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Random Thoughts on Evil

I was studying last night and came across an interview with another theologian on the topic of evil. The interview was quite good (because of course I listened to it – it was relevant to what I was reading) despite the difference in our theologies. I was taken aback though when he discussed four of the main ways one can tell if someone is influenced or aligned with evil. I was taken aback because A) I agree 110% with him and have for years and B) I’ve seen every one of these things –pandemically—within our communities (actually, within society at large, which, of course, bleeds into our communities). I’ll get to those four points in a moment. I realize that no one likes to consider evil as a force that might assault us, but I firmly believe it exists, (in addition to the evil we choose to do). Of course, I also believe that such external evil only has the openings we choose to give it, so with the protection and grace of our Gods, a little mindfulness and common sense, prayer, and a willingness to cultivate virtue, we can be just fine. 

I have no idea where evil comes from. Is it a byproduct of creation? After all, creation is an act of ordering materiality. It is a driving back of entropy, of nothingness. It is a shaking off of that which does not serve that purpose. That implies a certain sentience in the created material itself…or maybe I’m pushing the thought too far.  Is it something that we create by our poor choices and vicious actions, droppings we spew of hatred, cruelty, fear, jealousy, and malice (we can be a terribly inhumane species)? Is it an extant force fought by the Gods (For the record, I don’t think the Jotnar are evil at all. They are part of the created order)? I don’t know but as I move toward having to teach a class in theodicy (the question of why evil exists), I find myself pondering this question more and more. Personally, I tend to answer yes to all of the above but that is based more on my personal experience than any theological or philosophical treatise. 

I’m getting off track though. Here were the four points from the interview: 

  1. A person believes s/he can do whatever s/he wishes. 
  2. A person believes no One can command him/her.  
  3. A person believes s/he is his/her own God.
  4. Deep hostility and aversion to the sacred.

I actually look at number 4 as key evidence that someone is unhealthy and potentially under diabolical (in as much as we can use that word) influence. It’s the one constant that I have seen wherever evil spirits, bottom feeding trash spirits, and other such garbage have gained purchase. It’s a sign I watch for in myself and since I do spirit work, and often have to clean up spiritual pollution, I submit myself to evaluation to at least one other spirit worker regularly. Am I clean? When the Enemy—that which has no name, which stands against all the Gods have created, the true opponent at Ragnarok– whispers in my ears the most impious things when I pray, have I allowed any of that to gain purchase in my heart, mind, or soul? If I have, let’s get it out, just like weeding a garden. By the way, if that happens, just keep praying. In fact, pray louder. If you’re praying extempore, report this to the Gods – literally tell Them that something nasty is whispering impieties in your ear.  Bring it to Their attention. Give these things nowhere to hide in your mind. Don’t take that which is not yours to carry. If you’re using formal prayers, and this happens, offer an apology to the Gods and just keep going. Don’t let it distract you. Pray as though your life depended on it. That which seeks to distract is unimportant. It is, as we’d say in the south: “trifling.”

However overwhelming and powerful these evil spirits may feel, speaking outloud, hearing your voice speak the bullshit they’re trying to feed you, to implant in your mind, having your Gods right behind you, all of this reveals the evil lies for what they are and strips these creatures of their power. There is no need to feel shame. Instead, go right to your Gods in heart and mind and report them. Do not permit them to become so internalized that you take on the nefarious things that they’re whispering, that they’re trying to make you think are coming from you. Stand tall and proud, like a pillar of iron, and call upon your Gods and know that They are there. However bad you think it is, our Gods have heard it all and They will carry our burdens with us and stand with us in any dark place we need to walk. There is no place so dark that They do not know the way through, and They will sustain us through it.

Now, there are normal thoughts too that can interfere when we pray or meditate, normal things like “oh, my nose itches.” Or “I forgot to book that appointment.” Etc. This is going to happen. Don’t panic. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad polytheist.  Also, more positively, it’s normal for regular thoughts to sort of float through your mind when you’re trying to focus. Don’t worry. Just let them go. It’s a perfectly normal thing that happens to nearly everyone. Note those thoughts, let them pass, and return to prayer. 

I think one of the biggest fracture lines in our theological understanding in our communities centers around #1. There is a cosmic hierarchy and, despite what modernity, popular media, and new agers might tell you, we are not at the top of it. We cannot actually do whatever we like—or rather we *can* but certain choices are going to twist our souls out of true. A pious person is indentured in service to her Gods.  A responsible person has a place in his community, maintains a household (even if only a household of one), stands rightly within the world. We are tethered to our commitments and known by how well or poorly we keep them. Within our religious traditions there are rules, protocols, a right way to approach holy places, to treat holy people, to engage with the Holy Powers and a wrong way. It is not a free for all. To say that one can do whatever we want is to elevate ourselves and our passing whims and desires over the obligations of piety and respect. Those obligations create in us a fully realized human being, or at least they have the potential to do so when approached rightly. The former is shallowness yes, but also against the divine order. This is what it’s all about, folks. We can work with our Gods, support the order They have created by the way we choose to live, by our devotion, by how joyfully and consistently we cultivate Their veneration, honor our dead, care for the land, care for each other, or we do the opposite. We set ourselves against that order and in so doing twist our own existence and our souls, breathed into us by Odin Himself, out of true. 

Likewise, the Gods have the right to command us. We are not above Them in the cosmic order. Point 2 is really about acknowledging the cosmic order, the divine architecture and the hierarchy therein. That hierarchy does not place humans at its top.  That is a relief! There is something, many Somethings greater than we, Who had a hand in our creation, Who recognize us as part of Their work and what a lovely and beautiful thing that is. We are, however, still a religion of converts and many people come to our traditions having been deeply scarred by their birth religions and upbringings. Sometimes even the words of devotion: ‘prayer,’ ‘piety,’ ‘adoration,’ ‘worship,’ the word ‘devotion’ itself…cause pain. It can be agonizing to recognize a hierarchy that in impious hands has been used to condemn and to shame. All I can say here is that these things should be a comfort, a connection, a joyous homecoming and I am so very sorry that anyone ever used them to cause pain. That is not what piety or the Gods, inasmuch as I understand Them, are ever about. Be gentle with yourselves and each other and work devotionally where you can work. Trust yourself and trust, if you can, the Holy Powers in Their ability to restore to rightness the spiritual connections and bonds that have been severed by such abuse. 

Returning to my original point about #1 and 2, the Gods exist, and we are, if we are piously oriented, in fealty to Them. They become our center, our axis mundi. It is around this sacred point that all else is oriented. That nourishes and strengthens *everything*. If we are properly aligned with our Holy Powers, then that should have an effect on how we move in the world. It changes everything and for the better. 

I think point 4 speaks for itself and I’ve already touched on it anyway. I’ll post more as I think about this more. I welcome readers’ thoughts. 

What to do When Evil Comes Calling

We don’t talk much about evil as polytheists. Our traditions aren’t focused around it; we don’t have a figure like the Christian “Satan” driving our ideas of theodicy, and for the most part, our traditions aren’t really fixated on any violent and/or definitive eschatology. Instead we tend to be much more focused on celebrating the divine order and all the blessings our Gods bestow. That is, I think, exactly as it should be. That does not mean, however, that evil doesn’t exist. Christians weren’t the first to wrestle with this. Our philosophers engaged with the question of evil and perhaps from time immemorial men and women have been asking why bad things happen.(1)

I suppose first there’s the question of what evil actually is, a question that has been as equally vexing through the centuries as why it happens or exists at all. I think though that before we attempt to answer that, it’s important to articulate some sense of the underpinnings of our cosmological architecture. In other words, we must proceed from the baseline understanding that our Gods are inherently good. That doesn’t mean that Their nature is good according to human understanding, which is necessarily limited, but that Their nature is inherently good on a cosmic, eternal, super-human level. They are the good from which all other good things flow. They are good in a way that supports and sustains everything in our worlds and the fabric of Being itself. Whatever evil there is in the world, it does not come from our Gods.

Nor do I think that ‘misfortune’ can necessarily be equated with ‘evil.’ Life is a series of ups and downs and multiple sometimes conflicting variables that we can’t control. Sometimes something that seems like misfortune now, turns out to be a blessing later. More importantly, we each have our individual wyrd, and our ancestral wyrd.(2) Sometimes misfortune doesn’t just happen, it’s the result of ancestral debt that has travelled down to us,(3) or the result of our poor choices, or sometimes just the result of painful necessity. Sometimes, shit happens and we have to deal with it. How we deal with it can lead to the honing of a very strong character…or not. None of that is ‘evil.’

When we discuss something like wyrd, we’re discussing something that is part and parcel of the natural – and divine—order. I don’t believe that evil is part of that order. If the Gods are good, and remember that is the baseline from which we are proceeding, then evil cannot come from Them. It must, of necessity, be something external to that divinely ordained architecture. So, what is it and where does it come from, if that is the case?

I personally think there are two types of evil, that which comes from us (moral evil) and that external to us, which we allow in to influence our minds and hearts. The first is the evil that we do, that we choose to do. The second is something that I call the Nameless (of which the Filter is a manifestation). I’ll talk about that in a moment.

I was always taught that whatever evil exists external to us, it has only those openings that we choose to give to it. This is why it is so important to cultivate virtue, to train ourselves to make the morally correct choices, as much as we can determine what those might be, as a habit, and to do so again and again even when it is difficult (perhaps most especially when it’s difficult). Virtue is something that we are absolutely capable of cultivating. Of all the ways in which we have free will, the choice to cultivate good character is the most powerful. That cultivation allows us to strengthen our soul matrix, just like working out at a gym strengthens our physical muscles – a rather simplistic metaphor I grant you, but one adequate for our purposes here. And just like eating well and getting enough sleep and exercising bolsters our resistance to illness, so too developing virtue bolsters our soul’s resistance to evil. How do we know to do what is right? How do we determine what is morally and ethically correct?

It is not the Gods’ job to instill in us a sense of morality or virtue. That is the purpose of philosophy, of our families, upbringing, and education, and ideally, in a properly ordered community, of our culture.(4) The Roman author A. Gellius wrote: Dii immortales virtutem adprobare, non adhibere debent. (The immortal Gods ought to support not supply virtue. Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 1.6.8). We have our cosmologies, our sacred stories, the discipline of devotional work, and our relationships with the Gods, land, and ancestors…which, if they are properly ordered, impact everything else in our world. We have the lessons and teachings of our ancestors, our traditions, and our own sense of right and wrong.(5) We shouldn’t need our Gods to tell us not to molest children, or commit rape, or steal, or lie, or break our word. Developing virtue comes down to behaving as the kind of people we would like to best be. That is on us. That is our work to do. The Gods will guide and support us in that, but we have to do that work, learning from our mistakes as we go.(6)

A commitment toward developing a virtuous character (and I use the term ‘virtuous’ in its Greco-Roman, philosophical sense not its later Christian iteration) is that which inoculates us against moral evil. We learn to make better choices. We learn not to make choices that give openings through which evil may enter.

Then there is what I call the Nameless (there are various Native American terms for this and I once had a Kemetic elder equate it to Apep), that malignant sentience which stands against the order the Gods have decreed.(7) That is the evil external to cosmic Good. This is the malignancy that will jump at any chance to seep into our minds twisting our perceptions, whispering in the darkness, cultivating despair, indolence, apathy, and hate. Without the work of having developed character and virtue, we are sitting ducks for it.  This is why I believe that the maxim at the Oracle of Delphi is vitally crucial to us all: Know Thyself. Let me explain.

Discernment is always a concern, or should be, for all of us engaged in spiritual work. This is true of the lay person engaging in devotion as much as the specialist. One necessary component of discernment is self-knowledge. We must know the pattern of our thoughts and emotions, our motivations, and above all else the lay of our inner landscape. Good, bad, beautiful, or ugly (and I suspect we are all equal parts of each), we must know our inner selves cold, with 110% clarity. Why? So that when evil comes to whisper in our minds, to plunge us into darkness, to twist our perception, and nurture ugliness in our souls, to cut us off from our Gods and the abundance of good They bring, we will recognize it as not being of us. If we can recognize it, we can resist it and cleanse ourselves of its miasma before we are changed by it for the worse.

We have free will. Even those of us bound in service to our Gods have free will to do the things that cultivate devotion and virtue, or not; to serve graciously and willingly, or not. We have freedom in this and because of that, we have the freedom to choose to let evil in, to nourish it, or not. This is why mindfulness and moral courage are so important. Because the Gods have made us free, They aren’t going to step in and stop us when we’re opening the door to evil, whether it be that which we choose to do from weakness or poor character, need, want, or a thousand other things, or the nameless itself. It is for us to choose. But our choices have consequences.

This is why regular devotional practice is also so vitally important. It creates an environment in our hearts, minds, and spirits that is not conducive to evil. It allows us a greater chance of recognizing that which would pull us out of true with our Holy Powers, and it helps us foster the moral habits that develop a character capable of resistance to the malignant. It is the same with honoring our ancestors. They are our first line of defense.

So, what does one do when evil, external evil, the nameless or one of its helpers comes calling? We might not recognize it at first. It might be that insidious whisper in the night that tells us what we’re doing is for naught. It might be the whisper that tells us there are no Gods to hear us? Why bother? It might be worse and it might be a direct attack. I have looked into the eyes of people – thankfully not many—who were riddled willingly with its influence and it was horrible to see. What do you do when confronted with something that foul? Well, you don’t run. Over the past two months, I’ve gotten multiple emails from clients, readers, acquaintances who have in some way, shape, or form had brushes with what they conceived of as evil. They encountered something that tainted them, terrified, and in some cases harmed them spiritually. The question was always the same: what should I do? What do I do? What should I have done?

I can only tell you what I was taught by a woman far more devout than I. When you are faced with evil, when you are standing in the presence of something foul and unholy, do not flinch or flee. Stand up. Look it right in the eye. Yield no space, and call upon your Gods. Surround yourself with that which is holy, articulate your acceptance and support of the divine order. Stand confidently in it. Root yourself in your devotion to the Gods and ancestors. Call upon Them and do not be afraid. Things like this have only the openings we choose to give them. Evil may be very good at tricking us into creating openings but if we remember our relationships to the Gods, if we remember that we do not stand alone ever, that always we stand with thousands upon thousands of ancestors ranked at our backs ready to protect us, then we have nothing to fear. Fear is the weapon it utilizes the most but in the end, we must recognize that our Gods are stronger. And we must be aware of when we start feeling aversion to holy things, to our Gods, and our dead. That is a sign of infection.

 

Notes:

  1. For the Platonists, evil was privation of something, like good, health, substance, etc., a separation from the Good. For some philosophers like Kant, it was a matter of human nature. A more thorough discussion, rather outside the scope of my piece here, of philosophical viewpoints on evil may be found here. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/
  2. Wyrd is the warp and weft of our very existence. It is causality and consequence, the sum total of every decision we have made or chosen not to make, everything we’ve done, or not done, every aspect of our existence for good or bad. Ordered by the Nornir, it intersects with the wyrd of those with whom we engage, and is likewise impacted and by the deeds of our ancestors. It forms the scaffolding against which our lives play out.
  3. I like to tell people, when the subject of ancestral debt comes up, that there is no ‘away.’ The pain and suffering, joys and victories, the deeds good and bad of our ancestors don’t just go away. Like a stone thrown across a still lake, some choices have repercussions that ripple out, down the generations.
  4. Sadly, in a culture influenced and crafted from generations of monotheism, industrialization, secularism, pop culture, and modernity we cannot look there for examples of anything approximating virtue…unless we’re looking for negative examples.
  5. This should be developed by our education, upbringing, and devotional praxis and its development is an ongoing process. The problem as I see it for us, is that we’re living in a world that in no way sustains or supports any type of virtue, and the ethics and morality of modernity are not only quite different from what our traditions might teach, but in many cases destructive and diametrically opposed to traditional wisdom and devotion. We need to start the cultivation of virtue not by looking to our society’s elders and teachers, but by first addressing our own brainwashing.
  6. Which I don’t think should mean putting that morality over clean service to the Gods. I do think sometimes Their agendas take precedence in our lives and that begs the question of what happens when the Gods ask us to betray or put aside our most deeply held values. I’ll be addressing that in a future post. I’m still gnawing on that and all its implications and it’s not an easy piece to write.
  7. I firmly believe that the real battle of Ragnarok is not Gods against other Holy Powers like the Jotnar, but Gods joined across pantheons against this force which seeks only to unmake all that the gods have crafted.