Owlet asks: “How do you make right after participating in a ritual or group that is disrespectful?”
This is a really good question and I’m glad you asked it here. It’s something that I’ve had to learn through a lot of trial and error, especially when I was much more open to participating in rituals outside my House, and when I was working in the interfaith world. My answer is two- fold.
Firstly, what you describe (which I quote further below) is the real danger of community involvement and I am so very sorry to learn that this happened to you. It hurts my heart to know that your own devotion was impacted by this. It can be very, very hard to come back from such a thing but I will say this: as we learn better, we do better. You’ve had a valuable experience about what is NOT proper community. That will serve as an incredibly useful lens through which to evaluate every other group with which you consider becoming involved in the future. That can be a great blessing. Hopefully, also, others can learn from your story as well.
Now, you ask what one can do. Firstly, ideally, don’t participate in those groups. It is far, far better to remain solitary than to pollute yourself. I think that the desperation to communicate and share with like-minded individuals sometimes pushes us into these situations and it’s so important, early on, to commit to not compromising where piety and respect for the Gods, ancestors, and land are concerned. In this, compromise is nota virtue. Evaluate their theology, their politics, their values, their lifestyles, the choices they make large and small. Separate your personal feelings from these things, because a person can be nice and friendly but in the end, poison ideology leads to poisoning of the tradition and our lives. Do the choices they’re making serve the Gods and the tradition or do they seek to elevate the people and ego-stroking, etc. etc. Is it all about the human condition?
It is absolutely lovely to find like-minded polytheists, and to build communities – and in truth, I don’t think our restoration can endure intergenerationally without lived community. The thing is, it’s important that those communities prioritize the Gods qua Gods and if they don’t, shun them like poison. I would add that we’re never really alone. We have our Gods, we have our ancestors and we can learn from Them and hopefully when we’re ready, They will guide us to working, solid traditions that will augment our relationships with the Gods, not shit on them.
So first and foremost, I would say, avoid these senseless or impious groups. That means making conscious devotional choices about what to prioritize, and about your religious life, and with whom you share that. It means doing some research, asking uncomfortable questions before participating. It means being willing to walk away from groups and people that do not nourish one’s piety. That means weighing everything and most of all being absolutely unwilling to compromise on the key fundamentals of polytheistic practice. I think with the influence of pseudo-progressivism in our communities, we’ve been indoctrinated to think of ‘compromise’ as a virtue across the board. It’s not. If I’m in a ship and the hull is compromised, that’s not a good thing. That is in fact, life threatening. It’s the same with the type of pollution that we can all too often find in certain places.
Owlet’s post continued: “I spent many years as a solitary pagan and polytheist, because I lived in an area where the culture was unusually hostile to such things. When I moved to a large urban center and university town, I immediately got involved in pagan events and groups. I was desperate to be a part of a community. To one group , in particular, I donated hundreds (or more) volunteer hours, a great deal of money, handcrafted ritual items…everything I could give. As I learned over the years, the people running and organizing these events and rituals often did not believe in the gods as anything more than thoughtforms or maybe archetypes, or were at the core monotheists or Christians with a thin overlay of pagan dress. Their disrespect spread from their relationship with the gods, to their relationship with the land, to the ancestors, and to other people, and I played along and became complicit. Now that I’ve left and can stand back, I feel heartsick at the compromises I made to please these groups. The service I gave to these communities distracted from and damaged my relationships with the holy powers instead of strengthening them.”
Again, it hurts to read this and my heart goes out to you, but look at it as a learning experience. It’s often difficult, especially when we’re all hungry for community and companionship, to recognize when something or someone is problematic. We learn, often from harsh experience. I would encourage you to not carry guilt over this. Go before your Gods and ask Their forgiveness if you feel the need, and do a ritual cleansing and then commit to doing better. Sometimes, it’s really, really important to have these bad experiences so we have a baseline from which to clearly and accurately evaluate practices. The most important thing in what you’ve sadly experienced is that now you can look on these things clearly and make better, informed choices. There’s no need for shame about any of that. You contributed to a community that you thought shared your piety. That’s a good thing to do. It’s not your fault that the community was not what you thought. Please don’t carry the guilt from this. Sometimes we appreciate devotion and piety and right relationship all the more when we’ve had an experience of its opposite and the effects of that.
What I would suggest is prayer – we cannot pray too much—and regular cleansings. Whenever I find that I’ve been exposed or have inadvertently exposed myself (and sometimes my spiritual Work requires this) to pollution, I will pray and cleanse myself, sometimes using divination to figure out what type of cleansing is needed. I always suggest going to the Gods, going to the ancestors, going to the land and reconnecting. Ask Them for help and cleansing, ask Them for guidance and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with would-be communities.
Joanna H. asked, “what are your favorite charities?”
That’s an easy question (thank you, Joanna! lol) and one I can quickly answer first thing in the morning. I do tithe part of my income, donating quarterly. My top charities are:
There are other charities to which I donate occasionally too, but those are my top three. I also really like Donors Choose, an education charity that allows you to directly choose where your money goes. those are probably my top four.
Where do all of you, my readers, like to donate?
Would you consider writing a post about the theology and practice of blessing something, be it a dwelling, a meal, another person, or etc?
Blessing is distinct from shielding or warding. Blessing specifically infuses a person, place, or thing with the grace or energy of the Gods, Their ‘mark’ if you will. It is akin to consecration, which can be said to change the inherent nature of a thing, and to rendering something sacred, which makes it the property of the Gods, rooted in the unhuman sphere. All of these things are connected to the flow of holiness from the Gods, through us, in the world, through everything. In the Northern Tradition, holiness is part of one’s soul-matrix. It’s ‘Vè,’ named after Loður. It is one’s capacity for carrying the holy, for being a portal or conduit for it, for working with it, the amount that one has cultivated in one’s life and character, one’s ability to engage, and that which aids in turning one’s consciousness to the Gods.
When one blesses a thing, ideally one has a strong connection to the Gods, opens to that, and allows Their power to flow through the mind, heart, and will, through the synapses of consciousness, through the hands and into/onto the thing/person being blessed. It flows over or into them like a gentle waterfall. This all presupposes that one is properly oriented with respect to devotional work, that one is in right relationship with the Gods insofar as one knows this to be possible. It presupposes that the Gods can work in our world and effect our consciousness. It presupposes that They are willing to do so, and in fact, may wish to engage with us in some way. It presupposes that we can have a relationship, a reciprocal and interactive one. It also presupposes that there is something about the Gods that changes that which it touches.
Blessing also implies that the person doing the blessing have a cultivated faith, a reliance on the Gods, and some comprehension that Their grace is a real and palpable thing. I think that one can pray over a person/thing and ask for a blessing, or give thanks (in the case of meals) and that it is good to do so. That is slightly different from the act of actively blessing. In the first, the person doing the blessing is requestingthat the gods do this thing. It is a prayer, an act of reaching out. In the second, the person is becoming a living conduitfor a flow of holy power that moves through him or her and onto the thing/person being blessed, i.e. being infused with that divine grace. Both are good but there is an ontological difference between them.
I hope that answers your question.
Well, I got my first question almost immediately after my last post, and it’s a good one so I’m going to make a separate post to answer it.
“Anon” asks: “Why are you so adamantly against interfaith work? Aren’t there instances where it can be useful?”
I used to be very invested in interfaith work but I grew up. Ah, that’s a bitchy answer, I’ll admit, but after 20 years of interfaith work, it accurately describes my opinion of the whole experience. I attended the oldest interfaith seminary in the US, receiving my ordination and diploma in 2000, taught there for a couple of years, and then was Dean of second year students for a year. In the interim, I participated in various interfaith gatherings and conferences and found my opinion on the matter changing significantly and I’m happy to tell you why.
There are a couple of reasons that I no longer find interfaith work helpful or productive and in fact find it potentially deleterious to our traditions.
When I was in seminary, both as a student and a teacher/dean, there were a few troubling commonalities that I observed. Many, if not most of the students were attending seminary specifically to gain the accreditation necessary for performing interfaith marriages. At the time, I didn’t have a particular feeling one way or another toward interfaith marriage but again, over the years, I’ve become most definitely against it. (I should note that I don’t have the same negative opinion of it when it’s polytheist to polytheist of two different traditions. The worldviews tend to be compatible). It’s almost inevitably the polytheist in the equation who ends up compromising and sacrificing their traditions and faith. Then there is the question of children: if you’re not going to raise your children as polytheists, why are you here? If you don’t care about your Gods and traditions enough to pass them on as truth, as lawful good, as necessary, sustaining things, to teach piety and veneration to the next generation then you’re not helping. You’re not doing a damned thing for polytheistic restoration. Many of these questions don’t come up prior to marriage (I might point out that I’ve never seen an interfaith minister conduct effective pre-marital counseling. It’s one thing to be respectful of other traditions and another to have utterly no values, boundaries or requirements and all too often interfaith work ends up accommodating the lowest common denominator. One won’t challenge couples in pre-marital counseling because “all paths are one” or some such nonsense. No. Just no.).
As an aside, some Christian denominations have the concept of being “unequally yoked.” I think this is a very, very wise concept. What it means is that one should not marry someone who is not of the same faith, and the same commitment level to one’s faith and Gods because that will lead to inequalities and struggles down the road. We should marry those with whom we can walk hand in hand in our faith, supporting and sustaining each other, honoring the gods, and passing on those traditions. Marrying someone of a different incompatible faith is like trying to sit on a two legged stool when drunk. It doesn’t work so well. Anyway, back to the interfaith issue.
I’ve seen interfaith ministers with whom I taught refuse to include modules on African Traditional Religions because they have the sacrament of sacrifice. Likewise, they refused to include atheism because it made them uncomfortable. I detest atheism but if one is training in interfaith work, I think it’s necessary to understand it. The majority of interfaith ministers with whom I worked were, overall, very good at avoiding anything that made them uncomfortable and if interfaith seminary is supposed to train ministers capable of engaging with people of all faith traditions, comfort shouldn’t enter into it. There was absolutely zero encouragement in overcoming prejudice with respect to indigenous religions, especially indigenous polytheisms. If it was Wicca, ok. Anything else, anything that involved individual Gods made them –across the board, I might add in almost every interfaith gathering I’ve ever attended – deeply uncomfortable. It was, inevitably, the polytheist who was expected to compromise on their values, piety, faith, and devotional language in order to make the monotheist or new ager feel better. That is actually one of the major reasons I find interfaith work a lost cause:
There is always the assumption of a monotheistic norm. Anything that deviates from that is expected to comply or conform. In many cases, they’re not even aware of it. The accepted ritual structures are Christian/new age but no actual Deities can be named lest people be made uncomfortable. No standards can be maintained for the same reason. I remember a rather hostile student asking about my polytheism and complaining that by upholding my own religious taboos in my own personal practice, I was violating the spirit of interfaith. Sorry, sweetheart. My Gods are more important to me than your feelings and ‘interfaith’ isn’t a religion.
The Gods, any God even the monotheistic one, seem to have no place in interfaith work. It’s feel good pop religion, designed to present religion in a way that challenges no one. Moreover, it’s habitual to see sloppy language like “oh spirit” (what kind? Which one? Demons are spirits? If you can’t tell me which Deity is calling you to service then maybe you’re not ready for ministry. Likewise, way too many people came to seminary when they were suddenly interested in exploring their spirituality, not because they had vocations and not with any developed devotional practice to any Deity) and a deep antagonism toward specificity. Anything too far away from the monotheistic norm is typically rejected and to do interfaith work cleanly, there shouldn’t be a norm. There should be respect and common working goals.
What I see instead is a watering down of traditions, lack of comprehension of tradition, mixing and matching without respect to any Holy Power, eschewal of the Holy Powers as anything other than “all are one,” “Father/Mother God,” “Spirit,” or maybe even archetypes, and other such platitudes designed to erase the boundaries and differences between traditions. There’s deep discomfort with actively engaging and discussing those areas where traditions do not agree, and unwillingness to respect piety. Moreover, there’s always, always an arrogance in the monotheists or new agers toward polytheists, as though we simply aren’t evolved enough to recognize that all Gods are one. Interfaith work is monotheism dressed up in fancy clothes, maybe with some sage and the occasional meditation.
Most people that I’ve encountered are good hearted and want to be good people but their religious education is almost non-existent. The training at most interfaith seminaries, certainly the one I attended is pure fluff. It barely brushes the surface of the traditions presented and all one has to do to “pass” is largely show up. That’s not the way to turn out people into whom others will place their spiritual well being! Of course, the focus of the training is never that I’ve seen on serving or honoring the Gods. It’s always about people and there’s confusion when polytheists refuse to elide their Gods into this one nebulous “Spirit” to accommodate interfaith mores. Our Gods are not interchangeable, but this is incomprehensible to interfaith people.
I remember maybe 17 or 18 years ago attending a COG interfaith event. I was there by invitation and there was one other polytheist, a staunch devotee of Aphrodite (I don’t’ recall her name but she was awesome). I remember Michael York and another Wiccan complaining about the problems they had working with Heathens, Hellenics, etc. and they truly didn’t understand why. Then they made a comment to the effect (and it’s been nearly twenty years so I’m paraphrasing from memory) that they didn’t believe the Gods actually existed outside of one’s human consciousness and before I could object, this wonderful, beautiful devotee of Aphrodite stood up and said ‘that right there is why you’re having problems. That’s a line of piety that we will not cross. Our Gods are everything. Our practices begin and end with our Gods.” And truly, for a polytheist, that is what determines every engagement with the Holy, how one practices ritual, how one behaves, what one looks for in religious engagement. It really IS a line we cannot cross and … York and his compatriots found it incomprehensible. I’ve found that attitude across the board in the interfaith world and while it might be understandable in laity, it’s not appropriate in clergy.
It’s my observation that the sacred plays no part in interfaith work. The sacred is inhuman. The sacred challenges, it hurts, it’s terrifying, it forces change, it changes us and it can bring ecstasy and gnosis and inspiration and a thousand other things but first there is the intensity of direct engagement. It requires protocols for engagement, which is what religious traditions at their best are. I’ve never seen any of that in the interfaith community. There is a deep desire to be helpful to people, I think, and a deep (and by the very nature of interfaith work, deeply cultivated) lack of spiritual discernment.
I’m painting with a broad brush here and I’m certain there are very devout people dedicated to interfaith work, who will neither compromise on their traditions and with their Gods nor expect others to compromise. I haven’t met them. (Ironically, I’ve met plenty amongst the Jesuits with whom I work). Ecumenism should never mean sacrificing the sacred things and practices of one’s own tradition. (This is, by the way, and much to the amused horror – not sure which – of my Catholic friends that I’m very much against Vatican II, which watered down Catholic theology to pander to Protestantism. If that’s ecumenism, count me out. There are many things we can and maybe even should compromise upon but our Gods and their traditions and protocols are not one of them).
I do think there is a way to do interfaith work well, but first and foremost it requires that we all meet on common, neutral ground, that no one is unconsciously treated as an anomaly, one’s traditions met with arrogance and disrespect. I think it is possible to find common goals and maybe even common ground and to have incredibly fruitful discussions and do incredibly productive work (hell, I do it all the time with the Christians with whom I work) but only if all things are equal and where polytheists are concerned, the interfaith community isn’t.
Now, I haven’t experienced the same things at all when doing interfaith work amongst polytheists of various stripes. I think there are commonalities across polytheistic traditions in worldview and approach that make it much easier to find common devotional and working ground. Perhaps it is simply that those engaged in restoration understand the necessity of respect and piety, protocol and devotion and are unwilling to erase their Gods from the religious equation. We know what our traditions are going through and how hard the restoration is and there’s not generally the expectation that one will impinge upon one’s piety. It’s much easier to find common ground, perhaps not liturgically (though I also find that easier too) but certainly in discourse and community work. Perhaps it’s that interfaith work really started between Judaism and Christianity and later branched out and there was the initial assumption that everyone was worshipping the same God. Polytheism really complicates that assumption, doesn’t it?
I think we are a thorn in the side of monotheists – and let’s be honest, interfaith work is still largely a monotheistic endeavor. It’s one thing if it’s Jewish to Christian, or Muslim to Sikh, or Buddhist to New Agers but quite another when a polytheist steps on the scene. We are living reminders that their traditions did not succeed in our eradication and that there are options that challenge their entire worldview. I think that’s alien and threatening and with the sense of ingrained superiority that most of them have, when we then refuse to accommodate them, refuse to accept their ‘all gods one god/all goddesses one goddess’ dictum, but hold to the integrity of our own traditions, our contributions are largely ignored and our presence largely unwelcome. We are treated as infidels, interlopers, and perceived as less evolved or educated and our voices are silenced or ignored accordingly.
The truth is, we’re NOT all on the same theological page and we shouldn’t HAVE to be. But discussing those differences is verboten in most interfaith groups – it might lead to conflict, disagreement, which is viewed as intolerant and so there is no integrity and in the end, one must ask exactly how much of one’s energy one should expend in pissing into the wind. That energy is better spent building our own traditions, honoring our own Gods, teaching our children and passing a stronger polytheism down to the next generation.
These days the only interfaith work I find useful is polytheist to polytheist.
A reader from Australia emailed me this morning. Her question was simple:
My reader wrote:
“I just found out recently that a *lot* of the meat here is now. My understanding is that those animals are then dedicated with a prayer to Allah by a practicing Muslim.
The issue there is that they don’t label such meat so you don’t know what you’re getting. (A horrible greedy move from corporations wanting to make money*)
As someone who makes fairly frequent food offerings which may have been halal meat without my knowledge – would this make a difference at all?
This is probably a really stupid question – but as someone else who makes food offerings, I was interested in your opinion.”
*(Apparently, it is less expensive to produce one category of meat. There have been issues for observant Jews and Muslims with kosher and halal slaughtering in factories, with it not being done properly, so perhaps the real issue here is factory farming… -GK)
Well, yes. It makes quite a huge difference. I’ve asked my reader to send me more information, and I’ll be doing some research on my own, but if meat is being rendered halal, and that includes a prayer and dedication to Allah, and then that meat is being sold without efficient labelling, that is a huge problem for us.
This is, ironically, the same thing early Christians had to deal with in the Roman Empire, where the majority of meat came from offerings to the Gods. This was one of the spurs to the development of the Eastern monastic movement, and you even see Vegetarianism in parts of the Eastern Church. The Christians solved this by conquering the Roman empire. #lifegoals.
Seriously though, if meat is offered to Allah, or dedicated to Him before purchase, (as it is perfectly acceptable and proper for Muslims to do), then it is not an appropriate offering to our Gods. Plus, if we consume it, we’re consuming meat dedicated to at best a God Whose tradition is opposed to ours, Whose tradition contributed to the destruction of ours, and we’re giving to our Gods, meat already claimed. This is horrifying to me. It’s like having a friend over for dinner and giving them meat that has been pre-chewed.
I would suggest two things: either slaughter your own meat (chickens, rabbits etc, but you have to have training for this) or research the hell out of it and find meat that isn’t halal. One thing you might look for is organic farms that will allow you to pick out an animal and have it slaughtered for you, then you get the meat, or you and whoever else has bought into the animal.
Either way, this is a significant theological issue, not just for those of us whose traditions involve the sacrament of sacrifice, but for those who wish to eat meat without polluting themselves. What is appropriate for a Muslim to give, is not for us (and vice versa).
I’m not sure what the state of things is in the US, but you better believe, I’ll be looking into it.
EDIT: after a cursory websearch it looks like this is a problem with USDA as well, so much so that there have been ongoing petitions for accurate labelling.
Someone emailed a colleague of mine out of the blue with the following question (he shared it largely out of shock at the utter obliviousness of it all):
-” What does the shaman who horses (1) deities get in return for all the sacrifice, hard work & suffering they had to endure to become a shaman in the first place?… Can the shaman expect to be a highly skilled & powerful sorcerer whose (sic) able to bring about change in his life & this world through sorcery, after horsing deities for years? Or is it dependent on the relationship that is forged with the deity?”
The question is offensive on many levels and oblivious on many others, so much so that I was left quite literally speechless when my friend emailed me. (I think I said something to the effect of ‘I don’t know quite what to say here but you do get the best questions. Damn!’).(2)
Even writing this, I’m still pretty boggled by the question. First of all, what do you get? You get a job. You get the honor and privilege of serving the Gods, a particular privilege that most people never even conceive of let alone experience.
But more to the point, it’s not about us. A shaman provides service to the Gods and to the community. It’s not self-serving. No one in their right mind would want this job and yet, it is an honor and a privilege to be taken up in this way.
I just am so boggled by the incorrect attitude displayed in the email, not just to the idea of a shaman’s work being for personal empowerment, but the idea that we can use relationships with the Gods for personal greed. It is so incredibly wrong. If you ever wanted a primer on how not to approach the Holy Powers, this is it.
There are many ways to approach the Gods but first and foremost there is a foundational commonality on those that are appropriate and that commonality is respect. These are Holy Powers. They are the Movers and Shapers of the Cosmos. We were created to exist in right relationship with Them. They do not exist to pander to the worst of our instincts and desires.
Part of regaining right relationship with the Powers involves understanding that everything is not about us. We are not the super-center of the cosmos. The universe does not exist to cater to our whims and to stroke our egos.
So to answer this fool’s question, you get to be of service. You get to go to your grave knowing you did your part to restore right relationship communally with the Gods. You get to experience specific Deities more closely than can ever be imagined. That is both a grace and a blessing. No, you cannot, as a result of horsing (or anything else we do) expect to be “a highly skilled & powerful sorcerer” capable of bending the world to his will (and if you want to study magic, that too is a lifetime’s commitment and takes sacrifice). This is not a D&D game. And everything, everything is always dependent on the relationships we forge with our Gods, and those relationships that we nurture? They’re the reward for the work.
1. To horse a Deity is to carry that Deity via possession. It’s terminology drawn from the Afro-Caribbean traditions. The Deity “rides” the devotee as one might ride a horse.
2. I asked my colleague’s permission to share the question for this post.
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