Last week an academic friend and colleague, who is soon to be teaching a class on Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, asked me a rather complicated question. My friend L. plans to include a brief survey of contemporary Pagan and Polytheistic religions as part of the course, to show that these traditions did not completely disappear but continue to have import and impact in the modern day. As prep for the course, L. asked me, “What is the difference between Pagan (or Neo-pagan) and Polytheist?” I had previously mentioned that use of these terms is somewhat political and charged in our communities.(1) Here is what I told my colleague.
“Oh, it’s such a mess.
The two words, in my opinion, should be synonymous but in today’s communities, they’re not. Polytheist means someone who believes in and venerates the Gods as individual, Holy beings. The logical and necessary corollary then, is the rightness of regular devotion and cultus. One would think this is self-explanatory. The meaning, after all, is embedded in the etymology of the word itself: πολύ (many) θέοι (Gods). We have, however, had atheists who call themselves “Pagan” try to claim the identity “Polytheist” on occasion, but for now, every time they crop up, we manage to beat them back (rather like a demented game of whack-a-mole). It’s almost as though the moment the devout make space for themselves, it comes under attack, and this isn’t just an issue in polytheism (2).
While the definition of ‘Polytheist’ is self-explanatory, ‘Pagan’ is more complicated. Some polytheists will use the term. But maybe four years ago there was a huge inter community explosion over it.(3) There were growing attempts A) to allow for “Pagan” to include non-theist, anti-theist, atheists, etc. as well as pop culture ‘pagans’ who can’t tell the difference between fiction and devotion and other questionable um…characters (Mind you, L., I’m hardly unbiased in this and I was right in the middle of these arguments.) and B) to force polytheistic traditions under the “Neo-pagan” umbrella, which at its core was an attempt to erase our traditions, esp. the piety of our traditions, and to force them to open their boundaries to anyone and anything.(4) The “battle” raged over blogs and newsgroups and finally many leading polytheists (against my better judgment) decided to yield the term ‘Pagan’. So now anyone who has any connection to any god or goddess (regardless of whether or not they believe in Them to be archetypes as opposed to reality, or this nonsense about all deities being one, or whether they are only interested in nature or whether they’re Marxists interfering in our communities for their own political agenda, or whatever kind of trash you may have) can claim the word without having a core of any type of tradition or devotion. So, ‘Pagan’ has become a catch all term.
Most devout polytheists I know, especially those who fought through this, won’t use the term “Pagan” now. The Gods and Their devotion are at the heart of our practices. ‘Pagan’ has become a term where that is no longer necessarily the case. Of course, the moment we ceded the term, the non and anti-theists started trying to claim “Polytheist” too, but so far we’ve successfully beaten them back. It’s never ending but there are those of us who will hold that line until we are all of us dust. Our Gods and traditions deserve that at least, from us.
I’d also add that part of the problem is that Polytheism involves traditions, which are closed containers. Neo-pagans scream that this is elitist and amounts to policing devotion (unless we’re talking about one of the African Traditional Religions when they are less likely to complain, because that might be construed as appropriative and racist.). Polytheists respond: that’s the way traditions work, either adapt yourself to them or fuck off. And so it goes. It’s a nasty, ongoing feud with those who care about what their Gods might require and those who barely register that Gods exist.
So, unlike in the ancient world where ‘Pagan’ referred to someone practicing their ancestral tradition and/or initiated into various mystery cultus, today it refers to someone practicing any of the many …religions…which may or may not include devotion to the Gods…that grew out of Gerald Gardner’s explorations into Wicca and occultism in the fifties and later out of the counter-culture movement in the 60s and 70s in the United States. It may also refer to those practicing and restoring various Polytheistic traditions like Heathenry, Asatru, Kemetic orthodoxy, Hellenismos, Romuva, etc. but in majority quarters, it is no longer the term of choice, particularly in the US community for such.
Heathenry, (Norse polytheism), always eschewed the term because it was always an umbrella term for a mishmash of traditions and practices, many excessively liberal, or diametrically opposed to devotion, or containing ethical standards (or lack thereof) that Heathens and other polytheists found problematic. The problem is more complicated in Europe where the various romance languages have ONLY the term ‘Pagan’ to cover a broad spectrum of traditions.
Basically, the conflict is about modernity, religious identity, and a push back against devotion and piety.
As a caveat, you will still find people who aren’t very much online using ‘Pagan’ when they are very devout…it depends on how aware they were of the online arguments. Our hashing out of orthodoxy, because of how spread out our communities are, tends to happen online but one should not think that the online world encompasses the whole of any tradition or practice. There are many devout Polytheists (and probably Pagans too) whose practice centers around hearth and home, land, community, and their Gods and whose window into the greater world of practice doesn’t necessarily come through the internet.
It should also be noted that there are Polytheists who obstinately refuse to cede the term Pagan and still use it, solely to spit in the eye of the impious. I like these folks. 🙂 And newbies coming into the communities also tend not to be aware of the political fault lines either.
It’s always worth querying when someone says “I’m Pagan,” what they mean by that. The answers might surprise you.”
- Especially now since Isaac Bonewits is the one who originally pioneered usage of the terminology “Neo-Pagan.”
- The problem isn’t atheists per se. If someone wants to attend a ritual and behaves respectfully that’s fine. The problem is ad nauseum, atheists who come into our communities, demand leadership positions, but refuse to accommodate the traditions or bow themselves to the beauty of devotion. Instead, they endlessly attempt to twist the religion to their own lowest common denominator. This isn’t a problem only in Polytheistic traditions. It’s happening in various Monotheisms as well. For a case in point see here. (I particular love how the minister in question complains her church puts theology over ethics. Um, yes. It’s a religion. Theology matters and moreover, you’ve already proven you have no ethics by impersonating a Christian and minister).
- I would estimate between 2011-2014.
- Polytheisms tend to have far more traditional values, sexual ethics, and much more of a focus on devotional piety than any generic Paganism. They also tend to encompass mystery cultus, which are exclusionary by their very nature, solid lineages, and strict ways of doing things. They are not generally religions in which “anything goes” spiritually or morally, all too often unlike their Pagan counterparts.
Someone yesterday sent me an old link whining about my writing on miasma. (I get more push back on the idea that purification is important than on pretty much anything else). The final line of that rather convoluted post was a declaration that our Gods (I believe it specifically mentioned Odin, Thor, and Hela but implied all the Norse Gods) are not holy. I was so absolutely flabbergasted by this assertion that I had to address it.
If our Gods are not holy then why do we venerate Them? If our Gods are not holy then exactly what are They? What is holiness? Why would someone ever think that They were not, in fact, holy? If one doesn’t consider one’s Gods holy, how is one going to behave with respect to Them? This is not some obscure theological point, like how many angels might dance on the head of a pin, this is something that has real world implications and consequences to our devotion and praxis. It has significant implications in how this issue entangles everything else and ultimately the question remains: why would you seek to strip the holy from the Powers?(1)
We know our northern ancestors had a clear concept of the holy. A brief look here gives us the Old English halig (holy, consecrated, sacred, godly…), Proto-Germanic *hailaga-, Old Norse heilagr, Danish hellig, Old Frisian helich, Old Saxon helag, Middle Dutch helich, and I could go on. The word derives from PIE word meaning ‘whole,’ or ‘uninjured.’ That which was holy was that which was in some way connected to the Gods, with the implication that holiness flows from the Gods (which would be impossible if They Themselves were not holy). A further meaning of ‘whole,’ or ‘uninjured’ can easily lead to the conclusion that not only are the Gods the embodiment of holiness, but that They are eternal, restorative Powers, untouched by the decay and temporality of the human world.
Amongst the Norse Gods, we immediately must turn to the three creator Gods, the Architects of the nine worlds: Odin, Hoenir, and Lo∂ur. The latter two Gods here had other names: Vili and Vé. Vé actually means sacred enclosure, holy place, shrine.(2) The embodiment of holiness was then essential to the creation of the worlds and it was localized within our Gods, in this case specifically Vé. So the worlds were created by a unified confluence of frenzy (Desire), will, and holiness. Those are the attributes Odin and His brothers brought to that act and wrought from the destruction of Ymir and what was infused in that primal act of genesis continues to infuse both our Gods and the spaces in which They move, the deeds which They enact.
Now of course, the holiness of Odin is going to differ from the holiness of Freya which will likewise differ from any other Deity and if you raise holiness above the Gods then you’re essentially saying that concept is more important than They are. Holiness can only be an extension of the Gods. It is that which defines Their nature and Presence. To say that They lack holiness is to say that They are not, in fact, Gods and that nothing generative, integral, and whole may possibly flow from Them. Holiness is that inviolable quality that marks Their Presence, and perhaps Their very essence.
There is the question as well of what is sacred versus what is holy: something is rendered sacred but innately holy. Holy things are holy in and of themselves, whereas that which is sacred is made so by contagion with the holy. We can infer this etymologically, by the very definition of the word ‘holy.’ It’s supposed to be untouched, inviolable…we’re not supposed to become in contact with it. The sacred (ritual, clergy, temples etc.) become intermediaries that allow contact to happen safely. It’s a scaffolding.
In many respects, the divisions here are murky in English. We can, after all, speak of something being sacred to us outside of any religious context and as my friend and colleague KSV pointed out, it’s then a matter of exploring the tether between the person, concept, and the definition of the thing. I think in some respects this speaks to our own modern discomfort with elements of piety and devotion from which the concept originally came. What was sacred in the ancient world was inviolate, specifically because it had come into contact in some way with holiness, with the Presence of the Gods. Having then been rendered sacred, that which has so been marked belongs to the Gods. It is no longer fully a thing at home in the human world.(3)
There is also often an implicit connection assumed (wrongly) that the idea of ‘holiness’ is specifically monotheistic and something belonging solely to their God. Theologically and historically, that is not the case. It is clear from the briefest overview of religious history that our polytheistic ancestors had a rich and complex sense of the holy and its significance and likewise recognized our Gods as such, to the point that one might say as I have here, that holiness is a byproduct of Divine presence.
The corollary of course is what this might mean for us in our engagement with the Holy and that is where tradition, divination, and devotion come so powerfully to the fore. How ought we to prepare ourselves for such engagement? What are the consequences of it? Most importantly of all, how do we recognize it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you all have to say in the comments. Let’s continue this conversation.
- Or since the post specifically mentioned the Norse Gods, perhaps then the writer was saying that other Gods are holy but not the Norse…I struggle with this… um… logic.
- There is another name for the God Lo∂ur: there is Skaldic evidence that this God was, in fact, Loki. See my article here.
- We can see this in Tacitus’ Germania, where those who stumbled upon Nerthus’ image unprepared were sacralized in such a way that their deaths were then required. They were too marked to remain in the human world and must, of necessity, be given to this Goddess.
By E. Butler, PhD
(To give a bit of context for this, Edward and I were discussing a couple of our upcoming articles and he mentioned some push back he’d had recently vis a vis the word ‘polytheism.’)
Edward: I posted a link to a collection of stotras (devotional hymns) attributed to Shankara, the famous Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta philosopher, remarking that, though there are questions about the validity of the attribution, the sheer number and diversity of the Gods addressed in the hymns made Advaita look quite polytheistic to me. This is in accord with my conviction that the issue between Advaita and Dvaita positions in Vedanta, being a dispute about the nature of brahman, have nothing to do with the number of Gods.
So, [a certain ‘scholar’] chimes in with how it’s wrong to use a modern, Western category like polytheism with regard to Hinduism.
Galina: these modern secularist fools are trying to take away even the words by which we can define our faith. The word ‘polytheism’ occurs in ancient material; it just happened to enter ENGLISH in the 17th c.
Edward: This is yet another stupid fight we have to wage. As far as I’m concerned, any language that has a plural term for “God” has polytheism, or had it, period. It doesn’t matter to me when the term itself was first used, it’s logically entailed by the use of the plural terms.
The other nonsense issue I’ve seen come up lately is the notion that we shouldn’t translate foreign terms as “Gods” because they’re all sui generis. Only when polytheist civilizations encountered one another, there’s literally not a case I know of where they didn’t use the same term they use for divinities to refer to the foreign Gods. Angirasa Srestha found a passage, for instance, that refers to “Devas of foreign lands”, and Egyptians spoke of Netjeru in foreign lands, and of course we know that for Greeks and Romans the other people’s Theoi or Dei were Theoi and Dei, and so forth.
It’s like being swarmed by ants, though, dealing with this shit. Everyone gets zealous about protecting other cultures from contamination once those cultures start appropriating Western concepts for themselves. Don’t let them get hold of the master’s tools, force them to use their native resources exclusively, after you’ve disrupted those intellectual resources for centuries.
What we need to take away from this, though, is that we need to fight for the proper sense of universal categories like “Gods” and “polytheism”, a sense that doesn’t interfere with the uniqueness of nations and pantheons and individual Gods, but that grounds a stable theoretical discourse and for solidarity across traditions.
(and he is absolutely right. – GK).
I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. I’d just never quite heard it phrased so succinctly.
Devotional living can be hard. Coming into alignment with our Gods and ancestors and nourishing those relationships (which is part and parcel of restoring the ancient covenants with Gods, ancestors, and land) carries with it the challenge of reorienting our priorities, changing the way we look at the world, at everything, and it often involves a certain degree of loss. Actually, I think sometimes it involves a huge degree of loss. It’s difficult, really, really difficult because it changes everything in our world. Doing devotional work well changes the way we are in our world, the way we position ourselves in relation to everything. Yes, I strongly believe that the Gods more than meet us half way, walk with us as we struggle, but that doesn’t make devotional work any less grueling.
I remember once my adopted mom was discussing ‘love.’ She was very much against any abstract, grand, or romantic definitions. She said, “you know what love is? It’s rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.” She compared it to a parent changing a baby’s dirty diaper when completely exhausted and I rather agree with her. St. Augustine (I’m not a fan, but he was right on this particular point) said that “my love is my weight,” meaning that his love for his God motivated him to make changes to who he was and to whom he wanted to become. If we look at devotion as the cultivation of a deep hunger and longing for God, the cultivation and its fruition, then it’s the work of tending that fire of longing, while at the same time of seeking endlessly to sate that hunger. St. Benedict (I’m taking a class in early Christianity so we’re reading Benedict now) gave us the famous dictum: “Ora et Labora” (pray and work). Until recently I’ve always interpreted the ‘labora’ part of that saying to refer to manual labor (which monks would routinely engage in not only to support themselves but as a spiritual discipline) but more and more I am beginning think that it may be a bit more metaphysical, that Benedict was referring to the intense and painful spiritual labor of opening ourselves up to our Gods. Devotional work takes humility and vulnerability, a level of radical honesty not only with our Holy Powers but with ourselves too, most especially with ourselves and well, it can be pretty awful at times. There are reasons why Christian writers wrote that it was a “terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Well, it can be, because afterwards nothing is ever the same again.
Sometimes it’s the very longing for connection to the Gods that hurts the most. It’s fire in the soul, a goad to the heart. It’s a thing that gives no peace. I once quipped that I hadn’t had a single comfortable day since I became a devout woman (I’m exaggerating, because there is deep joy and satisfaction in the devotional life as well, but not by much). That longing is so crucial. We can numb ourselves to it. So much in our world encourages us to numb ourselves to it but if we do that, then getting through the really difficult times, the proverbial dark nights of the soul is that much harder. In the nadir of our spiritual world, it’s sometimes longing that carries us through. It’s certainly longing that encourages us to do the work that helps ensure good spiritual discernment. If we are longing for our Gods after all, why would we settle for anything less? Someone recently posted in a comment to one of my previous blog posts that the Latin word cultus, referring to all the rites and rituals and devotional practices of tending to a particular Deity, is directly related to the word meaning ‘to cultivate, or to tend’ and that is linguistically correct. To pay cultus to a God is to be in a state of having tended to that God and one’s relationship with Him or Her properly. The word itself calls to mind the work of tending a field, the hard, manual labor of a farmer minding his crops – work that paid off with the means to nourish a family or community. It implies a great deal of consistent labor. It’s the same with devotional work, that likewise pays off in the micro-verse of our souls, of our character, of the formation of our hearts and minds.
Getting back to Seneca though, I agree with him. There is immense freedom in consciously, passionately serving a God. It’s not just the satisfaction of being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, but also of acknowledging that when we are in that relationship, so much falls into place on every possible level. When we are given over consciously and mindfully to the Powers that shaped our world, that wove our fate, that nurtured our ancestors, that breathed life into our beings, with that comes a soul deep purpose. It elevates us as human beings. Likewise, we have tremendous free will within our devotional worlds. All things being equal we have the choice of doing this work gracefully. We can cultivate in ourselves those things that cultivate our connection to our Gods, or we can behave like petulant little bitches (and believe me, we all go down this route occasionally). The work of devotion is ultimately that which allows us to experience our Gods directly. It allows us to align our priorities and wills with Theirs. It allows us joy. It places the world in order and us in order within that world, and if we are in alignment with our Gods, then all else is commentary. If we are in alignment with our Gods then They are in alignment with us, and we have the benefit of Their blessing and protection as active, moving forces in our lives.
All of this leads me to the question of what makes one a good person. What does it mean to be an adult and a polytheist and what are the virtues that we should be attempting to cultivate? It’s not as easy a question as one might think given that the answer will vary mightily depending on the Gods we venerate. What Odin wishes cultivated in His devotees is very different in many respects from what Dionysos or Inanna might wish. It leads me to the conflict I see playing out in our communities every day, namely whether humanity or the Gods should take priority in our consciousness. But if we are not serving the Gods well, if we are not in right relationship with Them, then how can we possibly hope to be so with the people in our lives, or with humanity in general? If we cannot order this, the most essential of relationships rightly, then how can we hope to do so with the smaller, yet also important ones?
Orthodox Ritual Praxis
This morning I read an article on Greek and Russian Orthodox Church services and it was fascinating. The services, particularly around holy week can be quite grueling. They last for hours and in the most traditional churches people are standing that entire time. Of course, they don’t just stand: they pray, they sing, they move to various icons and light candles and pray some more as the spirit moves them. It’s interactive and quite physically demanding. Here’s the article I read, which actually downplays quite a bit the physical exertion and discipline required.
So I read this and think: we can’t even get people willing to offer water without them whining about how put upon they are, and how they feel being expected to actually DO something is elitist, ablest, classist, insert ‘ism of your choice here.
If people cared about their Gods as much as they cared about the latest cause or video game or Dr. Who episode maybe we’d actually be getting somewhere but I look at articles like the above and realize exactly how far we have to go to hit even a bare baseline of active devotion.
The Vikings Didn’t Need Islam to be Religiously Fulfilled.
Then there’s this little gem. Apparently, the Arabic word for God (Allah) was found on some Viking textiles and a group of academics is using this as an opportunity to normalize Muslim invasion of Europe, and to erase our indigenous religions. The scholars involved are claiming that Vikings were influenced in their burial practices by Islam, extensively influenced, because of course Heathen religions couldn’t possibly have complex and fulfilling beliefs about the afterlife. Of course, the Vikings would have had to turn to a monotheistic religion for that. It’s utter bullshit and frankly bad scholarship along with being subtle pro- Muslim propaganda. It goes without saying a certain portion of our communities are celebrating this.
Yes, religions communicated. We know this. No religion evolved in a vacuum and there were borrowings across history. This is a normal part of the conversations that happen culturally between different groups, including religious groups. That, however, is not what the article is saying. It’s flat out giving Islam credit for Viking burial practices and doing so with zero evidence.
Why were there Islamic textiles in the Northlands? Most likely trade. And frankly, given that silk is a luxury item, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s found in burials. Why wouldn’t you want to bring back and give pretty, rich things to the dead that you love before sending them off? (I’ve seen this before though in academia. Secularism and/or atheism holds such sway in certain fields, along with the blanket assumption that if you’re educated you will not be religious, that I’ve actually attended lectures on religious topics like pilgrimage wherein the speaker put forth every possible explanation for why someone would undertake this difficult and expensive process…except devotion and piety. There is a swath of academics who simply cannot conceptualize devotion. It’s quite sad and leads to some seriously shady scholarship or at the very least, scholarship that misses its mark significantly).
Why is that surprising? This is right up there with archeologists finding multiple burials of women having died of war wounds, having been buried with weapons – repeatedly—and acting confused, claiming that perhaps the burials were contaminated because women can’t have been warriors to the degree they’re finding. There is a level of obtuseness and flat out stupidity in this that I find mind-blowing. The standard attitude of academia toward polytheism in the ancient world (they hardly ever acknowledge it in the modern) is to insist it didn’t exist, to insist it was solely a matter of praxis, that there was no meat or belief or devotion or passion there…despite quite a lot of evidence (linguistic, literary, archeological, etc.) to the contrary. The contemporary academic response to polytheism is, essentially, erasure.
Bringing this full circle, it’s bad enough when academics try to erase our devotional worlds. It’s bad enough when they damn our ancestors and their traditions like this. You know what’s worse? When we do it ourselves by simply not giving a damn.
I saw someone on Facebook today opining that the tattoo they’d gotten so proudly to honor their Gods was now being taken over by a neo-Nazi group. No. Many things can be corrupted and coopted but it doesn’t change the inherent nature of those things. It may alter our perceptions, yes, but othala remains othala, a conduit to a rune spirit of tremendous power, one that has nothing to do with our contemporary politics. It is only lost to hate groups if we allow it to be.
This rune is the rune of lineage and tribe, of tradition, of connection to our forebears, of right order. By that latter, I mean sacred covenants (with Gods, ancestors, land) in place and active. It is a rune of protection, of nurturing and nourishing the family, community, and all tribal bonds. It is that which keeps a community healthy, hale, and whole. Those are all good things. We should be working to keep our families, our communities, our tribes if we had them anymore, safe and secure, healthy, we should be maintaining healthy boundaries and working for overall abundance and well-being. Othala is the transmission of knowledge and in a sacred context mysteries from one generation to another. It is one’s active connection to one’s ancestors and lineage, complete with all the obligations that entails made manifest. I think this is perhaps why it is a favored rune for white supremacist groups. It speaks to tribe and culture, tradition and lineage but what they miss when they co-opt it, is that it speaks to that for each group of people. It doesn’t just speak to that for those with white skin. It speaks to the goodness and necessity of connection to one’s forebears, and protection of one’s family for every tribe and people. That is contained in its nature, encoded in its DNA so to speak. This is what it holds, what it is. How do you make a people strong? How do you ensure that the next generation will be healthy and hale? How do you ensure clean transmission of tradition from generation to generation and what does it mean to do so? All of this is contained within this rune.
Generally, when I work Othala, I find that it connects very strongly first to the ancestors and then to Odin. For the former, it is very much about the active relationship with one’s honored dead, the give and take now as it immediately impacts one’s daily life. It’s about healthy transmission of knowledge, and daily maintenance of those sacred covenants. When it is more Odinic in its manifestation, it speaks to the obligations of sacred hierarchy, of kingship, of sovereignty, and the give and take between king and vassal, or in modern parlance, the necessary work to keep those covenants healthy and functioning properly. It speaks to the need for good boundaries, for self-knowledge, and for being able to look ahead – like Odin on Hlidskjalf— beyond the morass of daily emotions and Sturm and Drang of living to the problems that may face a family or community or tribe down the road, it speaks to the necessity of preparation, and of conscious piety being part of the best prep.
Most importantly of all, Othala is our connection to our folk. I hate that term ‘folk’ because of how it’s so often used, but it is our connection to those ancestors who were functioning polytheists. It is the bridge between what we have now as we work to restore, and what once was and as such it is a reminder of our obligations to be vigilant and strong in our work toward restoration. It reminds us that our ancestors hold the wisdom we need and with their help we can bridge the gap between what was, what is, and what we very much wish to create. Othala is the citadel, under protection of the Gods and dead that has never fallen and will never fall so long as we continue fostering right relationship with the Powers, including our own communities.
I too grow angry when I see hate groups mis-using our sacred symbols, all the more so when it is people who clearly have no devotion to or veneration of the Gods and spirits in question. It angers me greatly. It is not theirs by right. It is not theirs to corrupt. It is not theirs to smear their pollution upon. (I feel the same way when I see Wiccans or Pagans handling the runes without any thought to the Mysteries behind them. I feel the same way when I see Marvel misusing the Valknot or other symbols. It’s appropriation. It’s disgusting. I do understand very much the anger and disgust such misappropriation can evoke). But that they do this does not change the inherent nature of the rune or the rune spirit itself and I think it’s important to not let people’s mis use cause us to abandon these things that are in fact the right of all those steeped in the Northern Ways, or bound to its Gods, or called by its spirits. To abandon that which is ours by right is as great an error as to claim that which is not. We simply have to be louder in proclaiming our traditions, in showing the rune in the proper context, in working as we have each been called to work for the restoration of our traditions. In the end, if the Gods will and our work is successful, those traditions will stand and their ignorant usurpers will be nothing more than a pathetic blip in the march of history. Othala is about preserving and building, not tearing down and not hate.
Apparently Emily Kamp, this month’s “Polytheistic Voices” interviewee, is getting a bit of harassment on her tumblr page because she was interviewed by me. Really pathetic, folks, but unsurprising (though I constantly marvel at the lack of nuanced reading comprehension in some of my critics. Wow. There are resources that can help you, folks, really. I’d look into that if I were you. I can hunt up a list of organizations that focus on increasing literacy if you like).
At any rate, one of the criticisms is that I apparently “devalued the Holocaust” by comparing it to “willing conversions.” Firstly, buttercups, I never said anything about the Holocaust. I said, if I recall correctly, that the destruction of our traditions, the destruction of our shrines, temples, groves, and sacred places, the forced conversion and religious genocide that occurred as a consequence of monotheism, specifically of Christianity marching through Europe and later Islam through the middle east (and for a time into Europe) was a holocaust. I stand by that statement. The destruction of these sacred covenants with the land, the ancestors and the Gods, the destruction of our traditions and the corruption of the world into monotheism was a terrible holocaust, one from which we have yet to recover. The word, my dear readers, existed long before World War II. A simple search of the term on dictionary.com yields the following:
- a great or complete devastation or destruction, especially by fire.
- a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; burnt offering.
3.(usually initial capital letter) the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II (usually preceded by the).
4.any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life.
If I were to give a sacrifice to Odin, and after slaughtering the animal, commit it to full immolation that would, technically be a holocaust. The ruthless destruction of our traditions and those who practiced them is likewise a holocaust. Isn’t it interesting how context, indefinite articles, and capitalization (or lack thereof) actually matters grammatically? English is neat that way. (The emphasis in the above dictionary.com quote was in the original. It was not mine).
Secondly, if anyone actually thinks that Europe converted willingly, you all need to read your history a little more thoroughly. Moreover, if you think our polytheistic ancestors abandoned their traditions and Gods so readily then why are you even bothering to practice any type of polytheism now? Those who saw the rise of Christianity did not, in fact – despite generations of Christian propaganda to the contrary (including a deeply embedded idea of hierarchy of religions that places monotheism or atheism at the top)– go gently into that good night. I often wonder what it was like for the generation that was forced to bury their sacred items and images, or give them over to the bog in order that they might not be desecrated by Christian hands.
Let’s see, off the top of my head:
We all know about Hypatia, the philosopher tortured to death by Christians, but have you bothered to read about Olvir of Egg, a Scandinavian martyr tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson (may he be ever damned) because he would not abandon the Norse Gods? How many of you know about Charlemagne’s continued persecutions against Saxon Heathens, culminating in the massacre of 2500 of them? Or the forced conversion of the Orkneys – let’s round up all the children while the men are out working and threaten to kill them if the village doesn’t convert? So Christian. So very, very Christian.
Then there’s Raud the strong, also tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson, again for refusing conversion. Likewise there’s a Norwegian chieftain and priest – unnamed I believe in the sources – who was tortured to death by –guess who—Olaf Trygvasson again for attempting to protect the sacred images of Thor and the temple in Maeren when Trygvasson destroyed it.
We have the Stellinga, still practicing their polytheism under duress in the ninth century. There’s Eyvind Kinnrifi, tortured to death by…wanna hazard a guess? …Trygvasson again, for refusing to convert. No wonder the Christians canonized this fucker. He sure kept busy butchering the pious. May we be as efficient in restoring our traditions as he was in destroying them – and preferably without all the bloodshed.
Saints’ lives are always sickly entertaining reading, if one wishes to see what polytheists faced during the spread of Christianity. Take the life of Martin of Tours for instance. I can barely stand to read it (and I’ve had to multiple times in various theology classes). Just from memory, I recall he interrupted a Pagan funeral procession, desecrating the ancestral rites because he wanted to make sure the Gods weren’t being venerated. He destroyed multiple temples and shrines, and chopped down trees holy to the local Pagans. Each time, people protested up to the point of riots. This is not an isolated series of incidents. This was standard operating procedure for these missionaries and each time there is recorded resistance.
My favorite account is the wonderful resistance by the Pagans at Lyon in the second century who, frankly, were just sick of Christian bullshit. (Eusebius writes about this in his Ecclesiastical History and of course it’s framed as persecution of Christians. Yes, defending one’s ancestral traditions, refusing to abandon one’s Gods, and driving out the people who are desecrating one’s holy places is persecution, but monotheists coming into a place engaging in wholesale destruction of sacred spaces and attempting to force conversion isn’t? Obviously, these early Christians had the same literacy problems as some of my tumblr readers).
Blood was spilled to defend our Gods and our traditions. That Christian writers later presented conversion as inevitable and willing does not mean that it was in fact so. It was anything but.
Intrepid tumblristas are also protesting that I support human sacrifice. Obviously, this is ludicrous. What I’m not willing to do, however, is condemn our ancestors because it was occasionally practiced. They lived in a very, very different world and had reasons for doing what they did, reasons that we may now find abhorrent. I’m not suggesting we return to giving human sacrifice, but neither do I think we’re more advanced than our ancestors. We may have better technology but we’re so much more disconnected from the land, the dead, and the Gods that in no way do I think we’re particularly evolved. So take that for what it’s worth.
I do think it would be a good and holy thing if we were able to lay ourselves down before our Gods in offering and die in sacrifice to Them if that is what we wish, (you know, consent matters in some things) and how we wish to die but given the state of euthanasia laws in this country, that’s not going to happen in any of our lifetimes so what I think on this matter is largely irrelevant. Likewise, if I were a soldier, I would, in fact, dedicate my kills to my Gods. Why not? I belong to a God of war and I’m not wasteful. But you know, that’s all contextual, theoretical, and nuanced as opposed to blanket support for human sacrifice. No wonder my tumblr readers found it confusing to digest. (Though let’s be honest: given how our society treats its most vulnerable, the blanket callousness and cruelty with which we treat our impoverished, the pointless wars in which we’ve been engaged for what? Almost 20 years now…one wonders if we don’t’ have a culture that supports human sacrifice wholesale and for far less relevant a purpose than honoring the gods. In fact, I think we have very little room to condemn our ancestors when we have turned the world that we inherited from them to shit).
Remember, folks: reading is fundamental.
I first met Emily through my husband’s tradition, the Starry Bull and over the years we’ve had quite a few conversations on honoring the dead, raising children in our polytheistic traditions, and the importance of building a hearth tradition. I was very glad when she agreed to be interviewed for this series.
GK: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what do you do?
Emily: Hi there! I’m Emily, a polytheist and initiate of the Starry Bull tradition. I do a lot of devotional work for my Gods and Spirits, and most of that work consists of divination, education, development of local-focus traditions, ritual creation and adaptation, singing for the Gods and Spirits, and honoring the local Dead. I’m currently exploring face paint and stage makeup as ways of adding depth and drama to ritual.
When I’m not doing devotional work, I’m the social media marketing manager for a small tea company and a mother of a four-year-old who enjoys praying to the ancestors and rocking out to hair metal.
GK: How did you come to polytheism? What tradition do you practice?
Emily: I’ve been a polytheist (unwillingly, at first), since I encountered Hermes at the age of seven. I began exploring Hellenic polytheism as a teenager, and solidifying my practice in the late 2000s; 2013-14 found me stumbling into the Starry Bull tradition, which has been more or less my base of operations ever since. My praxis is usually Hellenic. I do find myself exploring the outskirts though, drawing from other traditions and regions that associate with Dionysian ones—off the top of my head, I can think of the Greek Magical Papyri, Ptolemaic Egypt, and even some Norse materials. (Congratulations on creating the Comitatus Pilae Cruentae, by the way! It’s been fascinating to watch its evolution. I’m really excited to see where that goes.)
GK: Why unwilling to become a polytheist? That’s interesting!
Emily: Not as surprising as you might think—I was raised in a Christian household. It was not an easy thing to see past my upbringing to the reality of the Gods—I felt Them calling me as soon as I started reading myths, but couldn’t figure out if these “storybook figures” were actually calling to me or just really vivid imaginary friends. Muddling the matter was the fact that I had channeled my interest in Divine Mystery and mysticism into my family’s church. I even (when still quite young) considered joining the clergy! Choosing instead to go with the Gods who called me meant turning a significant portion of my family’s culture and personal identity on its head, and eventually dealing with my family’s responses to my choices. It was incredibly rewarding, but not easy.
GK: You work a great deal with Pentheus. Can you tell my readers who he is and why you work with him and how that has impacted your spiritual life?
Emily: Pentheus was a king of Thebes and a first cousin of Dionysos. In life, he refused to let Dionysos spread his cultus to Thebes and, long story short, suffered the consequences. After being torn apart by a group of Dionysos’ maenads, his own mother among them, he became one of the Dionysian dead—death by dismemberment is a forced initiation.
As one of the Dionysian dead, and one of the Dionysian kings, he works a great deal with restoring right relations between the Dead, the Land Spirits, the living, and the Gods; as a Spirit, he is a sin-eater who can take the brunt of incredibly miasmic forces and still be okay. He is an incredible ally when I’m working to restore right relationships between the Gods, Land, and Dead of the city I live in; we have similar goals. In a way, he acts as a bit of a spiritual compass for me, giving me strong instincts regarding proper treatment of the local Spirits and Dead and a sense of when miasma needs to be cleansed.
On a personal level, he and his story have helped me break through some conditioning and perfectionism issues that were holding my devotional work back. I honor Him primarily through ecstatic dance accompanied by a specific type of music—usually something with a strong, driving beat, in a minor key, with lyrics that speak to all the emotions that accompany a need to be broken open. As I dance, I open myself up to Pentheus and allow him to see what has been troubling me. When he finds the thread he wants to trace, it feels like our emotions meld and my story fuses to His. The story gives me a way to feel my emotions and work through pain (particularly deeply-repressed pain) without getting stuck in a negative spiral—we know how Pentheus’ story ends, and it is a cathartic union with Dionysos. Maybe not the gentlest of cathartic unions, but it’s the kick in the pants I need!
GK: What challenges have you faced raising your child as a polytheist? Can you recommend any resources for polytheistic parents?
Emily: My daughter isn’t in school yet, so I haven’t had to face the things I’m most worried about just yet; I’m not looking forward to talks I may have with her teachers or helping her field/deal with comments about her beliefs. There have been challenges, though. Telling her grandparents about our beliefs was scary, and I consider it a blessing that they have been nothing but understanding. Now if we could just find a preschool in the area that wasn’t run out of a church…
As for resources, on a spiritual level I highly recommend forging a relationship with one’s ancestors if it’s not already there. The ancestors have a vested interest in seeing their descendants succeed, after all!
In terms of books, articles, and blogs, I’m still (always) looking for resources, but the book that introduced me to the Theoi when I was still little was Aliki’s The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. I know other Hellenic polytheists who read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Two of my favorite polytheist bloggers who also write about their experiences as parents are Camilla Laurentine and Sarenth—Camilla is great at giving details about how her practice and parenting shape each other and tips for how to include children in festivals (like her article on celebrating the Kalends with her daughter here!), while Sarenth has given some great advice on why raising our children in our traditions is important (like in this article here).
And for my unsolicited advice as a polytheist parent: use LOTS of images of the Gods in your home, and have illustrated mythology books oriented towards kids, so your children can get used to seeing and talking about the Gods. It’s a good thing to have even if the myths are from outside your tradition—that’s how I got introduced to Hermes to begin with. Researching local temples for other polytheistic traditions in your area (Hindu or Shinto in particular) gives children a great place to learn about living polytheism. It’s also a great opportunity to teach them about temple rules and hospitality!
And nothing beats having friends in the area who are polytheists or sympathetic to polytheists, especially if they’re parents themselves. Having a community to remind you that you aren’t alone is invaluable, especially given how isolating and stressful the attitude toward parenting is in the U.S. right now. If you can’t find friends in your area, finding an online community is still a big help!
GK: What would you tell someone wanting to begin a devotional relationship with the Gods in general and Dionysos in particular?
Emily: The same sort of thing I’d tell someone who was planning on making a big change to any part of their life—leaving their job to find a new career, or getting married, or having children, or any of the myriad adventures we can go on in our lives. You have to want it, you have to be willing to work for it and you have to be okay with it changing you. As with any other big change, you will change, and as old parts of your life start fading away you may see things and people you love go with it.
It’s up to you to decide where your boundaries are, where you aren’t willing to go, and what (and whom) you aren’t willing to give up. And it’s up to you to decide when and if the sacrifices are worth it. If you feel fear, don’t ignore it—but don’t succumb to it, either, because the times we most fear leaping are often the times our Gods will most want us to.
This sounds a bit cliched even for my tastes, but it’s true—I suspect anyone walking these paths will know exactly what I mean.
GK: I know that developing a devotional life is not without its challenges and Dionysos can be especially adamant about facing our weaknesses. How have you dealt with the challenges that have come up in your devotional life? What has worked for you, what really hasn’t, and what would you suggest when others hit those bitter, dark places?
Emily: Man, and I thought this interview was going to be easy.
Because of my particular blend of issues, my response to dealing with problems in my devotional life has largely been to pretend they don’t exist. It has gone about as well as you’d imagine. I do eventually scratch my way out, but it’s definitely a fight.
We all encounter times where we question why we’re doing this, what good we’re getting out of it, or why the Gods are treating us this way. Maybe your Gods have gone silent on you, or maybe They’ve taken an outright antagonistic role and you’re starting to resent your practice. Maybe your whole life got turned upside down and nothing feels stable.
My first and biggest piece of advice is: get a therapist. Get a therapist with whom you can get along—that part’s vital, and might take some shopping around. Particularly with Deities like Dionysos, the rough spots in our devotional lives often stem from things we haven’t yet faced in our lives outside of devotional work. (And vice-versa—problems in our devotional lives can and will radiate outward into our lives outside of that work.) It can make an incredible difference to have a therapist who will listen to your problems and help you spot the negative and/or unsuccessful patterns you’re stuck in. A therapist who’s worth their salt will listen to you regardless of religion and not judge you for it.
Outside of therapy: don’t be afraid to change how you do things devotionally; don’t be afraid to scale a practice back, or look for new ways to work, or to approach new Deities. You know how pharmaceutical commercials say “ask your Doctor if XYZ is right for you”? Ask your diviner if XYZ is right for you. And if your diviner says that this issue is for you to work out on your own…listen to Them. The Gods will sometimes back off to give you the space to work through matters on your own before regrouping.
If you’re outright feeling resentful to the point that you are refusing to engage in prayer, or if you feel repulsed from it…you probably won’t want to take my advice, but I’ll say it anyway: you probably have a larger unresolved issue going on that is starting to become miasmic. It’s like the psychological version of a wound that became infected instead of healing. You’ll need to do all of the above and consult someone who can help you build up a stronger regimen for cleansing your energy and that of your living space. Dear fellow perfectionists: I feel like we’re some of the most at-risk people for this. You’ll see the beauty in your high standards when it’s time to discipline yourself for a new and better devotional regimen.
GK: I very much agree with that. If you can find a polytheistic friendly therapist, go because old scars, wounds, issues, pain, insecurities — it’ll all be dredged up in the course of this work precisely so we can deal with it. Ignoring that can be devastating. That being said, can you tell us a little bit about the Gods and spirits that you honor and are there particular protocols that ought to be followed?
Emily: I primarily honor Dionysos, Ariadne, Hermes, Hestia, my Ancestors, the Gods and Spirits and Dead of my city, and the Gods and Spirits and Dead of the Starry Bull tradition (particularly Alexander of Makedon and Pentheus). I feel hesitant to speak on protocols, not because they’re unimportant but because I have little experience in recognizing and implementing them relative to the spirit workers I know. Here are some opinions on and examples of my personal protocols, though:
Dionysos tends not to be as heavy on protocol, but it depends on the capacity in which one is honoring Him. His protocols go up, for example, if you are honoring Him as Eubouleus, “He of Good Counsel” (a chthonic aspect associated with mediating relationships between the living and the Dead). Really, anything having to do with the Dead will be pretty high protocol because of the higher risk of miasmic contamination.
Ariadne is high-protocol during festivals. She is the High Holy one, and should be approached as such. To do anything less is to show disrespect to Her. I go through a multilayered cleansing to set aside ritual space for Her: delineating Her sacred space with a line of cornmeal or kaolin clay, asperging everything inside that boundary with khernips, walking its perimeter with a candle and inviting Fire to consume and transmute any pollution inside the boundary, and maintaining the purity of the space with incense. Cleansing baths are also a must with rituals to Ariadne, and I have even changed which beauty products I use and how I apply them if what I was doing didn’t feel “clean” enough.
Hermes is not usually high-protocol (unless you are honoring Him in His capacity as psychopomp—but again, that’s because of the influence of the Dead). He respects protocol as a sign of respect, and will happily receive it, but if I make too great or too formal an offering, especially on someone else’s behalf, the offering does not seem to go over well with Him. He values offerings made with a strong sense of situational awareness.
GK: i never thought about that, but you’re right. The only time He is high protocol with me is in that particular capacity and it’s very much on account of the dead. The dead can be *massively* high protocol!
Pentheus has given me a specific cleansing protocol for honoring Him—a cleansing bath that contains dry, tannic red wine. I find the Dionysian Kings value ritual purity pretty highly: Alexander favors white clothes and frankincense, while Pentheus favors black clothing and catharsis with blood or wine.
I clean and cleanse my house from top to bottom once a week to honor Hestia and the Household Gods and Spirits, and try to maintain that cleanliness as much as I can. Hestia Herself has never struck me as high-protocol. She is happy with a well-kept home that is comforting and inviting to others, and offerings that are associated with hospitality. Just as Hestia resides at the center of the home of the Gods, though, this practice is the center of all the rest of mine; it ensures that my living space is clean enough (physically and on a miasmic level) to accommodate my other practices.
On days with historic significance in my city, I visit graveyards and offer to the Dead there to help soothe Them and bring Them joy. I have a certain set of cemetery protocols I follow to help soothe the Dead and keep Them from following me home, involving offerings of tobacco and liberal use of kaolin clay.
I do divination once a month on behalf of the Gods and Spirits of the Starry Bull tradition and follow a strict protocol for setting up divination space and calling the presence of my Ancestors, Gods, and Spirits into it. Following this protocol makes my divination much, much clearer.
GK: Sannion mentioned to me that you do a blog on domestic cultus. Can you tell me a little bit about what that type of cultus entails, what got you involved, etc. and share the blog?
Emily: I do! The blog I run, Home, Hearth, and Heart, is dedicated to Hestia, and contains suggestions for all types of devotional work (for Household Gods and Spirits or otherwise). These are pretty basic materials; one of my target audiences is the group of people who are new to revived polytheistic faiths, who might not have much of an idea of where to begin and what all, outside of research, they can do.
I give themed devotional suggestions for each day of the week—creating Deity playlists on Music Mondays and dusting altar decorations on Cleanse-Day Wednesdays, for example. Alongside these, I include commentary on lunar calendar dates, links to hymns, important dates in the Hellenic month, festival descriptions, and the occasional Q&A. These are the things I wish I’d had when I was starting out about a decade ago!
For those of you who want to check it out, you can find it here.
GK: Thank you, Emily. I appreciate you taking the time to do the interview. For those reading, i’d love to hear what type of hearth cultus you all maintain, what you do at home, what challenges have arisen, and how you’ve dealt with them — especially if you’re laity. I don’t think we hear enough from our lay voices. So feel free to post in the comments.
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.
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I first became acquainted with Ptahmassu several years ago when I commissioned a series of icons for my prayer card series. His work was stunning and it was very clear immediately that his icons were living embodiments of divine energy. The Gods had blessed him as a craftsman and artist. He is a fierce polytheist and I am delighted that he was able to take the time for this interview.
GK: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work. Who are you and what do you do?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: My life as a servant of the Gods has taken me on a very windy road. It feels like each stage of my life has witnessed the Gods calling me to another level or mode of service, and with each level has come a more wholesome understanding of who the Gods are and what They have to say to humankind. I was legally ordained as a priest of the Temple of Isis California in 2001 by the Rt. Rev. Lady Loreon Vignè, and a priest of the Fellowship of Isis by Lady Olivia Robertson. The spiritual visions of the TOI and FOI have played a significant role in the development of my spiritual work, which has become- more and more- the path of devotional service to the living Gods.
I regard myself as a devotional Polytheist, primarily in the Kemetic tradition, though there are other pantheons I serve with cultus. My direct experience has demonstrated to me that the Gods are unique and individual manifestations of the Divine. They each have Their own powers and spheres of influence, material and spiritual forms, personalities and methods for revealing Their presences to devotees. I reject entirely the rather New Age concept of the Gods as merely different faces of the same inscrutable god, and the ever popular neo-Pagan ideal that views all gods as one god, and all goddesses as one goddess. In these regards you could call me something of a hard Polytheist.
My calling to Kemetic Polytheism has found its most profound outlet in my work as a ritualist and an iconographer, both of which I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, Kemeticism is bound to our immediate relationship with our Gods, the Netjeru, Who engage humankind through the actions of cultus, which revolve around the divine presences inherent in ritually awakened images. It was through a very gradual process spanning a number of years that I was directed to use my priestly skills in conjunction with my skills as an artist and crafts-person. The result of this process is my vocation as a Kemetic iconographer, which is my sole vocation, in the place of secular work. My goal is to eventually establish a guild of Kemetic iconographers to carry out the continued revival of Kemetic ritual practices via the iconographic arts of the temple. Innate to this goal is the philosophy of Kemetic polytheism as a body of religious practices to which the living Gods are central. I want my work, more than anything, to be a voice for devotional Polytheism.
GK: How did you come to polytheism? Do you maintain venerative practice to any particular Deities?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian family, one in which a fairly literal, black and white interpretation of the King James translation of the Bible held sway. My siblings and I were raised to fear hell as a physical reality for the damned, that Satan and his demons were a continual threat to every Christian soul, and that even to question the infallible and inerrant truth of the Bible was to jeopardize one’s soul. But even as a very young boy I found myself rejecting the very notion that only a single god existed, and had this overwhelming sense that Christianity was wholly flawed, and wholly incompatible with my intellectual and spiritual beliefs.
My father was a student of the arts and humanities and maintained a fantastic library, and it was in his library that I found books on the Classical and antique worlds, which introduced me to the religious art and architecture of the ancient Egyptians. I was about six years old when I had my first taste of ancient Egyptian iconography, and became fixated on this idea that these people were my people, and these gods were my gods. It happened very suddenly- upon seeing pictures of Kemetic deities- that I began to pray to the Goddesses and Gods of ancient Egypt, which felt more natural to me than I had ever felt in a Christian church. There was this powerful response whenever I looked at pictures of Kemetic deities, a response that embraced and answered me, and this became a solid call to follow these Gods as my religious path.
A few years later, through a mutual acquaintance, I was introduced to Lady Loreon Vignè, founder of Temple of Isis and Isis Oasis Sanctuary in California, and began a feverish correspondence that changed my life forever. Lady Loreon and her partner Paul Ramses had established themselves as pioneers of the metaphysical community, with a strong focus on the revival of ancient Egyptian spirituality. It was through their generous guidance and tutelage that I was able to access both mainstream academic, Egyptological publications on ancient Egyptian religion, and the more esoteric materials I desired to study seriously. They also introduced me to Lady Olivia Robertson, co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis, who took me under her wing and nurtured me in my budding relationships with the ancient Gods. Lady Olivia was especially vocal concerning the natures of the Gods, that They were physically real, not simply the spiritual archetypes of New Age thought. In a nutshell, that is how I came to Polytheism.
I maintain venerative practices, cultus, to all the Kemetic Netjeru, believe it or not. I’m very much a polytheist, and my daily life revolves around maintaining the practices of prayer and offering to the Netjeru as comprehensively as possible. There seems to be a trend among some Kemetics to choose one Netjer to whom they feel especially drawn, and focus an almost monotheistic zeal on this deity, while leaving the other Netjeru to the wayside or primarily as figments of lips service. I consider myself fortunate in these regards not to have fallen prey to this mode of thinking, which I feel is a carryover from monotheism, and is not authentic to ancient Egyptian spiritual life. I was ordained a priest of the Goddesses Auset and Sekhmet, and I have taken priestly vows to the God Ptah, Whom I regard as my patron and protector, and I am certainly faithful to the vows and levels of commitment I have made to these Netjeru as my most personal deities; however, I am a polytheist, and my polytheism embraces all the Gods, and sees offering and cultus to all the Gods as a joy and priority. I really want to emphasize that, that while my love and ties to my patron Netjeru are fiercely strong, I experience polytheism as the constant engagement of many, many gods, and perpetual service to many, many gods.
GK: Your art is, by your own words, a powerful devotional act. Talk to me a little bit about that. This is your service to your Gods. I think that’s an important thing and one that my readers would be very interested in learning more about.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: Service is the perfect word here. The kind of polytheism I practice- the kind of polytheism I feel compelled to share with others- is devotional polytheism grounded in hands-on and active service. For me this means the worship of the hands, which cups my vows to the God Ptah, the Creator of substance, form, and all things crafted. It is said in the famous theology inscribed on the Shabaka Stone that Lord Ptah, as the Creator of all things and all words, carved the bodies of the Gods from all manner of wood, stone, and clay, and that He created the Kas or Souls of the Gods and established Them in Their bodies. He then organized the cults and festivals and temples of all the Gods, and because of this Ptah is known as the greatest of the Gods. Quite naturally my veneration of Ptah has called on me to use the cult of craftsmanship for divine service, to restore and perpetuate the traditional iconographic forms through which the Netjeru have made Themselves known, through which They have maintained a dialogue with the human world. Central to ritual and devotion from a Kemetic perspective is the cult of images, for it is the sacral image- sanctified and awakened to an inner spiritual life all its own- that connects us directly and immediately to the invisible world of the Gods. In essence, they, images, make the Gods and Their world visible, and establish a point of contact between human and divine.
In these regards I have been called to create my own practice of iconography, which at its heart is a devotional act, a cultic act, which, like prayer or ritual worship in sacred space, draws the Gods and myself together. Iconography is the practice of infusing material substances and forms with sacred meaning and power. It is the art that elevates human beings into the dynamic presences of the living Gods. So, as an iconographer, a craftsman of cult images, my vocation serves my personal spiritual aims of walking closely with my Gods, and at the same time fulfills part of my official duties as a priest of the God Ptah through service to His Royal Workshop.
Something I feel we’ve been separated from through the corrosive authority of monotheism is the vitality and sacred power of our Ancestral God-images. We’ve grown up in a culture that teaches the falseness of all images and falseness of all gods save the one god of the Abrahamic faiths. From the religions of the book we’ve inherited the prohibition and derision of images, and the fear of divine retribution for venerating forms crafted by the human hand. But our ancient polytheisms were all established on the knowledge that the Sacred, the Gods and Their powers, were directly manifest in the material world- not only in nature, but in reflections of the natural world as viewed through the lens of man-made forms. God-images have a central role to play in almost every polytheistic society our planet has known, and all of them have maintained that craft fueled by human devotion is abundantly powerful and fused with holiness. Only the Abrahamic faiths- which are relatively new to our world- have disdained human ingenuity and intuition when it is expressed through the sacred arts. This monotheistic disdain has been our inheritance, and it is an inheritance I am eager to smash in its entirety.
So, my work as a priest-iconographer is that of reintroducing the sanctity of our Ancestral God-images as the foundation of a living service and cultus to our Gods. Prayer, meditation, offering, sacrifice, ritual dance, the recitation of hymns and chants; these are all modes of sacred service that revolve around the holy presence of cult images, which are much more than symbols or reminders. Cult images that have been ritually awakened and received by a deity become part of the Gods they represent, and therefore have the power to listen, speak, and intercede for us. We have a persistent idea imposed upon us by monotheism that man-made images or idols are inert and powerless representations of false gods; and yet for thousands of years human beings have known through their intuitive faculties that our Gods have the power to transform inert matter into something living and vital, infused with a sacred life force that answers prayers and dispenses boons. This feeling is much older than monotheism, and my belief is that the history of God-images in polytheism discounts the prohibitions of monotheism absolutely.
GK: What would you tell someone just coming into polytheism? What do you feel are the most important points of attention and praxis?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: We’ve inherited so much spiritually obstructive baggage from monotheism, that my first and biggest piece of advice to polytheism newcomers is to avoid- at all cost- falling into monotheistic patterns of thought and belief, and projecting these onto the polytheisms they are trying to adopt. I see this happen so often. A person fresh out of monotheism comes to Kemeticism or Hellenic Reconstructionism or Polytheism in general, and instead of embracing the experience of pluralism that Polytheism is, they extract one deity in a pantheon and focus the bulk of their energy on worshiping that one deity. People do this for one big reason, in my opinion; they do it because although they’re unhappy with the concept of monotheism, and although they may sincerely wish to leave that way of thinking behind, it’s still what they’ve always known, what they’re surrounded by in the families and society in which they’ve grown up, so in a sense it’s what they’re most *comfortable* with.
The concept of Polytheism is no longer part of our social nature, because monotheism has overtaken our awareness of our own history and cultural identity, and erased any sympathy with other modes of thinking or belief. We’re automatically conditioned to believe that monotheism is intellectually and spiritually superior to any other form of belief; in fact, we’re taught that monotheism and veneration of the singular (of oneness) is the only valid perspective to have. Because of this preconditioning, people have a really hard time accepting the actual practice of Polytheism, despite their intellectual willingness to belong.
My strongest advice is to begin with a clean slate. Come to Polytheism prepared to abolish the entire framework of religious beliefs you’ve been conditioned to believe are valid, and open your mind to the vast experience that worship of many deities provides. Somehow people expect that if religion is overwhelming or uncomfortable or unfathomable, it isn’t good. Something you learn very early on when you adopt an ancient Polytheism is that the Gods are overwhelming and unfathomable and mysterious, and that a certain amount of bewilderment and discomfort comes with the territory. Don’t expect an easy ride, when you’re rejecting your monotheistic upbringing and adopting a very foreign spiritual framework.
Pluralism and multiplicity are by their natures overwhelming because they present us with unlimited possibilities of experience and interpretation simultaneously, and in our predominantly monotheistic society we’re used to the concept that ultimately there is and can be only one right way to believe, cupped by one right way to express that one belief. Polytheism presents us with the exact opposite; it shows us not only thousands upon thousands of deities who each have their own unique personalities and powers, but also, and perhaps even more overwhelming, the truth that truth itself is plural and vast, and cannot possibly be boiled down to only one point of view or creed. Polytheism is vastly flexible and fluid. It isn’t static the way monotheism can be. It bends and grows and demands a certain kind of resilience in our manner of expressing its many and imaginative forms.
What I advise any newcomer to polytheism is to avoid the monotheistic pitfall of choosing that one deity you feel closest to in a pantheon and stopping there- simply because it softens the edge of Polytheism and makes it more comfortable. In the end, this will only wind up cutting you off from the richness of Polytheism and the limitless blessings of its many Gods. I say dive right in, introduce yourself to your pantheon and ask the Gods to introduce Themselves to you. Don’t be afraid of feeling overwhelmed because feeling overwhelmed is actually part of the mystery and majesty of the Gods; a certain feeling of awe, and even terror, is part of what the Ancients experienced through the Mysteries, the process of initiation, of being adopted by the Gods into Their community of celebrants. Some awe and fear and bewilderment is good, because it means you’re connected to the sensation of feeling the Gods, instead of just parroting a belief in Them. Explore the presences of a number of Gods at the same time, and always resist the temptation to settle back into any monotheistic tendencies you may still be carrying with you.
By far the most important point I can make is praxis, that is, establishing a regular daily practice of offering and veneration of the Gods. One of the most common things I notice in contemporary Polytheist and Reconstructionist communities is an over emphasis on theory, on research and reading and intellectualizing the Gods, while seeing actual ritual, worship, and offering as somehow less vital than cerebral engagement. Yes, it’s important to study and embrace philosophy, to understand the roots of our ancient Polytheisms and strive to honor the Gods through the art of learning; especially in Reconstructionism, where the intention is to recover authentic texts and modes of worship via the historical, Ancestral record. I embrace this and understand its vital role. However, I see a less balanced dialogue taking place today between theory and practice in many Polytheist groups and individuals, and I think this needs to be addressed by our priesthoods and clergies. At the end of the day living religion means direct experience, not mere theory or book learning. No amount of study or research can replace the actual presence of sacred relationships as the fulfillment of our spiritual life. This means we have to open up our intuitive, emotional faculties to the existence of the Gods, which in devotional Polytheism is awakened and enhanced through cultic acts, praxis- ritual worship, offering, sacrifice, sacred dance, and the recitation of hymns or sacred texts.
Offering and sacrifice are what I regard as the key ingredients of cult and praxis. Truly, they are two sides of the same coin. Offering has to be a root part of how we establish active relationships with our Gods, and cultivate those relationships continually. Without offering, there is no energetic link between our human nature and the immortal natures of the Gods; offering provides the link of communication that ties us to the Gods, from which we give and They give in return. Our relationship with Them is based on reciprocity, and this exists in every single mode of Polytheism I have ever studied. All Polytheisms maintain this awareness that our Gods give because we give, and that They engage us because we engage Them, and that this cannot be taken for granted.
So, I tell all my students that the first framework we put into place is the devotional framework constructed through daily offering, which flows from the notion of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the offering of that which we hold most valuable, which can be our time, energy, and material resources. Our time is certainly, in the modern world, one of our most valuable commodities, so this is something we need to be prepared to give to our Gods. When we give up something that is precious to us, something it pains us to give, then we are performing sacrifice, and this is the holiest form of offering that exists. When we pour out a libation of wine or beer on the shrine, or make a presentation of food and flowers, we are creating an energetic bond between our Gods and our human life, and we are asking the Gods to enter into that life and partake of its essence. Without offering, without sacrifice…without this vital exchange of energy and intention, there is no connection between our life and the Divine world, and we cannot hope to benefit from it.
Secondly, I think it’s vital for us to establish some kind of Ancestor veneration, some legitimate recognition of those who have gone before us to pave the way for our sacred life and relationships with our Gods. This is another of the practices monotheism has stripped from our life in the contemporary west; but in all ancient Polytheisms, recognition of the Dead, the Ancestors, and the Forebears of the tradition forms a most significant part of daily spiritual life. I think this comes in two parts. The first is honoring ones’ immediate blood family and personal relationships with the dead, which is done through offerings and prayers, and actually talking to the dead through the medium of sacred space- a shrine, a photograph, or visitation to a grave site or memorial. The second form of Ancestor veneration, and the one which for me is most powerful in my Kemetic practice, is veneration of the Ancestors of one’s faith line, that is, the people who have served the same Gods you are serving now.
Since we as Polytheists are most often coming out of monotheistic families and monotheistic preconditioning, it’s often hard for us to feel *rooted* in our ancient Polytheisms in the modern world. It’s sometimes hard for us to maintain that feeling of immediate connection with very ancient traditions from which we have been separated through our upbringing in predominantly monotheistic modes of thinking and behaving; so, there is a need now more than ever for Ancestor veneration practices that bring us back into the framework of a daily experience of walking with our Gods. So, what I recommend is an investigation into the individuals and communities that have served the same Gods and traditions we are now striving to serve, and creating a regular practice of prayer and offering in order to generate the blessings of souls who have the advantage of being directly in the presences of our Gods, who can help us bring through those blessings more easily.
GK: What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing our communities and the restoration of our traditions today?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: One of the greatest challenges I see facing the restoration of our ancient Polytheisms is the currently trending notion that some way, somehow, we can circumvent the worship of the Gods and still call ourselves Polytheists or Kemetics or Heathens. The root of this issue is a heated debate over the very notion of worship and reverence, and the role the Gods have to play in our contemporary world. There is this deeply disturbing notion being voiced- especially on the Internet- that worship and devotion to the Gods is on a par with humiliation and degradation and subservience, which we as almighty, all important humans should be exempt from. Why should we serve the Gods? Why should we acknowledge the Gods, let alone acknowledge Their greatness as exceeding our own? Why should we bow to anyone or anything, since we are at the top of the food chain, after all, and see ourselves as the center of importance in the created world?
The Ancients lived in a very different world than our own. They saw the Gods as living through the natural world and its awesome powers, its life and changes and death; and the Gods were experienced through all the pangs and suffering life had to offer. There was no sense that human life was separate or could be separate from the influence of the Gods. But today we live in a very secular society, though a society still dominated by the influence of monotheism. This is a society in which human beings take precedence over all, and there is nothing so great as our mind, our ambition, and our will to control and change and harness our environment.
The restoration of Polytheistic traditions faces these attitudes en masse, and a profound part of that is this overwhelming sense of self entitlement, this sense that the human ego is matchless in the universe and deserves to take center stage. Polytheism as it was expressed for thousands of years is the polar opposite of this attitude. Ancient Polytheisms placed the Gods at the center of creation and humankind on the periphery, and urged that it was humankind’s responsibility to engage and honor the Gods, and to draw the Gods out into Their creation for the benefit of all life. The Ancients realized that humankind was in an interdependent relationship with its Gods, and one in which both sides of the equation had a vital role to play. This kind of interdependence- between Gods and the ongoing work of life as sacred creation- is the backbone of the Kemetic tradition to which I belong, but it can be seen in other ancient Polytheistic societies, where there is an acute awareness of the sacred law of reciprocity- the Gods giving because humankind gives.
But we seem to have cut ourselves off from this awareness possessed by our ancient Ancestors. We’ve replaced the Gods with ourselves, and have made giving to ourselves, and mass consumption, the modus operandi of our civilization. So, what I see happening to the discussion of Gods and devotion is more of a focus on what we- human beings- are going to get from it, and why the Gods are worthy of our worship in the first place, and even if the Gods are really necessary to the continuance of our spiritual life. What we’re fighting for right now, it seems, is the right to proclaim Polytheism as the veneration of many gods; Gods who are not only worthy of our worship, but entitled to it because of Their innate greatness as gods and the gift of life They have given us.
The reclamation of devotion, and of the rich thread of cultic traditions that go with it, is what I see as one of the greatest challenges facing our Polytheist communities today. We seem to be engaged in a fierce debate over the relevance of our Gods, and even over the simple dictionary definition of what Polytheism is, when I feel we should be strengthening the training of our laypeople and clergies alike in the process of reviving our devotional cultic practices. By practices I mean everything from daily rituals, offerings, and Ancestor veneration to rites of passage such as births, marriages, and funerary rites. We need more rites of passage and empowerment for those in military service and inmates in prison, and we need to strengthen our Polytheist communities, not just through open dialogue and discussion, but through inviting one another to actively participate in holy rites that unite us in service to our living Gods. But I see these things are being hampered and set back by this ongoing debate over why or if we should venerate our Gods in the first place. It should go without saying that actual worship of the Gods is what makes Polytheism a religious experience in the first place; but we can’t take that for granted when we have voices from within our communities that are striving to dismantle our devotional relationships with our Gods. This really needs to be the focus of our efforts if our traditions are going to survive.
GK: How do you pray? Why do you think it’s important?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I pray all the time! Prayer means many things to different people, but for me, from the point of view of a devotional Polytheist and Kemetic, prayer is a form of direct communication with the Gods. It is a vital tool for cementing and maintaining my relationship with my Gods, for keeping that channel of reciprocity open between my daily life and the boons of the Netjeru. My prayers come in many forms. There are my very personal prayers offered in front of our shrine to the Household Gods. These aren’t necessarily formal or eloquent or poetic. They take the form of whatever words I feel I need to say to my Gods; complaints and requests for healing, getting some worries off my chest, expressing gratitude, or simply calling on various deities to be present and commune with me. I come before the household shrine several times throughout my day, to light a candle and make an offering of incense or to pour out a libation. I’ll recite simple prayers during the day that are my own personal prayers, or abbreviations of the official prayers I say as part of my duties as a priest.
Of course, there are the official prayers of the Daily Ritual, which I chant in the ancient Egyptian language, and are accompanied by the formal gestures and offerings of the cult. These are some of the most ancient prayers of the Kemetic religion, which were chanted in every temple every day in ancient times. They are part of the devotional and energetic legacy handed down to us from the Ancestors of our tradition, so to speak these prayers today is to connect the actions of the present with the holiness of the past; and in Kemeticism, the past is part of an ongoing cycle of divine repetition flowing from Zep Tepy, the “First Occasion” immediately following the creation of the ordered world.
Prayer can be very formal and very solemn, a means of bringing my mind and consciousness into that space of resonance with the Gods, which I feel is essential in the modern world where we are so often asked to step away from any feelings of solidarity with the Sacred, with mindfulness on the realm of stillness and power that is the dwelling place of the Gods. It’s so easy to get caught up in the problems and momentum of our daily lives and lose our grounding in the Sacred, especially those of us serving very ancient Ancestral traditions and paths. So, my view of prayer is that it can be that tool for stopping everything and bringing ourselves back to the center of our holy practices. Through the vocalization or silence induced by prayer, we step back into the Sacred moment, imbuing the present moment with the immediate presences of our Gods.
These moments of devotion are- for me- what nourishes Polytheism and makes it the richest expression of religion. Our ancient Polytheisms are rooted in communion with legions of deities and Ancestors Who are accessible to us at any time, and prayer is the instrument by which we ask our Holy Powers to step into our sphere of life and fill it with Their essence. There’s such an awe-inspiring strength in this; speaking directly to our Gods and Ancestors and sharing a dialogue with Them that gives meaning to every moment of our lives.
I think one of the reasons you asked me this question is because of the push back against prayer that is part of a larger debate concerning the essential meaning of Polytheism and its relationship with its Gods. Enter our ever-present burden of baggage from monotheism. Those of us who grew up under the influence of evangelical strains of Christianity have a rather different and sinister experience with prayer that has nothing whatsoever to do with devotion. How many readers have been told by a Christian relative or acquaintance “I’ll pray for you” or “I’m praying for you”? We all know what I’m talking about here, and it’s not the kind of concern that prompts someone to sincerely pray to their deity on your behalf. This is the kind of statement evangelicals often make when condescending and talking down to those they view as sinners, and it’s an act that implies the superiority of their god and religious system above those they are trying to “help”- or rather convert to their way of thinking. For many Polytheists today, prayer is a dirty word, a word that carries with it an instant gut reaction of “no!”, and is synonymous with control. For many, prayer is a tool of abuse wielded by the Christian dogma they are desperately trying to escape, and it’s a very difficult process to transform the meaning of that word into something wholesome, let alone something that comes natural.
Something I feel is vital- if we are to succeed as individual Polytheists and as communities- is for us to make a concerted effort to reclaim our Ancestral traditions and practices from the oppressive hand of monotheism, and this means taking back words, too, and refusing to sacrifice vital spiritual meaning because of associations with systems of belief we’ve experienced as being destructive. We have to take back the concept and action of prayer, if not the very word itself; because in essence prayer is the action of communicating directly with our Gods, and is an active ingredient in the foundation of cultus and praxis, these two essential components of living the Polytheist life today. All our ancient Polytheisms use prayer in conjunction with offering and sacrifice; Polytheism is inseparable from these activities, and, from my perspective, there is no Polytheism without the three roots of prayer, offering, and sacrifice. Polytheism is a living religious system grounded firmly in the worship of many gods, and it is the Gods Who give us our spiritual life cupped by the physical life in which the Spirit dwells. Our physical and spiritual lives are two sides of the same coin, and they are joined together through the marriage of belief and practice. How else can we practice, establish praxis and cultus, without addressing our Gods directly? And how else can we address our Gods if not through the medium of prayer, which itself is a form of offering and personal sacrifice?
So, I want to encourage people to reexamine their fears or dislike of prayer, and to see prayer very differently from the agent of control that so many of us have experienced at the hands of evangelicals. The action of prayer predates the advent of monotheism by millennia. Our Ancestors used it as a tool of direct communication with Their Gods, to consecrate Their physical lives to the Gods, and to invoke the Holy Powers into the material world. We are following in Their footsteps, and we need Their guidance and empowerment if our reestablishment of Polytheism is to succeed. Prayer is and can be that binding thread between our current lives and the ever-present sacral past inhabited by our Ancestors. Prayer is and can be that source of divine inspiration that never runs dry or fails to revitalize; but, like anything, it takes work in order to make it grow and flourish. The effort has to come from us, and our Gods and Ancestors will never cease to meet us half way if our effort is sincere in the things we do for Them.
GK: You’re also an accomplished poet. Do you feel that there is a unique connection between the Gods, devotion, and practice of the arts? If so, please elaborate.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: For me, the practice of the arts is, quite literally, the practice of my religion, and is a direct extension of my priesthood and the expression of my spiritual life. Since my namesake and patron deity is Lord Ptah, the consummate Creator and craftsman of the Gods, it so follows that the worship of the hands carries with it the Heka or Magick of my Netjer, Who created the very acts of sculpting, painting, and poetic expression. It is said of Lord Ptah that He created the Gods and all living things through the profession of words, which are His craft and carry with them the magic through which all created things came into being.
When I sit down to write my verses or engage in the holy craft of iconography, I am, in fact, engaging in powerful acts of worship that are- in a manner of speaking- emulating the divine and creative acts of the God Ptah. I am taking on myself the role of Lord Ptah, Whose actions and words wove the substance of the cosmos and gave breath to the Gods. The Ancestors of my tradition used hymns and poetry to celebrate the moment of the Daily Ritual offered by the cult of each god, and married to these holy words is the premise that words on their own contain the vibrational potency of the creative act. The ancient hymns are often complex poems containing elaborate descriptions of a deity’s names, epithets, and physical characteristics, which were echoed in the exquisitely wrought images of the cult in which the deity’s spiritual essence resided. The ancient temples were themselves massive pieces of sacred art, for lack of a better word; but these expressions of art were manifestations of the impersonal Sacred, not the ego of an individual artist. The Ancients saw all man-made artistic forms as carrying the potential for an inner divine life to grow, and when these forms were married to the ritual activities of the cult, they actually became the Gods resident in terrestrial matter.
Aside from my vocation as an iconographer, it is through poetry that I express my longing to see and experience the Gods directly. Writing sacred verses forms part of my daily practice of prayer and offering, since my verses are being given to the Gods as an aspect of veneration. The process of writing itself is an activity of profound meditation on the Gods, because it requires me to remove myself from the surroundings of the mundane world and enter into a frame of mind where the Gods hold sway and are the predominant reality. The result of these sessions is a form of religious ecstasy expressed in words, which can then be absorbed by others who desire to enter into the spiritual ethos.
It almost goes without saying that I believe all the arts can bring us closer to our Gods, and can be the springboard for achieving that ultimate relationship where our Gods are revealed as a physical, tangible reality in our daily life, instead of remaining abstract or distant. We are raised in a society where the pervasive monotheistic perspective is one of the separation of the Divine from the physical world of humankind. Christianity especially has given us an intellectual legacy of seeing the world of sight and senses as clearly divided from the ultimate blessing of the Sacred; it teaches the fall of humankind from god. But our ancient Polytheisms urge us into a very different understanding of the Holy Powers, one in which the Gods work directly through matter, the natural world, and the senses of the human condition. Neither nature or the world of the flesh have fallen away from the Divine, but have instead emerged from it, and are married to the Gods through a reciprocal relationship of give and take. It is through the arts- through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and dance- that our senses and intellect are elevated and refined, and ripen into a deeper, more mystical consciousness of what it means to be human. The arts can unite us with our higher selves, and, at the same time, remove us from ourselves and into the presences of the living Gods.
GK: What projects do you currently have in the works and where can people find your work?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I am currently working on a new series of smaller icon panels I am calling the Aegis Series. These are more like *portraits* of the Kemetic Gods, whose purpose- aside from being the recipients of devotion and active cultus- is to serve as focal points for prayer and meditation on the Netjeru as personal protectors. So, these icons are magical images linking devotees with aspects of the Gods specifically attuned to healing, personal safety, defense from diseases or external enemies, fertility and creation, et cetera. Their main source of iconographic inspiration are the images of the head and shoulders, crown and regalia of the Gods seen on the prow and stern of the sacred boat-shrines carried in religious festivals, or worn as protective amulets.
Something I am very excited about is the idea to use the Aegis Series, together with my other icons, in a full color devotional art book being conceived by myself and Her Holiness Rev. Tamara Siuda (AUS), Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Faith. Tamara approached me with an inspiration she had had to compose guided meditations for each of my icons, which would lead devotees through the symbolism and sacred meanings resident in my icons. Her feeling is that people should experience my work not only through its aesthetic or artistic qualities, but more importantly from the perspective of going inward to meet the Gods directly, and thereby receive Their wisdom. Her idea for the guided meditations will be paired with prayers and hymns and other devotional writings that will serve Kemetics, devotional Polytheists, and students of sacred art in their desire to understand this vibrant spiritual tradition of cult images, and experience it through the lens of its initiatory symbols.
Secondly, I’ve just finished editing my new book “Sacred Verses: Entering the Labyrinth of the Gods”, which will be published by Asphodel Press in the near future. I consider Sacred Verses some of the best writing of my life, and it’s certainly my most profound exploration of devotional poetry to date. Interestingly enough, it is not entirely Kemetic in its tone or use of language, and is meant to be an experience of poetic initiation into the realm of recovering our Polytheistic memory. The premise I have is that if we go back far enough into our family tree, we will reach the time in human history when the civilizations of humankind were Polytheistic; and it is this process of reaching back, of journeying through the sacred tree of spiritual memory, that Sacred Verses presents to its readers. It gives us a set of keys for setting aside the paradigm of monotheism, and returning to our original and ancient spiritual traditions- which of course are those of Polytheism.
Interested readers will be able to find my work via the following links:
Official Icons of Kemet website
Official Icons of Kemet blog
Sacred poetry and verse blog
Kemetically Speaking blog
Kemetic deities prayer cards
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.
I’ve been talking about pop culture a lot this past week on social media and there have been a few good discussions and a few not so good and I find myself moved this morning to post about it here. Two things prompted this. Firstly, I watched last week’s “American Gods” and posted the following:
“”American Gods” is beautifully shot. Parts of it are intensely profound but in the end, it is peppered with pollution, the attitude clearly stated that the Gods are dependent on us, that humans are greater than the Gods, and the typical screed of modernity. I am so disgusted. It does show the danger of modern culture but…I wonder how many people are seeing that underlying message of disrespect? The same scenes and same story could be told without the line “humans are greater than gods” and yet they just had to put that in. Gaimon et al couldn’t help themselves.”
You would have thought I’d kicked someone’s dog. Many people were deeply bothered by the fact that I criticized Gaiman and this work. Let me be clear, I enjoy the show. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully directed but, because I enjoy it, it’s all the more important to criticize it, to be critical of it, because this show like so many others, presents our Gods in ways that are deeply problematic. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
The second thing that happened today was that my friend Wyrd Dottir posted a review on her fb of the new “Wonder Woman” movie and again, apparently, the Gods are the villains. (I’m disappointed to hear this. I loved the WW television show as a child and I was looking forward to the movie but I won’t be wasting my money on it now). It was at this point that I felt pushed to write something for my blog.
I’ll state right up front that while I may abstain from media like this, I am not actually advocating not reading a book or watching a movie because it is disrespectful or impious. Everyone has to make the choice of what they give space to in their heads, what they indulge in during their free time, and what they expend energy on for themselves. I am, however, deeply concerned about how uncritically polytheists will immerse themselves in media and pop culture without giving it the slightest bit of thought.’ I enjoy it, so it’s ok’ seems to be the rule of the day.
What we watch has the power to affect us. It sets up programming in our minds, unconscious attitudes that then influence how we approach our world. It patterns us to accept or not certain things as normal. What we expose ourselves to has the power to change our inner landscape and thus the way we process and relate to the world at large. It programs us. That’s why I find the attitude (across the board in pop culture) of the Gods being less than humans, or of humans being able to defeat the Gods, or of the Gods being childish and less evolved than we so problematic. This is the attitude enmeshed in modernity and pop culture and it’s polluting because it is everywhere unquestioned. I know works like “Wonder Woman” or “American Gods” are fiction and yes, it saddens me that our cosmologies are up for grabs this way. For most Pagans, these attitudes will pass by most unrecognized and unquestioned and frankly, on a large scale, I think they pollute and entrain the mind to dismiss the Gods when they are accepted without question.
People will argue that in the ancient world poets and dramaturgists often wrote in similar fashion of the Gods but I would counter that there was a cultural context deeply rooted in piety and respect for the Powers that counter the damage this might have done (and it wasn’t accepted unquestioningly. There were discussions in the ancient world about the propriety of presenting the Gods in such a liberal fashion. Certain philosophers actually condemned the practice because of the potential for impiety). We have neither that cultural context, that embedded polytheism to shape us, nor the willingness to challenge those things we enjoy. THAT is why it is so deeply problematic.
Others argued when I first talked about this on facebook that movies and television series like this are good even if they present the Gods poorly because they might bring people to the Gods and it’s a good way to spark and interest and learn about Them and Their stories. Maybe but I would counter that there were no records when the first people honored these gods. They had dreams, visions, the gods come through in ritual. They had piety. The lore is a map, not the territory. It’s a check, a useful tool, a reference point, it can teach secrets but nothing takes the place of direct encounters with these beings and that is a thousand times harder than it has to be when we approach them with unconscious attitudes of hubris.
Someone else said that shows like ‘American Gods’ were just an ‘alternative viewpoint’. Well, how is it an alternative viewpoint when the other side is never presented? Popular media only ever seems to present stuff that minimizes and attacks the Gods and devotion to them. Show me movie or television series that has pure, clean piety. (Please…I’d love to know of one). Show me one that isn’t 80% ok but 20% crap.
I reiterate that we need to approach our media critically because this plants seeds in our heads and grows the world inside us and one should be careful of that and learn to filter out the stuff that’s inimical to piety, which we can’t do if we refuse to even recognize it.
Lykeia rightfully points out:
“In terms of pollution if we consider that one can become unclean from entertaining exposure that which is contrary to our spirituality, a case for pollution (vis a vis media) can be made. Of course it can be entertaining while acknowledging it is spiritually polluting. One can be entertained and enjoy aesthetically things while recognizing a need for cleansing if choosing to indulge in it. Myself such things tend to deter me. I prefer not having that enter my spiritual space.
In polytheism conduct towards the gods and our relationship with them is an important issue (although perhaps not to the “wider pagan community which is one reason out of many I don’t affiliate to such). It is part and parcel to proper etiquette in developing relationships with our gods. A seed planted that the gods are dependent on us and thus leaving us in a position of power taints this relationship potentially which is why many polytheists treat it so gravely. We are virtually surrounded by popular media saying our gods are weak and encouraging hubris ( a huge no no). This is not an issue to this novel only but a common trend in media and so there is a need to be mindful of it and guard against it if necessary.”
Kenaz Filan writes, “We need to figure out how to teach people that everything we are and everything around us is rooted in the Gods, not vice versa. That may be our greatest task in re-establishing a Polytheism for the modern era.” And this is true. Every single argument and controversy in some way comes down to the question of do we prioritize the Gods or man, do we venerate the Gods, or ourselves. Do we value devotion or have we eaten the poisoned fruit of modernity wholesale and without question?
The question raised by American Gods, the nonsense about humans being greater than the Gods isn’t something to allow to slip into our minds unchallenged. To again quote Kenaz Filan,:
“If the Gods are the wellspring and foundation of Being, we exist as part of Their plans and Their actions. If the Gods are the creations of men then they (small t) are tools by which we understand the material universe until they are supplanted by a more accurate understanding. (Once upon a time we believed lightning was Zeus or Thor throwing thunderbolts: today we know better). They are aspects of the Overmind which connects humanity together the way the Internet joins computers. They are symbols which we use like letters in algebra and calculus to answer problems. All those things are centered in humanity. By centering Being in the Gods, we move closer to a worldview where humans are not “lords over earth and its dominions” but part of an intricately connected system created by the Gods for Their purposes”
There is nothing in the community more important than developing a sense of respect and piety toward the Gods. I think we need to seriously consider what kind of foundation we want to create for our traditions. If we can watch something that presents such a skewed view of our Gods and the act of devotion itself, without critically analyzing it, without even acknowledging that it’s perhaps not presenting us with the best example (at the very least), if we can’t look at our world and see the results of such doggedly entrained disrespect, then what hope is there for the future of our traditions. I think we need to be the most critical of those things we most enjoy because it’s what we watch when we’re relaxed, what we uncritically enjoy that’s going to creep by our mental censors. It’s those things we blindly consume that will do the most damage.
For me it comes down to not wanting to give space in my head to that which does not bring me closer to my Gods. I don’t want to give space within myself to that which doesn’t enhance my devotion. I don’t want to waste time on that which doesn’t nurture my piety no matter how much fun it may be. I’m not asking polytheists to go on a social media or pop culture fast but it would be nice if people could be a little bit more critical, a little bit more thoughtful of the media they do consume. We’re bombarded every day by messages that are deeply deleterious to polytheism. These things matter.