It’s easy to love the Gods when things are going well in our lives. It’s not so easy when every day is a struggle. It’s not so easy when mired in depression or pain or when one’s life is shattering. It’s when we need the Gods the most that it’s the hardest to reach out to Them. It’s so hard then not to become like churlish children, blaming Them, spewing vitriol at Them, pushing Them away in a myriad of ways. I think They understand when we do this (and no matter how devoted we are, I think we all do this sooner or later). I don’t think They blame us for our humanity but I have, in my own moments where I clutched at whatever shards of grace were allowed me, had glimpses of how deeply They ache for us when we suffer. Loki told me once that the Gods number every tear and I believe that to this day, though it’s damned hard to remember when all you want to do is smash your shrines and screech to the heavens, “why?”. (No, this is not a reflection on my own personal life, though there have been times; rather it’s something that hit me strongly when I was watching the tail end of a random tv show that dealt with pain and finding faith despite it). One would think loving the Gods would make things all better – and I think it does, but it doesn’t remove challenges and obstacles and the pain of living, of navigating a sad and twisted world. We are shaped by that world after all and we are human. There is fragility and magnificence, cruelty and kindness in that state of being. It’s up to us what we choose to nourish. One of the most courageous things we can do is choose, consciously choose (and it is a choice) to nourish devotion in the midst of crises.
One of the biggest graces that we’re given though is that the Gods will wait for us. As much pain as I think we cause Them, They are there even when we deny or try to push Them away. I think one of the most important things we can do for ourselves spiritually is not allow jealousy or bitterness or pain or anything else twist our devotional relationships with Them out of true. I pray about this all the time. I pray for lay people and specialists, for those struggling and those momentarily secure in their purpose. Prayer is a powerful, potent tool in this struggle and I think one of the things it does is remind and restore us in relationship to our Gods. It opens us up to Their grace. That’s no small things. The times we want to pray the least are the times we desperately need to reach out. It should be our go-to when things become difficult. (I learned this recently the hard way from Sigyn). This is why it’s so important to develop good devotional habits when things are going well, consistencies that we hold to as a matter of course, a base line that can sustain us when our world falls apart because no matter how devout we are, we move in a fractured world, a mortal world, an imperfect world and those earthquakes will come. How we choose to respond can bring us so much deeper into devotion and faith, can provide us with the most potent of all lifelines or…we can mire ourselves in our own sense of isolation. The Gods don’t do that, we in our pain do it to ourselves. Those times that hurt the most are opportunities to renew ourselves in the presence of our Gods and when we commit to that, we can indeed endure.
There was a moment today where I was filled with awe and gratitude for what it means to belong to a God. The path of Odin that I follow is that of Gangleri. This is how He comes to me most of the time, and when it comes to ordeals and challenges that define the boundaries of my spiritual life, they tend to be dictated by this aspect of Odin’s nature. I had a moment today where I realized what that truly means and how deeply and significantly it can impact one’s life.
There are things I want or want to force into a specific shape so badly that I would rip my own entrails out in order to be able to do so. There are things for which I ache, actions I wish to take driven by raw emotion, desires, life paths I want desperately to follow, even the indulgence of certain emotions and I cannot – no matter how much it feels like not reaching for these things will tear me apart – I cannot because of obligations I have to the Gods, because of my reason for being, because of whom They have made me, and whom I’ve agreed to be with Them. I cannot do and be in some ways that I want (healthy or no, good or no) because to do so would be to abandon everything I have promised my Gods; and sometimes I hate it (such a mild word – hate—for the cyclone of emotions embedded in all of this) and I rage and it takes me to a point of almost suicidal despair. If I have also neglected my devotions, if I am unable to slide my heart and mind and spirit into a place of receptivity, humility, and deep love for the Gods, if I am unable to sense or touch Their reassuring Presence than it is very easy to go to that darkest of places, to feel oneself being drawn to within a hair’s breadth of that precipice. But if I am able to reach out, and if I’m given the grace of the touch, barest touch of Their presence, of Odin’s presence, everything changes and I am restored.
It happened ever so briefly today and I realized that in carrying my own pain and rage and disappointments, I carry His. Perhaps this is a small bit of what He goes through, over and over, this most passionate of Gods Who must sublimate everything – even His own desires– to His own higher purpose, His own question for power and knowledge and that which will enable the Gods to maintain cosmic order. Perhaps this is what it means to be devoted to a God, to belong to a God. If I can re-position my own struggles thusly, it allows me to connect so intimately and so directly with Him. It changes everything. Then these things are a glory to bear, and they carry sweetness because they lead to Him. Then, bearing them lightly becomes part of my spiritual work and a joy.
I wish to Gods I could stay in this head space always. I can’t do that though and so I have to bring myself consciously back via prayer and meditation. Still, the mark of that initial grace remains and I am grateful. I wish gratitude to always be the motivating force in my relationships with Them. It resets the soul. It cleanses and restores. It brings a joy so deep that the soul laughs. It lightens and sustains. It restores focus and with Gangleri, it’s all about that ultimate focus. I praise Him, now and always.
I’ve been thinking about love a great deal the past few days. I’ll keep this brief and to the point, mostly as a reminder to myself. Love needs to be tended. It needs to be mindfully cherished and nurtured and if it isn’t, if we take it for granted, grow complaisant, grow comfortable, it can be damaged and then it is so very hard (not impossible but so painfully hard) to restore and rebuild. Love isn’t an emotion (or rather not just an emotion), it is conscious, decisive, willed action. It is choosing to invest attention and emotion, time and above all else, care into the relationship. It is hard, bloody hard work. I think maybe this holds true for human-human relationships too. It’s not that absence can’t be fruitful, but I think there must be a longing for the sweetness of return, not a closing off, a turning away. It’s so damned easy to grow complaisant too and to take this precious thing for granted, to forget that it is something very sacred given into our care to tend. This is the true meaning of paying cultus, of maintaining good cultus: to tend and nourish. It comes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultus and the word is used both for tending the Gods and Their rites, and for tending a field, preparing it for seed and harvest. It’s hard, hard work but oh the reward is great.
A professor at my university posted this piece on twitter (he’s orthodox and this is a thought-provoking piece of relevance to modern orthodoxy) and it raised for me a number of thoughts concerning our own traditions too. First, go read the original article because much of this post was prompted by it or is in response to it and it’s nice to be on the same page for any discussion.
I work in a tradition that encourages head covering (of both men and women) during religious rites. I want to emphasize that it is encouraged, not required. Working in a blended tradition as I do, I find that in cultus deorumpractices, we almost always cover, and within Heathenry, generally only for ancestor stuff but this may vary depending on the way in which one is devoted to one’s Gods. I’ve known Heathen women who covered once they married, and Heathen men who do so out of respect for particular Gods but within Heathenry it’s not a common thing. In cultus deorumit was tradition for both men and women to cover their heads during offerings and religious rites, and that is one that at least within my branch of the tradition, we maintain. There are also times in which one might cover for purification purposes in general.
This piece piqued my interest, however, because over the past ten years I’ve come across a growing number of polytheists across traditions who are choosing to cover their heads, not just during religious rituals but out of modesty and piety, all the time (and kudos to any woman who can do this with a migraine. I’ve always wondered what those who veil or cover do when they get a migraine because I sure as hell can’t stand anything on my head then!). I think we should be encouraging modesty in our people (which does not mean that one need to cover one’s head to be modest) as a general rule, whatever that might mean.
One of the things that I very much appreciated in the article, which I otherwise found rather vexing, is the comment that modesty wasn’t about how long one’s skirts are or whether or not one covers one’s head, it’s a “line in the heart.” Some time ago, I read a Christian article on modesty by a mother of a young child. She said that her child had put on a new dress and was standing in front of the mirror commenting that she could not wait until her friends saw her and how nice she looked and the mother despaired. She despaired because she realized that no matter how modest the dress might be, the child wasn’t: her heart wasn’t modest. She wanted to show off for others and receive attention that way. It was one of the more nuanced discussions of modesty that followed, one that wasn’t about clothing, that I’ve read in a long time). Our ancestors had a deep sense of morality and propriety. Unlike so much of modern Paganism, it wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ culture where every manner of sexual impropriety was encouraged. Multiple partners, promiscuity, immorality, molestation – all of which seems way too rampant in modern Paganism (Kenny Klein anyone? Or better yet, find me outspoken monogamists within the community—please. We need more of them.) were not held up as licit in the ancient world. Of course, all of these things may have occurred (we are a terrible species), but they did not represent the accepted norm. Instead, decorum, gravitas, piety, and modesty (for both men and women) were encouraged. What the hell happened to us? We have a culture in which women are proud to be called “sluts” and marriage is considered outmoded, young people are ‘hooking up’, a culture in which devotion is ridiculed, but reality TV a cultural pastime and we call this progress. I’m not going to rant too much on this – I think y’all know my feelings on these matters and I want to get to the article in question – but suffice it to say that I think in restoring our traditions we have a seriously uphill battle and not just because of monotheism, but because of the utter lack of focus on character building in our culture. We’re starting so far behind the starting line that I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were appalled.
To get back to the article, it discusses head-covering in Orthodoxy, past and present, between converts and cradle practitioners and the politics thereof. My initial reading of the piece is that the author elides what should be a nuanced and complex topic into something more black and white. She accuses converts who choose to express their piety by actually obeying the customs of their religion, as dismissing the experiences of grandmothers and older generations of women within the faith. In doing so, I think she dismisses the religious experience and devotion of the converts to which she is referring. Covering one’s head is not just a political act. It’s not about feminism or assimilation. First and foremost, in the context in which she’s talking it is about an expression of piety and submission to one’s Church/church doctrine. By presenting it in one light alone, she’s not only attacking converts, but eliding the deep complexity of this practice, turning it into a social or political action rather than a licit expression of devotion. She is asking (or rather demanding) that converts place political considerations and submission to the experience of other women, above the dictates of their conscience and faith. I find that…misguided to say the least. And, as one commenter on twitter noted, she’s turning this practice into a fashion statement (if others around you wear the scarf, wear it, but if they don’t, then you don’t either or you’re self-aggrandizing – my paraphrase) rather than an expression of religious piety. Her own experience of wearing a headscarf (in Egypt) was one of convenience that she quickly abandoned when Egyptian women pointed out the struggles they and their mothers had endured in fighting against growing fundamentalism is not, in my mind, analogous to covering in Orthodoxy. She was covering in Egypt to avoid harassment, not as a religious mandate for herself.
To abandon a religious practice like covering one’s head in church because it is not popular, because it marks you out as religious, because it is not feminist-approved, or for any other reason, is ceding sacred space to modernity. It is saying that devotion and our Gods are not important enough that one is willing to be a bit uncomfortable. Devotion is always an embodied practice: through song, dance, ritual gestures, clothing choices, bowing our heads in prayer, prostration, and so forth. The act of putting on a head covering for some women can be a significant indicator that they’re shifting into sacred space and I wonder if some of the objection to that isn’t some of the author’s discomfort with drawing boundaries and elevating personal piety as a priority.
It always comes back to what takes precedence: the Gods or our own human bullshit. The author of this piece cannot even seem to conceive of a motive in the converts to which she is referring beyond wanting to draw attention to themselves and she focuses on them as a way to delegitimize the practice, a practice she herself apparently finds personally offensive. I do think that when we do those things that mark us out as pious we have to be careful that they are actually done for the Gods and out of devotion and not to draw attention to ourselves. She has a point there. One shouldn’t cover because it’s popular, not cover because it’s unpopular, but one should do what brings one closer to the Gods and what is mandated by one’s tradition. Next, she’ll be suggesting we engage in sacred dance by twerking in the aisles before the monstrance.
As to women who cover all the time, quite often it’s a desire to maintain some sense not just of appropriate modesty, but of connection to the sacred. It reminds them to privilege that, it brings their bodies into a space of accommodation with their devotion. Yes, we must charge ourselves to avoid immodesty, to avoid spectacle, to avoid showing off, (I’m all in favor of these things in devotion, when it’s for the Gods, but not ever when they are for the glorification of the person). but that doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have served since antiquity. Finally, if women are to have self-determination of practice and being-ness, which they should!—then we have to accept that sometimes they’re going to make choices with which other women may not agree. It’s never as easy as this author wants to make it.
“Synir Bors drápu Ymi jötun, en er hann féll, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans, at með því drekkðu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa…” (Gylfaginning, 7) (1)
Yesterday in the Hudson valley we had such a great storm that it seemed as though the end of the world were here. Trees came crashing down, property was destroyed, live electrical wires lay crackling in the streets. There are tremendous power outages and coming home, it took me five hours to go less than eight miles. One news report said it was a tornado, but I’m not sure I believe that (I think the damage would be worse). That leaves us today being the only house in the neighborhood with power (thanks to my mother and her foresight in gifting me with a generator as a housewarming present) and since it really isn’t all that safe to go out and about, it also gives me plenty of time to catch up on some of my writing. Thanks to something my husband was watching when I came downstairs this morning, I was inspired, with almost a creative frenzy, to write about our creation story. I’ve written about this before, so now I’m just going to dive in.
Oðinn with his two brothers Vili and Vé slew the first being, the proto-giant Ymir and from his corpse fashioned not only the world of man, Midgard, but the scaffolding of the cosmos. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by violence. It’s a compelling moment in our mythology. These three Gods (Oðinn, Vili (Hoenir), and Vé (Loður/Loki) (2) slaughtered, violently hacking to bits, their eldest ancestor. The narrative in the Gylfaginning tells us this in only one or two lines and then moves on to the structure of the cosmos, why we have seasons, the movements of the Sun and Moon, and other cosmological structures. I think, however, that this one moment defines our cosmology and repeats itself again and again throughout the corpus of our cosmological stories. It is the defining moment, the defining act within our cosmology, itself re-enacting the dynamic of Muspelheim and Niflheim coming together in the moment of creation. It’s a synergy that is repeated again and again and again throughout our mythology, one in which we too participate as we work to restore our traditions. Likewise, given that the entire scaffolding of our world and in fact all the worlds was created from Ymir, their very being-ness partakes of the primordial potentiality.
A bit of comparison might be useful here. In Genesis, Yahweh moves over the waters, creates and sees that it is ‘good.’ Our Gods, however, look out across the primordial landscape of meta-creation and see potentiality and then They bring that potentiality into concrete being by violently smashing the old paradigm. (3) It is Ragnarok in microcosm: destruction of old structures in order to bring about renewal and restoration, to restart, reorient, re-create. (4) In Genesis, creation stops once Yahweh pronounces everything to be ‘good.’ In our creation story, it is forever ongoing and we are constantly participating in it.
At that moment when the three Brothers destroy Ymir, we have a moment of chaotic potential (a world filled with Ymir and hrímþursar and not much else) reshaped, brought into order by means of tri-partite divine will, that will made manifest through violent action. Oðinn with His brothers becomes an ‘agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential’ and by this act of conscious will, They elevate Themselves, separate Themselves from the other þursar and become Aesir.(5) They become divinity, lifting Themselves out of the primordial chaos of undifferentiated being. They make Themselves something more through the conscious enacting of their will yoked to mindful forethought, yoked to an awareness of the inherent potential in chaos (and a ruthlessness to bring it into being).(6) This means, by extension, that chaos is important. Order cannot exist save in relationship with something. It must, by its very nature, be defined by its purpose: transforming chaos into something else. Quite often in contemporary Heathenry, we find chaos being viewed as something inherently negative, and moreover, ranked in opposition to divine order. In reality, divine order is formed from chaos and cannot exist without it. That chaos is a necessary building block for all the work that the Gods then do. It is Their primary tool that allows itself to be transformed into anything that can be imagined and willed. It is the chaos that gives order meaning.(7)
Likewise, we see frenzy, will, and holiness (the etymological meanings of Oðinn, Vili, and Vé respectively) working together. The capacity to transform chaos into meaning is a sacred act, but will or frenzy unyoked to holiness (which for humans includes devotion, humility before the Gods, piety) is dangerous and damaging. The three must work together for something ‘Good’ to result. It’s a type of divine homeostasis and where that balance is lacking, ultimately destructive chaos ensues.(8)
Oðinn is the driving force behind this creation through destruction. Immediately before the slaughter of Ymir is discussed, the Gylfaginning notes that “ok þat er mín trúa, at sá Óðinn ok hans bræðr munu vera stýrandi himins ok jarðar.”(9) [And this is my belief, that he Oðinn and his brothers must be ruler/controller of heaven and earth]. Oðinn mentioned first and specifically is given sovereignty over everything that is created. His will to order holds the parsed bits of chaos together in a complex, functioning whole. This is why He cannot afford entropy and is constantly, throughout the mythic cycle, pursuing greater knowledge, greater power, greater ability to transform and transmute reality.
Our creation story contains within itself the underlying telos of our entire mythology. It is a complex and coherent system, re-enacted again and again by our Gods and heroes. I’ll be revisiting this again over the next few months, because not only does this provide insight into our creation story, but also into Oðinn’s nature as well. We can learn a lot about our Gods, Their natures, and the cohesive nature of our cosmology through ongoing examination of these stories.
1. “The sons of Bor slew Ymir the jotun; and where he fell there spurted forth so much blood from out of his wounds, that by means of it they drowned all the tribe of the Rim-thurs…”(translations mine unless otherwise noted).
2. While the identification of Loki as Loður is not universally accepted, there is skaldic evidence for this attribution both in Völuspá 18 and Þrymlur I-III 21. See this site and his article on “Loki’s Roads” for more information.
3. I’m quoting a phrase from Jordan Peterson’s interview (my husband was watching this interview when I came downstairs this morning and agree or disagree with him, Peterson is brilliant and I rather admire the way he can think through an idea or argument, even when I seriously disagree with some of his conclusions).
4. Perhaps this is one of the real cosmological meanings behind Ragnarok before Christians got their hands on it. This conception of Ragnarok also allows for the Gods to recreate and restore Themselves.
5. Again, I am taking a phrase from Peterson here, for my own purposes. His video actually annoyed me a bit. In it, Peterson talks about working toward the Good, and ascribes this to Christianity when in reality what he was saying was very basic Platonism. Let’s give credit where credit is due. This idea of the Gods as Good and reaching/returning to the Good was not something invented by Christians. Polytheistic philosophers developed it long before Jesus was a blip on the historical map.
6. Of course, the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jötnar 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 Jötnar. 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 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 is enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumézil certainly thought so, then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable, all Aesir having begun as Jötnar perhaps? We likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, whose cosmological focus is different. Perhaps it is such cosmological foci, however enduring or transitory, that ultimately determine membership in these divine clans.(quoted from my forthcoming paper “The Demonization of Loki in Modern Norse Paganism” which will be appearing in the Summer 2018 issue of Walking the Worlds).
7. This of course makes the Jötnar in general and Loki (whom scholar Dumézil, in his work Loki, describes as the ‘unquiet thought,’) in particular absolutely essential to the proper functioning of divine order. And if we accept, as the skalds did, that Loki and Loður are the same being, then it is Loki who forms the bridge between these two states of being: undifferentiated potentiality/chaos and divinely crafted order. Perhaps this is why it is Loður who gives good hue…which implies a healthy circulatory system, the pumping of the heart, the flow of blood, warmth, and what the Greeks would call βίος. It is from the God who is able to move between both states that we are invested with potentiality (i.e. chaos), carefully contained in ordered flesh. Unordered bodily chaos for us, brings death. Like Ymir, we bleed out, but contained within the order the Gods have decreed, it brings health and ongoing life and the potential to affect our world and to remake it at times according to our will.
8. Just as excluding Loki may lead to entropy and rigidity.
9. Gylfaginning, 6.
“Our way of life, our holy places, our festivals and religious practices, our ancestors and Gods – these are everything.”
On twitter, I’m having a rather interesting discussion about this article. It details how the archeologist currently in charge of Çatalhöyük is going out of his way to push an anti-theist agenda, using linguistic gymnastics to avoid acknowledging the site as one that was once polytheistic, and specifically denying that any Goddesses were venerated there. As Dr. Edward Butler noted in this twitter conversation,
“General avoidance of the term Gods is common in Western writers. …Interpreting religion as religion, and Gods as Gods, gets in the way of interpreting religion instead as a proxy for social and economic organization, an imperative since Durkheim and Weber. Hence, for instance, part of the reason why Hodder (the archaeologist in charge fo the site. –gk) wants to suppress the idea of any kind of theistic devotion having been practiced at Çatalhöyük is because of that site’s egalitarian social organization, whereas he wants to associate religion with the emergence of “domination”.”
I cannot tell you how many classes I’ve endured where the professors – who should have known better – pushed the idea that the ancients believed all Gods were the same, or that they didn’t understand their own religion. They jumped through hoops – in complete opposition to the surviving evidence, I might add — to deny the polytheism of our ancestors, to paint is as primitive, a minority position, to insist that anyone intelligent or educated was monist, monotheist, or atheist (this is especially so in the wake of Christian scholasticism when it comes to ancient philosophers, most of whom were in fact deeply pious men and women).
This is important. This should be noted and called out. It is, in some cases blatant, an attempt to rewrite history, to strip polytheism and by extension the Gods from the historical narrative. If we are left with the falsehood that our ancestors had no piety and no religion than there is nothing to restore. If we buy into that falsehood, then the coming of Christianity and other monotheisms can indeed be painted as “progress,” instead of the religious and culture destruction that it actually was. It reduces the complex body of religious practices that our ancestors held dear to superstition and misguided error. It obliterates the reality of our Gods in favor of either monotheism or secular anti-theism (and sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference).
This is why I think it’s so important for us to not elide the term ‘Gods’ in our own discourse with non-polytheists. I think too many of us do that to make them comfortable, to find common ground, but we really, really shouldn’t. Even I’ve been guilty of this more times than I can count, especially in academic discourse. We’re trained to find common ground for discourse, and all of us know how charged a term ‘polytheist’ or even ‘pagan’ can be. It’s sometimes very difficult to resist the unconscious push to use words like “the divine” or “deity” or (worst of the lot) “spirit”(1). I think it’s very, very important that we not do this, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. To elide the plurality of our Gods is to allow our listeners to assume (which they will because it is their place of comfort) singularity, unity, that no matter how many Divine Names we use, how many Gods we call, we really are referring to one being. It further erases the polytheistic voice from whatever narrative in which we’re engaged. It removes our Gods’ presence, denies it, all to placate monotheists or anti-theists, and largely because we are not strong enough to endure their discomfort.
To actively be a polytheist in the world is to be a living, breathing challenge to the comfortable paradigms by which others define their lives. We challenge the narrative that we’ve all been raised with, one that privileges monotheism or better yet atheism while positioning polytheisms as primitive superstition. When we verbally elide Their presence, we are contributing to that, even if we don’t realize it, even if that is not our intention. It is a small thing we can do to further our traditions, to give our Gods a place in this world: refuse to conform to the expected. When we yield to the pressure to conform to monotheism, anti-theism, secularism, we are allowing those traditions a position of superiority to our own. We are confirming in the minds of those with whom we debate, reinforcing their own inherent and often unacknowledged assumptions of that presumed superiority.
This may seem like a small thing and maybe in the end it is, but it does us no good at all when we lack the confidence and courage to use our words wisely in ways that acknowledge our Gods and give Them and our traditions a place in discourse, discourse with those whose traditions once attempted the eradication of ours, discourse with those who have in their hearts – for all they may claim otherwise – contempt for all that we represent. By refusing to elide the polytheism from our language, especially in interfaith settings (2), we force our interlocutors to acknowledge that polytheism exists and that there are those who have fervent devotion to the Gods with everything that entails. This challenges, quite directly, their hegemonic biases (and is one the main reasons that interfaith settings, with their default monotheistic-light positions, are so unwelcoming to actual polytheists who will not play their game).
To again quote Dr. Butler,
“I think it’s significant in this that even where there isn’t monotheism, there is the notion of a mono-causality, that social facts can only have one true cause, whether that’s economic, or has to do with dispositions of power, or whatever else somebody is pushing. This is a subtler intellectual legacy of monotheism, the refusal to recognize that the same social fact can be analyzed according to multiple causes at once, and hence that religious phenomena can have specifically religious causality. Instead we have reductionism, and what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion, where whatever our privileged explanation is, is seen as unmasking and undermining the other modes of explanation as “mere ideology”.”
- Of all the insipid language used in interfaith dialogue, I particularly detest the use of “Spirit.” I recall when I was teaching at a local interfaith seminary, and refused to allow my students the use of this term (I don’t care which Deity or Deities the students honored, but if they couldn’t be specific about who was on the other end of the metaphorical phone when they got the call to ministry, they had no business in a seminary.), the uproar it caused. “Spirit” is a tremendously polyvalent term. Many, many things qualify as “spirits” and not al of them good. If you cannot be specific, go home. There’s a wonderful quote, that ironically comes from Revelation (3.16 if I recall correctly): be hot or cold but don’t be lukewarm water in the mouth of God.
- Keep in mind that as much as we may bend over backwards to accommodate monotheism, they would not do the same for us in any way, shape, or form. We are, in interfaith settings, expected to conform in ways large and small and our voices are given very little weight (one of the reasons I am seriously on the fence about whether or not engaging in interfaith dialogue is useful – after all if mutual respect and good faith isn’t there, what’s the point?). We too often grovel out of sheer gratitude to have been included and it needs to stop. Our traditions existed for thousands of years before monotheism was even a blip on the religious radar. We created civilizations and gave the world philosophy, art, culture on a grand scale. The last thing we should do is feel grateful to have a voice in these settings. The next thing we’ll be expected to do is thank them for their traditions having engaged in religious genocide of ours. Where we go, our Gods and ancestors go as well. We represent and it’s incumbent on us to do that courageously and well.
Not too long ago, a reader contacted me with the following:
I have a friend who honors Odin and was part of a group where it came up about the story of the rape of Rindr. This friend of mine merely mentioned that the story existed and that gods aren’t all about sweetness and light and to love Them is to understand that.
This friend was then shamed in every way. She was called brosatru; she was called pro rape and pro rape culture – and her intelligence and knowledge were insulted in the process. She was told even mentioning this was unacceptable and that clearly, she has no real connection to Odin whatsoever. As you can probably imagine, she was disgusted, deeply hurt and ended up leaving the group and understandably, is quite shaken by the whole affair.
I was just hoping on your insight with how to best respond to such people in a way that might actually get them to stop and think, or is it better to just stay as far away as possible?
Well, I think getting our communities to actually think is a greater task than even the Gods can manage. As Schiller said, “Gegen Dummheit Kämpfen die Götter selbst vorgebens.”(1) Moreover, our communities will look for any excuse to drag our Gods down to the worst human level.
That being said, I think that on a human level, the issue of rape is so brutal and horrifying that it’s difficult to sit with such an act being ascribed to our Gods. It’s difficult to get into the headspace where we can look further. It’s crucial, however, that we DO look beyond our immediate sense of betrayal and disgust.
There are several issues at hand here, the first being how exactly are we meant to interpret the stories of our Gods that have come down to us? Are we meant to take them literally, allegorically, philosophically, or some other way? Should we consider cultural factors, language, and the shifting meaning of words? (2) Do we assume our Gods are unchanging, as static as characters in a story, or do we – as the ancient philosophers did – look for hidden meanings in these tales? Do we see the tales as mystery plays in which our Gods perform specific parts to impart something of Their Mystery, or some other way of equal significance?
I look at the story of Rindr and Odin as showing us something quite innate and important to Odin’s character: He is ruthless and will do anything necessary to achieve His goals. In this case, the goal involved turning the tide of Ragnarok. Odin is as brutal and demanding of Himself most of all and it is exactly that level of brutality depicted in the story of Rindr to which He exposes Himself to as well.
Secondly, your friend is correct: our Gods are not always sweetness and light. They will not always adhere to our sense of situational ethics. They are quite often not ‘nice’ and if we are devout, we deal with that. I am often asked if I “trust” Odin and my answer is this: I trust Odin to be Odin. To expect anything less or more of a Deity is to elevate our human frailty above the Gods. The stories that we have, however imperfect their transmission may be (and with the Eddas it is quite problematic), exist in part to give us insight into the nature of our Gods. What can we learn from Them about the stories in which They take part? Now some may say “well, we learn that Odin is a bastard.” Yep. And why is that? What is His function, His timai, His sphere of influence within our cosmology? Why is He willing to be so incredibly brutal? What is at stake. That’s the real question: what is at stake if He wavers? We know from the stories we have, that the stakes are incredibly high: the order of the cosmos and all creation that the Gods have wrought, its sustainability and ongoing existence. For that, yes, He will violate any boundary and count it an easy price to pay. Those who don’t understand that, don’t understand Him.
I would take that a bit further: Divine politics are not for us. I also think it is a spiritual fallacy to project modern ideals and values onto these stories, which reflect the time in which they were written or received. Odin generally surrounds Himself with powerful women: Frigga, Freya, He consults the Seeress in the Voluspa, He speaks highly of the wisdom and knowledge of Gunnlod, those who work His will are the Valkyries, and in our modern world, He certainly has a penchant for claiming women as His own in one form or another. I would go so far as to say Odin likes women quite specifically and respects them. (3) He even put Himself in a female role more than once to learn seidhr. I don’t think that gender, sexuality or anything else is particularly important to Him if by ignoring it He can gain power and knowledge. This story however, has greater cosmological (and even eschatological) significance.
When I see the story of Odin and Rindr, I see two Holy Powers re-enacting the moment of cosmic creation. Contained within Them and Their antagonism is an echo of the tension of Muspelheim and Niflheim, a reordering of the worlds, and through Their very antagonism, They tap into and re-center Themselves in that moment when Being and Matter were created. The violence inherent in that story is a necessary part of that engagement. By this continual re-enactment of that moment, the fabric of Being is reset, at least a little, and our Gods given greater purchase. The antagonism that we see in the story of Odin and Rindr echoes throughout our cosmological structures. From the moment Muspelheim and Niflheim grind together in production of Being, the Northern world is structured around opposing forces and the productivity that comes from Their engagement.(4) In this, Rindr becomes an equal player, and in fact a powerful contributor to the restoration of the worlds. She can only hold that position, vis a vis the cosmological model above, by embracing continued resistance to Him.
It is right and proper to condemn rape in all its forms in our world. When we are talking about our Gods, however, I likewise think it’s important to understand that there’s more going on than the obvious.
In the end, I would urge your friend to cultivate her relationships with her Gods, and seek out those who are likewise devotionally minded. I have never found the overarching Heathen community to be much use in developing devotion or nourishing spirituality. In fact, I find they tend to do exactly the opposite. Like all things miasmic and polluted, they’re best engaged with in small doses. Bathe afterwards.
- “Against stupidity even the Gods struggle in vain.”
- In the story of the ‘rape’ of Persephone by Hades, for instance, (which inevitably comes up in discussions of Gods and rape) was not technically rape. Hades behaved quite properly according to Greek custom. He went to Zeus, received Persephone’s Father’s permission to marry and then went to collect His bride. There was no rape either linguistically or culturally (Zeus maybe should have informed Demeter that He’d arranged a marriage for Their daughter but that’s a whole other can of worms). The word in Latin usually translated as ‘rape’ is ‘raptus,’ which likewise doesn’t mean sexual violation. It means to seize or carry off, strive for, hasten, but also to be carried away with passion. Later Christian mystics used it at times to describe the direct experience of their God. So, one could interpret the story of Hades and Persephone as Hades contracting a proper and lawful marriage with Her and then hastening to take Her to His home. She becomes Queen of the Underworld and later stories show Her as a powerful and occasionally implacable figure. To assume victimization here is to elide both Her agency and power.
- While He does caution in the Havamal that women are inconstant, His very next stanza talks about the equal failures of men. As an aside, in Skaldskaparmal, Freyr’s retainer Skirnir lays some pretty heavy and vile curses on Gerda to compel Her to marry Freyr and I rarely see Heathens getting upset about that. Skirnir was acting on Freyr’s behalf therefore anything He did in that capacity can and should be laid at the feet of the Golden God. (For a very thought-provoking piece on just this story, I recommend Margaret Clunies Ross “Prolonged Echoes.” Odense University Press, 1994).
- One could look at Váli then, as re-enacting the moment Odin and His brothers slaughtered Their primal ancestor Ymir. He is stepping into Their role, birthed as was Ymir of opposing forces, it is a child of opposing forces that will journey forth to reset the worlds once again during Ragnarok. As such, His parentage had to encompass that antagonism. He had to carry within Himself the twin and violent forces of the original creation to rework and restore that original cosmic balance again.
When I started my MA in Religious Studies years ago, I remember sitting in the very first class (Theory and Methods) and being faced with this question. We were asked to define religion in a way that encompassed all of them and the final consensus was that such a task is functionally impossible. (1). While that class did not really parse out the essential, ontological differences between polytheistic religions and monotheistic religions, I often find myself pondering just this question. It leads of course to – and in fact is predicated on—the question ‘what is the purpose of this thing we call religion?’ It’s here that I think the greatest and most fundamental differences between polytheism and monotheism lie.
Monotheism provides a sacred text, believed to be revealed, that provides rules and precepts whereby a believer can ensure salvation of his or her soul. The ultimate goal, as I understand it (being an outsider to that worldview) is salvation of individual souls and restoration of those souls to the presence of God. The purpose of those monotheistic religions is, at least in part, to provide a pious scaffolding whereby believers can be led down the proper paths to reach that goal. It’s rather like an equation: do x+y and you will be assured of eternal life. This is, of course, something of a generalization, but at their core, especially within Christianity, this is what you have.(2)
I’m not here to argue that. It is what it is, however; the ontological purpose of polytheisms is different. It may be that this is a significant difference between what we might call “religions of the book,” i.e. religions that have a revealed (and closed) scriptural canon, and those that are not religions of the book (animist, often polytheistic traditions). Nor am I ruling out exceptions – exceptions to any standard always exist.(3) As a general rule, however, our polytheistic traditions are not focused on salvation. Individual mystery cultus may be, but in general writ large, we do not draw a moral compass from our traditions (4).
Within polytheisms, the purpose of ‘religion’ is to learn how to be in right relationship with our Gods. It is about tending to the Gods in the way They wish, and by doing so, ensuring the overall health of our households and communities. The rites and rituals whereby we do this exist within our traditions and if we maintain right relationship, our world will be better, it will benefit from what the Romans called pax deorum. (5) Over a thousand years ago, Roman author Aulus Gellius wrote: Dii immortales virtutem adprobare, non adhibere debent.(6) We are not, therefore passive recipients of salvation. We have powerful agency in developing and determining the nature of our devotional relationships. It’s up to us to choose rightly and while we may (and probably should) ask our Gods for help, ultimately, we must consciously choose devotion over and over again. There is a potentially productive tension here that I think Christian theologians miss when they write about free will, predetermination, and grace (I’m looking at you, Augustine). Yes, we have wyrd or fate, a scaffolding partly created by our choices, partly inherited from our ancestors, and partly determined the moment we’re born by a number of other factors and we are defined by how we meet it, bear it, and in some cases, rise above it. We are honed by the fate we carry. Yet the Gods are there waiting for us to reach out. They absolutely offer grace and blessing but we ourselves must reach for it too. We are charged with not being passive recipients of Their gifts. Our traditions are less about salvation and more about fruitful working relationships that bleed out into our world at large. If we are doing that, everything we can to maintain that right relationship, as our Gods wish, as our traditions teach, then worry about salvation is pointless (I suspect it probably is anyway – salvation from what? Rebirth? Union with our ancestors? Joyous entry into the hall of our Gods? From what exactly would we seek to be saved? Are we seeking salvation from the flow and twisting turns of our wyrd? Was that perhaps a draw of religions like Christianity? Is it really more comforting to think oneself potentially “elect” than to deal like an adult with one’s wyrd?).
As I write this, I can’t help thinking of a quote from Plato:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. “…but for the wicked, the very opposite. For the wicked man is unclean of soul, whereas the good man is clean; and from him that is defiled no good man, nor god, can ever rightly receive gifts,” (Plato, Laws IV, 716e).
In parsing some of this out with Dr. Edward Butler this morning, he noted,
“There is the community of humans and the Gods, which needs not to be fouled by the selfish and perverted intentions of the bad man, on the one hand, and there is the purely human community, which needs to develop its standards and morality on a relatively autonomous basis, on the other, precisely so that humans can be made fit to participate in the community that includes the Gods. This is why morality is not simply given by commandment and why there is independent philosophical reflection upon ethics, morality, and political/economic organizations, as well as psychology. The always relative independence of these fields of thought from theology does not make them atheistic, though, and this is the difference with how these disciplines organized themselves in modernity, where they were left no choice by hegemonic monotheism.”
And with that, I’m going to return to my original point: our religions are not about us. They’re designed and transmitted to us that we may know how to engage with the Holy Powers rightly, productively, and well. This in turn does benefit us greatly, but that is not, I think, the point. If such proper engagement is anathema to a person, then that person should not seek entrance into our communities and traditions. It is important to keep our traditions clean and properly ordered and with everyone focused and desirous of that end, that goal is in itself difficult. Modernity has not been a good teacher of things sacred. There is a huge learning curve when we wade eager but untaught into devotional waters. That is where our surviving texts come in handy. We can reach across the centuries, and across the devastation of our traditions to those whose entire worldview was influenced by and inculcated with polytheism and we can learn.
1. It also highlighted how hard it is to really move away from your own religious tradition – those who grew up in monotheistic traditions for instance, had a horrible time conceiving of traditions that do not center around some type of revealed tradition as ‘religion’. This makes perfect sense: our traditions pattern how we see the world, the Gods, and what religion means to us.
2. The Hebrew bible is a narrative of liberation from slavery, tribal history, and laws by which to maintain their covenant with their God. The New Testament is the story of Jesus, letters detailing the spread of early Christianity, and precepts for right living. The Qu’ran praises God and likewise offers precepts for living according to that God’s will. In each case, rules and regulations for “right” living according to that tradition are encoded in their scriptures. There are exceptions within polytheism. As my colleague Edward Butler pointed out (with my gratitude – I’d been afraid I was doing a disservice to Kemeticism and Hinduism, for instance),
“In Egypt, for instance, I think that we see the divinity of texts and a focus on soteriology outside of a delimited “mystery cult” setting, and the same is true of India. The Vedas are every bit as divine in themselves as the Torah or Qur’an. I think that the difference lies rather in how such texts are used, and in particular the ongoing productivity of divine textuality in polytheisms. Think of the magnet analogy Plato uses in the Ion. The ongoing presence of the Gods in polytheist communities means that new texts are continually generated, but without erasing or writing over the previous ones.
With textuality, part of the difference is also between cultures that are more oral, like Greece, and those which are focused more intensely at an earlier period on the written word, like Egypt and India. One can see Plato in the Phaedrus wrestling with how to incorporate writing more into Hellenic culture and theology. A written text in one way is less flexible than an oral tradition, but it also permits for a different kind of engagement where commentary and interpretation have a status of their own, rather than being invisibly and anonymously absorbed into the tradition, which is what you tend to get in more oral cultures.”
I think he’s absolutely correct. Within polytheisms, new revelation can constantly occur. It’s not a closed system because the Gods are still engaging quite actively with us, and we with Them and that has an ongoing transformative power, not just for our traditions but for the world. We have the potential to constantly reaffirm and restore Their creation and order.
3. Nor am I saying that there are no writings relevant for polytheisms. We do not, however, have something accorded the same weight as monotheistic Scripture, as a matter of course…as much as some Heathens try to take medieval poetic and literary output, which we call ‘lore’ and frame it as such. Scripture is something considered holy in and of itself. The beautiful and insightful writings that we have may contain windows to the holy, stories about the holy but are not in and of themselves inherently holy and that’s an important difference. They lack, and rightly so, the normative authority of ‘scripture.’
4. This is not to say that polytheisms lack moral referents. That is in part, what philosophy is for – to teach us how to live virtuous lives pleasing to our Gods. That is why we are encouraged as a matter of piety in some cases, to become involved in our communities – because this is what an adult does, it – preserving our world for the future- is a logical extension of honoring our ancestors. I think in many ways, many polytheisms lacking the religious dichotomy that polarizes so much of monotheistic thought have an easier time infusing the world with a sense of the sacred. It is good (and according to some polytheistic thought, Divine in and of itself) in and of itself, not something to be endured until we die. It’s been said before that morality in polytheisms came from the respective cultures in which those polytheisms thrived and that is true, but it’s quite a different thing to draw morality from a culture inculcated on every level with polytheistic awareness and to do the same with a monotheistic culture or one dominated by modern secularism.
5. These things should themselves come via inspiration of the Gods and ancestors – we have diviners and priests, spirit workers, shamans, and oracles to help with this, as well as what we know from literary sources about practices in ages past – there are many ways in which our traditions navigate this. This is part of a healthy tradition. Cicero, drawing on somewhat dubious etymology posted that the word ‘religio’ came from ‘religere’ in other words ‘to be bound to the ways of one’s ancestors.’ That pretty much defined the Roman view of religion and I think there is much good sense in that. If our traditions are there to help us maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers, and if we accept that the structure of those traditions came in large part from the Holy Powers, then we must in good sense and good faith hesitate to change those structures for our own convenience. We must consider carefully how our tradition teaches us to adapt to modernity, rather than throw our pious practices away because they do not immediately accord with modernity.
6. The immortal Gods ought to support, not supply, virtue. – Metellus, quoted in “Noctes Atticae” 1.6.8 by Aulus Gellius.
Whenever we think about spiritual attack, I think it’s pretty common to assume that it’s something only the most devout endure, that it’s big, bombastic – demons attacking St. Anthony style madness, for instance (see picture below). Too often our minds default to assuming it’s out and out ranged battle, or that we’ll even recognize the attack, and see the enemy, and the lines of discord will be equally and clearly drawn. I wish it were that simple. I really do. I don’t think that’s the norm at all though.
I think- and this holds true for specialists and laity– that when we start committing ourselves to our spiritual work, that when we become increasingly more devout, that as we learn and grow in piety and respect there is often deep resistance, from both within and without. The internal resistance can simply be a matter of our unlearning bad habits and reconditioning ourselves to the habits of devotion, but the external resistance, that’s something quite different. I consider it the Filter or Nameless at work. It’s often subtle – the whisper in the darkness of our minds that urges us toward despair, the niggling thought that snickers impieties in our head, or maybe the push to do…nothing at all. It’s the echoing void of doubt that beckons ever so logically to us, that mocks our efforts in the unguarded corners of our hearts.
The Christian monastic Fathers understood this all too well. I suppose monastic solitude is a terrible and strict teacher. The benefit of their work is that they discussed this seriously and developed various means of countering its effect. Evagrius of Pontus, (345-399 C.E.) for instance wrote about the ‘noon-day demon,’ the personification of acedia. Psalm 91.6 calls it the ‘pestilence that stalks the darkness’ though of course, modern translations tend to elide the personhood of such a thing, preferring, with all the comfort modernity offers, to think of it as a metaphor for a spiritual state, rather than a pernicious being that might cause such a state. I tend to think the Church Fathers had this one right though. And when we expect bombast, when we expect something out of a horror movie, we are left completely unprepared for the reality of what the spiritual life entails.
In the Prologue to Antirrheticus, Evagrius writes:
“I write of the reasoning nature that fights beneath heaven: first, what it battles against; second; what assists it in the battle; and finally, what the fighter keeping valiant watch must confront. Those who fight are human beings; those assisting them are the angels of God; and those opposing them are the evil demons.
Failure results not from the enemy’s formidable strength, nor because the protectors are careless: rather, it is because the fighter is unprepared that the knowledge of God vanishes and fails.”
This is as true for us as it was for these antique Christian monks. When we go toward our Gods there is resistance. To restore our traditions is to reorder our world in ways large and small and just as when we cast a stone across a pond, there are ripples and we cannot know the ultimate significance of the smallest acts of devotion which we now do. Personally, I tend to think that the more resistance one faces, the more surety one has that one is on the right track spiritually. That, however, does not make the imposition of acedia any less devastating. It’s not that our Gods and spirits don’t protect us, it’s that we often are moved into such a despairing state spiritually that we cannot sense or hear Them, or trust that They are there. We can become wrapped up in the darkness of our own despair lacking even the motivation to call out to Them for help. (I know that sometimes we must make that first call for aid. We must make that choice to range ourselves on the side of our Gods, to claim for ourselves the order and architecture of Being that They have created and sometimes that seems damned near impossible).
This is also why I struggle with the idea of being a woman of faith. How is it faith when you experience the Gods? What happens when the noonday demon, as the Christians called it, clouds that perception and there is a despair and loneliness deeper than any human being could ever inflict? That is where faith must come in and that is where we are dependent on the grace of our Gods, that we might summon the strength to trust They have our backs.
What is acedia? What is it that this noon-day demon does? It fills us with malaise, with exhaustion, and worse of all with an aversion to the holy, with an aversion toward devotional practices that in the end are the very things that will sustain us. (Later writers such as Bernard of Clairveaux wrote of a sterility of the spirit that renders every spiritual practice barren – that is a powerful description of acedia).
In his Praktikos –(and John Cassian later drew heavily upon this in his own work) Evagrius described the effects of this demon on monks trying to live the monastic life:
“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”
Evagrius offered techniques for combatting acedia, including reading and meditation upon specific Biblical passages. This is less useful for us, but the core of what he was advising is absolutely relevant: maintain your practices. This is also why purification is so incredibly important. Accumulated miasma makes it that much more difficult to maintain any sense of spiritual discernment or clarity and much more likely that we can be infected by this pestilence.
We have tools to fight this: prayer, purification, the rites and rituals of devotion, powerful invocations like the Oration of Aristides. We have, or should, the support of each other, all of us working together to do this thing called devotion. We have the cultivation of art and beauty and those things that ennoble the soul and draw them closer to the Gods. We have our sacred stories of those Gods to inspire us. Most of all, we have the Gods Themselves Who will absolutely guard and gird our spirits against this type of desolation if we are mindful enough and brave enough to turn toward Them when it comes calling.
Finally, I’m reminded of an anecdote I read once about Teresa of Avila, who when the noon-day demon came calling to torment her again, shrugged, laughed with the words ‘you again.’ And went back to work; because in the end, that which we do for our Gods is so much more important than anything that would pull us away.
“Saint Antony Tormented by Demons” by O. Dix
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.