Last week an academic friend and colleague, who is soon to be teaching a class on Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, asked me a rather complicated question. My friend L. plans to include a brief survey of contemporary Pagan and Polytheistic religions as part of the course, to show that these traditions did not completely disappear but continue to have import and impact in the modern day. As prep for the course, L. asked me, “What is the difference between Pagan (or Neo-pagan) and Polytheist?” I had previously mentioned that use of these terms is somewhat political and charged in our communities.(1) Here is what I told my colleague.
“Oh, it’s such a mess.
The two words, in my opinion, should be synonymous but in today’s communities, they’re not. Polytheist means someone who believes in and venerates the Gods as individual, Holy beings. The logical and necessary corollary then, is the rightness of regular devotion and cultus. One would think this is self-explanatory. The meaning, after all, is embedded in the etymology of the word itself: πολύ (many) θέοι (Gods). We have, however, had atheists who call themselves “Pagan” try to claim the identity “Polytheist” on occasion, but for now, every time they crop up, we manage to beat them back (rather like a demented game of whack-a-mole). It’s almost as though the moment the devout make space for themselves, it comes under attack, and this isn’t just an issue in polytheism (2).
While the definition of ‘Polytheist’ is self-explanatory, ‘Pagan’ is more complicated. Some polytheists will use the term. But maybe four years ago there was a huge inter community explosion over it.(3) There were growing attempts A) to allow for “Pagan” to include non-theist, anti-theist, atheists, etc. as well as pop culture ‘pagans’ who can’t tell the difference between fiction and devotion and other questionable um…characters (Mind you, L., I’m hardly unbiased in this and I was right in the middle of these arguments.) and B) to force polytheistic traditions under the “Neo-pagan” umbrella, which at its core was an attempt to erase our traditions, esp. the piety of our traditions, and to force them to open their boundaries to anyone and anything.(4) The “battle” raged over blogs and newsgroups and finally many leading polytheists (against my better judgment) decided to yield the term ‘Pagan’. So now anyone who has any connection to any god or goddess (regardless of whether or not they believe in Them to be archetypes as opposed to reality, or this nonsense about all deities being one, or whether they are only interested in nature or whether they’re Marxists interfering in our communities for their own political agenda, or whatever kind of trash you may have) can claim the word without having a core of any type of tradition or devotion. So, ‘Pagan’ has become a catch all term.
Most devout polytheists I know, especially those who fought through this, won’t use the term “Pagan” now. The Gods and Their devotion are at the heart of our practices. ‘Pagan’ has become a term where that is no longer necessarily the case. Of course, the moment we ceded the term, the non and anti-theists started trying to claim “Polytheist” too, but so far we’ve successfully beaten them back. It’s never ending but there are those of us who will hold that line until we are all of us dust. Our Gods and traditions deserve that at least, from us.
I’d also add that part of the problem is that Polytheism involves traditions, which are closed containers. Neo-pagans scream that this is elitist and amounts to policing devotion (unless we’re talking about one of the African Traditional Religions when they are less likely to complain, because that might be construed as appropriative and racist.). Polytheists respond: that’s the way traditions work, either adapt yourself to them or fuck off. And so it goes. It’s a nasty, ongoing feud with those who care about what their Gods might require and those who barely register that Gods exist.
So, unlike in the ancient world where ‘Pagan’ referred to someone practicing their ancestral tradition and/or initiated into various mystery cultus, today it refers to someone practicing any of the many …religions…which may or may not include devotion to the Gods…that grew out of Gerald Gardner’s explorations into Wicca and occultism in the fifties and later out of the counter-culture movement in the 60s and 70s in the United States. It may also refer to those practicing and restoring various Polytheistic traditions like Heathenry, Asatru, Kemetic orthodoxy, Hellenismos, Romuva, etc. but in majority quarters, it is no longer the term of choice, particularly in the US community for such.
Heathenry, (Norse polytheism), always eschewed the term because it was always an umbrella term for a mishmash of traditions and practices, many excessively liberal, or diametrically opposed to devotion, or containing ethical standards (or lack thereof) that Heathens and other polytheists found problematic. The problem is more complicated in Europe where the various romance languages have ONLY the term ‘Pagan’ to cover a broad spectrum of traditions.
Basically, the conflict is about modernity, religious identity, and a push back against devotion and piety.
As a caveat, you will still find people who aren’t very much online using ‘Pagan’ when they are very devout…it depends on how aware they were of the online arguments. Our hashing out of orthodoxy, because of how spread out our communities are, tends to happen online but one should not think that the online world encompasses the whole of any tradition or practice. There are many devout Polytheists (and probably Pagans too) whose practice centers around hearth and home, land, community, and their Gods and whose window into the greater world of practice doesn’t necessarily come through the internet.
It should also be noted that there are Polytheists who obstinately refuse to cede the term Pagan and still use it, solely to spit in the eye of the impious. I like these folks. 🙂 And newbies coming into the communities also tend not to be aware of the political fault lines either.
It’s always worth querying when someone says “I’m Pagan,” what they mean by that. The answers might surprise you.”
- Especially now since Isaac Bonewits is the one who originally pioneered usage of the terminology “Neo-Pagan.”
- The problem isn’t atheists per se. If someone wants to attend a ritual and behaves respectfully that’s fine. The problem is ad nauseum, atheists who come into our communities, demand leadership positions, but refuse to accommodate the traditions or bow themselves to the beauty of devotion. Instead, they endlessly attempt to twist the religion to their own lowest common denominator. This isn’t a problem only in Polytheistic traditions. It’s happening in various Monotheisms as well. For a case in point see here. (I particular love how the minister in question complains her church puts theology over ethics. Um, yes. It’s a religion. Theology matters and moreover, you’ve already proven you have no ethics by impersonating a Christian and minister).
- I would estimate between 2011-2014.
- Polytheisms tend to have far more traditional values, sexual ethics, and much more of a focus on devotional piety than any generic Paganism. They also tend to encompass mystery cultus, which are exclusionary by their very nature, solid lineages, and strict ways of doing things. They are not generally religions in which “anything goes” spiritually or morally, all too often unlike their Pagan counterparts.
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.
I’ve been seeing a lot of push back lately on the nine noble virtues including dismissals that they are Nazi-ish, racist, homophobic, etc. etc (insert buzzword of the year). I remain confused by the pushback. (There are blogs both pro and con here). It’s as though having any ethical guidelines at all offends some people. Note, they’re not trying to replace them with a different set of values, but rather to negate any values that might in any way constrain or shape their character.(1)
For my readers who aren’t familiar with them, here is the list of the commonly accepted NNV:
Shocking, aren’t they?
These are very Protestant virtues, but examples of them can easily be found in the Havamal and Sagas too. I think they are fitting exemplars for a society in which existence was a constant struggle. If you think that isn’t applicable today, try living below the poverty line. These guidelines are meant to develop a strong character. None of these virtues are objectionable to a reasonable person. Do you really want to be the kind of person without honor? Without courage? Who is incapable of hospitality or personal discipline? The kind of person who lacks fidelity in relationships, or who is incapable of telling the truth or holding to his or her word? The NNV may be simplistic, but they are meant as touchstones to aid in the development of character. Note that they do not tell you how to be courageous, or how to be truthful but one is encouraged to be introspective in discovering this for oneself. I rather like that. It’s not the end of the conversation, but the very beginning. What is truth? What does it mean to me as a devotee of Deity X? How can I cultivate that in my life? Yet, those throwing out these virtues without consideration or without providing an alternative don’t want to have that conversation. To hell with the Socratic method. We don’t need no stinkin’ philosophy here. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Everybody needs philosophy).
Of course, given how pervasive the NNV are within Heathen traditions, it is inevitable that someone holding alt right views will subscribe to them. So do many people holding the opposite. To say that they are racist, is to say that there is something inherently racist about the concept, the abstract ideal of truth or fidelity or hospitality, etc. It also implies that people who are not white, are incapable of upholding these ideals, which is utter nonsense.
Yes, they were created by (depending on your source) the AFA or Odinic Rite. So what? We have space travel because of the work of Nazi scientists. I remember when I found out as a seventh grader, that the US imported Nazi scientists to work on its Manhattan project and later the space program and I was ashamed, horrified, and appalled. I still wrestle with the ethics involved in such a thing. Can good come from evil? Is necessity motivation and justification enough? And that opens up a whole other ethical can of worms. We still use Volkswagens though, and they were made by Nazis too. Same with Hugo Boss and Ford, who was a rampant anti-Semite. By the standards of some of these people, we should be eschewing birth control too because Margaret Sanger was pro eugenics. Strange how the same logic that allows for the dismissal of fairly common virtues doesn’t apply to our technologies. Yet I’ll bet more blood was spilled with the latter.(2) Hell, the internet was made by the US military. Are you cool with the hundreds of thousands of people who have died because of the military industrial complex? If this is a problem, why are you online? Oh wait, I guess one only objects when such things are inconvenient. Convenience allows for a great deal of overlooking I suppose.
I’ve also often seen the NNV condemned as ablest. As someone with physical disability, let me tell you, you need a metric fuck-ton of courage to get through life. Those disabled in some way can fulfill every one of these virtues, otherwise what the detractors of the NNV are actually saying is that disabled people are disabled not only in body but in mind, heart, and character. That’s pretty foul. It’s infantilizing and really quite disrespectful to the struggle of differently abled people in our communities.
We should be encouraged to define the NNV for ourselves in our own lives, with respect to our own relationships with the powers. Or we should be encouraged to come up with our own system and values sustainably within and coherent with our traditions. Either way, character matters and it’s often difficult for people coming from monotheisms where they’re told what to believe and how to act, to encounter a system of ethics that encourages self-reflection and independence. I’d love to see discussions of other philosophies and ethical guidelines but it’s a whole lot easier to criticize and condemn than to create something positive. The NNV are situational guidelines and principles. I would love to see discussions on what it means to have courage in the modern world, what it means with respect to each person’s individual circumstances, what it means to have hospitality, to show hospitality, especially when one is impoverished or in the midst of scarcity. How does the hospitality shown to one’s Gods differ from what one shows to one’s friends or to strangers? Where are those philosophical conversations? Maybe we should all go back to Plato.(3)
- What amuses me the most is the people protesting the NNV often do so on the grounds (in part) that’s not ancient and yet, these are often pop culture pagans. So either antiquity is a valid criterion across the board, or this particular objection is bullshit.
- Not that I expect logical coherence from the pop culture crowd.
- Ironically, I’ve never been a fan of the NNV, because they are simplistic. One has to start somewhere though and it was only after reading The Six Questions of Socrates, that I began to look at them as more than formulaic.
Someone yesterday sent me an old link whining about my writing on miasma. (I get more push back on the idea that purification is important than on pretty much anything else). The final line of that rather convoluted post was a declaration that our Gods (I believe it specifically mentioned Odin, Thor, and Hela but implied all the Norse Gods) are not holy. I was so absolutely flabbergasted by this assertion that I had to address it.
If our Gods are not holy then why do we venerate Them? If our Gods are not holy then exactly what are They? What is holiness? Why would someone ever think that They were not, in fact, holy? If one doesn’t consider one’s Gods holy, how is one going to behave with respect to Them? This is not some obscure theological point, like how many angels might dance on the head of a pin, this is something that has real world implications and consequences to our devotion and praxis. It has significant implications in how this issue entangles everything else and ultimately the question remains: why would you seek to strip the holy from the Powers?(1)
We know our northern ancestors had a clear concept of the holy. A brief look here gives us the Old English halig (holy, consecrated, sacred, godly…), Proto-Germanic *hailaga-, Old Norse heilagr, Danish hellig, Old Frisian helich, Old Saxon helag, Middle Dutch helich, and I could go on. The word derives from PIE word meaning ‘whole,’ or ‘uninjured.’ That which was holy was that which was in some way connected to the Gods, with the implication that holiness flows from the Gods (which would be impossible if They Themselves were not holy). A further meaning of ‘whole,’ or ‘uninjured’ can easily lead to the conclusion that not only are the Gods the embodiment of holiness, but that They are eternal, restorative Powers, untouched by the decay and temporality of the human world.
Amongst the Norse Gods, we immediately must turn to the three creator Gods, the Architects of the nine worlds: Odin, Hoenir, and Lo∂ur. The latter two Gods here had other names: Vili and Vé. Vé actually means sacred enclosure, holy place, shrine.(2) The embodiment of holiness was then essential to the creation of the worlds and it was localized within our Gods, in this case specifically Vé. So the worlds were created by a unified confluence of frenzy (Desire), will, and holiness. Those are the attributes Odin and His brothers brought to that act and wrought from the destruction of Ymir and what was infused in that primal act of genesis continues to infuse both our Gods and the spaces in which They move, the deeds which They enact.
Now of course, the holiness of Odin is going to differ from the holiness of Freya which will likewise differ from any other Deity and if you raise holiness above the Gods then you’re essentially saying that concept is more important than They are. Holiness can only be an extension of the Gods. It is that which defines Their nature and Presence. To say that They lack holiness is to say that They are not, in fact, Gods and that nothing generative, integral, and whole may possibly flow from Them. Holiness is that inviolable quality that marks Their Presence, and perhaps Their very essence.
There is the question as well of what is sacred versus what is holy: something is rendered sacred but innately holy. Holy things are holy in and of themselves, whereas that which is sacred is made so by contagion with the holy. We can infer this etymologically, by the very definition of the word ‘holy.’ It’s supposed to be untouched, inviolable…we’re not supposed to become in contact with it. The sacred (ritual, clergy, temples etc.) become intermediaries that allow contact to happen safely. It’s a scaffolding.
In many respects, the divisions here are murky in English. We can, after all, speak of something being sacred to us outside of any religious context and as my friend and colleague KSV pointed out, it’s then a matter of exploring the tether between the person, concept, and the definition of the thing. I think in some respects this speaks to our own modern discomfort with elements of piety and devotion from which the concept originally came. What was sacred in the ancient world was inviolate, specifically because it had come into contact in some way with holiness, with the Presence of the Gods. Having then been rendered sacred, that which has so been marked belongs to the Gods. It is no longer fully a thing at home in the human world.(3)
There is also often an implicit connection assumed (wrongly) that the idea of ‘holiness’ is specifically monotheistic and something belonging solely to their God. Theologically and historically, that is not the case. It is clear from the briefest overview of religious history that our polytheistic ancestors had a rich and complex sense of the holy and its significance and likewise recognized our Gods as such, to the point that one might say as I have here, that holiness is a byproduct of Divine presence.
The corollary of course is what this might mean for us in our engagement with the Holy and that is where tradition, divination, and devotion come so powerfully to the fore. How ought we to prepare ourselves for such engagement? What are the consequences of it? Most importantly of all, how do we recognize it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you all have to say in the comments. Let’s continue this conversation.
- Or since the post specifically mentioned the Norse Gods, perhaps then the writer was saying that other Gods are holy but not the Norse…I struggle with this… um… logic.
- There is another name for the God Lo∂ur: there is Skaldic evidence that this God was, in fact, Loki. See my article here.
- We can see this in Tacitus’ Germania, where those who stumbled upon Nerthus’ image unprepared were sacralized in such a way that their deaths were then required. They were too marked to remain in the human world and must, of necessity, be given to this Goddess.
I was doing divination last night and the line came up “He who desires and does not act breeds pestilence” and immediately I was struck with a powerful corollary, namely, that we must then train ourselves to desire the correct things.(1) This is part of the discipline of devotional practice and I don’t think we talk about it enough. Devotion doesn’t just happen. We have to take the time to cultivate experience and praxis. Part of doing that is striving to make ourselves into the type of people willing and capable of engaging with the deep vulnerability piety so often requires. It demands a cultivation not just of particular practices, but of our character as well.
I think there is a tendency as moderns to compartmentalize our devotional world into what we do before our shrines, out of sight. I’ve often encountered the attitude that one’s practices are a small part of one’s life and the rest of their world is untouched by the tradition they practice or the Gods to Whom they pray.(2) All too often we unconsciously treat our spiritual lives as a hobby. This not only cripples our spiritual lives but opens us up to the despair that is so much a part of the modern world. Doing devotion well, really tending those relationships means making one’s internal landscape a place where gods and spirits might dwell. This in turn means being careful about what we expose ourselves too, and choosing carefully those things we put into our heads.
It also means learning to cultivate and desire the right things, things that augment our devotional consciousness, that make us more receptive to the Gods and spirits rather than those things that further entrain us to dismiss Them.
It’s not enough to do occasional devotional work if one’s devotion stops at the boundaries of one’s shrine. Living devoutly means living by the values of one’s tradition and carrying our Gods and spirits with us into the human world with every step we take. It means allowing that devotion to transform us from the inside out.
From farther back than even Plato and Aristotle, polytheists understood that virtue and character were things that must be consciously cultivated. The terminology may not have been developed until the philosophical flowering in fifth and sixth century Greece but the understanding was there. This absolutely applies to our religious work as well. This cultivation must become the core around which everything else in our worlds revolves.(3) If it doesn’t, we’re never really rooted in our devotion. It will always remain something outside of our hearts and souls, something that doesn’t touch or transform us, something at which we play.
There is nothing in our world that teaches us how to cultivate devotion well. In fact, what we too often see is the commodification of spirituality, its rendering down to its most shallow components, cultural mores that teach a subtle suspicion of religion and disrespect for devotion. Because there is nothing in our world that teaches this any longer, nothing that reinforces it, it’s up to us to do this for ourselves.
I’ve written before about learning to make good choices with respect to our devotional lives, but that starts right here, with learning to desire the right things. What those things are may vary from person to person, God to God, but it starts with curbing and cultivating desire. Because it is our desires, when they are unexamined and uncultivated, that will pull us away from our Gods, often before we realize it.
1. I have permission from the person for whom the divination was done to share this particular part.
2. This is true not just of polytheisms but pretty much across the board in the modern world with all religions to some degree or another.
3. It is significant that the word ‘cultus’ and ‘cultivation’ share the same root. In Latin, it’s actually the same word: colo, colere, colui, cultus, -a, -um.
By E. Butler, PhD
(To give a bit of context for this, Edward and I were discussing a couple of our upcoming articles and he mentioned some push back he’d had recently vis a vis the word ‘polytheism.’)
Edward: I posted a link to a collection of stotras (devotional hymns) attributed to Shankara, the famous Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta philosopher, remarking that, though there are questions about the validity of the attribution, the sheer number and diversity of the Gods addressed in the hymns made Advaita look quite polytheistic to me. This is in accord with my conviction that the issue between Advaita and Dvaita positions in Vedanta, being a dispute about the nature of brahman, have nothing to do with the number of Gods.
So, [a certain ‘scholar’] chimes in with how it’s wrong to use a modern, Western category like polytheism with regard to Hinduism.
Galina: these modern secularist fools are trying to take away even the words by which we can define our faith. The word ‘polytheism’ occurs in ancient material; it just happened to enter ENGLISH in the 17th c.
Edward: This is yet another stupid fight we have to wage. As far as I’m concerned, any language that has a plural term for “God” has polytheism, or had it, period. It doesn’t matter to me when the term itself was first used, it’s logically entailed by the use of the plural terms.
The other nonsense issue I’ve seen come up lately is the notion that we shouldn’t translate foreign terms as “Gods” because they’re all sui generis. Only when polytheist civilizations encountered one another, there’s literally not a case I know of where they didn’t use the same term they use for divinities to refer to the foreign Gods. Angirasa Srestha found a passage, for instance, that refers to “Devas of foreign lands”, and Egyptians spoke of Netjeru in foreign lands, and of course we know that for Greeks and Romans the other people’s Theoi or Dei were Theoi and Dei, and so forth.
It’s like being swarmed by ants, though, dealing with this shit. Everyone gets zealous about protecting other cultures from contamination once those cultures start appropriating Western concepts for themselves. Don’t let them get hold of the master’s tools, force them to use their native resources exclusively, after you’ve disrupted those intellectual resources for centuries.
What we need to take away from this, though, is that we need to fight for the proper sense of universal categories like “Gods” and “polytheism”, a sense that doesn’t interfere with the uniqueness of nations and pantheons and individual Gods, but that grounds a stable theoretical discourse and for solidarity across traditions.
(and he is absolutely right. – GK).
Since I posted my rather polemic piece on the way we engage (or refuse to engage) with our sacred stories, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Gods present Themselves to us, why, and where that can take us. There’s something almost paradoxical about it: it’s important that we acknowledge and engage with our various sacred stories, and with the ways the Gods choose to reveal Themselves at any given moment, but at the same time, it’s equally if not more important to make sure we don’t fixate overmuch on any one presentation. Our Gods are so much more than any one thing.
Any impression that we have of Them is necessarily filtered through our all too human (and thus limited) consciousness. That’s not a bad thing. It’s something that allows us to develop a relational bond. It gives us a point of connection in which we can plant the seed of a relationship and from which we can expand upon it. It is, perhaps, a necessary starting point.
At the same time, and this is really, really important, a God can take on Him or Herself an image, but is never, ever enslaved to that image. They are more than the sum of Their parts, so to speak. Nor is the image the God. That Sigyn, for instance, may reveal Herself to some of us as a child or young bride, does not mean that is all that She is. It does not negate, annul, or cut off Her ability to present in many other different ways as well. That Odin sometimes presents as Yggr, as the corpse God hanging on the Tree Yggdrasil, ghastly and desiccated, having sacrificed Himself for the runes, does not mean that He may not also present as Oski, or the All-Father, or a thousand other Faces. We must resist vigorously the temptation to limit our Gods just as we must throw ourselves deeply into Their sacred stories and personal revelations. One thing does not negate the other. Ever and always I think we should be looking for ways to expand our understanding of our Gods, rather than limiting those self-same Gods to any finite category or box. They are not finite and so finite things, definitions, and even experiences – as all material experiences are finite—will never be able to completely encompass Their Essence and Being.
Nor do I think we can, with facile ease, simply say “that’s not my Odin” or “that’s not my Sigyn.” Better and more accurate to say that “That’s not yet how She has shown Herself to me” and “Odin hasn’t come to me in that way but rather in the guise of X.” Reframing it thusly in our minds puts the power (where it actually is) back into the hands of the Gods. It also allows for fruitful exploration of the interstices between the various expressions of one’s Deity or Deities.
What we cannot do, not with any wisdom or integrity, is condense our Gods into the limits of our own human experience. That They may occasionally do so Themselves in the mythos that They convey to us is a far different thing from us doing so. One is the expression of a mystery, a window or doorway into greater understanding of an immense Power and the other is the conscious reduction of a Holy Power into a reflection of our own limitations.
I was talking with a colleague in theology the other day and he was discussing the fundamental pieces that make up ‘religion’. He noted, as one of his assumed universals, the existence of a sacred text and I immediately objected. He was genuinely confused and asked how one could guarantee the transmission of a religion and its theology to the next generation without the codification of a written text. I explained that we have cultus and intergenerational transmission occurs by growing up in and being steeped culturally and socially in functioning polytheism (this is, incidentally what we in our modern world lack and one of the biggest problems facing us in our restoration). Part of engaging in active devotional cultus is understanding that the corpus of the sacred is not, for us, set down authoritatively, never to be changed. Revelation has not ceased. Our Gods are still very much [willing and] able to engage with us in ways that grant us insight into Their nature, and are still very much willing to take on elements of Story (a sacred process in and of itself) to further that process. This is part of the innate understanding inherent in devotional work. A functional, thriving intergenerational cultus is then based on the complexities of multi-generational experience with our Gods. The experience itself becomes a poetic corpus if you will. Ongoing experience within the scaffolding of a tradition and its cultus takes the place of a codified text. We have our stories AND…Deity X has presented as X AND…always there is more.
This is one of the reasons why each person’s individual experience with a particular Deity is so precious. Living cultus does not exist on the pages of a book, but in that which is consistently poured out by each devotee before their shrines, before their Gods, in the fastness of their hearts. The books may exist as guides, as archives, as maps but never as a closed corpus.
We must acknowledge our Gods as Gods: as Powers greater in Being and Essence than we, Their totality far beyond our understanding. We cannot hold in our minds all that They are (though we are pushed by longing to try). They are capable of sustaining us and more importantly capable of revealing Themselves to us in more ways and with more complexities than we are capable of conceiving.
Because of this flexibility, because we have traditions unconstrained by rigidly dictated dogma we also have the beauty of regional cultus. The same Gods show Themselves differently in different places. Cultus is shaded and emphasized differently in different areas and this allows for more of the God in question to be honored. It’s a good thing. By its very nature, it conspires to prevent our unconscious limitation of our Gods and our conceptions of Them.
We are, of course, likewise called to deep and ongoing discernment (which is a process and devotional discipline in and of itself). We are called to constantly consider and question in our devotional lives whether we are engaging well and cleanly. We can support each other in this and all benefit. We must, however, guard against dismissing something sacred because it challenges our dearly held opinions, beliefs, and values. That we might be made uncomfortable by something respective to the Gods does not mean that thing is lacking in truth. To expect our spirituality to always reinforce our comfort is to prioritize that comfort – our own selves—above what ought to be the centers of our veneration: the Gods. It is a particular poison of our modern age that we so often are encouraged to believe this to be right.
May we be better and do better with respect to our Gods and maybe, just maybe with each other too.
For years, I’ve been telling people that the Gods love them deeply, love us deeply, and I very much believe that’s true. I think the Gods do cherish us each and want the best for us, that They as our creators have a vested interest in our welfare. I know we can have deeply rewarding, personal, devotional relationships with Them. They love us. They love us but…it’s not like human love. It took me until tonight to really grasp that. Years of having the Gods tear my world apart, having Them bring blessings and pain in equal measure and the cognitive disconnect of knowing that They love us to the core of our beings, but still carrying deep in my heart what is often pure anguish in service to Them and I finally understand it, at least a little bit more. Their love is not like human love and that is an awesome and terrible thing.
Human love presupposes – at least insofar as I understand it – that one cares not just for the wellbeing and welfare of one’s beloved, but for their feelings too. There is an individual intimacy, a give and take on a small level that nourishes that love and allows it to grow and thrive. It’s often about the minutiae of caring for each other’s human hearts.
That isn’t how it works with Gods. Even the minutiae of the devotional relationship are not small things. We love as humans love and the Gods love as They love and They are not human. They care for us deeply but They don’t just see us now, They don’t just see us separate from our wyrd and Their agendas and obligations and in the grand scheme of things – and with Gods it’s always the grand scheme of things – it’s that overarching agenda that takes precedence. Some things need to happen, some things need to get done and if that hurts us, while they number our tears and while They care (and I think when They can will do what They can to mitigate the pain), those things still need to happen. There is a deep cruelty in Their love, but it is not purposeful, but rather it is a byproduct of Their nature and the obligations, the vast obligations that They hold.
In the “Iliad,” it is woven into fate that Zeus must allow his most beloved son Sarpedon to die. He is anguished over this and tries everything He can to convince Himself that He can stop it. In truth, He has the power to stop it. He could absolutely protect Sarpedon and guarantee him glory and honor. There’s a catch though, (and I think it’s Athena Who points this out): if Zeus does this, He will have violated the order that He himself established, the cosmic order of the Gods and all creation. If He, the architect of that order were to do so, it would come crashing down and there would be chaos and any other Being would likewise be free to violate it at will. It would be devastating on a level far beyond the death of one beloved child. Zeus makes the decision to allow Sarpedon to meet his fate, to die, even though it causes Him agony. Necessary order is maintained and the dissolution of the worlds prevented. Had He just been a father, He could have done whatever was necessary to protect His son; but He wasn’t. He was also a God, Lord of Olympus and that carries with it weight and obligation that cannot be put down no matter the personal cost.
It is a thing to remember when loving the Gods (and I very much believe it is right and proper to love Them): They do not love as we love. They love like the storm, like fire, like the raging flood and we are small in comparison and can so easily be swept away, and even more easily we can be hurt if we expect Their love to be contained like that of humans.
I hate Them sometimes, for all They take, and all They ask, but I love Them too and I just have to make sure that it’s the latter emotion I nourish, not the former. The Gods can take and excuse our moments (looong moments sometimes) of pique but making it a lifestyle choice is something that can close us off from Their blessings forever. They love us, but They are Gods and sometimes the weight of what They are, and the necessities make for complications.
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.
- 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/
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been seeing a growing noise on Facebook and other social media platforms that is staunchly anti-prayer. Generally, this occurs most strongly after some horror or disaster wherein people will post “my prayers are with you.” Immediately the social justice crowd pushes back, questioning both the relevance and efficacy of this sentiment. Let’s be honest; most people post such platitudes because they are moved, they care, but are (or feel) otherwise helpless to impact the situation. It is an expression of care, goodwill, and perhaps even solidarity. Take that for what it’s worth; I personally, don’t see anything wrong with it. I see a great wrong with dismissing prayer, however, and of course, those dismissals never stop with the aforementioned social situations but ever and always leech into our communities, which already struggle with understanding, prioritizing, or practicing devotion well (It’s not, after all, as though we are surrounded in our everyday lives and communities with good devotional models. I think we all struggle with this at times one way or another).
To dismiss prayer as a powerful and effective practice is to cripple our devotional lives and our relationship with our Gods. Over the years, I’ve seen many Pagans and even Polytheists dismiss prayer as something Christian. Well, it’s not. The earliest recorded prayers date from Sumer, written to the God Nanna and the Goddess Inanna. We have surviving prayers from Greece, Rome, Egypt, to name but a few polytheistic cultures. Polytheists prayed. It’s one of the fundamentals of practical religion.
Why are we so eager to render ourselves mute before our Gods?
To hold someone in prayer does not mean that one does nothing else. If there is more that one is able to do on a practical level, then it goes without saying that one should do that. I’m reminded of the Benedictine motto: ora et labora (pray and work). It’s not an either/or situation.
Furthermore, having a consistent prayer practice to the Gods and ancestors is one of the best ways to maintain devotional clarity, to keep the lines of communication open, to strengthen those devotional relationships, and to grow in faith, devotion, and grace. Cultivating hostility or contempt toward what is in fact one of the most powerful tools we have in maintaining our spiritual worlds is short sighted and frankly stupid. To pray is to open a line of ongoing communication with our Gods. It is to approach Them as petitioners, it is to give thanks, it is to express our love and adoration and a thousand other things. It provides Them with an opportunity to act in our lives and in our world. It provides us with an opportunity to accept, again and again, Their grace.
What we are instead tasked with is learning how to pray effectively. While set, formulaic prayers can be enormously powerful, it’s not enough to just say any words. Proper prayer is a matter of preparing our minds and hearts. Our hearts need to be receptive to our Gods. Our minds need to be committed and focused on this process. It’s one of the key devotional disciplines that no one seems to talk about anymore.
Ironically, as we pray, we learn how to pray and to do so more effectively. It is not in the capacity of any human being to compel the Gods. But we can reach out to Them, we can ask, and most of all we can trust that we have been heard. Prayer is powerful in part because it allows us to stand in perfect, active alignment with our Holy Powers. The more we do that consciously, the more we are changed and perhaps even elevated by the process.
Because it allows us to stand consciously in that alignment, it is a potent protection against all that is inimical to our Gods and Their ways. It reminds us, purifies us, re-aligns us again and again into our devotion. Every time we pray, we recommit ourselves to our traditions and our Gods and to living in ways that cultivate piety.
Remove purification, sacrifice, devotion, and prayer and what do you have? Certainly, not a religion.