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Brjóta ekki bein (Don’t Break the Bones): Sacrifice in the Northern Tradition

(I know that this is going to be a challenging topic for some of you. If you are bothered by frank discussions of religion and animal sacrifice, stop reading and go watch this cat video. Here’s some pussies for you to play with. For everyone else, let’s have an adult conversation).

Years and years ago (at least fifteen if not longer) when I was still Theodish, I remember many heated discussions over the proper way to perform sacrifice. Those among us who were trained to perform this ritual were split about the proper way to dispatch the chosen animals. Some favored shooting the animal in the head first (as a mercy) and others using a clean cut at the throat. One of the reasons given for preferring the traditional method (the cut of the knife) was the story of the Thor and His goats.

Thor’s chariot is driven by two goats: Tanngrisnir (snarler, one who bears his teeth) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder). When necessary, Thor is able to kill, cook, and consume these goats who will then be restored to life with His hammer provided their bones are left intact. The prose Edda tells the story of Thor’s visit to a farmer. He and Loki stop for rest, and Thor (perhaps knowing that hosting two Gods is a bit much for a poor farmer) offers up His two goats in sacrifice to provide the evening’s meal. There’s one caveat: the bones must not be cracked for their marrow. They must remain intact. The farmer’s son Thjalfi can’t resist and cracks one leg bone to suck a bit of the marrow. When Thor restores the goats to life, one of them is lame. In reparation for this, the peasant offers his children Thjalfi and Roskva to Thor as servants. It’s an entertaining tale and Loki, Thor, and the children go off to have adventures. For our purposes, however, the important point is the emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the bones.

In the Theod, we solved the initial debate by choosing to sacrifice in the traditional way (and in retrospect I’m very, very glad we did so). At the time, I didn’t see the problem with shooting the animal first. It seemed merciful and kind but over the years I’ve completely changed my position. Partly, I’ve had so much more experience with proper sacrifice and I’ve become far more confident in making sacrifice myself, and I’ve had far more exposure to other traditions where this is likewise common. I learned several things, not the least of which was that if a cut is done cleanly and correctly, it is actually all but painless for the animal. I’ve also come to realize how crucially important this story is to the ritual scaffolding in which sacrifice must take place.

When we do these ritual actions, like sacrifice, we’re re-enacting our cosmology. We’re bringing to life the communal mysteries of our tradition. A living tradition exists in those currents and it is the obligation of those practicing it to renew them regularly.

This is also largely why I no longer believe it appropriate to shoot the animal before cutting its throat. A) it’s far more humane to cut properly and B) any other method is a violation of ritual protocol. The bones must remain intact. I went back and forth on this for years and I used to come down on the side of shooting the animal first if one felt one must but now, I think that is incorrect. As we learn better, we do better. A sacrifice is more than just a collection of mechanical techniques. It is the living expression of a tradition. It is a sacrament.

For the blotere,(1) there are three parts to any sacrifice that must be carefully learned and understood: the mechanics (how to make the cut and to do it painlessly for the animal, and effectively), how to do the divination to determine how to dispose of the sacrifice and whether or not it was accepted, and the ritual itself, in other words, how to infuse the entire procedure with the holy, how to make the conscious connections between the cosmic structures in which we’re working, the ritual being done, the living tradition, and the Gods Themselves. This is a ritual process. It’s not enough to simply cut an animal’s throat, or kill it in some other way, and give it to the Gods. There is a proper ritual scaffolding for the act, an act that is our holiest and most important of sacraments.

It’s not just that you’re giving a life to the Gods; the act of sacrifice is an imitation of primordial creation: Odin, Lodhur, and Hoenir create the world out of the slaughter of Ymir. Sacrifice is tapping into that, recreating that act, everything that it encompasses, bringing our traditions into being again and again and again and that’s potent magic.(2) It must be approached in a proper way, with purity and focus, and attention to every detail. It’s not enough just to slaughter. We must understand what we’re tapping into and why.

This all came up recently within my lineage when one of my apprentices received inspiration for a sacrificial song. We had long felt that there should be some sort of song sung when the animal is being sacrificed.(3) In fact, it’s rather odd for our traditions not to have one; after all, the ATR have a special song that is sung when an animal is given and so did many Greek and Roman traditions. It was part of the procedure in many IE traditions and it always seemed rather odd to find the Norse and Germanic ones lacking. I was delighted when L. came to me with his song and when I did divination to confirm its appropriateness, the sense of it was overwhelming. Our tradition regained one of its songs. Think about how profound that is for a moment. When our traditions were destroyed by Christianity, our songs fell silent. Our procedures were lost. The scaffolding that supported our traditions was broken. This is one step back to full restoration and that is incredible.

It brings home the necessity, the crucial necessity of re-sacralizing our ritual procedures. It’s not enough to do, rather we must understand how to invest these actions with the sacred and why – otherwise, it’s pointless. (4) We must open ourselves up once again to awareness of the Holy. Our Gods are counting on us. Our traditions demand it.

The next time I take up the sacrificial knife and prepare myself for this ritual, I will think on this: Thor had two goats given over to nourish both Gods and man. Their bones must always remain unbroken and they will be restored to life. As I take up the blotere’s blade, with each offering, I am calling our traditions back to life again, and again, and again. May they flourish.

Notes:

1. sacrificial priest
2. this article is about ritual sacrifice to the Gods only. Sacrifice for magical purposes is a different matter all together, not covered here.
3. It doesn’t matter to which Deity the animal is being given, or how the animal is disposed of afterwards: the act of sacrifice itself taps into certain cosmic grooves within the tradition.
4. and a mockery of our ancestral ways.

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Be sure to check out my other sites:

Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

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What does it mean to be a lineage-carrier?

One of my apprentices asked me this question not too long ago. Since then the topic has come up a couple of other times and I thought I would answer it here. It’s important.

A lineage-carrier is one A) to whom the Gods have entrusted the burden and weight of a tradition and/or B) who has been initiated into the Mysteries of specific Gods within specific traditions. Initiation then carries with it certain obligations to the tradition itself and often to one’s elders as well.

Initiation moreover, brings one into the Mysteries, rewires and reworks one’s mind and soul so that one may be deeply immersed in carrying those Mysteries, and so that one may be tied into the Tradition directly, carrying both its beauty and the twin obligations of protection and transmission. Connecting to the Tradition in this way makes one a part of that Tradition’s lineage.

Before I go farther into what a lineage is, I want to first touch on what a Tradition is. I think it’s far too easy to think of a Tradition as just the particular flavor of polytheism that one might practice. Sure, it’s that but it’s much, much more. It is a living container for the Mysteries of the Gods Who Themselves shaped and created the Tradition. It is a conduit from the ancestors and from the Gods to us – to those who will take up their positions within this tapestry. It’s not inactive or static or un-alive. It is sacred, ordered space, a nexus where we and the Powers meet. It overlays our world and when thriving and strong imprints the traces of our Gods upon it. It sacralizes and shapes our perceptions in ways that continuously repattern us to receive the Gods. Even if you haven’t been initiated into any Mysteries, when you make the commitment to begin honoring specific Gods, you are entering into the outer chambers of Their specific traditions. You’re doing your part.

Lineage is what flows through and sustains a Tradition. It is the living conduits—those people who have worked and lived their lives centered within their Traditions’ borders. It is all those ancestors who venerated these Gods and carried these Mysteries, us now working to restore and properly root these things, and all those who will come after us into the Mysteries, into the Tradition, into the sphere of the Gods. (The same Gods may be part of multiple traditions, there may be regional variants…there may be multiple threads within a single tradition, as different elders initiate their students and receive different parts of the whole). None of this is metaphorical. It is a blistering, heavy, often painful reality. It consumes the entire sensorium at times. It is as palpable as the earth under our feet.

A Lineage-Carrier, particularly an elder (one who has received the push to restore a tradition, refound a tradition, who carries it, teaches it, and is authorized by the Gods and possibly other living elders to initiate) carries the tradition on his or her back, in the heart, bears the voices of the Gods and dead in memory and mind. It is not metaphorical. One in this position is directly tied into the flow of past-present-and future of the Tradition. It’s a constant companion, a mandate, and obligation. Those on whom the burden of the Tradition rests (including now the burden of restoration) are directly responsible to the Gods for planting the seeds of restoration, nurturing that seedling, for protecting the Tradition from those who are ill prepared, impious, who would twist and pervert it for personal gain, they are likewise responsible for passing it on to those who are prepared. Ultimate loyalty must always be to the Tradition itself, over and above any personal sentiments. This is something so much bigger than any individual person.

To be a lineage-carrier is to live for the Tradition: to sleep it, eat it, breathe it , to be bound to it mind, body, and soul. It is to wake in the middle of the night with the screaming of the ancestors filling your mind, shrieking in your head. It is to feel the push of the Gods constantly to do more. It is to know that your every action must be one that restores a little more, strengthens a little more, builds integrity and character – not as we think of those things today, but as our Gods and ancestors think of them. We cannot restore a tradition without also recommitting to and restoring the values and cultural awareness that shaped our ancestors who were born, lived, and died within these Traditions. It means throwing oneself willingly into a complete reordering of one’s inner life. Everything comes to serve the Tradition and more importantly to serve the Gods.

The result is that this changes everything about the way a lineage-carrier moves in the world. It changes everything about how he or she prioritizes interactions and the things of this world. We become connected to the flow of the Tradition itself and that has a tremendous impact on how one prioritizes. There is always something bigger like a cosmic sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head: how is an action taken today furthering the Tradition tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow, or a year, or ten years, or twenty? We have to see that.

It’s dizzying after an initiation to be dropped into this. Suddenly ‘lineage’ isn’t just a word. Suddenly there’s a palpable sense of thousands upon thousands of people, a whole tribe at one’s back and they may or may not be happy with you (the paucity of values and foundation and comprehension that we have as moderns is often quite vexing to them. There was a basic foundation that even the most ill prepared person coming to a Tradition in the ancient world had, by virtue of growing up in a polytheistic culture that we lack and this is a real problem). What they definitely are is there. Likewise, for those who had the Gods drop a lineage on their backs with the mandate to see it flower, there is a constant awareness of that weight. Eventually that weight might be shared as others become lineage-carriers but even then, for those who are by default elders the fire of having one’s world remade by that living ordered space into which one has been tied can be overwhelming. Those of our lineage living before our traditions were destroyed (by monotheists) lived in cultures that to some degree or another support these Traditions and all that they teach. That is not the case with us today. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is how it was put to me a very long time ago: We are pearls in a gleaming thread that stretches behind us as far as one can possibly imagine and before us also as far as one can possibly imagine. We hold that space and hold that space and hold that space. In aeternum.

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Be sure to check out my other sites:

Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

My academia.edu page

My amazon author page.

Walking the Worlds Journal

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My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

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My Morning Began with this Question…

My morning began with the following question, which got me out of bed faster than any alarm could have. After responding and going back and forth with my correspondent a bit, I asked permission to share the question and my response here.

My correspondent begins:

Hi I’m sorry to bother you. I’m just struggling to figure out what this movie character Loki marrying all these really lonely, isolated women is.

I could see taking advantage of the films to get followers but I’m not sure if what clients are dealing with is a deity.”

My correspondent then goes on to describe behavior of this wight that her friend is describing as Loki in ways that are bizarre, violating, and manipulative.

…(I’ve made some edits for privacy, even with permission to share.)

He wanders around my room looking at my stuff and doing dramatic David Bowie poses.

The “wife” never promised to be his wife forever, just until she finds a human. “Loki” doesn’t like it and says, “We’ll see.” She can’t worship Set because Loki is scared she’ll fall in love with Set. There’s a spirit “Green” who comes (and was coming before the movies got her into the Northern Tradition) and makes love with her, especially if she feels neglected by Loki. 

Loki dresses up in clothing from her favorite TV show and they act it out.

She’s never had friends because illness hit young so she’s been living with her parents her entire life without any relationships like friends, boyfriends, work, and she’s socially delayed, like a child I think from it. She’s completely alone aside from her mother and “Loki.”

At this point I was seriously alarmed. This is not Loki. This is not Loki. I’ll say it again for those who may find this difficult: This is not Loki. If this is what is happening to you in your relationship with what you think is a Holy Power, you may want to consult an elder or specialist. This is not the way a God behaves. Godspousery is a thing, a binding, lifelong commitment (that may or may not rule out human relationships) but it does not function in any way, shape, or form like what this person is describing, nor do healthy devotional relationships.

Part of the problem is pop culture specifically how it teaches us to view and approach the Divine and what it teaches us to expect from such exchanges. It opens a door toward incorrect behavior with the Gods and spirits, in ways that seriously and negatively impact discernment. There is an undertone in so many movies, television series, comics, books, etc. of the Gods being childish, vain, immature or otherwise behaving in ways that allow for the human characters to gain the upper hand in relationships, to put Them in their place, most of all to dismiss Them as Powers in favor of human supremacy in the grand cosmic hierarchy. The cultivation of this attitude is bad enough but what is worse is that it entrains us to think that Gods will behave this way, and the way described above – They don’t—which in turn opens the door for any bottom feeding, parasitic hanger-on spirit to masquerade and someone raised on a steady diet of pop culture pabulum all too often lacks the discernment to tell the difference.

At any rate, my morning’s email continued:

I wonder if she made it up, but I’ve experienced him, this spirit she calls Loki, as how she described. My health gets much worse after reading for her every time.

I’ve never done spirit work where they’ve ever behaved like this, especially deities. Usually they are more … dignified and have meaningful messages that the client needs. “Loki” just tells her what he wants her to do and offer to him. It’s a very sulky bitchy vibe.”

Folks, read that last paragraph again please. It’s right on the money. This is simply not how Deities generally behave and that includes Loki. This is one of the key things to watch for in certain interactions: are you being told only what you want to hear? It’s a huge red flag.

My client continued:

So something IS there, but I think it’s something else (abandoned thought form by some coven, incubus, I have no clue). When I said I couldn’t work with them anymore, “Loki” immediately jumped on me, trying to stimulate every “You’re my true love, 100% perfect” sexual thing. I ended that in a second. But if this thing is giving “You’re perfect, dedicate your life to me” romance novel intensity to lonely, kinda imbalanced women – it feels dangerous. It’s taking advantage of the movie Loki form.

Maybe. I don’t know. Freya and divination say I’m right, it’s a low level predator spirit preying on vulnerable Pagan women.

But you know the real Loki and I think I recall you had opinions about this. I rarely know what pop culture or Paganism (another pop culture too much of the time to get anything of value from it) is doing, so I didn’t pay attention. I had no idea Loki was in movies and people were worshipping movie characters and saying it’s the deities.

Since I had someone else contact me who also became a Loki wife where he always treats her like a queen and it sounds like escapism – the opposite of every deity or ancestor or land spirit I’ve met and all their messages and none wander my space, terrible with boundaries and then wanting me in the exact same time of relationship – all consuming love/lust – I just want to know if there’s something like this people are experiencing. It’s like a … virus. A needy virus who takes over people’s lives.

Sorry to bother you again about this. But in a world of Loki wives this is obviously going to be happening more.”

My response was rather terse:

I think that what you’re describing is, on the part of your friend, delusional. In many of the cases where one sees this, it’s fanfiction gone awry. I think it’s a case of people who want the Gods to be their best friends instead of the Powers that They are. Can Loki choose to take the image of Marvel Loki? Yes, absolutely. He is a God and this can be a doorway for Him. However, the behavior that you’re describing is simply not how Loki is, not how any Deity is. It is, however, precisely how certain bottom feeding spirits behave however.

What you’re describing is concerning, and I would be more inclined to say this is someone who A) needs to get off tumblr or other social media and B) needs good firm spiritual direction and possibly C) Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy.

I would agree with you actually: it’s very likely a low level predator spirit but I also don’t think your friend is going to hear you. She’s most likely too invested in it being Loki. You describe it like a ‘virus’ and I think that is an apt metaphor and the virus is going to defend itself. I don’t think your friend is going to be willing to have her delusion challenged because it makes her feel good (despite what you’ve told me – which for privacy reasons I did not quote the specifics here—about it damaging her health).

I detest the Marvel movies. I find them deeply impious (which doesn’t mean that the real Loki can’t use that image– i do not want to sound as though I am limiting the power of a God!). 99% of the people that I see claiming their Loki looks/acts like Marvel Loki have one of the following happening: 1. low level predator spirit fucking with them, 2, they’re delusional and incapable of telling fiction from reality – or unwilling to do so– (and often live more of their lives online than in actual in-person social interactions 3. they’re deeply confused. In all cases they lack spiritual discernment. The desire for it to BE Loki and for themselves to be special is the only thing driving the interaction.

I have seen devout Lokeans put an image of that character on their shrines for Loki because it is a pop culture representation of Him but in those cases, there’s a clear understanding that “this is something that reminds me of Loki as trickster” not “this is Loki and he’s dancing around my bedroom.” I am always deeply suspicious when Gods no longer behave as gods but are reduced to being someone’s playmate or best friend — unless that someone is a child in which case I’ll make allowances though even then I would do serious divination and investigation.

I know very devout Loki’s wives. I don’t know a single one of them who can’t tell the difference between the fictional marvel Loki character and Their divine husband. 

I’m sorry but your friend is either being harassed by a low grade spirit or delusional. The behavior you describe from the thing when it jumped out at you is NOT Loki, and yes, I think your comparison of it to a virus is very apt. 

To get rid of a bottom feeding spirit, you’d have to cut the cord it has with your friend — it’s probably feeding on her– cleanse her, shield her, and banish it, warding her home. Then she has to not invite it back. She’s not going to cooperate with that. I would instead make offerings to the real Loki and your own patron Goddess Freya and maintain continued prayers for your friend’s well-being and protection. I think, however, that she is far too deeply invested in the emotional umph she gets from these encounters to listen to you. 

I do rather consider it a collective insanity.

I would, by the way, given the interactions you describe with your friend and this wight, suggest major cleansings for yourself. If you don’t know how to ground, center, and shield, I recommend learning. The book I usually recommend for my students is Sophie Reicher’s “Spiritual Protection.” Understand that when you are in your friend’s presence as she is now, and when this wight is present, you are engaging someone and something deeply polluted spiritually. You will need to cleanse yourself so that you do not become impacted by it or open to its influence.

All of this, my readers, highlights the importance of proper spiritual discernment. There is a difference between engagement and wish-fulfillment and it’s important to know the damned difference.

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Be sure to check out my other sites:

Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

My academia.edu page

My amazon author page.

Walking the Worlds Journal

My art blog at Krasskova Creations

My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.

Gods of Rot and of Decay?

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-is-walking-away-from-all-your-bullshit

(Piety Possum, walking away from all your bullshit)

Postmodernism and Miasma

This is a brilliant article by Kenaz Filan over at PolytheismUncucked. It’s the culmination of several days worth of conversation on the predation of cultural marxism, modernity, and monotheism (#evilms) on our communities and their religious awareness.

I think this is a really important piece. go and read.

Polytheism Uncucked

Disgust is an instinct which saves us from eating contaminated foods and poisons.  We feel a sense of revulsion upon seeing vomit, rotten meat, excrement — all things which would sicken and kill us should we consume them.  As Daniel Kelly, author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust says:

You have this quick, reflex-like tendency to move away from whatever you find disgusting. You might not actually move, but you’ll have this flash of motivation to jerk away from it. Some of the really interesting things about disgust are the more psychological components of it. When you’re disgusted by something, it captures your attention. It seems offensive and tainted in some way, and we think about disgusting things as though they have the ability to contaminate other things. So, if something we find disgusting touches another object, that object becomes disgusting as well. We track where the…

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On Modesty

(This is an old post I made several years ago. I’m recycling it to give some preparatory food for thought as I work on my next piece dealing again with pollution, piety, and maybe, just maybe right behavior. I’m closing this to comments – tomorrow’s article will not be—so that I actually have time to work.)

Modesty is such a troublesome concept, at once somewhat nebulous and yet highly charged. I have seen both men and women become rabidly angry at the mere mention of the word, particularly when it was noted as a virtue, and moreover, as something worth cultivating. I would go so far as to say that there’s probably no other virtue so prone to misconception, misapprehension, and deep seated ambivalence. For all that, I do very much believe that not only is modesty a particularly polytheistic virtue, but it is one that both men and women would indeed do well to cultivate.

Let me take a moment to discuss precisely what I mean when I use the word ‘modesty.’ Being lazy today, I went to the dictionary  and looked up the word. It comes from the Latin modestia and I’m going to get back to that in a moment.(1) For now, suffice it to say that the given definition (drawn, or so dictionary.com says, from Collins English Dictionary) is as follows:

  1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
  1. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
  1. simplicity, moderation. (2)

Perhaps there are different types of modesty. It is predominantly a cultural convention and construction after all, and standards of modesty are culturally determined. Regardless, it’s primarily with the second definition, that of regard for decency of behavior and deportment, that I am primarily concerned.  I want to be clear about one thing: I do not think that modesty necessarily has anything to do with one’s attire. Appropriateness of dress is a matter of context. One may be half naked and completely modest, or wearing full hijab and completely immodest. It’s a matter, to my mind at least, of personal integrity and integrity of behavior.

I look at modesty as a way of interacting with others in our world, a way of presenting ourselves. Whenever discussions of modesty come up, two aspects seem to garner the most attention: physical dress and sexual behavior. Certainly no less a personage than Honore de Balzac called modesty the ‘conscience of the body’ and British essayist Joseph Addison referred to it as ‘a guard to virtue.” While I don’t disagree with that necessarily, I think we do this virtue a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of sexual mores. We diminish the quality of modesty when we focus solely on sexual expression. Certainly in the polytheistic world, it meant much more (and this holds true for Greece and Rome but also for Germania. Read your Tacitus, folks).

I suppose there is a physical, sexual component to modesty. I can’t help but think of a documentary about indigenous religion in the Ivory Coast that I had the pleasure of recently viewing.(3) I was struck, forcibly, by the contrast between the women who maintained their ancestral ways and those who tried to mimic western styles. The former practiced their religion, honored the gods and spirits of their land and people…they were magnificent, powerful, and respected to the point of veneration within their communities. It was blatantly, delightfully obvious (nor was I the only one to notice this; the friend with whom I was watching was also struck by precisely the same thing). The latter, largely those living in the rapidly westernizing cities, dressed provocatively, behaved outrageously and were treated like trash. It was clear that they thought of themselves as nothing more than ornamental. They treated themselves like trash. They had abrogated their ancestral connections; they had abrogated their power, and instead attired themselves in the shallowness of exploitation and mimicry of a culture that historically has brought nothing but spiritual desiccation wherever it colonized. It was exhibited by the way these women were behaving (and in turn by the way the men behaved toward them) but I think that was only the most obvious and outward expression of a deeper dynamic. The problem wasn’t their behavior; the problem was that such behavior, in this particular instance, was a manifestation of a lack of self-regard.

Whenever the discussion of modesty comes up, inevitably modesty becomes linked with feeling shame about oneself or one’s body. I can think of nothing more diametrically opposed to what modesty actually is. True modesty has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with valuing both oneself and the quality of one’s interactions with family, friends, the world at large, and most of all within the realm of one’s spiritual obligations, i.e. with the Gods and ancestors, the Holy Powers. Remember when I pointed out that modesty comes from the Latin? Well in Latin it’s primarily associated with discretion, sobriety, correctness of conduct, moderation, and propriety.(4) These were the virtues, in this polytheistic community, that an adult was expected to cultivate (likewise in many other parts of the ancient polytheist world, including Germania). Latin has another word pudicitia which encompasses the shyness – bashfulness the dictionary says – and emphasis on chastity that we so commonly ascribe to ‘modesty.’(5) Moreover, modesty in Rome was not something that women alone worried about. Most of the references that I’ve come across on my reading (in Pliny, Sallust, Cicero, and Suetonius primarily) have referred to the proper modesty of men. (Cicero does not approve of your skinny jeans. LOL). Nor did this modesty usually have anything to do with their sexual behavior. It was, however, not unusual to see it linked to piety. I’d go so far as to say that modesty in the ancient world – i.e. in many polytheistic cultures (and I know I’m focusing on Rome here largely because I’ve been immersed in that source material of late. That is not to say this idea was found only in polytheistic Rome.) went hand in hand with piety. That’s an important point and I’m going to say it again:

Modesty went hand in hand with piety for all genders.

 Perhaps for this reason, authors like the younger Pliny recommend it as the most shining of virtues. (6) It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the acknowledgement that there is something greater (to a polytheist many somethings greater) than we out there and to whom just maybe, we owe a modicum of decorum; and behaving with that appropriate decorum enhances not just our interactions with the Holy but with each other as well. It augments who we are as human beings. An apologist for modesty would say that we enhance our lives by cultivating modesty because valuing and cultivating modesty is a way of cultivating ourselves as well. It’s a way of saying “I value the gifts the Gods and ancestors have given me too greatly to squander them for public consumption” (or by behaving like a fool). I would say that not only is modesty a guard to virtue (though what I as a polytheist mean by that term has nothing to do with sexual repression and everything to do with the development of character) but it is an essential, perhaps the most essential, component toward developing dignity and personal integrity.

Someone who cultivates modesty as a virtue would, I believe, be unlikely to behave with complete and utter disrespect in a ritual. Even if he or she did not know the proper protocol, modesty is a good teacher of behavior. The modest person is not going to rant and rave about how he or she would never, ever bow their heads before the Gods. They know better. The cultivation of modesty has taught them [not to act like they were raised in a barn]. Moreover, there are times when it is appropriate to feel shame for one’s actions. This too is a lesson modesty teaches. When we behave in a way that diminishes who we are both as human beings and as children of the Gods, as inheritors of our ancestral blessings, we ought to feel shame. It is the right and proper state of being. When we behave badly, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves. That’s called conscience, something that I believe modesty hones. Being polytheist does not relieve us of every moral obligation after all. It actually enhances them.

In the connection between modesty and piety, one often encounters the idea of taboo: those things one is not permitted to do without violating both modesty and the bounds of proper piety. This is the reason that ancient Roman polytheists  -men as well as women – would cover their heads when performing rituals. It’s the reason while certain types of priests from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and quite probably in the North lands as well, lived prescribed lives, lives full of ritual and personal taboos that cultivated modesty, enhanced their personal connections with the Holy Powers, and enabled them to avoid miasma.(7)

This is the reason that a growing number of polytheists today are choosing to veil themselves, to cover their heads, some only during rituals (as I was taught to do) and some all the time. It is a way of reminding themselves to behave properly, of nurturing their spiritual connections, of keeping themselves clean of the filth of the monotheistic world, and for a thousand other reasons. It cannot be denied that doing so sets the person apart, and perhaps that is part of it too: it implies a different standard of living, a different standard of behavior and as in all things that so many of us do, carries with it a certain didactic function. I’m not going to belabor the point of head-covering here. I mention it here largely because there are extant polytheistic sources that note men covering in Roman temples so this is the example that came to mind of an outward expression of both piety and modesty.

So what is modesty? It’s examining potential behavior and saying to oneself : I won’t do that. I do not believe it will do honor to me, my Gods, or my ancestors. That will not enhance me as a human being. Or maybe it’s being in a situation where you are the only one behaving respectfully and you do so because of your modesty and piety combined, regardless of what others around you might think. Ultimately, I think modesty is the choice to consciously avoid doing that which diminishes us; be it by commission or omission. Take that as you will. I believe it is an essential spiritual virtue.

 

Notes:

  • (modestia, ae, feminine)
  • See here.
  • See here.
  • Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary, see entry on ‘modestia.’
  • Ibid, see the entry on ‘pudicitia.’
  • He goes on in several of his letters about the virtues of modesty, praising people he admires for their modesty. Letter 1:12, iirc, is a good example.
  • See yesterday’s article for more information on miasma.

On Pollution and Miasma

A friend sent me a clip from an article that had me just shaking my head. In it, a Pagan was talking about pollution and why she never “needed” to do any cleansing work. Doing so, the misguided author said, would imply that she was dirty.

Um…yes, buttercup it does but this is not a moral judgment. When you take a shower in the morning or a bath at night, is that some grave moral judgment on your inner sense of self? Or your character? Your identity? When you wipe your ass, are you saying your butt is bad? One would hope that you actually do take those showers and wipe. I mean really…and if you clean your ass, as my friend quipped, you can take the time to clean your soul.

This is going to be an ongoing theme. I’ve had a lot of questions lately about miasma. I’ve gained a few insights through my own deepening taboos around purification, been thrown for a few unexpected loops, and I’ve been seeing a lot of really screwed up pieces, like the bit I quoted above making the rounds. I’m not even sure where to begin here.

Miasma is a thing. It exists. It is not a statement about the character or worth of any given person. In fact, in most cases, it’s no more personal than spilling something on yourself and having to wash it off, or tracking mud inside, and having to clean it up. To say that one doesn’t need to cleanse is exactly as sensible as saying one never needs to bathe, that is not at all.

Miasma is a type of spiritual pollution. One can pick up miasma by exposing oneself to things that are antithetical to the Gods and Their traditions. These things can shift a person’s head and heart space out of receptivity and reverence for the Gods. They can also leave a taint. Over time, it destroys our ability not just for any discernment with the Powers and spirits, but even our ability to tell what is good and holy from that which is not. That’s one of the dangers of pollution and our world is riddled with it.

Sometimes though one falls into miasma through actions or experiences that are good: for instance there is a particular miasma associated with the dead. That’s why if one touches a dead body, cleansings are necessary before approaching one’s shrines. Well, visiting the graves of relatives is a good and pious act sanctioned by the Gods. The moment one does so, however, one is in a state of pollution and should really cleanse after returning home. Likewise, there is miasma associated with childbirth. Does that mean that everyone should stop having babies? Of course not. It means one learns the appropriate protocols within one’s tradition and uses them.

These purification rites can also be a form of psychological catharsis, helping one to make transitions back into ordinary life. Imagine how much better off our soldiers would be if they had these kinds of transitional and purifying ceremonies to guide their entrance back into civilian life? Instead, we just leave them in the gutter.

Proper piety is important. It is what enables us to maintain right relationship with our Gods. That’s a huge part of why we should want to be clean! Moreover, extended miasma can cause mental, emotional, and even physical problems, not to mention damaging one’s luck. Of course, this presupposes that one values being in right relationship with the Holy. This is where it starts. It presupposes that this is a priority, that we’re willing to examine our culture and society and interactions and influences and take action when miasma is present.

Now just because a thing causes miasma, does not mean it has to be avoided. Some things are only miasmic with certain types of worship, and with certain deities, or for roles and types of work (ancestor work vs plant work, shaman vs. seer vs. laity—there will be different taboos and requirements). Sometimes when you’re called to work with certain Powers and do certain work, that cuts off certain opportunities. That’s too bad. That’s just the nature of devotion. It’s possible to appreciate from a distance without being able to engage.

Sometimes what we read or watch may cause miasma. It affects our headspace. It puts us in headspace that’s not conducive to interaction with the Holy. This is a bit trickier. No one should tell you not to watch or read something. That’s a decision you have to make for yourself with your Gods and ancestors. Divination can help with this. We don’t want to be, after all, like the Abrahamists who fence themselves off from life and authentic experiences with all their rules and regulations, afraid to read a novel for fear it will destroy their faith. Sometimes also, depending on one’s work, one might have to read things or watch things or go places that put one in a state of miasma. Here, it’s important to sit down maybe with a diviner or priest and suss out how to cleanse oneself, what rituals and prayers to do, to restore oneself to cleanliness. (Just because a particular book or movie might put you out of alignment, doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’. It might not affect someone else the same way, especially if they’re working with very different Powers and traditions. The key is mindfulness and being willing to consider that even things we like may be problematic and require those extra ritual steps or even forgoing gratification in service to something Higher).

Now I’ve noticed something about the people chirping the loudest about how cleansing isn’t necessary. All of the ones I’ve encountered have been anti-theist or humanist ‘Pagans.’ I think that is perhaps the key here. This is a clash of cultures and traditions. Do you serve the ancestors or political ideology? Do you want to reverence the Gods with your entire life or some human economist? Is this real or is it just something people make up in their heads? Do you value the Holy, or are you hell-bent on convincing the pious that it doesn’t exist (generally by trolling them online)? Those espousing a disdain for cleansing and purification are more often than not, those expressing a similar disdain for the Gods and everything else associated with Them. I’ll let y’all do the math. (If Stalin says that 2+2=5, the party believes that 2+2=5).

What I know is that cleansing is crucial. There is a caution here: against what Christians call scrupulosity. We should attend to all the proper rites and rituals for dealing with pollution, but not fall into obsessiveness or excessive anxiety over it—what the Greeks termed δεισιδαιμονίᾳ.

“It is apparent that superstition would seem to be cowardice with regard to the spiritual realm. The superstitious man is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what god or goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.” (Theophrastos, On The Superstitious Man)

Being a polytheist isn’t about having the right hashtags or even necessarily about believing in many Gods. Believing in many Gods is the baseline, the fundamental definition, but we should aspire to so much more. Being a polytheist is also about cultivating in ourselves the type of awareness and character that the Gods would find pleasing. To do that, first and foremost, we must cultivate purity and an awareness of the nature of miasma and a willingness to attend to it. Then and only then, can we begin to cleanly and properly commune with the Holy.

Musings on Polytheism

Polytheism is the belief in and veneration of many Gods as independent, sentient Beings. Across cultures, it most often incorporates some degree of ancestor veneration and animism as well. At some point in the flow of religious history, all of us came from polytheistic traditions. Our ancestors prior to the influx of monotheistic contamination were polytheistic. The particularities of that polytheism, to paraphrase a noted anthropologist, went without saying because they came without saying. (#Bourdieu) People were raised in an entire community inculcated with the framework of polytheistic belief. It was the way people viewed the world. It shaped their values. It didn’t require self-conscious analysis. We today don’t have that.

Because of this, it’s incredibly easy for that monotheistic contamination to taint our work. It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, to allow contemporary ideas that may not be rooted in either a polytheistic world view or any sense of piety to take the place of right behavior and relationship with the Gods; (#notashamedtobepious) and because we are not just rebuilding traditions of veneration but the religious communities and cultures as well, I believe it’s absolutely crucial for polytheists to network, work together, and speak out, to take a stand, to draw a line and hold it hard and fast. I don’t mean political activism. I mean Gods-driven activity, devotion, and work. (#Kony2012) It’s more crucial now than ever before save perhaps when our traditions were first destroyed. Why? Because there is momentum behind the restoration now. We have a chance, slim though it might be, to throw open the doors of our world to the Gods again and drive back the depredations of monotheism, modernism, and Marxism (#evilms). At least a little. At least more than we have had for thousands of years — if we can haul our heads out of Facebook long enough to make an occasional offering that is. (#noevilms)

This is sacred ground. Our traditions are sacred repositories of wisdom. They are treasures passed down from our ancestors, ours to tend and cultivate. (#honoryourancestors) This goes beyond *us*. This is about the Gods, the ancestors, and restoring balance to the world. It is about rebuilding our traditions in the wake of monotheism, modernism, and Marxism and in the wake of its retainers: colonialism, racism, devastation, and genocide – its bastard spawn. We need to move beyond the models that we’ve been given. I believe part of the knee-jerk reaction against piety and belief and devotion comes from a very understandable place. I’ve seen people so harmed, so hurt, so wounded by the monotheisms in which they were raised that the word “God” causes them physical pain. I’ve seen people so hungry for spiritual connection that it’s almost a constant pain inside of them, but when it is proffered, when the opportunity is present, these same people respond with condescension and contempt, arrogance all as a protective measure because they have been brutalized by the monotheism in which they were raised. God and piety and respect and humility have become synonymous with an erasure of human potential and creativity. I’m here to tell you it was not always so. (#notalwaysso) Right relationship with the Gods, an acknowledgement that the Gods exist enhances human potential, human creativity, human joy. At its best, when we as humans don’t muck it up, it causes every other thing in one’s life to fall into glorious place. The way these things are now, twisted and maimed by centuries of monotheism, modernism, and Marxism in which “God” or celebrities or the proletariat hold goodness over our heads like a perverse sword of Damocles from on high, is not the way they always were. We need to go back and restore the original meaning of things. (That is what modernism and post modernism does, you know: it destroys meaning and value leaving us prey to predatory philosophies like Marxism. If all truth is relative after all, and 2+2=5, you have no bulwark against mental and ideological tyranny. #nothingtolosebutyourmind).

Let me give you an example. Take the word ‘anathema.’ We use that today for something awful, blasphemous, foul. Do you know what it meant before early Christians got their hands on it? It means “an offering placed before an image of the Gods.” This, when I first learned it, was a key in a lock mentally for me. There are many more words that were obviously changed but when we talk about the restoration of polytheistic devotion, we’re dealing even more, with shifts and changes that aren’t so obvious. When did humility for instance stop being associated with making fertile the mind and soul and spirit by right behavior and come to imply debasement and mental enslavement? When did piety become something perverse? When did the reality of the Gods become something to fight against? When was tumblr made? We need first and foremost to take these things back (except tumblr. They can have that cesspool. #notmycesspool).

In the long flow of humanity, monotheism is but a blip. It is a very young mutation. Our world was polytheistic far, far, far longer than most of us realize. That is important. That tells me that the way things are now is not the way they have always been. Moreover, it’s not the way they have to be in the future. Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales put it best when he said that we live in a world full of Gods (to the perplexity of modern philosophers who go through intellectual gymnastics trying to prove he didn’t mean what he said) and he was right. (#worldfullofgods) We do and when one truly realizes that, everything changes for the better and then it’s just a matter, despite our stumbling, of getting ourselves into right relationship and it’s not so hard really when that first illusion has been cracked, the illusion that we are the highest power in the cosmos. More and more I think it has to start with addressing the fundamental damage done by monotheism, damage that strikes at the heart of our collective capacity to experience a healthy devotional life.

I have no answers here. What I do have is a renewed commitment toward developing a strong and enduring polytheistic consciousness in our world. Let us aim for a post-monotheist, post-post-post-post modernist, and a world that doesn’t even know what Marxism is. We need to know the lay of the theological land and then we need to take it back. (#decolonizeyourbrain, #takeitback, #polytheistworld, #livedeliciously).

How About A Big, Fat NO

There is one question, just one, that I find in 98% of cases, tremendously irritating. It’s a question I don’t want to receive, one I’m not particularly nice at answering, and one that I’m going to be discussing today.

“How do you know the Gods and spirits are real? How do you know They’re speaking to you and that it isn’t some trick of the mind, hormones, pain, drugs, etc. Prove it to me because I’ve tried, I’ve gone through (insert name of three to five different practices here) and have never gotten anything. So, convince me.”

It’s that last little bit, the ‘convince me’ part that sets my teeth on edge more than the actual question itself, so I hope y’all will pardon me for being a bit blunt.  The question isn’t so egregious by itself. I mean, I understand how people who have not had much contact with the Holy Powers, or who are just starting out, might be moved to ask it. People, I’ve found, want to be sure they’re doing it right…whatever the ‘it’ of their spiritual lives happens to be. I get that. Hell, I want to be sure I’m doing it right! I don’t ever want to offend one of the Powers. So insofar as the question itself goes, generally it stems from not unworthy motivation, particularly when one is concerned about being in right relationship with the Gods and spirits. 

My problem is inevitably with the corollaries that all too often accompany it, corollaries that have absolutely nothing to do with getting oneself in right relationship with the Powers and everything with abrogating responsibility for one’s own spiritual life.

To those people I say the following: Just because you’re incapable or unwilling of doing the necessary work to engage with the Powers, don’t suppose that’s the case for all of us. Just because you’re too mired in your post modern bullshit to open up into devotional headspace don’t assume that’s the case for all of us either. Just because you value your post modern politics more than devotion and piety, definitely don’t project that onto us.

Newsflash: Just because *you* can’t sense or know something, doesn’t mean it’s not true. I don’t understand particle physics but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it exists. Your limited world is not the be all and end all of existence-not even for you. If you’re not experiencing anything when you do your seeking perhaps you’re too caught up in “belief”, perhaps you’re not listening, perhaps it’s not your wyrd, or perhaps YOU are the problem. The Gods after all, don’t owe you a response and I don’t either. Maybe spend less time floating through traditions and asking foolish questions with the expectation of immediate answers and more time honoring your ancestors and making offerings to the Gods and approaching whatever living elders you have within your tradition with a modicum of humility. Spend more time doing the work and honoring the Powers and less time worrying about whether or not your ego is being adequately stroked. 

In case you can’t tell, this question aggravates me on a number of fronts. 

Firstly, it presupposes that the Gods and spirits are there for our benefit. It presupposes that one is owed some sort of grand cosmological response. It presupposes that such knowledge can just be handed to one without effort, and it prioritizes the questioner’s identity an will over the idea of right belief, action, and devotional practice. 

I usually get this from people who say that no matter how hard they have tried, they can’t find evidence of the reality of the Gods. They’ve gone through half a dozen traditions. blah blah blah. 

You know what? Try committing to one. Stop assuming that you’re owed anything. Stop assuming that the Gods and spirits should prove themselves to you. Stop assuming it’s all going to be handed to you immediately. Stop. Just fucking stop. 

Secondly, this type of attitude demands explanation of mysteries that can only be acquired through experience and the grace of initiation. It is demanding access into a body of knowledge to which one has no lawful right. It is demanding what does not belong to one by right or by grace. 

This is an impiety. Initiation is not something to be demanded. Mysteries are revealed when the Gods and ancestors deem it time. One does not demand access without discipline and devotion. Asking this question as so many do is an attempt at a short cut and it doesn’t work that way.  

We have a perfect example, upon which people may meditate of just this level of hubris in the character of Pentheus from Euripides’ ” Bakchai.” This is a powerful mystery play and it highlights, amongst other things, the inviolability of sacred rites. Initiation — and by initiation I am including knowledge and wisdom gained through experience, practice, and the grace of the Gods as much as any formal ritual that breaks open the head and heart to the sacred — is not a thing to be demanded. It may be sought through devotion and commitment, but not *demanded* and there is always a spiritual price. Moreover, even were I to answer the question, what could I possibly say that would be comprehensible to someone who ranks their comfort, their ego, and their own ingrained paradigms over the Powers? What could I possibly say? Those who have directly experienced the Powers speak a different language from those who have only experienced the metaphysical masturbation of their own egos. 

Finally, by demanding “convince me,” it foists the responsibility for one’s spiritual life off on me. “Do the hard work and all the thinking for me” is what the questioner is actually saying. You know what? I’m too fucking busy doing my work and honoring my Gods. It’s not my *job* to convince you. Do the work yourself. 

Too many people want access to the mysteries, they want access to power without any obligations to the Powers. It doesn’t work that way. Why should the keepers of any tradition reveal its secrets, why should the Powers reveal Themselves to someone unwilling or unable to commit him or herself to devotion? There’s the old saying: you can’t always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need. I think that holds true and what most of these people seem to need is to be told NO. 

So let me oblige: no, I will not answer this question. NO I will not hand you knowledge gained only through experience. NO I will not pat you on the head and tell you that jumping from tradition to tradition demanding wisdom and paying no homage to the Powers is the way to go. No I will not do your spiritual work for you. Neither I nor the Gods took out a fucking franchise in Burger King. You do not get to have it your way. 

You want to try working, learning the process of devotion, learning how to love and honor the Gods and ancestors? I’ll go to the wall for you then. I’ll answer any question you throw. I’ll do my damnedest to help you get sorted and help you succeed.  Don’t come to me demanding, “convince me” though, because my response will be short. My response will be a big, fat “NO.”

The Gods Before Allah

There is a small but growing group of very brave men and women who are returning to their indigenous Gods, and slowly but surely restoring the pre-Islamic polytheisms of the Middle East. They call their movement ‘Wathan’ and right now, I’m sure you’ve never heard of them. (1) They’re doing good and potent work, and they’re doing it under pressures that we here in the West simply don’t have to face. For those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, they face a literal – not metaphorical but quite literal—death sentence if they are discovered. The penalty for blasphemy or apostasy in Islam is, after all, death, especially in areas where Sharia law holds sway.

Yes, Virginia, there was religion in the Middle East before Islam. There were many complex and thriving theologies. They even worshipped Dionysos in Arabia. (2) Islam wiped most of that away and is still attempting to do so with any remnants. This is one of the major reasons that Daesh is so hell bent on blowing up places once sacred to their ancestors like Palmyra. Most of what we know about Pre-Islamic Deities comes from this text here. It’s not at all an unbiased text, but it is at least something.

 

We often talk about monotheistic privilege here in the West and yes, it exists and it can be problematic being a polytheist even in the United States. We can’t be lawfully killed for it though. We don’t have to practice our religion in such secrecy, fearing that if our polytheism were even remotely suspected we could be stoned, raped and stoned, beheaded, tortured, imprisoned, or slaughtered in some other horrifying way. Even if we live in areas where we might get occasionally harassed, we don’t have to fear being hauled out of our houses to our own deaths. We are lucky to live in the West where we have the luxury of being able to maintain our shrines and pour out libations and declare ourselves to friends and family if we wish as polytheists without such terror.

The men and women practicing Wathan, and other indigenous Middle Eastern polytheisms are incredibly brave. They are few in number, yes, but courageous. I pray fervently that they do not become martyrs just as I pray fervently that we in the West will always have the freedoms we enjoy now, to worship as we will.

As I told someone recently having come to polytheism from Islam today: you have a right to the Gods of your ancestral lands and people. That at least One of those Gods has been coopted and practices corrupted into a damaging system of oppression does not change that. You have a right to love and honor the Holy Powers of your ancestors. You should be able to do so without fear of slaughter.

I worry when those I know who practice in the Middle East fall silent on social media. I worry. There is religious genocide happening in lands where Islam holds sway (and no, not all Muslims. Most Muslims in this country want to practice their tradition peacefully. We’re not talking about individual friends and neighbors, we’re talking about a system of oppression and brutality under which many are living today, a system that is spreading).

Monday night I attended a lecture by C. Stewart, a Benedictine monk who saved over twenty one thousand manuscripts from destruction (Syrian manuscripts from the fifth century onward, crucial to understanding the development of Syrian Christianity). He had a slide show as part of his presentation and he’d show us a monastery where he found an archive of books and then we’d learn that it most likely didn’t exist anymore. We’d see a new picture of rubble. He’d show us one of the people that he worked with and then we’d learn that his friend disappeared, no ransom requested, nothing and you know with Daesh in the region he’s never coming back. Syrian Christians are being slaughtered or driven out of their ancestral cities. Yezidi—fellow polytheists—are being slaughtered or sold into sexual slavery to be raped and tortured. It’s genocide.

I hope that one day history will remember those brave ones who risked brutality and death to once again pour out libations to the true Gods of their people. I hope that they will be hailed as the heroes and heroines that they are. I hope one day, they and others like them won’t have to hide, but that we will instead have a Middle East returned to the Gods to Whom it truly belongs.

For now, I pray for those practitioners.

 

Notes:

  1. Wathan (Wathanism, Wathaniyya, “ethnicism” is a pretty close counterpart to the NT Greek terminology of ta ethnē, “the nations”. It’s an appropriate term as any for Arabian revivalist polytheism.
  2. Herodotus, Histories, 3.8