(I know that this is going to be a challenging topic for some of you. If you are bothered by frank discussions of religion and animal sacrifice, stop reading and go watch this cat video. Here’s some pussies for you to play with. For everyone else, let’s have an adult conversation).
Years and years ago (at least fifteen if not longer) when I was still Theodish, I remember many heated discussions over the proper way to perform sacrifice. Those among us who were trained to perform this ritual were split about the proper way to dispatch the chosen animals. Some favored shooting the animal in the head first (as a mercy) and others using a clean cut at the throat. One of the reasons given for preferring the traditional method (the cut of the knife) was the story of the Thor and His goats.
Thor’s chariot is driven by two goats: Tanngrisnir (snarler, one who bears his teeth) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder). When necessary, Thor is able to kill, cook, and consume these goats who will then be restored to life with His hammer provided their bones are left intact. The prose Edda tells the story of Thor’s visit to a farmer. He and Loki stop for rest, and Thor (perhaps knowing that hosting two Gods is a bit much for a poor farmer) offers up His two goats in sacrifice to provide the evening’s meal. There’s one caveat: the bones must not be cracked for their marrow. They must remain intact. The farmer’s son Thjalfi can’t resist and cracks one leg bone to suck a bit of the marrow. When Thor restores the goats to life, one of them is lame. In reparation for this, the peasant offers his children Thjalfi and Roskva to Thor as servants. It’s an entertaining tale and Loki, Thor, and the children go off to have adventures. For our purposes, however, the important point is the emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the bones.
In the Theod, we solved the initial debate by choosing to sacrifice in the traditional way (and in retrospect I’m very, very glad we did so). At the time, I didn’t see the problem with shooting the animal first. It seemed merciful and kind but over the years I’ve completely changed my position. Partly, I’ve had so much more experience with proper sacrifice and I’ve become far more confident in making sacrifice myself, and I’ve had far more exposure to other traditions where this is likewise common. I learned several things, not the least of which was that if a cut is done cleanly and correctly, it is actually all but painless for the animal. I’ve also come to realize how crucially important this story is to the ritual scaffolding in which sacrifice must take place.
When we do these ritual actions, like sacrifice, we’re re-enacting our cosmology. We’re bringing to life the communal mysteries of our tradition. A living tradition exists in those currents and it is the obligation of those practicing it to renew them regularly.
This is also largely why I no longer believe it appropriate to shoot the animal before cutting its throat. A) it’s far more humane to cut properly and B) any other method is a violation of ritual protocol. The bones must remain intact. I went back and forth on this for years and I used to come down on the side of shooting the animal first if one felt one must but now, I think that is incorrect. As we learn better, we do better. A sacrifice is more than just a collection of mechanical techniques. It is the living expression of a tradition. It is a sacrament.
For the blotere,(1) there are three parts to any sacrifice that must be carefully learned and understood: the mechanics (how to make the cut and to do it painlessly for the animal, and effectively), how to do the divination to determine how to dispose of the sacrifice and whether or not it was accepted, and the ritual itself, in other words, how to infuse the entire procedure with the holy, how to make the conscious connections between the cosmic structures in which we’re working, the ritual being done, the living tradition, and the Gods Themselves. This is a ritual process. It’s not enough to simply cut an animal’s throat, or kill it in some other way, and give it to the Gods. There is a proper ritual scaffolding for the act, an act that is our holiest and most important of sacraments.
It’s not just that you’re giving a life to the Gods; the act of sacrifice is an imitation of primordial creation: Odin, Lodhur, and Hoenir create the world out of the slaughter of Ymir. Sacrifice is tapping into that, recreating that act, everything that it encompasses, bringing our traditions into being again and again and again and that’s potent magic.(2) It must be approached in a proper way, with purity and focus, and attention to every detail. It’s not enough just to slaughter. We must understand what we’re tapping into and why.
This all came up recently within my lineage when one of my apprentices received inspiration for a sacrificial song. We had long felt that there should be some sort of song sung when the animal is being sacrificed.(3) In fact, it’s rather odd for our traditions not to have one; after all, the ATR have a special song that is sung when an animal is given and so did many Greek and Roman traditions. It was part of the procedure in many IE traditions and it always seemed rather odd to find the Norse and Germanic ones lacking. I was delighted when L. came to me with his song and when I did divination to confirm its appropriateness, the sense of it was overwhelming. Our tradition regained one of its songs. Think about how profound that is for a moment. When our traditions were destroyed by Christianity, our songs fell silent. Our procedures were lost. The scaffolding that supported our traditions was broken. This is one step back to full restoration and that is incredible.
It brings home the necessity, the crucial necessity of re-sacralizing our ritual procedures. It’s not enough to do, rather we must understand how to invest these actions with the sacred and why – otherwise, it’s pointless. (4) We must open ourselves up once again to awareness of the Holy. Our Gods are counting on us. Our traditions demand it.
The next time I take up the sacrificial knife and prepare myself for this ritual, I will think on this: Thor had two goats given over to nourish both Gods and man. Their bones must always remain unbroken and they will be restored to life. As I take up the blotere’s blade, with each offering, I am calling our traditions back to life again, and again, and again. May they flourish.
1. sacrificial priest
2. this article is about ritual sacrifice to the Gods only. Sacrifice for magical purposes is a different matter all together, not covered here.
3. It doesn’t matter to which Deity the animal is being given, or how the animal is disposed of afterwards: the act of sacrifice itself taps into certain cosmic grooves within the tradition.
4. and a mockery of our ancestral ways.
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One of my apprentices asked me this question not too long ago. Since then the topic has come up a couple of other times and I thought I would answer it here. It’s important.
A lineage-carrier is one A) to whom the Gods have entrusted the burden and weight of a tradition and/or B) who has been initiated into the Mysteries of specific Gods within specific traditions. Initiation then carries with it certain obligations to the tradition itself and often to one’s elders as well.
Initiation moreover, brings one into the Mysteries, rewires and reworks one’s mind and soul so that one may be deeply immersed in carrying those Mysteries, and so that one may be tied into the Tradition directly, carrying both its beauty and the twin obligations of protection and transmission. Connecting to the Tradition in this way makes one a part of that Tradition’s lineage.
Before I go farther into what a lineage is, I want to first touch on what a Tradition is. I think it’s far too easy to think of a Tradition as just the particular flavor of polytheism that one might practice. Sure, it’s that but it’s much, much more. It is a living container for the Mysteries of the Gods Who Themselves shaped and created the Tradition. It is a conduit from the ancestors and from the Gods to us – to those who will take up their positions within this tapestry. It’s not inactive or static or un-alive. It is sacred, ordered space, a nexus where we and the Powers meet. It overlays our world and when thriving and strong imprints the traces of our Gods upon it. It sacralizes and shapes our perceptions in ways that continuously repattern us to receive the Gods. Even if you haven’t been initiated into any Mysteries, when you make the commitment to begin honoring specific Gods, you are entering into the outer chambers of Their specific traditions. You’re doing your part.
Lineage is what flows through and sustains a Tradition. It is the living conduits—those people who have worked and lived their lives centered within their Traditions’ borders. It is all those ancestors who venerated these Gods and carried these Mysteries, us now working to restore and properly root these things, and all those who will come after us into the Mysteries, into the Tradition, into the sphere of the Gods. (The same Gods may be part of multiple traditions, there may be regional variants…there may be multiple threads within a single tradition, as different elders initiate their students and receive different parts of the whole). None of this is metaphorical. It is a blistering, heavy, often painful reality. It consumes the entire sensorium at times. It is as palpable as the earth under our feet.
A Lineage-Carrier, particularly an elder (one who has received the push to restore a tradition, refound a tradition, who carries it, teaches it, and is authorized by the Gods and possibly other living elders to initiate) carries the tradition on his or her back, in the heart, bears the voices of the Gods and dead in memory and mind. It is not metaphorical. One in this position is directly tied into the flow of past-present-and future of the Tradition. It’s a constant companion, a mandate, and obligation. Those on whom the burden of the Tradition rests (including now the burden of restoration) are directly responsible to the Gods for planting the seeds of restoration, nurturing that seedling, for protecting the Tradition from those who are ill prepared, impious, who would twist and pervert it for personal gain, they are likewise responsible for passing it on to those who are prepared. Ultimate loyalty must always be to the Tradition itself, over and above any personal sentiments. This is something so much bigger than any individual person.
To be a lineage-carrier is to live for the Tradition: to sleep it, eat it, breathe it , to be bound to it mind, body, and soul. It is to wake in the middle of the night with the screaming of the ancestors filling your mind, shrieking in your head. It is to feel the push of the Gods constantly to do more. It is to know that your every action must be one that restores a little more, strengthens a little more, builds integrity and character – not as we think of those things today, but as our Gods and ancestors think of them. We cannot restore a tradition without also recommitting to and restoring the values and cultural awareness that shaped our ancestors who were born, lived, and died within these Traditions. It means throwing oneself willingly into a complete reordering of one’s inner life. Everything comes to serve the Tradition and more importantly to serve the Gods.
The result is that this changes everything about the way a lineage-carrier moves in the world. It changes everything about how he or she prioritizes interactions and the things of this world. We become connected to the flow of the Tradition itself and that has a tremendous impact on how one prioritizes. There is always something bigger like a cosmic sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head: how is an action taken today furthering the Tradition tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow, or a year, or ten years, or twenty? We have to see that.
It’s dizzying after an initiation to be dropped into this. Suddenly ‘lineage’ isn’t just a word. Suddenly there’s a palpable sense of thousands upon thousands of people, a whole tribe at one’s back and they may or may not be happy with you (the paucity of values and foundation and comprehension that we have as moderns is often quite vexing to them. There was a basic foundation that even the most ill prepared person coming to a Tradition in the ancient world had, by virtue of growing up in a polytheistic culture that we lack and this is a real problem). What they definitely are is there. Likewise, for those who had the Gods drop a lineage on their backs with the mandate to see it flower, there is a constant awareness of that weight. Eventually that weight might be shared as others become lineage-carriers but even then, for those who are by default elders the fire of having one’s world remade by that living ordered space into which one has been tied can be overwhelming. Those of our lineage living before our traditions were destroyed (by monotheists) lived in cultures that to some degree or another support these Traditions and all that they teach. That is not the case with us today. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
This is how it was put to me a very long time ago: We are pearls in a gleaming thread that stretches behind us as far as one can possibly imagine and before us also as far as one can possibly imagine. We hold that space and hold that space and hold that space. In aeternum.
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A colleague posted this image on facebook and it got me thinking and I’m going to share some of those thoughts with you now. The statement in the image implies that since at some point Loki was bound, He cannot now be an active part of the pantheon. The corollary to that of course calls into question the integrity and veracity of those who claim devotion to Him. That’s what this meme is clearly stating.
Loki is a polarizing figure in contemporary Norse and Germanic traditions. Some denominations venerate Him, some don’t, some excoriate Him, and some will pour out offerings to Him when Odin is given offerings but only because of a single line from the Lokasenna.(1) They pour them out, but they don’t like it. I think it fair to say that no other commonly recognized God evokes such strong feelings (one way or another) as this one. (2)
Assuming however, that because Loki was once bound, that He is always bound, or that in being bound, He loses His capacity to act in our world is a bit problematic from a theological point of view. It makes for nice apologetics for those who detest His veneration and want an excuse to mock those who hold Him dear, but theologically it doesn’t quite hold up.
Firstly, to make the assumption described in the photo is to assume that the Gods are bound by substance, corporeality, and temporality in exactly the same way that we as human beings are bound.(3) We know that the Gods are outside of these things because They created them, existing before these substantive things ever were. This is all the more so if Loki and Loðúrr are indeed the same Being. While not all Gods may have been involved in that particular moment of fixing the materiality (and by extension temporality) of the worlds, there are Three Who were: Odin, Vili, and Vé or Odin, Hoenir, and Loðúrr, the latter of Whom I hold with the skalds to be Loki. If temporality then has no hold on Them, in the way that it does for us as human beings, if Their nature as Holy Powers is by necessity different from ours (which I’m going to assume for sake of this discussion it is. If you want a proof, I can play Anselm later), then it follows that Loki, like Schrödinger’s Cat can be at once bound and unbound. Time would not be a mitigating factor here.
That is the key to something called ‘mythic time.’ Perhaps part of Loki is always bound as part of Odin is always hanging on Yggdrasil –but here we veer into the realm of Mystery. He is bound and not bound. Loki devotee Kenaz Filan says, “For me the binding of Loki is one of the greatest sacred Mysteries of our cultus, and Sigyn’s loyalty to Her spouse one of the greatest examples of piety the Nine Worlds has ever seen. It’s not something to be joked about.” (4)
In the Eddas, Snorri, writing as a Christian two centuries after conversion carefully euhemerized the Gods. In other words, he presented the stories he was telling as though the main figure, the Gods, were at one ancient time, people. He stripped the sacred from our tales because he was not Heathen. He was writing a guide for poets who were, having been Christian for two hundred years, forgetting the meaning of the various kennings employed in Norse poetry. He was not a devout man and though we owe him a debt for preserving what he did, it would have been better had we never been exposed to Christianity in the first place. We have fragments of what was once invariably complex and nuanced body of regional practices. Snorri reduced our Gods to human. Why are we so eager to do the same? Mythic time is not our time. The Gods are not people.(5)
Nor are our stories morality plays. So much of medieval Christian literature served as morality plays for the listeners, readers, or viewers. That is not the case with our sacred stories. They were never intended to be taken as a guide to life or to inculcate values.(6) They were intended to teach us something about the Gods. They were keys to the Mysteries of the Gods.
Loki is, whether some Heathens like it or not, a key figure in our cosmology. He is a catalyst – the enemy of entropy. He is a helper to the Gods, essential in acquiring for Them Their primary attributes (Odin’s spear, Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s boat, etc.). If He is indeed, as the skalds maintain, Loðúrr, then He likewise has a powerful cosmological role in re-ifying creation within our mythos again and again and again. He carries the holy, the numinous into our world and along the rainbow bridge to all the worlds, traveling with Thor, Protector of Midgard. Given the strength with which His cultus has grown over the past decade, across denominations, even across religious boundaries, it may be that the question of whether or not He is still bound, is effectively moot. Res ipsa loquitur.
- Lokasenna, stanza 9.
- To the point that some Heathens even question whether or not He is a God. The most common refrain along this line of thinking is “He’s nowhere called a God, He’s a Jotun!” Actually, for those who need a reference from the surviving skaldic materials, Loki is actually referred as ‘Ás’ in Gylfaginning, chapter 20. (The cry then goes up from some Heathens, ‘well, Snorri didn’t mean that!” And thus interpreting out of the material all the inconvenient facts that would make your religion something other than polytheistic Protestantism begins. * sarcasm *) Ás of course, refers to a member of the dominant pantheon of the Norse, the Aesir. We could say that it means ‘god’ but that’s not exactly its primary translation (there are other words in Old Norse that one could use for that). It implies one of the holy Powers, specifically one associated in some way with the Aesir, that tribe of Gods responsible for ordering the cosmos.
Of course the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jotnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jotnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás’…unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers (of Whom Loki may be one – more on that in a moment) decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order (and there’s enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumezil certainly thought so), then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable (all Aesir having begun as Jotnar perhaps?) and we likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, Whose cosmological focus is different. One wonders at the mutability of membership in these divine clans.
In the creation story, Vili and Vé are sometimes called Hoenir and Loðúrr. The identification of Loki with Loðúrr is not universally accepted but there is skaldic evidence. As Dagulf Loptson notes in his article here:
Þrymlur I-III 21
“The identification of Loki as Loðúrr is one that has been highly debated, though in reality becomes perfectly blatant if one reads the Icelandic rímr, which are epic ballads from the 14th century. One of these ballads, Þrymlur (which was written roughly between CE 1300-1400) follows the same basic storyline as Þrymskviða. Both stories are an account of how Þórr’s hammer Mjöllnir was stolen by the giant Þrymr, who demands Freyja as his bride in exchange for it. Þórr is then persuaded to disguise himself as Freyja in order to reclaim his hammer, and Loki accompanies him disguised as his bridesmaid. In the Þrymlur account of the story, Loki is directly referred to by Þrymr as “Lóður” when he comes to visit him.”
- It is also to assume that we possess the full canon of sacred stories. We know that we do not. We likewise know that the stories we do possess were, to one degree or another, Christianized. This has been an ongoing problem within Heathenry. Because most of us grow up in religions bound by “scripture,” I think there’s an instinctive desire to have the same type of written authority and written legitimacy in our polytheisms. It doesn’t work that way though and for our ancestors never worked that way. One may use the lore to provide something of a scaffolding for one’s practice, to keep one from going off the rails (see here or here) but to assign it the authority of the Bible or Koran is stupid, anachronistic, and ultimately deleterious to the traditions. It is a source of information, information that must be carefully picked apart and analyzed. It is not the word of the Gods.
- We don’t, I think, see the Gods interfering with and specifically undoing the work of another God. That would be a violation of Their sphere of influence, a breach of cosmic order. The question may be thus raised of how much of Loki’s power to act is bound when He undergoes this ordeal, as well as for how long. In Greek mythos we have one story of Apollo violating cosmic order to avenge His son. He is banished and has to serve a mortal for a specific period of time. The banishment and service is temporary however which raises the question of the imbalance that might be created by permanently binding a God’s power, as well as the question of whether or not such a thing is even possible for the Gods to do.
- To reify Snorri is the equivalent of treating some fanfiction on tumblr authored by someone who can’t tell the difference between a marvel character and a Norse God as scripture; or let me correct that, perhaps it’s better to say the equivalent of treating Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” as scripture since Snorri did , unlike most on tumblr, have talent.
- Almost without exception in polytheistic cultures that role was taken by philosophy. We don’t know what type of philosophies the Northlands would have developed, had they been left unmolested by Christianity. But we do have the examples of Greece and Rome, as well as the Celts with their Druidic class, not to mention Indian traditions, that point to a differentiation between religion which is about relating to the Gods, and wisdom traditions like philosophy which are about developing oneself as decent human beings. There’s no reason to think that the Norse, amongst all the extant IE traditions, would have differed in this regard.
In a private discussion, a colleague told me that someone argued against the need for cleansing on the basis that Gods like Hela and Ereshkigal were Gods of rot and corruption and decay. Another person brought up compost heaps, where decay fuels further growth, all apparently (unless I misunderstood what my colleague was saying) in order to object to the idea that cleansing pollution is fundamental to healthy spirituality (you know, like bathing is fundamental toward not smelling like a dung heap).
This is going to be short and sweet. I have neither the time nor the patience for a long article breaking this down so allow me to get right to the point.
The Gods of the Underworld are not Deities of corruption. They are Deities that guard and nourish the dead. They are often likewise Deities of initiation, and/or Deities that in some way govern the mysteries of the earth and its wealth. It is true that in some cases the Heavenly Powers may not be able to cross into the dwelling of the Underworld Powers (Odin, for instance, cannot cross into Helheim though His sons can. Minerva cannot cross the threshold of the Erinyes’ dwelling. Inanna must undergo purification and ordeal to cross into Ereshkigal’s realm). This is largely because the positions and the power Each holds is so different. To maintain proper boundaries and proper functioning of Their respective realms, there can be no breach of protocol. It would upset the natural order of things.
Corruption is likewise different from rot. Rot is a natural part of the cycle. It is that which allows substance to be repurposed by nature. In this way, yes, I would say that some of these Underworld Deities like Hela are Gods of rot, but not in a way that transcends the need to be mindful of miasma. They allow for the transformation of souls, for the earth to receive what it needs from the rotting bodies of the dead. In its own time and place, that is good and holy. For us, being neither Gods nor dead, contact with that process is miasmic. It is not however, bad or corrupt.
I will say again, as I have many, many times before (perhaps pretend a man is saying it and then it might make more sense to some of you, hmm?): Miasma is not necessarily bad. It is a neutral thing. Sometimes miasma happens as a natural result of coming in contact with something that in and of itself is good (cemeteries, weddings, babies for instance). That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to cleanse. Rotting for instance, is a natural process. One would not, however, (I hope) stick your hand in a rotting piece of road kill and then eat finger foods without a serious engagement with soap and water first. This is no different.
I think to honor the Gods of the dead with the rituals of the Heavenly Powers and vice versa would bring miasma, because that is twisting things out of their natural order, but those Gods Themselves are not “concentrated miasma” as one critic averred. That which is Holy is not miasmic. That does not mean that we might not be rendered miasmic by contact with certain Beings, holy or no. The Holy carries with it a contagion. It marks us and changes us and we have to be careful bringing that back into everyday space. Sometimes it is appropriate to do so, but sometimes not.
We do, in the Northern Tradition have a Holy Power that is fully focused on transmuting Rot, Nidhogg, the great dragon. She takes in rot (like the compost heap) but it doesn’t remain ‘rot’. It’s transmuted, just as purification transmutes.
To quote Kenaz Filan: “Even rot and decay are not in themselves miasmic. A compost heap is a fine thing. But when you put a compost heap in the dining room you have miasma.”
In the end, polytheism is large and flexible enough to contain exceptions such as sin-eating and working with spirits of decay, but these exceptional things don’t invalidate the general need for purification. It is unfair to apply the standards of a rare form of devotion (like sin-eating) to every single polytheist out there. Because that transgressive work, and the necessary flouting of conventions and precautions which doing so requires takes a tremendous and sometimes devastating toll on the devotee. Why should Jane Heathen, who just wants to make offerings to her household Gods, have to endure those problems, which is what you’re advocating when you suggest casting aside ancestral tradition and things like purification rites? Way to shoot yourselves in the feet, folks.
(Piety Possum, walking away from all your bullshit)
(This is an old post I made several years ago. I’m recycling it to give some preparatory food for thought as I work on my next piece dealing again with pollution, piety, and maybe, just maybe right behavior. I’m closing this to comments – tomorrow’s article will not be—so that I actually have time to work.)
Modesty is such a troublesome concept, at once somewhat nebulous and yet highly charged. I have seen both men and women become rabidly angry at the mere mention of the word, particularly when it was noted as a virtue, and moreover, as something worth cultivating. I would go so far as to say that there’s probably no other virtue so prone to misconception, misapprehension, and deep seated ambivalence. For all that, I do very much believe that not only is modesty a particularly polytheistic virtue, but it is one that both men and women would indeed do well to cultivate.
Let me take a moment to discuss precisely what I mean when I use the word ‘modesty.’ Being lazy today, I went to the dictionary and looked up the word. It comes from the Latin modestia and I’m going to get back to that in a moment.(1) For now, suffice it to say that the given definition (drawn, or so dictionary.com says, from Collins English Dictionary) is as follows:
- the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
- regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
- simplicity, moderation. (2)
Perhaps there are different types of modesty. It is predominantly a cultural convention and construction after all, and standards of modesty are culturally determined. Regardless, it’s primarily with the second definition, that of regard for decency of behavior and deportment, that I am primarily concerned. I want to be clear about one thing: I do not think that modesty necessarily has anything to do with one’s attire. Appropriateness of dress is a matter of context. One may be half naked and completely modest, or wearing full hijab and completely immodest. It’s a matter, to my mind at least, of personal integrity and integrity of behavior.
I look at modesty as a way of interacting with others in our world, a way of presenting ourselves. Whenever discussions of modesty come up, two aspects seem to garner the most attention: physical dress and sexual behavior. Certainly no less a personage than Honore de Balzac called modesty the ‘conscience of the body’ and British essayist Joseph Addison referred to it as ‘a guard to virtue.” While I don’t disagree with that necessarily, I think we do this virtue a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of sexual mores. We diminish the quality of modesty when we focus solely on sexual expression. Certainly in the polytheistic world, it meant much more (and this holds true for Greece and Rome but also for Germania. Read your Tacitus, folks).
I suppose there is a physical, sexual component to modesty. I can’t help but think of a documentary about indigenous religion in the Ivory Coast that I had the pleasure of recently viewing.(3) I was struck, forcibly, by the contrast between the women who maintained their ancestral ways and those who tried to mimic western styles. The former practiced their religion, honored the gods and spirits of their land and people…they were magnificent, powerful, and respected to the point of veneration within their communities. It was blatantly, delightfully obvious (nor was I the only one to notice this; the friend with whom I was watching was also struck by precisely the same thing). The latter, largely those living in the rapidly westernizing cities, dressed provocatively, behaved outrageously and were treated like trash. It was clear that they thought of themselves as nothing more than ornamental. They treated themselves like trash. They had abrogated their ancestral connections; they had abrogated their power, and instead attired themselves in the shallowness of exploitation and mimicry of a culture that historically has brought nothing but spiritual desiccation wherever it colonized. It was exhibited by the way these women were behaving (and in turn by the way the men behaved toward them) but I think that was only the most obvious and outward expression of a deeper dynamic. The problem wasn’t their behavior; the problem was that such behavior, in this particular instance, was a manifestation of a lack of self-regard.
Whenever the discussion of modesty comes up, inevitably modesty becomes linked with feeling shame about oneself or one’s body. I can think of nothing more diametrically opposed to what modesty actually is. True modesty has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with valuing both oneself and the quality of one’s interactions with family, friends, the world at large, and most of all within the realm of one’s spiritual obligations, i.e. with the Gods and ancestors, the Holy Powers. Remember when I pointed out that modesty comes from the Latin? Well in Latin it’s primarily associated with discretion, sobriety, correctness of conduct, moderation, and propriety.(4) These were the virtues, in this polytheistic community, that an adult was expected to cultivate (likewise in many other parts of the ancient polytheist world, including Germania). Latin has another word pudicitia which encompasses the shyness – bashfulness the dictionary says – and emphasis on chastity that we so commonly ascribe to ‘modesty.’(5) Moreover, modesty in Rome was not something that women alone worried about. Most of the references that I’ve come across on my reading (in Pliny, Sallust, Cicero, and Suetonius primarily) have referred to the proper modesty of men. (Cicero does not approve of your skinny jeans. LOL). Nor did this modesty usually have anything to do with their sexual behavior. It was, however, not unusual to see it linked to piety. I’d go so far as to say that modesty in the ancient world – i.e. in many polytheistic cultures (and I know I’m focusing on Rome here largely because I’ve been immersed in that source material of late. That is not to say this idea was found only in polytheistic Rome.) went hand in hand with piety. That’s an important point and I’m going to say it again:
Modesty went hand in hand with piety for all genders.
Perhaps for this reason, authors like the younger Pliny recommend it as the most shining of virtues. (6) It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the acknowledgement that there is something greater (to a polytheist many somethings greater) than we out there and to whom just maybe, we owe a modicum of decorum; and behaving with that appropriate decorum enhances not just our interactions with the Holy but with each other as well. It augments who we are as human beings. An apologist for modesty would say that we enhance our lives by cultivating modesty because valuing and cultivating modesty is a way of cultivating ourselves as well. It’s a way of saying “I value the gifts the Gods and ancestors have given me too greatly to squander them for public consumption” (or by behaving like a fool). I would say that not only is modesty a guard to virtue (though what I as a polytheist mean by that term has nothing to do with sexual repression and everything to do with the development of character) but it is an essential, perhaps the most essential, component toward developing dignity and personal integrity.
Someone who cultivates modesty as a virtue would, I believe, be unlikely to behave with complete and utter disrespect in a ritual. Even if he or she did not know the proper protocol, modesty is a good teacher of behavior. The modest person is not going to rant and rave about how he or she would never, ever bow their heads before the Gods. They know better. The cultivation of modesty has taught them [not to act like they were raised in a barn]. Moreover, there are times when it is appropriate to feel shame for one’s actions. This too is a lesson modesty teaches. When we behave in a way that diminishes who we are both as human beings and as children of the Gods, as inheritors of our ancestral blessings, we ought to feel shame. It is the right and proper state of being. When we behave badly, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves. That’s called conscience, something that I believe modesty hones. Being polytheist does not relieve us of every moral obligation after all. It actually enhances them.
In the connection between modesty and piety, one often encounters the idea of taboo: those things one is not permitted to do without violating both modesty and the bounds of proper piety. This is the reason that ancient Roman polytheists -men as well as women – would cover their heads when performing rituals. It’s the reason while certain types of priests from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and quite probably in the North lands as well, lived prescribed lives, lives full of ritual and personal taboos that cultivated modesty, enhanced their personal connections with the Holy Powers, and enabled them to avoid miasma.(7)
This is the reason that a growing number of polytheists today are choosing to veil themselves, to cover their heads, some only during rituals (as I was taught to do) and some all the time. It is a way of reminding themselves to behave properly, of nurturing their spiritual connections, of keeping themselves clean of the filth of the monotheistic world, and for a thousand other reasons. It cannot be denied that doing so sets the person apart, and perhaps that is part of it too: it implies a different standard of living, a different standard of behavior and as in all things that so many of us do, carries with it a certain didactic function. I’m not going to belabor the point of head-covering here. I mention it here largely because there are extant polytheistic sources that note men covering in Roman temples so this is the example that came to mind of an outward expression of both piety and modesty.
So what is modesty? It’s examining potential behavior and saying to oneself : I won’t do that. I do not believe it will do honor to me, my Gods, or my ancestors. That will not enhance me as a human being. Or maybe it’s being in a situation where you are the only one behaving respectfully and you do so because of your modesty and piety combined, regardless of what others around you might think. Ultimately, I think modesty is the choice to consciously avoid doing that which diminishes us; be it by commission or omission. Take that as you will. I believe it is an essential spiritual virtue.
- (modestia, ae, feminine)
- See here.
- See here.
- Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary, see entry on ‘modestia.’
- Ibid, see the entry on ‘pudicitia.’
- He goes on in several of his letters about the virtues of modesty, praising people he admires for their modesty. Letter 1:12, iirc, is a good example.
- See yesterday’s article for more information on miasma.
A friend sent me a clip from an article that had me just shaking my head. In it, a Pagan was talking about pollution and why she never “needed” to do any cleansing work. Doing so, the misguided author said, would imply that she was dirty.
Um…yes, buttercup it does but this is not a moral judgment. When you take a shower in the morning or a bath at night, is that some grave moral judgment on your inner sense of self? Or your character? Your identity? When you wipe your ass, are you saying your butt is bad? One would hope that you actually do take those showers and wipe. I mean really…and if you clean your ass, as my friend quipped, you can take the time to clean your soul.
This is going to be an ongoing theme. I’ve had a lot of questions lately about miasma. I’ve gained a few insights through my own deepening taboos around purification, been thrown for a few unexpected loops, and I’ve been seeing a lot of really screwed up pieces, like the bit I quoted above making the rounds. I’m not even sure where to begin here.
Miasma is a thing. It exists. It is not a statement about the character or worth of any given person. In fact, in most cases, it’s no more personal than spilling something on yourself and having to wash it off, or tracking mud inside, and having to clean it up. To say that one doesn’t need to cleanse is exactly as sensible as saying one never needs to bathe, that is not at all.
Miasma is a type of spiritual pollution. One can pick up miasma by exposing oneself to things that are antithetical to the Gods and Their traditions. These things can shift a person’s head and heart space out of receptivity and reverence for the Gods. They can also leave a taint. Over time, it destroys our ability not just for any discernment with the Powers and spirits, but even our ability to tell what is good and holy from that which is not. That’s one of the dangers of pollution and our world is riddled with it.
Sometimes though one falls into miasma through actions or experiences that are good: for instance there is a particular miasma associated with the dead. That’s why if one touches a dead body, cleansings are necessary before approaching one’s shrines. Well, visiting the graves of relatives is a good and pious act sanctioned by the Gods. The moment one does so, however, one is in a state of pollution and should really cleanse after returning home. Likewise, there is miasma associated with childbirth. Does that mean that everyone should stop having babies? Of course not. It means one learns the appropriate protocols within one’s tradition and uses them.
These purification rites can also be a form of psychological catharsis, helping one to make transitions back into ordinary life. Imagine how much better off our soldiers would be if they had these kinds of transitional and purifying ceremonies to guide their entrance back into civilian life? Instead, we just leave them in the gutter.
Proper piety is important. It is what enables us to maintain right relationship with our Gods. That’s a huge part of why we should want to be clean! Moreover, extended miasma can cause mental, emotional, and even physical problems, not to mention damaging one’s luck. Of course, this presupposes that one values being in right relationship with the Holy. This is where it starts. It presupposes that this is a priority, that we’re willing to examine our culture and society and interactions and influences and take action when miasma is present.
Now just because a thing causes miasma, does not mean it has to be avoided. Some things are only miasmic with certain types of worship, and with certain deities, or for roles and types of work (ancestor work vs plant work, shaman vs. seer vs. laity—there will be different taboos and requirements). Sometimes when you’re called to work with certain Powers and do certain work, that cuts off certain opportunities. That’s too bad. That’s just the nature of devotion. It’s possible to appreciate from a distance without being able to engage.
Sometimes what we read or watch may cause miasma. It affects our headspace. It puts us in headspace that’s not conducive to interaction with the Holy. This is a bit trickier. No one should tell you not to watch or read something. That’s a decision you have to make for yourself with your Gods and ancestors. Divination can help with this. We don’t want to be, after all, like the Abrahamists who fence themselves off from life and authentic experiences with all their rules and regulations, afraid to read a novel for fear it will destroy their faith. Sometimes also, depending on one’s work, one might have to read things or watch things or go places that put one in a state of miasma. Here, it’s important to sit down maybe with a diviner or priest and suss out how to cleanse oneself, what rituals and prayers to do, to restore oneself to cleanliness. (Just because a particular book or movie might put you out of alignment, doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’. It might not affect someone else the same way, especially if they’re working with very different Powers and traditions. The key is mindfulness and being willing to consider that even things we like may be problematic and require those extra ritual steps or even forgoing gratification in service to something Higher).
Now I’ve noticed something about the people chirping the loudest about how cleansing isn’t necessary. All of the ones I’ve encountered have been anti-theist or humanist ‘Pagans.’ I think that is perhaps the key here. This is a clash of cultures and traditions. Do you serve the ancestors or political ideology? Do you want to reverence the Gods with your entire life or some human economist? Is this real or is it just something people make up in their heads? Do you value the Holy, or are you hell-bent on convincing the pious that it doesn’t exist (generally by trolling them online)? Those espousing a disdain for cleansing and purification are more often than not, those expressing a similar disdain for the Gods and everything else associated with Them. I’ll let y’all do the math. (If Stalin says that 2+2=5, the party believes that 2+2=5).
What I know is that cleansing is crucial. There is a caution here: against what Christians call scrupulosity. We should attend to all the proper rites and rituals for dealing with pollution, but not fall into obsessiveness or excessive anxiety over it—what the Greeks termed δεισιδαιμονίᾳ.
“It is apparent that superstition would seem to be cowardice with regard to the spiritual realm. The superstitious man is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what god or goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.” (Theophrastos, On The Superstitious Man)
Being a polytheist isn’t about having the right hashtags or even necessarily about believing in many Gods. Believing in many Gods is the baseline, the fundamental definition, but we should aspire to so much more. Being a polytheist is also about cultivating in ourselves the type of awareness and character that the Gods would find pleasing. To do that, first and foremost, we must cultivate purity and an awareness of the nature of miasma and a willingness to attend to it. Then and only then, can we begin to cleanly and properly commune with the Holy.
There is one question, just one, that I find in 98% of cases, tremendously irritating. It’s a question I don’t want to receive, one I’m not particularly nice at answering, and one that I’m going to be discussing today.
“How do you know the Gods and spirits are real? How do you know They’re speaking to you and that it isn’t some trick of the mind, hormones, pain, drugs, etc. Prove it to me because I’ve tried, I’ve gone through (insert name of three to five different practices here) and have never gotten anything. So, convince me.”
It’s that last little bit, the ‘convince me’ part that sets my teeth on edge more than the actual question itself, so I hope y’all will pardon me for being a bit blunt. The question isn’t so egregious by itself. I mean, I understand how people who have not had much contact with the Holy Powers, or who are just starting out, might be moved to ask it. People, I’ve found, want to be sure they’re doing it right…whatever the ‘it’ of their spiritual lives happens to be. I get that. Hell, I want to be sure I’m doing it right! I don’t ever want to offend one of the Powers. So insofar as the question itself goes, generally it stems from not unworthy motivation, particularly when one is concerned about being in right relationship with the Gods and spirits.
My problem is inevitably with the corollaries that all too often accompany it, corollaries that have absolutely nothing to do with getting oneself in right relationship with the Powers and everything with abrogating responsibility for one’s own spiritual life.
To those people I say the following: Just because you’re incapable or unwilling of doing the necessary work to engage with the Powers, don’t suppose that’s the case for all of us. Just because you’re too mired in your post modern bullshit to open up into devotional headspace don’t assume that’s the case for all of us either. Just because you value your post modern politics more than devotion and piety, definitely don’t project that onto us.
Newsflash: Just because *you* can’t sense or know something, doesn’t mean it’s not true. I don’t understand particle physics but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it exists. Your limited world is not the be all and end all of existence-not even for you. If you’re not experiencing anything when you do your seeking perhaps you’re too caught up in “belief”, perhaps you’re not listening, perhaps it’s not your wyrd, or perhaps YOU are the problem. The Gods after all, don’t owe you a response and I don’t either. Maybe spend less time floating through traditions and asking foolish questions with the expectation of immediate answers and more time honoring your ancestors and making offerings to the Gods and approaching whatever living elders you have within your tradition with a modicum of humility. Spend more time doing the work and honoring the Powers and less time worrying about whether or not your ego is being adequately stroked.
In case you can’t tell, this question aggravates me on a number of fronts.
Firstly, it presupposes that the Gods and spirits are there for our benefit. It presupposes that one is owed some sort of grand cosmological response. It presupposes that such knowledge can just be handed to one without effort, and it prioritizes the questioner’s identity an will over the idea of right belief, action, and devotional practice.
I usually get this from people who say that no matter how hard they have tried, they can’t find evidence of the reality of the Gods. They’ve gone through half a dozen traditions. blah blah blah.
You know what? Try committing to one. Stop assuming that you’re owed anything. Stop assuming that the Gods and spirits should prove themselves to you. Stop assuming it’s all going to be handed to you immediately. Stop. Just fucking stop.
Secondly, this type of attitude demands explanation of mysteries that can only be acquired through experience and the grace of initiation. It is demanding access into a body of knowledge to which one has no lawful right. It is demanding what does not belong to one by right or by grace.
This is an impiety. Initiation is not something to be demanded. Mysteries are revealed when the Gods and ancestors deem it time. One does not demand access without discipline and devotion. Asking this question as so many do is an attempt at a short cut and it doesn’t work that way.
We have a perfect example, upon which people may meditate of just this level of hubris in the character of Pentheus from Euripides’ ” Bakchai.” This is a powerful mystery play and it highlights, amongst other things, the inviolability of sacred rites. Initiation — and by initiation I am including knowledge and wisdom gained through experience, practice, and the grace of the Gods as much as any formal ritual that breaks open the head and heart to the sacred — is not a thing to be demanded. It may be sought through devotion and commitment, but not *demanded* and there is always a spiritual price. Moreover, even were I to answer the question, what could I possibly say that would be comprehensible to someone who ranks their comfort, their ego, and their own ingrained paradigms over the Powers? What could I possibly say? Those who have directly experienced the Powers speak a different language from those who have only experienced the metaphysical masturbation of their own egos.
Finally, by demanding “convince me,” it foists the responsibility for one’s spiritual life off on me. “Do the hard work and all the thinking for me” is what the questioner is actually saying. You know what? I’m too fucking busy doing my work and honoring my Gods. It’s not my *job* to convince you. Do the work yourself.
Too many people want access to the mysteries, they want access to power without any obligations to the Powers. It doesn’t work that way. Why should the keepers of any tradition reveal its secrets, why should the Powers reveal Themselves to someone unwilling or unable to commit him or herself to devotion? There’s the old saying: you can’t always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need. I think that holds true and what most of these people seem to need is to be told NO.
So let me oblige: no, I will not answer this question. NO I will not hand you knowledge gained only through experience. NO I will not pat you on the head and tell you that jumping from tradition to tradition demanding wisdom and paying no homage to the Powers is the way to go. No I will not do your spiritual work for you. Neither I nor the Gods took out a fucking franchise in Burger King. You do not get to have it your way.
You want to try working, learning the process of devotion, learning how to love and honor the Gods and ancestors? I’ll go to the wall for you then. I’ll answer any question you throw. I’ll do my damnedest to help you get sorted and help you succeed. Don’t come to me demanding, “convince me” though, because my response will be short. My response will be a big, fat “NO.”
I woke up this morning to find this article on my facebook feed. It’s something I never, ever, ever, ever, ever imagined I would see the fucking pope saying. First, go here and read the article. Watch the video there too, so you can make up your own mind.
Apparently Catholics no longer believe that Jesus is the unique redeemer – you know, like the New Testament says (it’s somewhere in John) not to mention the entirety of their tradition. Now, all roads lead to the same goal. Now, I don’t believe squat about Jesus. I’m a sensible, educated, devout polytheist. I’m not deluded. They are and have been for two thousand years. That’s been the single defining characteristic of their tradition. Well, their Marxist pope just tossed that all to hell now, possibly by their theology, literally. I think this is the guy who abolished limbo after all. Not too many places for them left to go.
Now, he has pretty much declared that there is no difference between any religion (except of course, for indigenous or polytheistic religions. We’re still fair game for evangelization). I was suspicious of this guy for a long time, especially when he kept making these social justice statements, that all of my Pagan and Polytheist friends were applauding. I wasn’t, because I saw this is just incipient Marxism and that inevitably leads to the subjugation of traditions. When it comes down to it, they’re always going to have to make a choice: which is more important, the religion or the politics and politics inevitably wins (when you’re a Marxist). That may be ok for a freshman in college, but maybe not the head of a world religion. The uniqueness or exclusivity of a tradition is part of the tradition (a lesson we as polytheists really need reminding of on occasion).
If this Pope decides to further water down Catholicism – you know, the tradition he is tasked with protecting and defending—into further nothingness, we are going to be left with the Protestant crackpots. Catholics, once they got over the whole inquisition thing, have pretty much been preservers of Western tradition, art, and values – all of which they stole from polytheism granted. Anglicans likewise have held this position. That’s not the case with the crazy Protestantisms: dominionists, end times fatalists, bible thumpers, etc. They want to bring down the world and remake it in the image of their repressive, life-hating pseudo-theology. Just like Muslims and SJWS. Oh hey, look: a new alliance is formed. Always mistrust the radical.
But on the plus side maybe all the SJWs in Paganism and Polytheism will flee into the Catholic Church and we won’t have to deal with them damaging our traditions anymore. Or, maybe we should start evangelizing these displaced Catholics. They already have the basics of piety and cultus down and their own Church has abandoned them. We just have to teach them to count beyond three.
(Most of this is drawn from a conversation I’m having with several other spirit-workers and NT shamans. We’ve been discussing and exploring our cosmology, specifically the Norse creation story. I write a bit about that here and this delves a bit deeper into some of the ideas expressed in that piece. This is speculative, posted mostly to give myself a record of my thoughts).
|I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize the importance of our cosmogony. I think any understanding of the way Heathenry and the Northern Tradition works must start with an exploration and understanding of our cosmogony, because that is the lens through which we are expected to engage with the world, relationships, and everything in between. I’ve occasionally seen the primal Gap (Ginnungagap) described as a ‘womb’ but I really do not like the image of a ‘womb’ for the Gap. It’s too much a gendered term. The Gap is a crucible and for many reasons that I’ll be discussing here, precedes any idea of gender.
Likewise with the runes: one often ascribes gender to them (and they can in fact present as gendered) but I think it’s perhaps a mistake to assume that any gendered presentation represents the actual nature of the rune itself, and for many of the same reasons as with the Gap.
I’ll start with the runes because in many ways, they’re easier to touch on than our cosmogony. From my experience, some specific rune spirits might take on a gender, but as a whole, they’re not what we would term masculine and feminine in their essence. I think this is important…I don’t think that like the Odu, (with whom I have seem the runes often compared) they’re building blocks of creation. Instead, I think they in some way expand and expound from the Gap, almost like agents provocateur, instruments that carry that synergy wherever it needs to go, especially at the points where wyrd begins. This is all speculative theology but the runes are not of this world. They were never of the human world (at least not the elder. I have suspicions about the younger. I suspect that the younger were born of the elder, and born to be a more direct bridge to this world, are more inherently connected to this plane of existence). They take on gender, or can take it on, when they enter our world/state of being but within their own natural realm, the Gap, it is an alien idea.
I think we really have to be careful of co-opting gendered language for these things. That’s immediately a category and a limitation and for those things that are beyond temporality and even materiality, it’s important to resist that urge. All the more so as those terms carry so much weight in our culture. We reduce the power of these Forces (the Gap, the worlds within the Gap before creation, even the runes) when we make them feminine or masculine. We reduce their nature, blocking it off and culling it down, parceling it out when we ascribe to it those categories that limit with respect to substance and manifestation. Sometimes it’s inevitable. We need a means to discuss these things after all, but I think with the runes, we can deal with them as they are, and the Gap as well without projecting our own gendered language onto them. (I do think that within the rune families, rune spirits will choose to appear in a variety of genders but I think it’s an assumed guise for our sake. Half of learning how to work with the runes is a matter of us learning how to communicate with them, and them learning our interior symbol system, i.e. how to communicate with us. Taking on gendered forms may improve communication). When we begin exploring our cosmogony, we’re challenged to move beyond ideas of gender as these somehow inherently meta categories of universal structure.
The first actively gendered force that we have is Audhumla, the sacred cow and that is crucial. Once materiality is yoked to temporality, once it’s out of the Gap and into Being, once there is substance, it’s filtered through Audhumla, that feminine force that brings Ymir into being and starts the process of embodied creation
I remember thinking about the creation story and thinking, “where the fuck did the cow come from?” but it’s an IE motif: the active principle of embodied creation, once things have moved into materiality, is a cow: a feminine, or rather female force. Cows were wealth, abundance – we see this in the runes too with fehu, domestic cattle and wealth (versus Uruz, initiation and the challenge of the wild aurochs). It’s potentiality for abundance, the power of manifestation (I believe even Audhumla’s name means ‘wealth.’). That’s a different level from the moments preceding creation and again from creation itself, at once removed from the Otherness of the Gap. For most of us, I think that when the runes present as gendered, that’s here, in our world/state of being, not in the Gap, not their origin point and that difference is significant. It may be that there is how the runes are there, and how they can choose to be here, or how they are filtered through here.
I think we need to step back and examine how often we contextualize based on gender. The moment you ascribe that category, you’ve put a limit on something. You’ve also humanized it. Now sometimes that happens. Our Gods taken on gender for instance…note I said ‘take on.’ I don’t’ want to limit Them by assuming They are bound in any way to it. They take it on. When we start talking about cosmogony, we’re pre-human, pre substance, pre material and categories (like gender) no longer apply. They don’t exist yet. So for this, we have to move away from how humans experience the world, and our assumed position of necessity to its order, and look instead at how things are without filtering it through humanity as a necessary lens – because these things we’re discussing here existed/came into being, well before we did.
To further complicate things, Old Norse, like many IE languages is a gendered language. This means that nouns have grammatical gender (they can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. It doesn’t have anything to do with what that noun might be usually, but instead is a way of categorizing based on morphological terminations). In some respects, looking at grammatical gender can be enlightening. It’s one more level of analysis but certain concepts and ideas, certain types of being are beyond gender, beyond any human category. When we’re talking about something similar in so many ways to the Platonic Agathos, Nous, and Psykhe, we’re not dealing with something yoked by gender. Gender is a material limitation. I do with the runes, think of them as gender fluid to some degree, but largely because I ‘m not sure gender has any relevance in THEIR realm…whereas it’s part of ours, and like a costume they can put it on or take it off at will to communicate specific things in their interactions with us.
Once we start looking at cosmogonic principles, however, up until the point of material creation, the point where suddenly there is materiality and temporality, and *substance*, gender has no meaning. Once we get to substantive realms/states of being, then gender becomes a thing, because then, by virtue of being substantive, there is already limitation.
Insofar as we have substantive concepts, I think bringing gendered language into it can be interesting (both grammatically for analysis and ideologically). As noted above, it’s another level of analysis when we’re doing theological exegesis. The cosmogony, however, before the moment when materiality comes into being as a result of friction between worlds (opposing forces) doesn’t exist as we might comprehend it.
There is nothing better than mornings spent with the Gods, whether in devotion to Them or fruitful discussion of Them. Today was one such morning. My friend Markos posted this awesome quote by Walter Otto on his facebook this morning:
“No single Greek god even approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which near witness to a savagery that is absolutely without mercy… He is called the “render of men”, “the eater of raw flesh”, “who delights in the sword and bloodshed”. We hear not only of human sacrifice in his cult, but also of the ghastly ritual in which a man is torn to pieces. Where does this put us? Surely there can be no further doubt that this puts us into death’s sphere. The terrors of destruction, which make all if life tremble, belong also, as horrible desire, to the kingdom of Dionysus. The monster whose supernatural duality speaks to us from the mask has one side of his nature turned toward eternal night.”
~Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult
We both love Dionysos dearly (and if I’m not mistaken, Markos actually belongs to Dionysos whereas while I love this God, I pay cultus from the fringes). This quote encapsulates some core elements of His nature. He is a terrible God, in the old sense of the word, as One Who brings terror.
Another friend Paul C. mentioned that He is also “nice,” and I have to agree: He can be immensely nice and gentle (and we agreed that sometimes that is more shattering than any cruelty He could bring to bear on the transformation of our souls). Paul said:
“I’ll say that when I first started with Dionysus I didn’t expect him to be nice.
It was the niceness of him that was almost hard for me to handle at first. Due to my background of abuse and other unfortunate things I have a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem issues. His acceptance and love was unexpected and clearly not coming from myself. It was hard because of the whole host of new ideas and perspectives that I had to confront As your husband (Sannion) explained it and I think he’s right that was the God’s own way of molding and helping me.
So niceness isn’t always painless like you think it would be. Sometimes it’s more painful than cruelty when it runs counterbalance to what is in one’s head.” — Paul C. (quoted with permission)
Still, as I pointed out, it’s never the “nice” that people try to elide from their Gods. It’s the Power. I was asked to explain and the conversation that followed was meaty enough that I wanted to share highlights of it here.
People will go to any lengths to make their Gods sweet, nice, and unthreatening, to insist that their Gods aren’t savage or vicious, violent or bold. We want our Gods civilized and ‘modern.’ We want Gods we can control, or at least Gods that don’t challenge us, that don’t drag us down into the morass of our own shit and force us to look at it, and deal with it. We as a culture want Gods Who won’t interfere with our lives and the priorities we set for ourselves. We want Gods of peace so that we never have to stand naked, afraid, trembling, and possibly bleeding and snot faced before Them. We want characters in a storybook. Just look at any of our communities.
Of course positioning a Deity as any one thing alone is always problematic. A God, any God is never just savage or nice. They *are*. They are in a fullness and complexity of Being that I don’t really think we as human beings quite have the capacity to comprehend at all. We may catch glimpses, but the totality is too immense for us to do more than gnaw upon. Think about the story of Dionysos’ Mother Semele. When She was tricked into forcing Zeus to reveal Himself in the fullness of His power it burned Her to ash. A human being, as we are now, simply does not have the capacity to behold the Gods in Their fullness. The masks They wear are necessary but every so often, oh every so often we get a glimpse of some of the roaring Power that lies beneath.
So yes, Dionysos is nice. I can also attest He’s been incredibly nice and gentle with me. but …that’s not the part the average person is going to erase in their minds, I think. We know He’s nice. That’s not the part most people want to forget.
I saw this over the years with Odin. Any mention of Odin’s darker sides — and oh, He is a terribly savage God. Anyone who thinks His veneer of civilization and culture is anything more than a carefully calculated mask is deluding themselves.—His penchant for ordeal, His violence, His savagery inevitably led to claims that I was making this God into a sadist. “That’s not my Odin.” (#notallOdins) No, buttercup, but it is Odin. Maybe it’s not what He’s showing you, but it is absolutely His nature. The best of us learn to revel in it. Those who can’t? Well, there’s always British TV, fanfiction, and pop culture.
There’s a movie that several people in the conversation brought up, one that has strong Dionysian overtones: “The Witch.” In this movie, the Devil in the shape of a black goat drives a rather neurotic Puritan family to ruin. Well, they drive themselves to ruin, and the goat just does what demonic goats do. (#goatlivesmatter). In the end, the goat transforms into a man and asks the surviving daughter: “Do you wish to live deliciously?”
We agreed that this is Dionysos.
This is the Liberator. I have my suspicions that many of the medieval images of Witches’ sabbats were cultural memories of Bacchanalian frenzies with all the potential savagery that might entail. (#livedeliciously).
We should be careful what we do to our Gods. One thing I’ve learned venerating the Norse Gods is this: if we insist on allowing Them only one avenue of manifestation, only one mask, They’ll take it but it won’t be the best outcome for us. We will get the Gods we deserve. When we deny Them the fullness of Their being, we start denying ourselves too and as that movie so beautifully showed, repression never leads anywhere good. (#lokiwivesoftumblr).
So maybe let us live deliciously.
Especially where our Gods are concerned.