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Experiencing the Gods – a Reader Question

A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).

I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!

One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.

I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.

I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!

As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Notes:

  1. Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
  2. One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:

“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,

swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;

he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,

and fashions her by pressure.”

At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.

Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.

I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.

Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.

I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).

So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.

Coping with Conversion

After reading my last practicum post, Chase from Nevada asked a really good question and I said I would touch on it here. Chase asked, “Quick question for you regarding the conversion from Christianity to Heathenry: what are some of the key things one is able to do to make that transition a bit smoother?”

This is a great question, but one that doesn’t have a single clear cut answer. Firstly, understand that it is a transition. Conversion is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not a matter of waking up one day deciding that today is the day and from now one you’re Heathen. Even if you are deeply devoted to your new Gods, even if you have committed to practicing your new religion and are doing your absolute best to learn what you need to learn and to root yourself in the practices that will serve you best from the get-go, problems –issues—may still arise. Truly changing everything from one religion to another can take years of careful, mindful work. There’s a deconstruction mentally that has to occur. Give it that time! It’s important to do this carefully and cleanly because it can be a messy and painful process sometimes. Now, this is an intense and weighty topic, too much to cover in one blog post, but I’m going to hit a couple of what I consider to be key points here. There is a good deal of literature on the psychology of conversion and it’s worth checking out. The one thing I would emphasize is this: be certain that you are running to the Gods, not away from the God of your birth religion. That can change everything.

Most importantly, understand –because this can really trip one up unexpectedly—the way we were all taught to see “God,” our expectations of “God,” and of “liturgy” were formed by our birth religion. Moreover, we learned how to be in relationship with our Gods, what it means to be in “right relationship” with the Holy from those self-same birth religions. That may or may not be congruent with what those things mean in Heathenry. This can lead to moments of intense discomfort, unexpected anger, and cognitive disconnect: our ingrained and unexamined expectations aren’t matching up with the reality of our new faith.

There can often be sadness or grief, not just at losing one’s religious community but at the loss of those things familiar and comforting. It’s ok to mourn your birth religion. It’s quite natural, actually and you may find yourself mourning different things at different times. That process isn’t necessarily one that will be completed all at once. You may feel incredible guilt at times, particularly if you converted from an evangelical branch of Christianity. Those fears are normal too. Just sit with it, talk about it with a supportive network of friends, journal, and most of all pray about it. Eventually, you will work your way through.

Also, sometimes there are things that we don’t want to leave behind. Prayer, for instance, doesn’t belong to any religion. Polytheists have always prayed so when people tell you that it’s Christian behavior, you can dismiss them as simply not knowing what they’re talking about. Maybe a particular prayer still resonates – that’s fine. Rework it so you can still use it. Maybe you have a devotional relationship with one of the Gods or Holy Powers of your birth religion. It’s ok to maintain that. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist. In fact, it makes you very surely polytheistic. It can, however be awkward and there are those in our community who may shame you for it and you may end up with conflicting religious requirements that need to be carefully navigated. In those cases, seek out a specialist. Polytheists have done this for millennia.

It’s a sad reality in contemporary polytheism in general and Heathenry in particular that spiritual direction is sadly lacking. This can lead not only to fumbling during dark nights of the soul – which are a perfectly normal part of any healthy spirituality – but also to incredible isolation and loneliness. You may have to struggle to find community but it is out there. The internet has really transformed this and made it much easier to connect with like-minded co-religionists. Don’t let anyone bully you. The most important thing you can do is to take the time to develop a clean devotional relationship with your Gods. That happens through prayer, meditation, offerings, shrine work. Even if you fumble (and you will. We all do.), have courage and do your best to begin some type of consistent practice. I always tell people to “start where you start” because people will struggle inevitably with different things but everyone can do something and then you build on that. New converts often get caught up in one of two things, both of which are terribly damaging to one’s spiritual life: perfectionism (what Christians termed ‘scrupulosity’) and fundamentalism. The first involves becoming obsessed or obsessively worried with getting every little thing perfectly correct and with never making a mistake. You won’t always get things perfectly correct, and you will make mistakes and you have to in order to learn anything. Almost everything else can be sorted out with a diviner or specialist if need be. Scrupulosity can destroy a person. It is right and proper to be concerned about miasma and to approach the Gods reverently but scrupulosity will cause your love and devotion to wither because all you will be worried about is whether or not you are making errata. If this starts to be an issue, change up your practices. Change your routine, your rhythms, even the way you pray. There is a spiritual discipline inherent in carefully training yourself to avoid scrupulosity but to cultivate piety, and it’s something that you can develop over time with practice. The Gods will not hate you when you make honest mistakes. You will not be a bad Heathen.

Many converts also become very fundamentalist in their new religion. They want one way of doing things and it is the only correct way ™ and if you don’t do it that way, you’re wrong/evil/deluded/insert term of choice here. This isn’t a Heathen specific thing, though Gods know we see enough of it within Heathenry (lore thumping anyone? We get a great deal of our converts from Protestant Christianities, especially the evangelical varieties, and this has had a tremendous influence on mainstream Heathen ritual structure and the obsession with lore and having something analogous to scripture.), but common with new converts to any religion. Don’t do this. Polytheism is ontologically different from monotheism. There are so many different ways to honor the Gods within various traditions. While each tradition will have its rules, when it comes to personal devotion, and what we call “hearth cultus,” or household worship, it is as manifold and varied as there are Gods and ancestors.

One thing that converts should be aware of is possible hostility and pressure from families. I have found that parents and relatives can take it very personally when a child converts. I can understand this. Were I a parent, I wouldn’t take it well should my child convert away from polytheism. It strikes at core values and there can be a deep concern for the well-being of the child. I have no answers on how to deal with this. Truthfully, each situation is different, but just be aware that it can become an issue. It helps to be mentally prepared.

Far more difficult are the tensions that can arise when one converts as a married adult, particularly if there are children involved. I think that it is crucial that we raise our children as polytheists, but if you are married to a non-polytheist and then convert, this may create significant problems. Hell, even converting may be an issue depending on the religious persuasion of your spouse. You’ll need to figure out your priorities and what you can compromise on and what you absolutely will not. This can destroy marriages, I won’t lie. It doesn’t have to though, because polytheism can encompass Christian (or other) cultus. It cannot, however, encompass monotheistic exclusivist claims and that is usually where the problems arise. If custody becomes an issue, get a damned good lawyer because it is almost inevitable that your new religion will become an issue. We shouldn’t have to fight these battles in 2020 but they’re hardly the only battle we still have to fight. Again, be prepared. This may seem harsh, but that is not my intention. I am trying here to be as realistic as possible.

Finally, converting is not just a matter of replacing one God or no Gods with many. It involves a total shift in worldview, in values, ethics, and in one’s way of being in the world. It is often quite a cognitive shock to realize for the first time the degree to which one’s polytheism is incompatible with the values of the modern (or post-modern) world. Realizing that we live in a “world full of Gods” as the philosopher Thales wrote, changes everything. It eventually transforms our values, our priorities, and the way that we ourselves choose to be in the world. Like coming out of Plato’s cave, there’s no going back to the state one was in before, and that can be very uncomfortable. One area where I have seen people really struggle is understanding that morality/ethics and religion were not yoked in ancient polytheisms. This is a really big issue. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) draw their morality from their religion, specifically their holy books. This is not the case in polytheism. The position of religion is very different. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers (Gods, ancestors, spirits).
  • Philosophy, custom, culture, and civic engagement were ways of developing virtue, morality, and an ethical sense.
  • Soteriological concerns fell under the warrant of various mystery cultus.

Abrahamic traditions tend to roll all those things into one (I’m not sure why. I’ve never thought about it from their perspective). We do not. Religion is restricted to the Gods, the Holy, the Powers. So, when we have sacred stories that present the Gods in ways we find less than stellar, they’re not meant to be read as literal necessarily, and they’re not meant to serve as the Ten Commandments or a similar ethical guide. They are meant instead to give us windows into the Mysteries of a specific Holy Power. They can be read in multiple ways, but their purpose was never to teach ethics or virtue. That’s what philosophy was for.

So, when you run across people who say “I would never worship a God who does X.” or “If my God told me to do X I would cease worshipping Him” you know you’re dealing with someone who has no idea of how to engage with the Holy Powers, and certainly no idea of how to engage with surviving lore. Instead of squawking like rabid marmots about how the Gods don’t live up to our standards, we should instead be concerned with venerating Them. It is for us to live up to Their standards not the other way around, because whatever standards They have are not necessarily presented through the cosmological stories, but rather through the intricacies of personal engagement via devotion (also because we are not ontologically on the same level as the Gods and our purpose is Their veneration). We are tasked with undoing two thousand years of terrible propaganda directed toward polytheism, starting with dubious claims that our Gods lack virtue, claims that were made precisely because of our cosmological stories (1).

Finally, (for real this time), it can take a while to learn to be proudly polytheistic. That’s ok. If you have moments of doubt, it doesn’t make you a bad polytheist, a bad Heathen, a bad [insert polytheistic tradition here], it makes you human. If you sometimes find yourself feeling awkward when talking with relatives or colleagues and slip and use the singular when referring to the Gods, that’s ok. Note it and do better next time (if it is safe for you to do so). I find that there can be terrible pressure to hide one’s polytheism, curbing our language to reflect monotheistic mores and/or to make those around us who are not polytheist comfortable. I think it is beneficial to train yourself out of this. They will not curb their monotheistic language for you and really, neither side should have to do so. Our religious reality is different from that of a monotheistic interlocutor and that’s ok. If they are not big enough to handle that, such a thing is on them. Of course, I have flat out been asked, “You are so educated…do you really believe in Gods?” I’ve taken to responding, “Of course. It is because I am educated that I believe in Them.” This is facile though – yes, it is the most sensible thing in the world to recognize the Holy Powers, but …it is simply reality and a reality that will not be denied. Falling into linguistic patterns or marking yourself as a polytheist publicly in other ways may feel awkward at first, especially if you don’t have a support network of co-religionists, but it’s never good to pretend to be something or someone that you are not (2).

There is so much more that I could discuss about this topic, but these are just a few key points that I think particularly relevant. Also, if you have just converted: welcome. This is a glorious time to be a polytheist.  

Notes:

  1. While examples abound in early Christian writing, a brief perusal of Augustine’s De civitate dei (City of God) will provide plenty examples of this. It’s filled with purposeful misrepresentation of indigenous polytheisms and co-opting of Neo-Platonism to some degree, something that Christians continued doing well into the modern period. Augustine really set the stage for later scholastic appropriation of ancient philosophy.
  2. Take the time to develop a support network, of polytheists if you can, but at least of supportive, understanding friends. It is a godsend, as friends always are, and can do wonders in helping you through the rough times spiritually.

Why the Eddas are Not Scripture

Trolling around the web the other day (one link leading to another link), I saw a question from a new Heathen: why don’t we treat the Eddas like sacred scripture. Surely, this person opined, it would give us added legitimacy amongst other religions as we worked to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Yes, that was literally what this person was saying. It’s actually a good question on several fronts and one I want to take the time to answer here as part of my practicum series.edda

Firstly, we are not trying to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Frankly, I think we’re far better than they because we’re polytheistic and we are in the process of restoring the ancient contracts with Gods, ancestors, and land that those religions shattered. Also, it’s not a competition. Some people will be legitimately called by those Deities. That’s fine. We need to do us, and worry about restoring our traditions with integrity instead of competing with religions that have almost zero resemblance to our worldview and way of doing things. Those religions are utterly irrelevant to us and to our praxis.

Secondly, why assume that we need scriptures? That’s not the way our tradition works. Our ethical code is drawn from our community and culture. We don’t need it ensconced in a religious text. That’s not, in most polytheisms, what religion is for (1). Nor is such a text necessary for transmission of our traditions. That happens inter-generationally through being surrounded by reverent people and seeing right relationship with the Powers demonstrated and encouraged every day (2).

Heathenry was an oral tradition. It was passed from mother to child, father to child, community to child through active practice and household cultus. Writing something down, relying on written texts as the main archive of one’s tradition creates a very different environment than the fluidity of orality. A tradition dependent on written texts is one that has closed the door to revelation and theophany. Oral traditions, because change and transition is ensconced in the very process of orality, have loopholes that render them flexible, vibrant, living.

Finally, the Eddas are not religious texts. They were not written to be religious texts. They were not even written by Heathens. The Poetic and Prose Edda and anything else written by Snorri Sturluson, were written by a Christian poet and politician to help younger writers comprehend the pre-Christian stories and kennings that filled their literature. Apparently, poets of Snorri’s time were forgetting these things because those poets were largely Christian. They are not sacred texts. They may contain windows to the holy, but they themselves are not holy. That’s an important distinction (3). These texts are highly mediated. They’re filled with elements that better reflect Christianity than Heathenry. We can draw inspiration from the stories therein but to enshrine such a text as scripture is to allow that text to limit and define one’s religious life.

I think new converts have to be careful not to cling to worldviews and ways of doing things that do not reflect our ancestral traditions. We get a lot of converts from Protestant religions and Protestantism is very focused around lectio divina and the study of sacred scriptures. There’s nothing wrong with that (and knowing how to engage with a close reading of our sacred stories is very useful but taking it to the extreme of elevating those texts as ‘scripture’ twists the Heathen worldview far out of true)  but it doesn’t reflect Heathenry and leads, when such a thing is given normative power within a tradition, to a very different place than where our ancestral Worldview would rightly lead.

The Eddas are useful tools, but let’s not make them more than that. We’re not reinventing Protestantism after all; we’re returning to and restoring our ancestral traditions and our ancestors did not need scripture to venerate the Gods and see Their works throughout the world. We need to be smart enough not to cut ourselves off that way.

 

Notes:

  1. In most polytheistic cultures, religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy, philosophy is where one learns to cultivate virtue and become a decent human being, also civics, and then soteriological questions are answered by mystery cultus.
  2. I remember a couple of years ago talking with a theology colleague who was stunned when I said we don’t have scripture (not like the Abrahamic traditions). He couldn’t grasp it and asked, ‘how do you pass your religion on to your children?’ It was a good question and I’m glad he asked and I explained how polytheisms work, about hearth cultus, the role of a pious community and tribe, etc.
  3. I think the stories of our Gods are sacred but they’re not ‘scripture.’ They are not unchanging revelation upon which a tradition is based. Quite the opposite given that there were multiple regional differences in cosmology, stories, and approach.

Piety or Social Justice

Personally, I’ll take piety every time. (Though really, it’s not an either/or). It’s a very, very post-Enlightenment, anti-devotion thing to equate theology with social justice. The entire field of systematics has been built on this. It effectively rules out that messy engagement with any Deity that can be so challenging and complicated. It allows one to prioritize human things, effectively removing Gods from the equation completely. It’s a neat corrective to the complication to modern secularization that piety provides.

If you want to do social justice. Do it. That’s awesome. Don’t call it religion. It’s not. It’s what you do as an adult, engaged, civic-minded, conscientious human being. Unlike in monotheistic traditions, polytheisms don’t generally need to roll that into the realm of the Gods to make it palatable. The crazy thing is, there are civic Deities for Whom such social justice work might be a licit and welcome type of devotion but those are never, ever the Deities these self-styled social justice warriors are honoring (when they bother to pay lip service to piety and devotion at all, which more and more is rare). Why bother giving what you do the trappings of religion at all? It’s exactly the type of appropriation that y’all would whine and blather about in any other context.  You do so like defining other people’s lived experiences for them after all.

There’s quite a lot of social justice work that can be accomplished by the pious…who don’t spend all their time posting about it online. But social justice work does not take the place of a well-developed spirituality, or a personality.

In the ancient world, before polytheisms were attacked and many erased, this was how things tended to be structured: Religion was all about engaging with the Holy Powers. It was about a set of protocols for dealing with the sacred, large and small, public and private. Philosophy was the venue to which one looked for developing character and ethics, and developing as a decent human being. Adulthood involved civic responsibility. Soteriological questions were largely left to mystery cultus. Social justice didn’t absolve one from piety. Piety didn’t absolve one from social justice. The two were completely different realms of action.

I have zero respect for anyone who mistakes social justice for engagement with the Gods, for piety, for devotion, for religion. One may choose to take certain actions, to live his or her life in a certain way *because* of devotion to the Gods, but that is a far different thing from projecting one’s own opinions and politics onto one’s practices and pretending the Gods approve. (They might. They might not. These people generally never bother to check. It’s hubris.). You’re not making the world better. You’re polluting and destroying a tradition. You’re attempting to complete the work of monotheism and then secularism in erasing the Gods from our practices. I think this is one of the greatest threats to the future of Heathenry, to the future of polytheisms in general today the other being allowing atheists into our midst in sacred settings.

A life spent in veneration of the Gods, ancestors, and Holy Powers is a valuable life. So many of the problems social justice warriors aim to fix have their origin in the broken relationships between humanity and the Gods, humanity and the ancestors, humanity and the land. Fix those, and the rest will be righted in turn, because the power of those relationships demands  change in every other aspect of one’s life. It becomes the filter through which every action is taken, every decision made. Or you can keep applying bandaids to a bleeding artery.

Fasting for Lent – Even Though I’m not Christian

I work with a group of lovely Orthodox Christians and Catholics (and the occasional Protestant) all of whom are going to be miserable through Easter LOL. Seriously though, I have a ton of work-friends who are fasting, praying, and making other preparations throughout Lent, which began this past Wednesday for Latin Christians and will begin on March 2 for Eastern Orthodox. (See here for an article on why this dating difference exists). Fasting and other practices are a way for Christians to prepare for the central mystery of their faith, the death and resurrection of their God. It’s an important time for them and I’ve been hearing quite a bit of conversation about preparations over the past couple of weeks (for those interested, a friend just shared this article from the Orthodox perspective, and this one from the Catholic). All of that has me thinking about how little ascetic work I do anymore.

When I was first taken up by Odin, I connected most strongly to Him through ascetic practices (not ordeal work, that came at least a decade later), particularly fasting and prayer. I found that fasting opened me up and cleaned me out spiritually in a way that nothing else had up to that point been effective in doing. Because food is such a social thing in our culture, it also kept my devotion to my Gods foremost in my mind throughout the day providing me with opportunities, each time I felt discomfort from fasting and each time I had to think about what to eat or not eat or to pass on some social dining engagement to reaffirm my devotion to Odin and to my other Gods. I miss that. Over the past decade, I’ve really fallen out of the habit of any significant type of ascetic work.

Before I go farther, I should note that while I would often fast on nothing but water for Odin, that is not what Christians do for their God, at least not your average Christian over Lent. Also, that type of zero-food fast is not recommended for many people for health reasons – talk to your health care provider before jumping in to something that extreme. There are many different ways to fast and Lenten fasts usually involve eschewing milk, meat, and eggs, and (I think) wine in Orthodox communities (any of my Orthodox readers seeing this, please feel free to correct me if I have this wrong) and usually something of the person’s choice in Catholicism, though I think traditional Catholics will give up meat through Lent (again, Catholic readers, correct me if I’m wrong. I study ancient Christianity academically, but seriously, I stop at the tenth century lol). Either way, the important thing is that throughout all religious traditions that I can think of at the moment, there are multiple ways to fast. One doesn’t need to go without food. For health reasons now, I rarely do a zero-food fast. I’ve written more about ways of fasting here and of course during the time one fasts, that practice is paired with an increase in prayer.

Christians engage in Lenten practices, as a Protestant friend told me yesterday, to prepare to receive their God on Easter Sunday. That is what made me think deeply about how I prepare myself for our Gods. What am I doing or not doing in my life to make devotion to Odin easier, to make my religious life flow more smoothly? What am I doing to transmute my soul, to elevate myself in a way that opens the door to clear, clean experience of the holy? Unfortunately, of late, my answer has been: not much.

That’s why I’ve decided to both give up a few things this Lent (through the Orthodox Easter—I might as well suffer in solidarity with my friends lol) and use it as an opportunity to deepen my prayer practice. I’ve really been recalcitrant about praying enough lately and it makes my soul feel dirty when I can’t do the least effort to remain right with my Gods.

So, I’ll be tagging along with 40 days of mindful fasting. I’m hoping it will jump start my own engagement again and at an even deeper level than I remember.

Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.

Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.

Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.

Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,

Eternally let us praise Him.

The Hammer of Thor

290px-Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_Project

For Heathens, this is one of our holy symbols. It may, in fact, be our holiest of symbols and it’s certainly the one that the majority of us wear to indicate that we are Heathen (in much the same way a Christian might wear a cross or a Jewish person a star of David) (1). I’ve been meditating a lot on what the Hammer means, especially since it seems I cannot wear it these days without questions and occasionally direct hostility. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this gift, crafted by the duergar, given by Loki, wielded by Thor for the good of the worlds is the most important symbol we will ever bear.

Thor is a God Who brings holiness. There is nothing foul or polluted, wicked or spiritually wrong that He cannot conquer. He renders His protection without contract or stipulation. For this reason, He is called “Friend of Man.” More than any other God, He watches over Midgard – the human world, our world – ensuring that it maintains its integrity (despite our own depredations of our home). He travels with Loki, the God most gifted at finding loopholes. I think this is particularly important. I think that very special care must be taken when the Gods act directly in our world, that doing so promiscuously threatens to weaken the very scaffolding They seek to maintain, and perhaps Loki is Thor’s favorite traveling companion because between the Two of Them, They can find all those loopholes too, never missing an opportunity to drive back evil and entropy threatening existence (2).

I often think that Thor is one of the Gods most often underestimated. Despite one of His by-names being “Deep-Minded,” despite the fact that He is the Son of Odin, despite the fact that He is the son of the earth (Fjorgyn), the Goddess Who provides all we need to sustain our world, He’s quite often dismissed as … a dumb jock. He’s pigeon-holed in a way that I also see with Goddesses like Freya. We reduce Him in our minds to a one-dimensional character in a book. I don’t think this is purposeful or intentionally disrespectful, I think it’s what we’ve been programmed to do by popular culture, by the way our Gods are treated in academic writing, by the way they’re treated in comparative lit., and by the way They were treated by the working-class founders of American Heathenry.  But our Gods are not characters in a set of stories. They are living Holy Powers, Immortal Beings, the Creators of our very existence and the space in which it plays out.

Consider a few of His by-names (heiti ): Atli (The Terrible), Einriði (One Who rules alone – in other words, I interpret this to mean that He is more than capable in and of Himself of purifying and rendering holy, and carries the blessing of the sovereignty of the land through his Mother), Harðhugaðr (strong spirit, fierce soul), Rymr (noise, which makes me think of how sound, like rattles, drums, bells, chanting, etc. is often used to clear spiritual pollution and purify people, places, and things), and last but not least Veurr (Hallower, Guardian of the shrine). Thor hallows. Wherever He is, whatever He touches, wherever He chooses to make Himself manifest, there He hallows and in hallowing creates space where the enemies of the Gods simply cannot exist.

Thor’s hammer, then, is a sign that the Gods are engaged with us in the ongoing process of creation. It is a sign that They guard us, that Thor girds the world against dissolution, against entropy, against all that would threaten the cosmic and divine architecture. Like His mother, Thor provides. He sustains. Like His Father, He battles back the enemies of the Gods. Like He, Himself alone, He renders holy those places He has been, those spaces through which He has passed. When we wear the Thor’s hammer, we are signaling that we too are aligned with divine order. We are signaling that we stand with Him in maintaining, protecting, and most of all nourishing that which the Gods have created.

So, wear the hammer proudly. When people ask you about it, or the ruder ones challenge you for wearing it, explain exactly what it means and hold your ground. We must not give up a single inch of space, not in mind, not in body, and not in soul. That hammer signifies that we are hallowed ground, reclaimed, rededicated, consecrated to our Gods, committed to Thor’s protection. Wear it proudly, wear it mindfully, and every time you touch it, give thanks to this God Who sustains His Father’s creation.           

Notes:

  1. Some Scandinavians will wear it as a cultural symbol and then of course it’s endlessly misappropriated by individuals who have no faith in the Gods, but you see the same thing with other religions’ symbols too, at least the latter use by the godless.
  2. I think there are cosmic rules that the Gods adhere to, blocking how directly They may act in our world. This is hinted at most fully in the Homeric corpus but I believe it holds true amongst our Gods as well, that the more they violate those structures They Themselves have put into place, not only the more They weaken the cosmic architecture, but more importantly, They provide openings for the Nameless, that unnamed force – the Kemetics called it Isfet, Native Americans had different names for it – that ever hates and threatens divine creation to also come in. I think there’s a cosmic détente and no God is better at finding ways to act without violating that détente than Loki.

Two Days into 2020 and Here We Go Again…

So, already the stupidity has started. This time around the idea of a tradition and what it is. I’m not sure why this is difficult but I do know that it was one of the issues that predicated the online schism c. 2012 leading to many Polytheists refusing to use the word “Pagan” (even though the two words should be synonymous). It would be comforting to simply dismiss it as “stupidity” of this group or that, but to do so is simply not accurate, and more and more I realize that when we speak with those who are not polytheists (and sometimes, sadly, even with those who are) we’re simply not speaking the same language.

This is particularly true when discussing “tradition.” It was this word and the argument around it that really drove home for me today the huge disconnect between those of us who value this as polytheists and those coming from other, less structured traditions. “Tradition” is a key word for us, a highly-charged word, and it denotes something extremely sacred (1). We use this word differently. When I speak about a tradition, I am speaking about a careful scaffolding passed down from the Gods and ancestors, protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers, a way of doing things that is licit, clean, that creates reverence by its very structure. It does not come from us, though we are tasked with maintaining and preserving it; it will pass on after us and it is our sacred obligation, our duty to pass it on to our students and our children in as clean a way as possible. This understanding of tradition draws on the Latin etymology of the word as something that is passed down from one generation to another.

A tradition however is more and it’s that more that I find really difficult to articulate. There is more to it. There’s the Mystery element, there’s the unchanging, eternal element, there is that which it is not in our remit to alter at our whim. It is not transient. Tradition is eternal, a thread in the skein of a people’s wyrd, protected, cherished, that is essential to the expression of piety and reverence for specific Gods in specific ways. It involves lineage because it is a living thing, passed from elder to student, parents to child, teachers to neophytes and before all that from the Gods to the people They cherish. It is a language, a dialect, a grammar, a syntax of the sacred. It defines us in our interactions with the Holy. We enter into it and it changes us, it changes our grammar of the sacred. It changes the very language we speak. It becomes the lens through which every single part of our world is filtered and articulated.

Neo-Pagans have never experienced this level of tradition (2). Trying to explain it to them is like trying to explain the color “blue” to someone who is blind. I don’t say this to be nasty. I say it because over and over again, this is precisely the disconnect I have experienced in inter-religious dialogues (or let’s be honest, arguments). I think this is why so many of them see nothing wrong with coming into our spaces and attempting to define our traditions for us, or dismissing our traditions’ requirements with things like, “there are no rules,” or “just do what you want,” or “there’s no right way to practice.” Well, within a tradition yes, actually, there is.

That doesn’t mean that it’s static and unchanging. A tradition is a living thing and each generation adds to it by their piety and their presence. There are protocols within traditions to allow for necessary change, the thing is, what drives a tradition is the Gods from Whom it comes, not us.

I’m still not capturing everything inherent in that word ‘tradition’. I could write a dissertation on the subject and I would still not be able to capture everything. “Tradition” is something that has been imprinted on our souls. It is like the walls of Asgard that the Gods spared no expense defending. It is our job to upkeep it and see that it is not breached. Understanding that comes with terrifying obligation. Maybe that right there is the problem and why so much is “lost in translation (3).”

 

Notes:

  1. There is a difference between “I have a tradition of lighting candles every New year’s eve” and “my tradition dictates that we approach sacred space in this way…” or “within my tradition, we have x protocol for approaching this Deity for the first time.”
  2. Which I understand; what I don’t understand is why, just like so many anti-theists, they think nothing of coming into our spaces and conversations with words about how traditions have no rules, but when we call them on it, they inevitably lose their shit and accuse us of being angry, judgmental, Christian, etc. The thing is that for us, “tradition” does have rules. It has requirements. It has a governing, sovereign power because it is that which the Gods have given us to allow for clean, healthy communication and gnosis. The problem that we as polytheists face then is different from that of Neo-Pagans but no less vexing: we have to restore threads that a generation of our ancestors cut, dropped, or had torn away from them with the spread of colonizing Christianity (or in some areas Islam). This is also a problem and one that complicates our understanding of what it means to live in a lineaged tradition, that weight and responsibility and moreover how to do that cleanly and well.
  3. Way too many people want the benefits of what tradition has to offer without the obligations. Tradition is a loaded word, it’s powerful, sexy, it can make one seem “better” than other people but in reality, it comes with responsibility and duty to preserve and maintain and pass it on; and we live in a world that for a very long time has been very hostile to any kind of responsibility, even in the most mundane sense. If we can, after all, shirk even our responsibilities of being competent, adult men and women why wouldn’t we shirk this too? That’s the lesson that we’ve been taught in our modern world: that we don’t need to be responsible for anything. That this is a lie that diminishes us each and every day we let it take up space in our mental worlds doesn’t change that it defines the field on which we live and breathe and fight.

Integrity in Speaking about the Gods

This entire autumn has raised awareness for me, in a theological sense, of something that I never considered before; namely that, when speaking of our Gods, it is incorrect and grossly unethical to state categorically that “Deity X likes [insert belief or behavior here] (1). It’s one thing to share insights into a Deity’s nature within the devotional relationship (always implicitly mediated by our own human understanding), and quite another to project our own opinions onto a God.

I think we recognize this right away when the sentiment being ascribed to a God is something like the Westboro Baptist Church with their “God hates F*gs” rhetoric. It’s hateful, gross, ugly and of course we all agree, the Gods, including theirs, don’t think so. That makes sense, right? Well, the opposite is also true and it kind of blew my mind when it was pointed out to me.

I was auditing a class and when the professor noted this I and several of the other students almost fell out of our chairs. We were reading a piece by Rowan Williams (chapter one of his On Christian Theology).Williams notes that (in theological or political discourse – he briefly noted the latter as a segue into his theological discussion) “to make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for retention of power (2).” This is true regardless of which end of the social scale is utilizing this tactic. What that means, essentially, is that to speak for God is to grant oneself the absolute agency of God. Williams goes on to discuss what constitutes honest and potentially fruitful theological discourse, namely that it invites discussion and response, and most importantly of all, it does not claim to speak in any unqualified way for God. In the course of the class, we were going to be reading MLKs “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the professor pointed out that just like Westboro Baptist Church is making absolutist claims about their God, so is MLK (3). We happen to agree with MLK (and I think, rightly so!) and because of that, such a rhetorical choice slips by us.   

It’s easy to see the lack of integrity when the sentiments expressed are so incredibly vile like Westboro Baptist, but what about when they’re something we completely agree with, like homophobia is bad. Or, what about, to give an example that was recently brought to my attention, someone who firmly believes “Thor hates racists (4).” My understanding from reading Williams is that he would push for interrogations and reconsideration of those statements too, perhaps most especially because we accept and agree (thus removing the apparent need for further and deeper consideration).

I also think such rhetoric, potentially elevates our divisions and categories as something embedded in our cosmology and in the desires of our Gods which in turn reifies those divisions in ways that also reify the problems caused by them. But there’s a bigger question at play here. Why is it so important that our Gods ratify our decisions not to be complete assholes?  Why do we need our Gods to tell us that racism is bad? Shouldn’t we be able to reason that out for ourselves? The bodies we wear, after all, in all their glorious brokenness, are part of the condition of being human. It does not follow that such corporeality is relevant to the condition of being a God (5). Are we so ill-prepared for moral reasoning that we have to push it all onto our Gods?

I think this goes right back to the place we have been conditioned to ascribe to both religion and morality. In the polytheistic world, religion was not about determining ethics and morality. It was a set of protocols for engaging properly with the Holy Powers. Developing virtue, character, one’s morality, one’s ethics – all of that came from education, culture, and most of all philosophy. It’s only monotheisms really that traditionally elide all these things under ‘religion,’ but we’ve grown up in a monotheistic society and we ourselves instinctively default to this same equation as “normal” and “correct.”

There’s a larger issue at play here too. In speaking from the POV of the Gods, unqualified, unmediated, and doing so while at the same time ascribing our opinions and politics and feelings to those Gods, we are distorting the role of religion. We are making it instead a clique – and this is true regardless of what side of the political spectrum we’re on, regardless of what feelings we are expressing, regardless of what issues are at play. We are setting up a litmus test for determining who might approach the Gods. We are determining who is licit in Their eyes. We are determining who can pray to our Gods. We are blocking those who do not fit our agenda from cultus, even if they themselves are fulfilling all the requirements of proper religious practice (6).

Then there is the reality that taking responsibility for our moral choices deepens our character and our ability to stand on our own two feet in performance of our religious obligations too. It makes us better, fuller human beings on every level. Devotion is not a weapon. It should be the one place we can come together in unqualified veneration of Gods within our traditions. It matters how we talk about our Gods and it matters even more when we presume to speak for Them.

Notes:

  1. I think it’s fine to say “Freya seems to like strawberries.” That’s passing on information that will help another devotee make a good offering. But to say ‘Freya hates TERFS,” well, probably, but I still think it’s wrong to state such a thing as unqualified fact. You don’t know. You’re assuming. You’re projecting your own opinion onto a Deity and presenting it as unqualified fact. If we are looking at lore alone, we could say Freya is a Goddess of women and I think this can open up a very fruitful discussion about trans issues, and I think that there is enough in the lore about Frey and Freya to make the assumption that neither Deity would support gender exclusion but I would still argue that one should qualify that as extrapolation and inference, not unqualified fact. It’s one thing to say, for instance, that Odin is the God of soldiers. We know that from the lore. It’s quite another to say that Odin * likes * soldiers. He may. It’s not an illogical assumption, but it’s pretentious assuming the perspective, the point of view of Odin to infer His emotional register and preferences. It’s projecting our own limited way of looking at the world onto the Gods and that is a conscious choice to likewise limit the Gods themselves, putting us in Their place and granting to us Their authority. It becomes more complicated since we are religions of diviners and oracles, but even there, there is an obligation to be as clear as possible, to assume nothing, to make sure that the interstices of our humanity are articulated without ambiguity.
  2. His argument is fascinating, complex, and thought-provoking – far beyond the scope of this blog post but I encourage people to read the book, or at least the first chapter. I read it in September and it’s been percolating in my brain and affecting the way I write about the Gods since, because I think he’s correct both in the theological inaccuracies such language promulgates and the power play that so often lies behind its use. Now I do think it is perfectly acceptable for an elder or teacher within a tradition to speak to the boundaries and practices of the tradition, because their sacred work is specifically nourishing and sustaining their religious tradition and helping to pass it on in a clean and thorough way. That is different though from saying, “Deity X thinks…” with no other categorization. Even saying, “within the bounds of this tradition, this is how we interpret thus and such a story about God X” opens up the discourse in a way that taking on the role and voice of a God simply does not. The latter is a presumption bordering on hubris.
  3. If you haven’t read this, go here and read it now. It’s one of the key documents of the 20thcentury civil rights movement and a powerful indictment of the moral fence-sitting happening amongst white clergy during protests against segregation in Alabama. It is where we get King’s famous dictum, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  4. This blog has been problematic for a while. The owner has a bug up her ass about me and my work despite the fact that, to my knowledge, I’ve never met her. So, given how much and how often she slanders me, I’ve no problem using her as an example here lol. She’s constantly posting unqualified statements like ‘Freya hates TERFS’ and ‘Thor hates racists.’ Can we infer that? Probably, BUT it’s simply wrong on a very deep theological level to state such a thing without the qualificationof “I think that,” or “From my experience,” etc. Doing so implies that we know the feelings, opinions, and will of a Deity fully and as human beings, that is simply never the case. It puts us in the position of our Gods.
  5. Since our cosmology teaches both that we were created carefully by the Gods and endowed with certain characteristics (breath, warmth, and sense, i.e. the ability to reason) and also that the Gods moved amongst us further fathering children, I think one can make a carefully reasoned and coherent theological argument against racism. I would still word it very carefully however, when alluding to what the Gods Themselves might feel or think, no matter how sure we think we are. It’s good practice, a good habit to get into.
  6. For instance, while I find Fred Phelps and company utterly, irredeemably vile I can think of no one who more “needs Jesus” or some other God, the leavening influence of cultus, the elevating influence of proper religious observance to cultivate what little humanity the troglodyte has left.

Hitting the Nail on the Head Perfectly

In our previous discussion, Neptunesdolphins hit the nail on the head perfectly, so perfectly, that I am pulling her comment out to highlight it here: 

“Sigh, once more modernity and Monotheism strikes again. I know lots of Pentacostals and Catholics who take exception. How else are you slain in the Holy Spirit or see the Mother Mary, unless you engage with God?

Problem is that living in monotheistic culture is that all Gods are false except for the “One True God.” If the Gods and other Divines are treated as fiction, then engaging with fictional characters is considered mental illness. Unless it is pop culture Deities.

The other is that monotheistic thinking flattens the world into human, and only human. Since there is a singularity of life, people cannot imagine engaging with a plurality of Beings. It is beyond their imaginings.

The other thing about tumblr which highlights problems in Paganism – the Deities are smaller than people. People are the Deity. There is no Other, there is only them and themselves.

And of course, Progressivism as it is practiced is a religion. What is happening in Paganism is that everything is being homogenized by Progressivism. So we have the preoccupation with who is a Nazi and who should be thrown out for impolitic thoughts. Monotheism in action – thought crimes and the flattening of thought.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I would also emphasize that the attitude expressed on the tumblr page I was discussing yesterday is not limited to Polytheisms. I know plenty of devout Catholics, Orthodox, etc. who have run up against it too. Thing is, their traditions’ structures are able to support and deflect this nonsense far better than ours. We have people taking it in wholesale and building a hollow practice around it and wondering why they’re getting nowhere. 

 

Sigh – “If you have any engagement with the Gods you’re mentally ill.” WHAT?????

I’m afraid I’m going to be very blunt here, because in thirty years of teaching and serving as clergy, I have never seen such utter garbage spreading like wildfire throughout our respective communities as I do now, not even when I first became Heathen (and believe me, the level of bullshit in the Heathen community at that time was a thousand times worse than it is now – and that’s saying something). Part of the problem is the pseudo-progressive contingent on tumblr, and part of it just the sad lack of adequate education in North America today. It’s sometimes hard to see where one begins and one ends.(1)

When someone tells you that actual engagement with the Gods is wrong, that being able to sense or hear Them is mental illness—even one single moment of theophany, that one cannot be claimed by a Deity, called as a priest, function as an oracle, that being a godspouse is mental illness, not only are they completely willfully, and egregiously ignorant of the history of their religion, but they are speaking impiety and attempting to do violence to the pious. They are butchering the religion to fit their own misguided ignorance and attempting to damage those actually building up their traditions. The best advice I can give when encountering such filth online is this: Avoid the impious. Ignore them. Also, consider their motives (2).

Inevitably these people will say “we’re all of equal importance”. Well, no, actually we’re not. Equality is a myth they tell themselves to excuse their own mediocrity before the Gods. We are all unique in our devotional relationships. If, by equality, one means that we are all valued and loved by our Gods then yes that is true; but if by equality one means that we are all exactly the same and that no one has any deeper devotional relationship or more talent in a particular area of religious specialty, then that is nonsense and should be ignored (3). Moreover, it smacks of Protestantism, where demonstrated virtue is a sign of being “elect.” The corollary of course, is that if one doesn’t have a vocation or any of the signs of being “elect” then it means one is of less importance to their God. Well, we’re not Protestant and it’s time we stopped behaving like half-assed Calvinists. Our polytheistic ancestors honored and respected their specialists: those called by the Gods, mystics, clergy, shamans, diviners, oracles, spiritworkers – technicians of the sacred known by different names in different traditions. Why is basic piety so damned hard for us?

We need to strongly resist the push of people more concerned about virtue signaling and politics than venerating the Gods when they attempt to excise from our religions the natural life of devotion. Basically, if it’s on tumblr, it’s probably inaccurate, wrong, and possibly impious. Always, always consider the source. Consider what they contribute. Go to your Gods, go to prayer, and don’t be afraid to tell such people to take a running leap off the nearest cliff (4).

 

Notes:

  1. Religion is not the place for politics. It is about honoring the Gods. Religion is a set of proper protocols for engaging appropriately with the Gods and ancestors. Be as political as you want, but don’t mistake your civic impulse for religious cultus. Social and political engagement is what we do as adult human beings. We shouldn’t need our Gods and religion to make such engagement licit.
  2. It’s not surprising that these things would be condemned, after all, if we’re actually engaging with Gods and ancestors, if we have the benefit of good priests, competent oracles, if we honor our mystics and godspouses then we’re less likely to listen to their political bullshit when they attempt to bring that garbage into our sacred spaces.
  3. There is a lovely anecdote in St Therese of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul,” that was told to her by her sister Pauline. As a small child she asked her sister if God loved saints more than regular people. The sister took a thimble and a wine glass and filled them both to overflowing and asked the child, “Which is more full?” The answer: they were both full to utmost capacity and so it is with the love of one’s God as well.
  4. This does not, of course, absolve us from developing spiritual discernment, from questioning ourselves, from doing the work, including the work of therapy if need be. Piety, however, is not mental illness nor is being called (κλῆσις)to a vocation.