You lurk in the marshlands, a pale and ghostly figure. It is Your treasured abode. The creatures there know You well. They heed Your will and do Your bidding, carrying Your messages far and wide. Once, before creation truly was, You stood with Your Brothers: Fury and Fire--Frenzied inspiration and Holy Power-- at the moment You all slaughtered Ymir, thus becoming Architects of creation, erecting the pristine structure of the worlds. You were the will that held it all together in those first crimson-encrusted moments. Before it was done, You saw it all unfold. Wyrd is a flicker of light on Your bone-slender hands, and You weave it as You will. You are the silent Watcher, often overlooked and under-estimated. That is fine. Nothing escapes Your notice and silence won You freedom once. You save your incantations for moon drenched nights in the fens. Then You willingly unleash Your power. You are a God of strange and liminal places, and the mind is the most liminal threshold of all. You gave us this gift, cognition, worlds unfolding within us, divine in their potentiality, imprinted the senses on our souls, when Loður gave us our physical sensorium. It is both a grace and blessing. Thanks to you, we may walk in many realms, tasting the savor of the liminal, and that is Your gift to us too. Everything is full of meaning. Three Gods made us. Three Gods loved us enough to carefully craft us into being. The persistence of Their regard holds us all together. May I ever see with the eye of my understanding, and hear with the ears of my soul, all the glories You and Your Brothers have wrought. Hail to You, Hoenir, Wili, Lord of the Marshlands. Hail Great God Who blesses the work of my mind. Ever and always will I praise You. (by G. Krasskova)
I don’t usually advocate reading our sacred stories for moral exempla. I think that in polytheistic religions the relationship between lore and living morality was complicated and polytheists tended to draw their moral code from their community and country values more than from their cosmological stories (1). In many cases, they were sensible enough to know that in no way can the Gods ever properly be submitted to human morality or authority. Our insight is too narrow, our understanding too limited. For us to drag our Gods down to our level is often gross impiety. Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t examine and work out various types of exegesis for our myths. We may infer, examine, and certainly, I think we are also expected to use our reason. After all, Hoenir gave us cognition and just as we engage with our world through the corporeality of our sensorium, we also engage with it through our capacity to reason, through Hoenir’s gift; and it is by means of that engagement that we hone our characters. To submit the Gods to our morality though, is to elevate ourselves above Them in the cosmic architecture. That is something that twists that sacred architecture out of true. It is not our rightful place, and we are not equipped to hold it—no matter how arrogant we may be, we are not equal to the Gods (and that this needs to be said every so often in our communities just fills me with sadness). So, while I usually wouldn’t engage in the type of reading that is shortly to follow, every so often, there is a story that stands out, either as a positive exemplum of piety (Lay of Hyndla, where we see Ottar praised and rewarded for the incredible devotion and depth of his piety to Freya) or, to turn my attention to the Greco-Roman world, where we are given a clear warning of the dangers of impiety (the story of Hippolytus). It’s this latter that I would like to discuss today.
The lesson in Hippolytus is one that some of us take for granted, but it’s also one that I know I’ve struggled with in the past. It’s not immediately intuitive. I’d like to say that’s because of the way monotheistic religions permeate our culture, or because of the influence of modern popular culture but I don’t think that is actually the reason. If it were, we wouldn’t see this being teased out as an issue by ancient authors. I just think it’s possible to love one’s primary Deity or Deities so much, so deeply, that it can be very, very difficult to also see other Deities as equally holy—especially if those other Deities have areas of expertise diametrically opposed to our own “Patron” Gods. We are shaped and formed after all by those Gods that we love and to Whom we are especially devoted. One of the beauties of polytheism is that there is no expectation of devotional exclusivity. Moreover, often what is correct for one devotee to a particular Deity is forbidden to another devotee of that Deity. It can be confusing. It can be difficult to say: “these practices that my God encourages are holy but so are these diametrically opposite practices the devotee of God X is doing over there. Those things just aren’t holy for *me*.” This was a powerful lesson that I actually learned by reading a medieval Christian mystic.
Years and years ago I was taking a medieval studies class wherein I had to read the works of Italian mystic Angela of Foligno (1248 C.E. – 1309 C.E.). While I love my medieval mystics, I’m not a huge fan of Franciscans in general (she was a Franciscan tertiary) but that wasn’t where the lesson came in. Angela often worked with lepers. These were the lowest of the low in the society of the time. They were marginalized, forced to live away from the community, and generally treated like garbage. (This was partly because there was, at the time, no cure for leprosy and people feared contagion. For those wondering, a cure was discovered in the 1940s and 50s). Angela would go and minister to them, bringing food, treating their wounds, even bathing their wounds. At one point, while she was washing a leper’s legs and feet, she had this interior vision of Christ, and she realized that the leper was Christ, that she was never closer to her God than when she was caring for these men and women. Some of the damaged tissue had peeled off the leper and had fallen into the bowl of water she was using to bathe him. Get ready for it. In devotion to her God and in a moment of ecstatic revelation she drank the water. The first time I read that I was utterly, thoroughly, and in every possible way revolted. I think I even got physically ill from reading it. I still find it one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever read. At the same time, for Angela, this was an intensely holy thing. It was sacred. It drew her closer in devotion to her God. It was not holy for me, but it didn’t have to be. This was something between Angela and her God. Learning to hold that paradox (?) in my head, to acknowledge that something like this was sacred work, a sacred act, but just maybe not for me personally with my God was a huge insight. For one thing, it’s been a tremendous help when I acquired an apprentice who was as far away in her devotional orientation from the ascetic practices I prefer as one could possibly be. I was having the same aversion and disgust that I had with Angela when the same lesson hit me like a two-by-four again: this is holy for her and her God. It isn’t for me and that’s OK. It’s that last part that I think a lot of us struggle with, the part about that difference being OK.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because one does no honor to one’s God by spitting on the mysteries of another Deity and recently I’ve been seeing a lot of that in various fora. I’ve already written before about how none of us get to speak for our Gods with impunity. If we aren’t willing to qualify our statements, to acknowledge the fallibility of our humanity, and to step back from using our relationships with our Gods (be it as devotee, mystic, godspouse, god-servant, priest, or shaman – or anything else) as a club to attack the cultus of other Deities then we are betraying those self-same Gods and our work is deeply compromised. See my previous article titled “Theological Integrity.” It’s quite easy to share one’s religious experiences and even to discuss and argue about what our own experience has taught us about our Gods provided we qualify it instead of making normative statements intended to shut down religious discourse and silence other devotees, specifically if this latter is done by calling into question the integrity of their Gods. It is never our place to assume the right to submit our Gods to our puny authority (2). This is where polytheism gets really complicated, though I suspect every religion faces this in some way, shape, or form, especially with practices labeled as falling into the ‘mystic.’
While we have plenty of positive exempla in the Norse lore exhorting piety and devotion, exhorting humility, and common sense. I’m going to look instead at a Greco-Roman story to make my point, because it is very well known and very, very obvious in its intended interpretation. I would like us to consider the story of Hippolytus.
Hippolytus was the son of Theseus. He was an ardent, passionate, deeply devout devotee of Artemis. Because She is a virgin huntress, Hippolytus wished to remain chaste and virginal for Her. He was disgusted by sex, dismissive of marriage, and deeply contemptuous of Aphrodite and Her mysteries. He was so contemptuous that Aphrodite grew angry at his hubris. She cursed him (and one may infer that She had the consent of Artemis in this matter). His stepmother Phaedra fell madly in love with him, pursuing him to the point that she was physically ill in mind, body, and spirit. Hippolytus, utterly revolted, rebuffs her so violently that in some versions of the story, she kills herself, after leaving a suicide note accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus, who has been granted power by Poseidon, curses Hippolytus and Poseidon sends a sea-monster to attack the young man’s horses. Hippolytus is flung out of the chariot, and tangled in the reins, is dragged to death. Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus and establishes cultus for Hippolytus so that his memory and story will not fade.
What is the lesson we ought to take from this? Well, I think it shows us that while it is right and proper to venerate and love our Gods, to have deep and specific devotion to a Deity (as Hippolytus did to Artemis), it is NOT ok, and is in fact a polluted and curse-worthy act to use that devotion to revile the mysteries of another Deity.
We should not ever diminish the relationship between Deities to petty, human relations. They are GODS. It’s not for us to ever criticize our Gods. It’s for us to look for wisdom in Their stories. To think that we are equal to the Gods, to think that one can be a God is the height of delusion. It is a moral and spiritual sickness. Avoid the impious. Avoid the contamination they put into the world like shit with every breath.
- Herodotus for example, in talking about what makes a people, clearly separates “honoring the same Gods,” from “following the same nomoi, or customs and laws.” This is picked up by multiple ancient writers and reflects a different hierarchy of understanding. Religion did not do the work of defining our morality (upbringing, paideia, philosophy did those things, albeit it in many cases likely informed by devotion). Religion was protocol for engaging with the Holy Powers, for engaging with the sacred and the holy.
- Each God or Goddess is equally holy. What is complicated for devotees is that They don’t often agree, are often at cross-purposes, and sometimes have opposite agendas for Their devotees, or opposing taboos, etc. This is messy but that’s polytheism. We don’t have a single holy book telling us precisely how to do things from which there shouldn’t be any deviation because we’re not monotheists. (Hell, they don’t even have perfect accord over how to interpret their own holy writings). Heathenry is not, as much as some people would like it to be, Protestant Christianity. Something a God gives to a person can be perfectly right and true *for that person*. There are few universals save that piety is good and we should cultivate it.
This is actually a multi-part question, so I’ll take each one in turn. Here we go:
Question 1A: “I was reading your article on prayer but and a question came to mind…”How do you determine who to pray to?” Say for example a person wishes to do so in reference to a research paper they have been working on. What determines whether they should pray to Thoth, or Athena, or Hermes or Saga, or any God or Goddess of Knowledge/Wisdom?”
You know, it seems like such a simple question, but it really isn’t. This is definitely a “polytheist problem!” I have my set of household Deities, Gods to Whom I’ve been dedicated to for years and I pray to Them regularly – I aim for nightly but I’ll admit I do miss days. Sometimes I or my household are just too tired to do it properly. Then the morning prayers, which are brief, have to suffice. Sometimes though, I’ll just get a feeling that I’m entering into another Deity’s house, sphere of influence, so to speak. Then, as a matter of what used to be called “guestliness” (the hospitality and grace owed by guest to host) in some of the Heathen groups in which I worked, I will reach out to that Deity. Sometimes, it will come up in our regular household divination that one of us should approach a particular Deity. Sometimes one prayer just leads to another. There’s no formula or rule for it. If one has a fulltrui, a patron, a particular Deity or family of Deities to Whom one pays regular devotion, I would always start there. You can always ask the Gods to Whom you usually pray, ask for insight and be patient.
Question 1B: “Another question I have is…does a particular place affect one’s connection to the Gods? I have read a few articles where people have moved to different places due to work or personal relationships (significant others), and in their original place they had a good communication with the Gods, but in the new place, it’s like the communication seems to be cut off. Does the “God Phone” tend to get bad reception in different places? I wonder if there is something to it because I felt more receptive to the Gods when I was in [state redacted] but since moving to [state redacted] I’ve had difficulties…”
Yes, (though it’s not that the the ability to sense or hear the Gods is cut off, but something else). This is why regional cultus is such a powerful thing. We see the same Gods being venerated in different ways, manifesting in different ways, carrying different bynames in different areas. For instance, my primary God is Woden in Old English territories, Odin in Scandinavia. Sometimes He is Gangleri, sometimes Oski, sometimes Wotan, sometimes Allfather, and so on and so forth. Not all of these heiti depend on the land, but there are reginal manifestations of His power. To give a second example, there is Dionysos of Mount Beacon – how we honor Him here– and Dionysos of Nysos and a thousand more iterations of this God. The Gods have Their own business, I think, with all the spirits of these places completely unrelated to us and our relationships and They wear different…”clothing” so to speak, accordingly). I’ve often said that the polytheistic triad is Gods-Ancestors-Land and it may be, and this is my speculation here, that some sort of conversation between the Gods and the spirits of the land is occurring. After all, They have relationships not just with us, but with multiple families of spirits (like land spirits) too. This applies to Gods and ancestors too – those are unique relationships. To get back to your question, there are definitely regional expressions or currents through which our Gods work.
I would suggest making offerings to the land spirits in your new home and also to your Gods (and ancestors too –never hurts). When you move to a new place, or even if you’re visiting for an extended time, greet the land and make offerings. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn to see your Gods through new eyes. It’s not that They can’t hear your prayers, or aren’t present, rather I think that it’s a matter of us sometimes struggling to catch the… “frequency” for lack of a better term, of one’s Gods in a new place, and of one’s Gods in conversation with new land spirits. Also, we do like our preconceptions and those can be a powerful block to new experiences of our Gods, all without us ever really being fully aware of how much this is the case.
It really takes time (and sometimes, it becomes easier after moving to a new place – this is not always a problematic thing). Just be patient and continue your practices. I asked my friend who is a land worker and she said she thinks there’s some kind of negotiation between the Gods and the land that happens and how they come to you is different because of that. Also, you need to get to know the spirits in your new place. Sometimes the Gods will even step back a bit in Their presence because it can overwhelm the sense of the land spirits or one’s ancestors in a new territory. There’s important work rooting oneself there that should be done first, grounding yourself in this land and developing those relationships, that all needs to happen before the Gods express the fullness of Their presence again.
You have to acclimate. You can’t really do clean work of any sort, including devotional until you acclimate. The space needs to be met, greeted, honored. Then it needs to be cleaned, ordered, blessed, and protected. Otherwise, there will be interference, distractions…and some of this can simply be the interference of chattering spirits who are curious about the new person. Even if we can’t hear or sense this (no one is in the state of perfect receptivity all the time no matter how good their general abilities are!), on some level it gets registered as interference or blockage. It’s not though. The process of moving, involves acclimating on both sides: you, your Gods, the land…sometimes rituals of formal introductions for all parties can help. But in the end, just give it time. It’s always easier when you make friends with the land.
Finally, here is Question 1C: “Also I can point out with these articles I glanced at, no mention was made of cleansing practices so perhaps that’s an important way to “boost the signal”. Are there other ways?”
Well, the first and most important thing you can do is establish a regimen for cleansing and purification. That is rule one when it comes to discernment. Rule two is to be consistent in your prayers and devotions. If you’re not cleansing regularly, of course your discernment and ability to accurately engage with your Gods will be severely impinged.
Hope this helped. There’s nothing worse than moving to a new place. My land worker friend said moving is one of THE most traumatic things for her personally! Psychological studies that I’ve read, put it right up there with the death of a loved one and divorce. So, be kind to yourself and soldier on.
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:
- A person believes s/he can do whatever s/he wishes.
- A person believes no One can command him/her.
- A person believes s/he is his/her own God.
- 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.
I am indebted to Rowan Williams for his work “On Christian Theology,” wherein he offers a rich and nuanced discussion precisely about how to speak theologically – i.e. about the Gods—without crossing the line into speaking. *for* the gods. I was first exposed to his writing two years ago when I TA-ed for one of my professors who was teaching an intro to theology course. Now, I am teaching Williams’ text, or at least the excerpt on theological integrity, in my own intro course. It’s something that crosses all religious boundaries and denominations and something with which anyone who is writing, blogging, speaking, or presenting on theological issues really should be aware. It has changed the way I write and also changed the way I evaluate the writings of others. If we are writing about our Gods publicly, with the thought, however remote, that newcomers might read and be influenced by our writings, then there is an obligation there to do that writing with utmost integrity. What constitutes “integrity” is something that I think we’re always examining, learning, and refining.
Theology is complicated and the ways in which our religious experiences touch our lives, impact us emotionally, shape us spiritually, and guide us down various roads of virtue are likewise complicated and often antagonistic to mundane, secular living. There’s always a process of negotiation happening as we try to live our religious traditions and to cultivate our devotional lives with integrity. Sometimes we make poor compromises that set us back, or negatively impact our devotion. We ALL do this at different times in our lives and then we have to go back, figure out where we went awry, and do a bit of course correction. That’s ok. If we handle that well, it can make our faith much, much stronger. We make decisions about how we mark ourselves out as devout people, about how we carry our faith into the secular world, about how we define and delineate the spaces in which we move as marked by our awareness that the Gods are all around us. We carry Them after all, wherever we go. That itself is a process of negotiation and figuring all of this out can make us clumsy and fumbling as we are formed and remade anew again and again in our practice and in our faith. Having some scaffolding, some sense of how to do this with integrity can serve as a guidepost, a lifeline, a small handbook to see us through.
“Integrity” has two meanings:
- The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
- The state of being whole and undivided.
So, what does that mean when it comes to discussing our Gods? How is theological discussion rooted in integrity or not? How do we know? Rowan Williams dives right into this question and comes up with a few answers. Firstly, a “discourse is without integrity” if it “conceals its true agenda.” It must be honest, and an honest attempt to communicate and create dialogue. The language and arguments must mean exactly what they seem to mean on the surface. There’s no hidden agenda or quest for power. Keeping it open and honest in this way allows for a conversation to happen. It allows for the possibility of “a genuine response.” The essential agenda of one’s conversation is clearly articulated, without deceit or shifting goalposts.
Because it is a conversation, there is a certain open-endedness to the discussion. There’s the possibility for growth and correction, of going more deeply into the issue at hand, of finding different answers and then finding new and different ones again. If that is lacking, if there is concealment of purpose, of the agenda, then the “conversation” is little more than a strategy for the acquisition or retention of power (and I’m quoting Williams here again). This is one of the reasons I am so critical about polytheistic writing that pushes a political agenda: it is dishonest about its purpose. If you’re writing about the Gods, write about the Gods. If you’re writing about your politics, write about your politics. Be up front and stop trying to convince your readers that one equals the other.
Writing about the Gods with integrity is more than that though. Yes, we start by being completely upfront and open about our agenda, but that’s not enough. We have to seek and write and speak in a way which allows for answers, but also for a continuation of the discourse. There is no final end to theological discussions because in part, the Gods and Their work is never-ending. And this is what specifically sets theological discussion apart from any other type of conversation. There’s always an unseen participant. When we talk about the Gods, it’s a conversation in which the Gods take part. What this means is that if we want to do this with integrity, we cannot then speak FOR the Gods. When we speak for the Gods, we are taking upon ourselves a claim to power and authority that shuts down any dialogue, that prevents a continuation of the discussion, and prohibits free exploration and response (1). We are putting ourselves in the position, of the Gods.
This is problematic. It lacks integrity for sure, but it’s also impious and intensely disrespectful of the Gods Themselves. If I am writing about any topic, and I say, “You will have to answer for Odin for your position here because He thinks…” then I am stepping onto unholy ground. I am speaking in place of my God and taking for myself an authority that belongs to no human being.
If instead, I say, “well, in my experience I would be cautious because I think that Odin might not like it” or “I’m inferring from what we know in lore” or “based on this divination, I think…” then that is different. I’m qualifying my statement. There is room for the Gods to move and express Themselves. I’m not taking Their position. In other words, I’m qualifying my statement, leaving room for those reading or listening to me to have their own experience with Odin and leaving room for theophany, or individual discernment, and for the Gods to speak on Their own. This care in speech is all the more important for us when we serve as oracles because we are imperfect vessels and even in the case of an oracular statement, it is filtered through the lens of our minds, our cognition, our experience. I might be 110% sure of something that comes up in divination but I’m always going to qualify it. Why? Because I am translating and interpreting. I receive information, patterns, and sensory input, then filter (translate) it into human idiom, words and images that make sense and then I convey (interpret) that for my client. There’s room for error (2). Likewise, when we are writing or speaking about topics that are deeply important to us: there’s always room for error.
Williams states this more boldly: “religious and theological integrity is possible as and when discourse about God declines the attempt to take God’s point of view” (3). How often do we see this on blogs and in our communities?
God hates f*gs. (This one is easy to argue against. We see groups like Westboro Baptist Church preaching their message of hate, using vile rhetoric like this and most of us are rightly disgusted. I can’t even bring myself to type it out fully. We can see the lack of integrity here. It’s not so easy though when we agree with the message like my second example below).
Freya loves trans people. (well, yes, I think we can infer this from Her stories but let’s not state it as a totalizing perspective. We don’t *know.* We must resist the urge to speak as though we are Freya, as though we know with 110% certainty.).
I can even see speaking with utter certainty within the bounds of one’s relationship with a God. I know for instance, inasmuch as any human being can, what Odin wishes of me at a particular moment. But even there, I have to interrogate my discernment, constantly, because I want to be sure, because I want to avoid error, because it is important that I know. I wouldn’t say that Odin wants X for every single Odin’s person out there. If we realize that the Gods are there, silent conversational partners in every discourse we have about Them, then it changes the way we approach that discourse. We must, if we wish to write and speak with integrity, leave space for the individual to encounter the Gods for him or herself. We cannot claim what Williams calls a “totalizing perspective;” we cannot claim to be the moral voice of a God, unerring and infallible (4).
We may suggest. We may infer. We may consider. But to put ourselves forward as speaking or writing infallibly for a Deity is to silence the voices of our Gods. Always, always we must leave that space for the Gods to be Their own voice, Their own presence. We must direct our conversation and our writing to the Gods without closing the door to Their response. In this way our work not only has the honesty that is so much a part of what “integrity” means, but it forms a unified whole, working with the Gods, rather than against, rather than pushing the Gods out of the conversation completely.
- See Williams, 5.
- Now of course, it’s my job to study and practice, and pray, and meditate, and maintain my protocols and cleansing rites, so that my discernment is sound, but there is always room for human error. There’s a saying in translation studies that I can’t help but think of here: “Translator: Traitor.” Every time you touch a text to translate it, you’re twisting it away from what the original intended. You might be brilliant. You might have the best of intentions. Your result might be equally brilliant but there is a process happening that allows for subjectivity and interpretation and that is where error may creep in. It’s no longer the original voice of the original author.
- Williams, 6.
Yes, it happens. Colloquially since about 2004, the community has termed this having “a God phone”. I tend to dislike this tongue-in-cheek term for what is often an intense spiritual experience. There’s been a lot of push back from some of the more polluted corners of tumblr specifically (but other areas of the internet too) against this (despite the fact that it is the heart and soul of religious experience, and something that is perfect natural for some people, and also something that has defined the development of traditions since antiquity.
For the people in general pushing back, I think it’s largely sour grapes that they don’t actually have this capacity. It takes humility, ongoing devotional work, and I am coming to suspect, inborn wiring. Not everyone is going to have the mystical experiences. That’s fine. Sufi poet Rumi wrote that there are thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground and that is absolutely true. Some people will experience the Gods most strongly through art, or maybe through how they care for their families, or in some other way. There’s a deep, deep grace to doing devotional work without ever receiving a direct theophany, or doing devotional work when one doesn’t have a “God phone”, much more so than getting the easy feedback of always or quite often having sense of the Gods. Generally, if one has the capacity to hear or sense the Gods directly in some way, that person is probably a specialist of some sort (priest, diviner, spirit worker, shaman)—not always, but quite, quite often.
Now, here’s the problem. Way too many people have the capacity to see or hear Gods and spirit but in tandem with that completely lack spiritual direction and any sense of discernment whatsoever. Then there’s the question of those who might be mentally ill. How do you tell if something is a hallucination or an actual theophany? This goes back partly to discernment and partly to having good spiritual direction. This is also to some degree, where lore can be very helpful: is the God behaving in a way that accords with what others have experienced. I will point out that this can be tricky because Gods are not subject to our limitations and Gods may present Themselves however They choose; however, there do seem to be certain common threads so I would look to the tradition itself for confirmation or not. I would look to elders and teachers. I would pray on it. I would also make sure that if one is mentally ill, that one is taking one’s psych meds. Just because someone has a mental imbalance does not mean that one cannot also have a theophany and I feel very deeply for those who have to figure out the difference. One spirit worker I know, who does a good bit of pastoral counseling with those suffering from various mental considerations, offers this: does it make your life better or not? What is the result? That’s a bit too nebulous for me because both in dealing with the Holy Powers and dealing with our mental health, we need to be sure of precisely *what* we’re dealing with. Still, for some, it may be a starting point. For simpler interactions, one can also use divination to confirm whether or not a true engagement occurred.
This is part of the reason why I start my students off for at least a year with basic exercises to train the mind in the ways of discernment: centering, grounding, shielding, cleansing, prayer (a lot of prayer), and shrine work. I try to instill that there should not be the expectation of direct theophany – if it occurs it’s a grace and blessing. We can develop the capacity through ongoing devotion to sense the Gods in various ways. If it doesn’t, it does not mean that you are less of a devotee. It means you have other ways by which the Gods will fill your life. To rule out theophany though, as I have seen many (usually Hellenic these days, which is just sad) do, is frankly fucking stupid. It rules out that which has guided the development of powerful traditions, that which is at the heart and soul of devotional work, that which we all seek in some way. It also says that the Gods cannot do this thing, which is putting our limitations above Their majesty and is, in effect, impiety.
The question of mental illness must be considered, but to dismiss direct engagement with the Gods AS mental illness is the height of modern immorality, impiety, and foolishness. It defines the modern mindset and is the greatest poison infecting our traditions today. Rule number 1: avoid the impious. In other words, just ignore these people. They have little love for the Gods and even less for the traditions they purport to practice. In fact, they are consciously attempting to destroy them.
Now, if one has a mental condition in which hallucinations are possible, one must take responsibility for oneself. Work with your therapist and a pastoral counselor, teacher, or elder, stay on your meds, learn the ways of discernment and don’t assume everything you see or hear is true engagement. But no one should dismiss the possibility.
There’s also a push back against God spouses. This has existed across polytheistic cultures also since antiquity. While this notion has been greatly abused on tumblr, particularly in the Lokean community, that does not mean that godpouses do not exist. They do. It is a calling, a vocation, one that involves carrying the energy of a God in a very direct way. It is not having a divine boyfriend. That some people are again foolish and impious in handling sacred things, does not negate those sacred things and experiences themselves. I will say that I don’t think godspousing is something that should be discussed online overmuch. It is a Mystery, something very sacred and the uninitiated frankly have no business prying into it.
So, to recap, there is common devotional sense aka discernment, doctrinal guideposts within the traditions, and clear counsel from one’s elders. We also have divination. Should we normalize direct engagement with the Gods? Yes. I think we should otherwise why are we here? This is a religion after all, not a cultural center, not larping. Is that potentially uncomfortable and challenging, also yes. It’s our job as devotionally oriented people to deal with that.
I would note that having a theophany doesn’t mean that one is “special” (Gods forbid. Let us all be good socialists without any excellence or individuality in anything. *sarcasm*). The Gods are capable of granting this grace to anyone. Some people are just more wired for it as a matter of course, a matter of nature, who knows why? Some people are more comfortable moving in the vulnerable spiritual and emotional state that this creates (or perhaps that is necessary for it to occur). Some have had better devotional training and guidance. There are numerous reasons why it happens to some and not others. What is important is that we realize the agency here rests with the Gods. I also think that more people are capable of recognizing or experiencing this than we might realize, but for a number of reasons (including the conditioning of modernity, fears of being “crazy”, insecurity, stress, illness, etc) don’t allow themselves to hit the right headspace. Basically, we don’t see what’s right in front of us.
Do we need to challenge ourselves when these experiences occur? Yes, I think examination of oneself and one’s experiences is healthy and absolutely necessary to clean practice. Examination does not mean dismissal of the possibility however, and if one wants a religion where such direct engagement of the Gods does not occur, why not just become an atheist and call it a day, because THAT is what these naysayers are preaching. What we should be discussing instead, is how to do good, clean, ongoing spiritual discernment.
“It is not so much knowledge that lifts me up, but rather the ardor of a burning soul that urges me to try this. What if it is not given to me to reach the goal I strive for? What if I falter in running the course? Well, I will rejoice that I totally ran, labored and sweated to the extent of my powers in seeking the face of my God.”
—Richard of St. Victor, Book Three: On the Trinity (he is writing on the topic of study and contemplation of spiritual things)
On another forum I’ve been writing about spiritual warfare – no, I wasn’t raised evangelical and I know this is a term that one usually hears in that context. It’s an uncomfortable term, a term that challenges our ideas of how the world works, of how our traditions work. I know that and unfortunately, I have no words and no way of making this any more palatable. I have no better term for what is happening now on every front. I can only write about what my own experience has been and what I see and deal with daily.
To be blunt, probably blunter than I ought to be, we are beset on every side by evil, apathy, entropy, degeneracy, and moral and spiritual decay. It’s not just happening to us, but is seeping in, breaking in, crashing in through the doorway of other religions too, and through the doorway of political events (on every side). Everything we are seeing I very strongly believe is a reflection of a greater, deeper, spiritual war that is going on behind the scenes. Evil exists and it can influence people, corrupt them, and it aligns itself against all that the Gods, the good and great Holy Powers have wrought. Looking at it now seems so overwhelming. It fosters a despair that can corrode and damage the soul. Our traditions so often ignore or downplay, or sometimes outright deny the existence of Evil that I think we hobble our ability to respond to it and to ward ourselves from the hostility and despair is its greatest tool.
As I told someone yesterday: don’t give into despair. There is no need. That only allows that which is evil a victory. Instead turn to your prayers and redouble them. Prayers open doorways for our Gods, doorways into our hearts and minds and souls, doorways into our world. Double down on your devotion. Do that which is given to you to do. It doesn’t matter how big or how small it is: when we honor our Gods, our ancestors, our land, we align ourselves with the Powers and create in microcosm a world in which the good and holy has triumphed. This is where transformation starts: on our knees before our shrines, with offerings filling our hands, with prayers filling our mouths, with love filling our heart. Don’t be afraid. Don’t despair. Maintain cultus to the Holy Powers. Throw yourself into whatever creative work you can do. Pray and celebrate your Gods and your love for Them. That will transform you and sustain you. It is enough. It drives back the foulness.
Each one of your voices matters. Your prayers matter. Your devotion matters. Each one of us fights this battle one on one in the hidden passage ways of our souls but we don’t fight alone. We have our Gods, our ancestors, our fellow devotees right by our side. Our voices are joined by the voices of all those who honor and who have in their lifetimes honored the Powers, hoping and praying and working together. That conquers evil. When we lift our voices together in piety and praise for all that is Holy: then we are mighty indeed. What is evil before that? We conquer it again and again within ourselves, uniting ourselves in devotion to our Holy Powers and from there it spreads out like a tidal wave.
Question: I have a copy of your little booklet of polytheistic prayers, several of which, you say, come from your personal prayerbook. I was hoping that one of these days you might write about the process of creating that prayerbook. Is it a handwritten book, a Word file, printouts and clippings, organized, disorganized? How did you start and how did it evolve over time? Anything you’d be willing and allowed to share.”
I do have a handwritten prayer book that I illustrated myself. It’s pocket sized and I made it when I was traveling quite a bit. I’ve since typed up most of those prayers, added quite a bit more to make it useful for all the rites and rituals that we customarily do as a House, and printed that up in larger format for myself and other members of the House. It contains all the prayers in the two small prayer books I sell on etsy, other prayers that we use for protection, exorcism, and cleansing, prayers and rituals for the holy days, funeral prayers, birth/blessing prayers, daily prayers like a couple that I’ve posted here (like the four-fold Adorations to the House of Mundilfari) and so forth. For awhile, I was printing up each set and stapling it as it became something we began to use more and more, but I got tired of having multiple print outs all over the place. So, once I collected everything in a single file, I had it printed in a little book with 25 blank pages at the back so we can all add personal prayers we like or make notes. Every six mos or so I reprint it with new material added as well. It’s a work in progress. I’ve shared some of the prayers on my blog but that book is not something I’m willing to share publicly.
We use this book and then Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheistic Household for our regular day to day, as well as any prayers we might say extempore. Then I have a separate book with all my divination systems and prayers for those.
I DO recommend creating your own handmade prayer book if you can. It’s a lovely devotional offering. It doesn’t have to have every single thing in it. You can make small, very focused prayer books. I made one with just a few prayers as an offering to Mani. You don’t have to learn bookbinding either! You can stitch the pages together and stitch fabric covered squares of cardboard onto that as a cover. Decorate it as you will. There are many, many tutorials on youtube or just online in general that will give you plenty of suggestions. If you do know bookbinding, go to town. It’s on my list of things I want to learn but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
My prayer practice has certainly evolved over time. I was really lucky to have grown up in a religious family. I think for those who didn’t have good devotional models when they were small, this whole thing of prayer, devotion, and praxis can be really difficult. One’s default isn’t piety if one wasn’t raised in a household – be that religious upbringing good or bad – where piety was practiced (again, however well or poorly; though if it was a religiously abusive household, that causes problems all its own beyond the scope of discussion in this particular blog post). It’s like working a muscle: if the muscle wasn’t worked as a child, it atrophies. This isn’t insurmountable. It just means that one has to be aware of one’s default state-of-being a little more than someone raised religious. Don’t worry, those raised religious have other issues that they have to guard against. No none gets any type of free ride with this stuff.
So, I was lucky to have grown up in a religious household and also to have had really good devotional models available to me from the time I was small. I was surrounded by people who prayed in some form or another. I didn’t give that up when I became a polytheist. In fact, if anything, my prayer practice became stronger. I’ve seen the results of that in my own devotional life. I think prayer is crucial. It’s the single best starting point one can have and I often suggest shrine and prayer work simultaneously when one is starting out as a good place from which to begin. I would go so far as to say there isn’t a more important tool in our arsenal than prayer. By that I mean set prayers, formal prayers, extempore prayers, informal prayers and everything in between. One of my former students once brought me a quote (I don’t recall at this late juncture where she found it): “Pray as though your hair were on fire.” I like that image. Of course my more literalist readers had to point out how illogical the saying was, but it’s the intensity, the need, the frenzy of the thing that appeals to my Odinic heart. Pray as though it’s the most important thing you will ever do, because it is.
It never occurred to me until quite recently that not everyone grows up learning to pray. I’ve taught within my religious community for over two decades and usually, during that time, I would be meeting quite regularly with students and holding regular rituals and they’d be seeing prayer in action all the time they were around me or others in the House. It’s only recently, when I acquired an apprentice who was raised atheist (in a communist country to boot), one who wasn’t shy about saying, “how do you do that?” (because she wanted to know and learn!) that I realized I can’t take this as a given. Should it be? Yes. I think ideally we should all be raised in communities where we pray to the Holy Powers as easily as we breathe, but we’re not there yet. In fact, in our society these days, prayer is actually quite often viewed as something negative. At least if it’s treated with indifference, you can start with a clean heart, a clean/blank slate. Many coming into our religions don’t even have that these days.
I realized that if one didn’t grow up doing this, prayer of any sort can be anxiety-inducing (one wants to do it correctly!), embarrassing (one never sees others praying in the mundane world), confusing (am I doing it right?) and a plethora of other things. I tell people that prayer is talking to the Gods and giving Them space to answer (maybe not in words, but in ways that fill and transform a life). It’s communication and just like communication is key to building strong human relationships, so too it is key to building strong devotional ones. I usually recommend time spent extempore in front of one’s shrine, but balanced with a few simple set prayers (like, for instance, “Sigdrifa’s Prayer”). I also give a handful of meditational exercises to help still the mind and begin teaching discernment in one’s practice.
Over the years, there have been certain books that have reinforced or helped to shape my prayer practice today. Most of them are Christian since I study early Christian theology academically. That’s ok. Prayer is the thing that crosses all religious boundaries. The earliest known recorded prayers were, I believe, by a Sumerian priestess Enhenduanna. This is a practice that belongs to neither polytheism nor monotheism but fills every religious tradition with life. Recently, I read “Courage to Pray” by Metropolitan A. Bloom and George Lefebvre and I recommend it without reservation. Yes, eventually you have to filter out the specifically Christian scriptural material but so what? Do it. The information on prayer in this book is extraordinarily helpful. Likewise Evagrius “On Prayer” and Cassian’s “Conferences.” The latter is much more monastic in its focus so read it and take what you can use. I have cannibalized libraries like this in order to learn to love my Gods better.
Prayer is also the thing that provides the best and most essential protection from the gaping entropic evil that pits itself against all that is holy. If you don’t pray, if you can’t pray, if you refuse to pray, you are a weak link, and a danger to pious people around you. You’re also a danger to yourself and you can fix it so easily by actively reaching out to the Gods. It doesn’t matter how falteringly you pray. Just do it, fumble through it. We all fumble. We all feel awkward sometimes with it. But prayer shapes and forms the mind, the heart, the soul in ways that make us receptive to the Gods, the Good, and the Holy. It’s essential. It is a spiritual vaccination. Take the shot.
Formal prayers often trip people up. By formal, I’m thinking set prayers like the Catholic “Hail Mary.” There’s a set text that doesn’t vary and one says that text whenever one says the prayer. It’s very, very easy for these set prayers to become stale or even worse: mindless repetition rattled off at the speed of light. This isn’t their purpose. Rather, they serve three purposes (and maybe more, but three come to mind at the moment I’m writing this). Firstly, they’re a good baseline. When you can do nothing else, when your exhausted, your brain is fried, you’re pissed off at the Gods, you’re having a bad pain day or any other reason that might make it hard to pray freely, you can reach for one of these prayers (hopefully committed to memory through regular use) and it’s *something*. There is that. Secondly, in a ritual setting, a set prayer allows everyone there to participate, hitting the same devotional groove. Songs are like this too, which is why we should all probably envy the Catholics for their hymnals! We really should be upping our game there. Thirdly, set prayers allow the mind to constantly be filled with prayer, which keeps the whispers of evil out. It allows one to contemplate the Gods’ mysteries, Their sacred stories, to wander off in the heart of a word, a byname that opens up an entire devotional universe. Each word is a window, each whispered syllable the turning of a key in a lock opening wide the gates of this world, our world, our interior world to our Gods. Informal, extempore prayers can do this too but there’s something really helpful in having a verbal scaffolding, rooted in our cosmology, already prepared within which the contemplations of our minds might unfold.
I find there can be a great deal of push back against the idea of prayer in Heathenry. This is partly because too many Heathens allow atheists to take up space in their kindreds, and worse, to take up leadership positions. Get your Houses in order.
This is partly because some have been raised in abusively fundamentalist households. This is sad. This type of religious abuse doesn’t just damage heart and soul, but it also makes it very, very difficult to develop a loving devotional relationship with any holy Power. I wish for those in this situation compassion and that they find teachers, mentors, elders, and therapists who know how to help them through the pain and into the joy of clean, healthy devotion.
Sometimes, though, this is partly because people claim to be Heathen but just don’t want to deal with the Gods or ancestors. These things make nice abstractions, nice stories in a book but the reality scares the hell out of them (or for many does what’s worse: inconveniences them) and they just don’t want to be bothered. Shun these people like the plague. We choose devotion every day. It’s a conscious choice. It is a willing, often difficult choice that has to be made again and again and again and if someone isn’t willing to make that choice, or is consistently hostile toward the even the idea of making that choice, they’re not Heathen, they’re not devout, and they’re sure as hell not spiritually healthy. In fact, they are spiritually ill in a way that is polluting and contagious to everyone around them. We make spiritual choices about everything we do, everything with which we fill our minds, and everyone with whom we associate. They count. Part of developing devotionally is learning to make healthy choices. We need to have the courage to do that even with the small things.
Someone asked me once if we’re really meant to be praying 24/7. Um…yeah. I think so. That is the goal. What does that mean? Well, for me, part of my mind and heart is always reaching out to the Gods in devotion. I may not be murmuring prayers, but part of me is always thinking about Them, engaging in some way devotionally. When I’m not doing that, I try to center everything I do, even the small tasks through the lens of my devotional world. I fail at this a lot but it is the goal and when I fail, I pick myself up, center myself, and start again. When I can pray more obviously (say I’m sitting a home or on the train) I’ll use prayer beads or sometimes just do so extempore. I’m nowhere near 24/7 but I hold it up as a goal. It reminds me to strive. I may not reach that goal, but by aiming for it, I’ll go far more deeply into devotion than I otherwise might have done. That’s the thing with devotion: aim high and just plug away consistently at it. It’s the consistency that matters, not whether we reach the goal (and as an Odin’s woman who is very results oriented, that just about kills me to say, though it’s true). Some days will be better than others but the one thing that costs nothing, that is fully within our power no matter where we are or what we’re doing is prayer. We need only the will or maybe the courage to do it, the desire to reach out. Beyond that, there’s a lovely Baltic proverb with which I’ll end this piece: “The work will teach you how to do it.” One could say, as the Havamal does, “one word leads to another word, one deed to another deed.” The best starting point is prayer.
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