintest hint of reverence, of piety, of suggesting the Gods might in any way be above us. Which leads us to the question they never answer: if our ideas are so silly why do they make you so uncomfortable?
Kenaz has a new post up here. He points out that John Beckett’s posts on purity, sin, and miasma have spurred many interested discussions in the blogosphere.
It’s certainly sparked amazing examples of poor reasoning and illogic from rhyd wildermuth. i wonder what it is like in his head? i’d love to know how he equates maintaining proper ritual purity before the Gods to genocide against Jews and Romany. I mean, does he look down on Jews and Romany to the point that this is where HE would go, and thus cannot conceive of motivations that focus specifically on the Gods? Or is he rather tryign to bring up a straw argument, to damn those who do care about the Gods, traditions, and keeping themselves clean and in a state of proper receptivity to the Powers?
Apparently basic religious standards are now “oppression.”
To quote Kenaz:
Piety sees the state as an integral part of things. Rhyd and his cabal see the state as a tool of oppression that will ultimately wither away. Piety treasures the things which set you and your people apart. Rhyd and his see those differences as war waiting to happen and want to sand them down.
It’s perhaps time, we considered the full implications of their agenda.
I want to move our conversation away from politics for a moment to touch on two threads that I’ve been seeing emergent in Paganism and Polytheism lately. Firstly, we’re having an ongoing conversation about miasma. Apparently some Pagans think we should jettison the whole idea because it might lead to people equating it (inaccurately) with sin and thus feeling badly about themselves. Now ritual pollution is a thing, and keeping clean of it when approaching the Gods is important in many, many Polytheisms. I’m not sure why this is such a difficult concept in our communities today, but apparently it is. What are your thoughts on ritual purity and the community?
KENAZ: I think the idea of “sin” as “wrongdoing which lessens the wrongdoer before the community and the Gods” is entirely appropriate to Polytheism and Paganism. Of course moral and ethical codes are flexible: of course they change and develop over time and as circumstances change. But that doesn’t mean we should jettison them entirely or that the highest and best of all moral teachings is “do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt.”
In John Beckett’s latest Patheos article about Paganism and sin, his definition of “sin” owes more to his daddy issues and authority complexes than to the way Christians use the word. For example, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia offers a clear and detailed definition of sin from a Roman Catholic perspective. And while I’d disagree with some of it (I obviously don’t think things which lead people away from Catholicism are prima facie sinful, for instance), I’d say there’s a fair bit there, which could be of use to Polytheists and Monotheists alike. Contrast this with Beckett’s knee-jerk rejection of “Sin” because it must be CHRISTIAN and therefore bad.
I also think that Beckett et al are missing an important point about miasma and ritual pollution: it exists whether or not you acknowledge it. In Ifa osgobo is a tangible thing, which can stick to people and places and wreak havoc until it’s addressed. I got touched by osgobo after a friend committed suicide. I didn’t get it because I was a bad person: I got it because I lit candles in his honor without making appropriate precautions. (Spirits that die violently or in an agitated state can bring osgobo with them and this has nothing to do with whether they were good or bad people in life).
GK: I like some of John Beckett’s writing, but I do think this piece misses the mark significantly, especially leading in with dismissive remarks about piety.
Moving on though, I was always taught that Osogbo are actually a family of spirits and as such deserving of respect, including the respect of taking appropriate precautions around their potential presence. I think your example really highlights how one can be doing everything right but still miasma, pollution, or osogbo can still happen. It’s a natural thing in many respects for which we have clear cut protocols.
KENAZ: I have encountered miasma in other situations, which were strongly positive. The life change, my daughter’s birth, was wonderful and transformative — but I found myself out of alignment and struggling to redefine myself. And I think that could have been avoided had we had available the historical childbirth and post-childbirth rituals that helped welcome baby and parents to their new roles in their community and incarnation. But that was something I missed because (that damn Monotheism filter again), I still equated miasma with negativity, impiety and sin. As you wisely stated on your blog, miasma doesn’t have a moral payload: it can be incurred by sin or impiety but that is not the only way it happens. So that is something we definitely need to keep in mind — and something which would help prevent the types of abuses Beckett appears worried about in his essay.
GK: It definitely doesn’t have a moral payload (i like that expression). It’s not equivalent to sin at all. I feel like I need to say that over and over again for my readers, because it’s probably the most insidious misunderstanding I’ve encountered lately.Miasma does not equal sin. If you take nothing else away from this conversation, please please take that.
On a different topic, I’ve seen comments in several places to the effect that theologians and spirit workers and mystics like myself, like certain of my colleagues have a competence that makes people feel small. One post on tumblr (of course) actually accused one of my colleague’s writings of giving readers PTSD because they felt they couldn’t live up to the standards set by this writer for herself in her own practice. Of course, instead of setting better goals for themselves and allowing such writings to inspire them, a remarkable number of people chose to complain about how it made them feel bad and so they couldn’t read anymore, even years later, even though the spirit worker in question wasn’t telling people what to do, but was talking about her own practice. I’m wondering your thoughts on this.
KENAZ: There’s a very real danger of creating ego-driven hierarchies in a spiritual community. I’m a better spirit worker than you because I can horse Gods; my Gods love me more than you because I’m a Godspouse and you’re not; I hang on hooks and whip myself for my Gods while you just light candles for yours. And all that garbage is worse than useless. The important thing is your relationship with your Gods and your ancestors. If They are happy with your service, then you are doing things right. Even if those things don’t involve Ordeals or Sacred Kingship or Horsing or anything exciting like that. When you start seeking those things for glory or excitement or power, you take your focus away from the Gods. And that’s the first step in a long spiral downward.
GK: I’ve actually seen this quite a bit and it’s troubling. I tell people: do the work your Gods give you. If you’re an ordeal worker great. If you’re not, also great. I’m not quite sure why there’s this need to do the flashiest (and most dangerous) of practices when apparently making an offering of water and maintaining a regular prayer practice is too inconvenient. It makes me ask: are you doing these things for your Gods or for yourself? Do the work you’re given to do. If the focus isn’t on the Gods, then none of it matters. What’s the point?
KENAZ: That’s exactly it: when you start chasing titles or looking for attention (human or divine), you’re taking the focus off the Gods. That’s one of the things I learned from Fuensanta. She had this laser focus on the Gods above all else: it was about Them, not about the world recognizing her devotion or her piety. And if you have that focus, you’ll find yourself in right relationship with your Gods and with your world. That doesn’t mean things will be perfect for you, but it means you will be in a place from which you can put your trials in a proper perspective and fulfill your responsibilities to the Gods and to the community.
GK.: There it is. I aspire to her level of devotion and piety. I really do, every god damn day and every day I fall short. Still, I know what devotion can be and what it looks like to live a deeply engaged devotional life and that inspires me to keep trying.
I’ve been talking to Kenaz Filan quite a bit of late, in light of the recent community brouhahahas (though we’re also old friends, going back more than a decade). We tend to have these amazing, weighty discussions off list and of late both of us have pointed out that we need to be having some of those same conversations in public, where everyone can consider, benefit, and jump in. So with his kind permission, I’m sharing here the conversation we had this morning.
Kenaz: We can start with an interesting quote which Alley Valkyrie posted, approvingly, to her FB feed:
“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.” – Karl Marx
Call me a fascist reactionary privileged white person — but that quote is absolutely fucking antithetical to ancestral veneration. It calls on the dead to bury their dead; it dismisses the past as “superstition;” it privileges the Is-Now and the Will-Be over the Was and states that the social revolution it envisions has nothing to learn from the past. And anybody who can’t see that has missed the point of Marxism, ancestral veneration or both. (Of course, I could argue that if you’re trying to mix Marxism with any other kind of religion — because that’s exactly what Marxism is, a theoeconomic religion — you’ve missed a few points already).
Galina: Kenaz, I’m so disgusted by that quote. It encapsulates every single thing that I find appallingly wrong about the Marxist left. It is postulated on a complete disconnect from the past, from our obligations to the dead, to our Gods, to our traditions. It is a mindset born of a fractured and damaged present. It also neatly abrogates any responsibilities to one’s own ancestors. It stands against the very heart not just of Polytheism specifically but of Paganism in general. No wonder there is so little common ground between us and the G&R folks if this is the paradigm from which they’re working. I think this just shows the sickness of our world. The cure of course is exactly what Marx was railing against in that quote. Go figure.
Kenaz: The more I see of cultural Marxism the more I despise it. Intellectual thuggery, groupthink and sanctimonious shaming, rote recitation of quotes and slogans in lieu of actual thought — what’s not to dislike? Marxism fulfills the function of a religion in that it gives adherents a lens to view their world and their place therein. But it privileges humanity (more precisely, human socioeconomic activity) and sees the Gods as nothing but “opiates” created to distract the benighted masses. At very best, it judges Them according to its own commandments, accepting or rejecting Their message based on whether or not it agrees with Das Kapital.
Galina: I agree with you completely. Look at where that positions the Gods. I’ve often wondered why people like Rhyd (he’s been the most recent to posit this, but there have been others) find the idea of a devotional relationship with the Gods that is NOT predicated on commerce, on ‘I’m praying so You will give me things,’ so incomprehensible. It’s as though anything other than mercantile relationships are outside the boundaries of their understanding and what a horrible way to live in the world. We honor our Gods because They are Gods and we are devoted to Them because we love Them. Why is that so difficult to comprehend, that we are restoring our traditions not just because it is correct to do so, not just because this is the curative for our world, but because we love and adore the Powers? Well, I think in quotes like the above, we have our answer. Marxism is a natural progression from industrialization and industrialization severed the last of the sacred ties between community and the land, between us and our natural world, and the natural orders of that world. No wonder this is so hard for some.
Kenaz: I hate the racism and anti-Semitism endemic to so much of the Alt.Right. There were Jews in Europe before the Slavenoi got there, for one thing: for another I resent the fact that my options as a white American are White Supremacism or White Self-Hatred thanks to the WP crew and their cultural Marxist frenemies. But at least the alt.right has some respect for words like “patriotism,” “dignity” and “honor:” Alley and Pals support the guy who spit on a woman wearing a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” because America stands for nothing but racism, injustice and imperialism and that slogan is an Act Of Violence against people of color. (No, I’m not joking: I fucking wish I was… ). And for all the talk about Nazi Racist violence, the Radical Left seems far more excited about taking the fight to the streets than the White Nationalists.
Galina: well that’s just it: any disagreement to these people is an act of violence. Think about that: thinking differently is an act of violence. This right here is why I am so down on the illiberal left: there’s no room left for discourse and reason. It’s all about upholding the party line, never questioning it, and a healthy dose of self abasement too. I can’t comment on someone spitting on someone because that person thinks differently than they do…there’s nothing good I can say about that and very little other than profanity that will come out of my mouth when confronted which such pathetic lack of character and reason.
(Kenaz then refers to a conversation we were having with an American-Hindu woman on fb, discussing Hindu-Muslim violence in Southeast Asia. Kenaz had asked if she actually believed in the Gods or thought of Them only as symbols or archetypes, because it makes a difference).
Kenaz: it really does come down in the end to that pesky question of belief. If Hanuman is something more than a myth or symbol, then we have to take His position into account and consider His claim on that land. I was actually saddened when she said “I’d ask if you are serious, but of course you are.” Yes, I am seriously saying that I believe in Hanuman and His claim to that land. And until she believes in the Gods of her people, she will continue trying to mollify people who hold her in contempt and people who are trying to kill her.
Galina: Bingo. And this is what I see so much of in polytheism and paganism in general: trying to excuse and/or make nice with monotheism. Stop apologizing to those who conquered your ancestors and destroyed your traditions are are still trying to abolish our ways. Stop thinking they’re our friends or equals or allies. Stop. Just fucking stop. You’re suffering from some sort of intergenerational Stockholm syndrome. Wake up and see the world as it really is: permeated to its rotted core with the systemic filter of monotheism, with a structure that would utter destroy our ancestral ways and us too if we refuse to submit. Islam may be the purest expression of that monotheism, but make no mistake, the Christianity with which we have to also contend is no better. Individuals within these traditions may be (and are) but the systems themselves, are devastating and will never be anything but and the sooner we wake up and realize that, the better.
There’s a wonderful quote that I reference quite frequently by Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing: “The most disastrous aspect of colonization which you are the most reluctant to release from your mind is their colonization of the image of God.” I think that is part of what’s going on here combined with this narrative that we are somehow more advanced than our ancestors, somehow more ‘enlightened,’ and that polytheism and animism is somehow ‘primitive.’. We get that from academia and this ‘hierarchy of religions’ which places protestant Christianity (or now, maybe atheism) at the top and indigenous religions, polytheisms, etc. at the bottom. It pervades our culture and is, in reality, just a continuation of the damage of monotheistic conquest: the idea that our religions are a point from which we should evolve (preferably into agnosticism or atheism). The true opposite of monotheism is NOT atheism or any of those things, it’s polytheism and make no mistake the system of monotheism is well aware of that fact.
(Kenaz is working on a beautiful memorial to my adopted mom so we moved into discussing that.)
Kenaz: As I continue working on Fuensanta’s memorial I become more and more aware of just how deep the social rot is. Our best hope — our only hope, really — is to establish a few dozen or a few hundred homes where the Gods are honored. Our descendents will rebuild the temples. We need to create islands of piety amidst the social collapse, to make safe spaces for the Gods and provide examples of pietas in a world that has forgotten it. (I expect at this point that I will see the end of American democracy and if I don’t Annamaria certainly will).
Galina: I think that’s true. I know with the work that we do, that we are working for a tradition and a community that we will never ourselves see realized. We’re laying the groundwork, the scaffolding upon which future generations will build. I do think that it’s only when we have multiple generations of practicing polytheists that we’re going to get anywhere. This is why passing these traditions and the piety onto our children is so very important.
Kenaz: As for Annamaria, here’s a little anecdote: Kathy and I noticed we were short on the peanut butter cups we give Legba for an offering. Annamaria heard us talking and said we could give Mr. Legba her candy if He was hungry. Loki has told me Annamaria will be greater than either of her parents and will go farther: I don’t doubt Him for a minute. And if we can get a few more children like her, children who love the Gods from the cradle onward and who are never taught that the sneer is the highest of all human expressions, then I really think we can re-establish veneration and piety in our world.
Galina: Kenaz, your daughter is already more pious and sensible than many adults I know. This does me good to read.
Kenaz (referring another young person with whom we were speaking earlier): K.’s story was interesting: he was apparently an atheist and “modern Indian” until he had an up close and personal meeting with the Gods of his people. Now he’s a Hindu activist who wants to see Monotheism overthrown, or at the very least called on the carpet for its many crimes. The Gods of India are angry, and rightly so: I am heartened to see They are reclaiming Their land. I may try my hand at a piece for the Hindu Post or some similar publication or for an alternative right publication that actually *honors* the Gods rather than using them as props for their political agenda. (I already have a Gnostic Christian friend who is interested in creating a moderate/centrist forum for discussion of topics like Islam, open borders, etc. — we may see some movement in that arena soon).
Galina: I think you absolutely should. I need to get on my next column too. We need those spaces for discussion and disagreement. We need to be having conversations, networking, and raising each other up. That is the only way forward, with the Gods ever and always at the centered heart of our work.
Kenaz: I am also beginning to understand just how right Andvari was when He said you could look to Fuensanta and find all you need to live a virtuous polytheistic life. Even my earliest concerns concerning her potential deification vanished when I was able to get past that damn Monotheism Filter. There is a history in many, many traditions of individuals who led noteworthy lives becoming deified or beatified: Rama & Sita, various Roman emperors — the idea is challenging only if you doubt that Gods might sometimes choose to walk among us for Their own reasons.
Kenaz: One of the Monotheism Filter’s most deadly forms is the “Golden Age” trope. When you start talking about legendary eras when the Gods walked among us, you imply They no longer do so. If you see the sagas not as Lore which sets our beliefs in stone but as earlier chapters in an ongoing Story, your vision of the world changes radically. (It also helps you dispense with yet another odious modern idea, the belief that the Gods need our worship and that they vanished once we quit praying to them. Contemplation and prayer are primarily of benefit to us, not the Gods. That is not to say that humans don’t play a major role in Their plans or that They don’t appreciate veneration: it’s to note that the Gods aren’t scavengers feeding on sanctimonious words and incense fumes like so many flies buzzing around a steaming pile of dung. We need Them far more than They need us. (We’re not the crown of creation; we’re not the sole sentient species on this planet; we’re not even the apex predator. Anybody who doubts this can ask Andvari. If they’re unclear on the third they can spend a few minutes above ground in Svartalfheim.
Galina: yep and this is one of the things that I see in Heathenry way too much: the idea that the Gods only talked to heroes of the saga age and before, that They cannot and don’t do so to us now. It’s bullshit. The Gods absolutely have a vested interest in engagement and they DO. Clearly.
I think the prevalence of this narrative though is partly the discomfort that I mention above with the idea that perhaps there is something ignorant or superstitious, primitive about polytheism and we as moderns should know better. That is so deeply ingrained in our society and in academia for sure. I think polytheism makes some polytheists uncomfortable (I know that actual engagement with the Gods, who may not hold the same ideas and ethics that we do certainly does) and that leads to this reification of “lore” over experience and more to the point, downplaying Their potential for interaction, downplaying the Gods in favor of raising the community to the center. Problem is, it doesn’t work. A healthy polytheistic community is one that is centered on the Gods, not one where the Gods are tangential to the community.
Kenaz: Anyway, apologies for the wall of text. I would like to get this in a blog or some other forum as I think we’re touching upon a lot of good ideas.
Galina: Good thoughts as always, Kenaz. I agree: these conversations need to happen. Thanks for letting me share this.