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Repeating Cycles of Violence in the Lore

This morning Sannion wrote a beautiful and powerful breakdown of some of the devotional prayers he’s been writing of late. One of those prayers was to our God of sacred vengeance Váli. I’ll share my comment about all of that here. I’ve written before about Odin and Rindr, but I”d never really considered how Their son fits into things. As I said on his blog, I love his breakdown of the prayers he’s written. wow. Re. Váli’s hymn…I am glad it exists. I think it is an incredibly potent and powerful piece and…I cannot ever honor this God. I want to see Him honored absolutely, but I myself stand with Sigyn and Loki and the slaughter of Their children was something beyond the pale for me. There’s a particular brutality there (though going back to our creation narrative, (I firmly believe that moment of creation is reified again and throughout out mythic cycle.) I can’t help but consider that again, on a theological level, as with Odin and Rindr, there is a reification of the violence and brutality of two opposing forces grinding together to create something new) and…I think this will be one God where I nod in respect …from a distance. Some people see both Váli’s as the same God, but I don’t think that is supported in any extant lore.

Brutality and Violence serve a creative purpose in our tradition. The act of creating is an act of destruction, of transformation and maybe that’s why Váli’s story also involves a God, Loki, Whom we sometimes call the World Breaker. Making and Breaking and Making again is embedded in our sacred stories. What can we learn from this?

Putting on Devotion

I’m not talking about Deity possession, not that this isn’t in the devotional equation for some, but rather the process of virtue formation and the daily choice of doing devotion and deciding whether one’s actions are going to bring us closer to the Gods and right relationship with Them or not. Recently, I’ve been contemplating a clothing/body metaphor that came up at an autumn theology conference during a discussion of Origen: the idea of “body virtue” and I’ve not been able to forget this and what it might mean for polytheists (1). We are all corporeal beings after all, and it is through our senses and our bodies that we experience our world, our Gods, and that we do this thing called devotion. 

I’ve also been thinking about a poet named Proba.  One of the earliest female Christian poets, Faltonia Betitia Proba (322-370 C.E.) wrote a 694 verse Cento (2), Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, (retelling parts of the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels and pulling on lines from Virgil, particularly the Aeneid) and in that work she writes “Piety and having virtue overcame the difficult road.” There is much wisdom in this line. Contextually in the original (A.6.688/P1.664) it speaks of filial piety, of personal courage, of endurance, and of positioning piety and one’s duty to the Gods  and ancestors at the core of one’s journey. It is the thing that carries one through when the road seems bleak and the work particularly hard. It is the thing that allows one to overcome challenges and triumph in one’s devotion and life. It is always the key and the starting point for everything else.

From here, prepare yourselves. I’m going to be jumping a bit, so please bear with me. These are ideas I’ve been wanting to explore for some time, at least since the conference in October. This is a first run at it to get my ideas down and out. One of the metaphors that I find every so often in tandem with ideas of body virtue is that of clothing, putting on what is good, taking off what is bad. Some writers in late antiquity are more colorful in how they present this idea than others, and by the early medieval period in the West, we have this transformed (again pulling strongly on Paul) into prayers that incorporate putting on the armor of Christ (3). 

Late antique Syrian theologian Makarios (c. 4th century) used this imagery of clothing when he wrote (and unfortunately, I did not note the source in my quickly scribbled notes at the conference) that “the Evil One put on Adam’s soul as a garment (4)” I had never heard this, though I was familiar with other early Christian ideas such as Gregory Nazianzen’s idea that our corporeality was the result of humankind’s expulsion from Eden (5). The line from Makarios stayed with me for days, so much so that I wrote it down in my journal, because if the sin and transgression, essentially in Heathen terms breaking frith with the Gods can open a soul to such evil as a Christian like Makarios imagined for Adam, then by consciously choosing to embrace and cultivate piety, by consciously and mindfully turning away as best we ever can (being flawed and human creatures) from that which stands in opposition to the Holy Powers, then we can ward and restore the soul in quite the same way, through a reversal of the equation Makarios sets up. 

For Makarios and Christians of his time, the mystery of the cross was buried deep within every Christian’s soul, just as the wisdom of the Tree and the obligation to maintain and sustain it is buried within ours. The World Tree is the axis mundi, the ultimate scaffolding holding up the Worlds. We sustain and restore our world, participating – by our choices, by living rightly, by our moral courage, by devotion, by prayer – in sustaining that World Tree of which we are part. We are, after all, descended from Ask and Embla, who were crafted from trees. Why trees? The Gods could have chosen anything, any substance from which to make humanity but They consciously chose trees. In the Gylfaginning, the creation of humanity is presented as a careless choice (6). I would argue however, that nothing the Holy Powers do is careless, especially not at the moment of creation. The creation of the first man and woman occurs right after the ordering of the architecture of the worlds, putting us within that primal order. The moment of humanity’s first forming occurs in a liminal place (a seashore (7)), the type of place sacred to the God of thought and holiness Hoenir. Within the boundaries of the lore that has come down to us (in however mediated a form), and by the nature of the Gods in question, this is highly significant. So why trees? Personally, I think this is because all trees in some way partake of Yggdrasil (just as Yggdrasil partakes of and imbues itself into every tree). By making Ask and Embla from trees, they and all of their descendants are tied directly to the axis of all the worlds, of all creation, to Yggdrasil. Moreover, because of this, our lives have the power to sustain and nourish it …or to do the opposite. All trees are conduits back to that source (8). That is what we carry within our souls. We are literally children of the World Tree. There are ways to bring that to the forefront of our memory, to seat it firmly in our soul’s consciousness. 

Returning to Makarios, he further writes that “thorns and thistles of evil spirits” are “removed by fruitful pain.” For those unfamiliar with plants, thistles are abrasive and depending on the kind of thistle like little nasty needles – thorns – that can pierce and tear the skin. If one gets stuck, like any splinter, it must be removed, which as necessary as it is, can hurt like the (no pun intended) devil. This is the power of ascetic practices for purification, of ordeal, the necessity of the darkest places of our devotion, the dark nights of the soul, and all the sacrifices we make – prayer, fasting, devotion, offerings, etc. – to shake the detritus of pollution from our souls every single day (9).

I want to be clear that our participation in the World Tree, in the architecture of the Worlds, and in our Gods cannot be reduced to pain alone. It is not just pain or even mostly pain. There is a terrifying, overwhelming joy there. I would say that it is quite often a joyous experience because in doing this spiritual work, we are aligning ourselves with everything our Gods would have us become. But it can sometimes hurt, because it is a reshaping, a formation that leads the soul out of pollution, out of corruption, out of spiritual malignancy or just spiritual ignorance and into transformation and virtue. Staying the course is our choice, for all that our Gods will meet us more than halfway if we take but the first faltering steps. 

Basically, we can choose to put on unfruitful darkness (10), as Makarios might put it, or we can choose instead to put on the clothing of our Gods: holiness, piety, love, and reverence. This is devotion. It is, however, a choice made daily, sometimes minute by minute and that is what devotion means.

Notes:

  1. Without subjecting y’all to a long and involved discussion of Origen’s theology or that of Makarios, whom I’ll shortly be referencing, suffice it to say there was a long tradition within Christianity discussing the question of whether or not the body was good or evil, whether it was a creation of God, what its connection to the human soul might be, and what role it had to play in the cultivation of piety and virtue. There were both Jewish and Polytheistic philosophers who dealt with some of these same questions, so it wasn’t just a Christian concern, but it was more charged and centralized in Christian writings mostly due to the work of the Apostle Paul, who had quite a bit to say on the distinction between body and flesh, inner and outer man, etc. Makarios wrote extensively on the role of embodiment in living a life of virtue (see. Papanikolaou, Aristotle, “Learning How to Love: Saint Maximus on Virtue,” in Knowing the Purpose of Creation Through the Resurrection: Proceedings of the Symposium on St. Maximus the Confessor, ed. By Maxim Vasiljevic, Alhambra: Sebastian Press, 2013, p. 241-243, passim). Origen is Origen and probably the most brilliant speculative theologian Christianity ever produced. 
  2. Cento is a poem that is comprised of lines taken from other, extant works. The whole thing becomes an interlocking word-knot, comprised of meaning upon meaning. The style was extremely popular in late antiquity and poets today still write cento. 
  3. This idea comes from Paul in Ephesians 6: 10-18. Later Christians took it, ran with it, and developed it extensively and one still finds prayers incorporating it today. They can easily be adapted to Heathen or other Polytheistic usage, and I recommend doing so. 
  4. The Evil One refers to Satan who took the form of a snake and tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In yielding to the serpent, Adam and Eve created a division between themselves and their God that could only be restored by the Incarnation. Jesus becomes the new Adam – again, a longer conversation about Christian theology than I want to have here but easily researchable for those interested. 
  5. I’m pretty sure it was Nazianzen. I get Gregory of Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa occasionally mixed up unless I’m looking right at my teaching notes!
  6. Gylfaginning 9. The Gods are walking along the seastrand and find two trees. This is what They take up to create the first man and woman. 
  7. This type of threshold, a place neither land nor water is nearly always viewed by cosmologists as liminal, as a possible doorway between states of being, between worlds.
  8. “Tree” can also serve as a kenning for a person in Skaldic poetry. 
  9. Ascetic practices like fasting are not a daily thing for most of us, though some are called to ongoing ascetic practice. It can however, when medically feasible, be a valuable spiritual discipline to engage in on occasion. Likewise, not everyone is called to formal ordeal, but the suffering we undergo as we get ourselves right in our devotion and right with our Gods can be elevated by dedicating it to that very purpose: purification of our souls, a resetting, a cleaning out of detritus that needs to go if we wish to grow in faith, love, and reverence. 
  10. Sometimes darkness can be very fruitful, such as in the dark night of the soul. Darkness does not always equal bad or evil. It can, however, also be used, as I use it in this one time, as a metaphor for all the things that do not nourish our souls or our devotion to the Gods. 

The Question of Gendered Cultus

Logging into my feed today, I saw this post by P.S.V.L. It’s rather cumbersome, but asks a very good question: should people of any/all genders be able to take part in the cultus for Deities when traditionally those Deities were venerated by only one gender. For instance, e mentions specifically the cultus of Bona Dea in Rome. She was traditionally honored only by women and harsh penalties befell any man known to have violated Her rites. There were other Deities as well: for instance, the Goddess Pudicitia was served only by married women. The rites of Mithras were, to my knowledge performed solely by men (Mithras was popular amongst soldiers and that was not a profession generally open to women, esp. in Rome. It would be an interesting thing to find out if He welcomes female soldiers today). So, in our modern day when gender roles or even our understanding of gender (rightly or wrongly) is not what our ancestors would have necessarily recognized, should gendered restrictions on a particular Deity’s veneration be removed? 

I would say no. Or rather I would say not without a damned good reason; and people’s comfort, modern values, sense of entitlement, or well-meaning desire for equity are not good enough reasons to destroy a cultus. There’s a rule with ritual and I think this holds true with respect to cultus as well: “don’t change it if you don’t understand why it’s there or what it’s purpose is with respect to the whole.” Without knowing, and really comprehending *why* a rule exists with respect to gendered cultus, it approaches hubris to simply discard such restrictions. Now, Gods are more than capable of making Their wishes known and there are on very rare occasions, exceptions. P.S.V.L. notes this when e writes: 

“Though men were not supposed to enter Bona Dea’s sanctuary, exceptions could be made, especially if the Goddess Herself expressed such a desire for the exception to be made. Since She was associated with prophecy, such an utterance from one of Her designated functionaries would probably be obtainable in a ready manner.

What we see here is an important difference that needs to be understood (and, in my view, respected). Any person can have a cultus to any Deity, and if the Deity either specifically allows or forbids it in a given individual’s case (and divination can always be done to find out if this is the case!), then such directives should be followed, in my view; but without such explicit proscriptions or prohibitions, anyone and everyone should be able to simply offer to, praise, and carry out other devotional acts with any and every Deity, no matter the genders of the Deities or the genders of the devotees.”

I would, for the most part agree with this. However, these are exceptions, not the rule, and exceptions are rare. I think it’s very easy to be so eager to consider oneself an exception that one doesn’t go through all the requisite and respectful steps to determine the Deity’s will, but rather puts one’s own desire ahead of that will. Likewise, I think diviners have to be very careful about allowing their own values and preconceptions to influence their results. I don’t think a person’s self-identification is enough of a reason to override such prohibitions, not without clear assent from the Deity in question. (Easy enough to get via divination–I recall asking about this once from a Lukumi elder, and he said that before initiation, divination would be done for trans people—for everyone but I was specifically asking about transfolk. That divination would determine whether a person would perform certain ritual prostrations in the male or female form. The result was up to the Orishas. I suspect each House handles this differently but in the end, the decision should be up to the Holy Powers, who made us as we are, rather than our modern iteration of Manichaeism writ large). Here I disagree with P.S.V.L who writes:  

“ if the grounds for exclusion are a matter of identity, then the self-identification of the people involved should be what determines that identity’s validity…” 

I do think there is a difference between a Deity’s Mysteries and personal devotion, the latter of which should not be affected by any such prohibitions. We are free to pray as we pray after all. There’s a difference between having a personal devotion to a Deity and celebrating the Mysteries of that Deity and that’s the line at which prayer, discernment, and divination must occur, the former two by oneself and the latter by experts before any changes in protocol happen. Anyone who carries the Mysteries of a tradition or God, or to be honest, anyone who respects their Gods and wants to see proper restoration of Their cultus occur is charged with protecting Their rites and rituals. 

As an aside, I am fascinated with the suggestion offered in the article that Bona Dea’s mysteries might be expanded to include abortion and also with the suggestion that this well may have been part of Her original area of expertise (in addition to other areas of relevance to fertile women). Yes, and yes. Knowing what I know of ancient Rome, this would not surprise me at all. Birth control and abortion were so widely practiced in ancient Rome that one plant, silphium, was so effective and popular that it went extinct from overuse and there were, especially during the Augustan period, serious concerns about declining birthrates. However, I digress. 

Someone who is pious should not WANT to force his or her way into a cultus restricted by gender, and if that person is trans, I would think that the requirements of the God would take precedence over desire for human recognition as male or female—recognition happily given in every other area. But, as a line from the Book of the Dead that came up in recent div (unrelated to this topic) said, “we are not perfect but perfecting” and I think that holds true here.  When in doubt divine, but also be willing to accept the answer. We’re not entitled after all to any Mystery of any God. We may, however, ask. 

Unlike Christianity, we have options. It isn’t as though one Deity holds the key to all the Mysteries. We can go to another Deity or approach that Deity in a different form outside of those rites and if we’re unwilling to do this, but instead are yammering about how we should be granted access then the problem is our own arrogance, not the proscriptions. I have been barred from receiving the Mysteries of specific Gods that I love very much. I am free to honor the Deity in question (Dionysos) but I was barred from initiation because I am owned by Odin and initiation has soteriological consequences. I accepted the decree of the Gods because in the end, THEY get to decide and my obligation as a pious human being is fulfilling Their will. We are lucky that we have the option to do divination, to hear firsthand via oracle or div. what our Gods might want. Not every tradition allows its votaries direct access like that. It’s a blessing of being a polytheist. I think we should focus more on what we can do for our Gods and traditions and move with gratitude into devotion.  

By trying to force your way into these restricted areas, you’re missing the opportunity to find Mysteries and rites and roles that are accessible to [insert your gender here]. You’re missing the opportunity to create another doorway through which the Gods you love may work. That’s a powerful thing, and a heavy responsibility to accept. It takes more integrity than trying to tear down established and productive traditions. Someone, by the way, might have wanted to mention this to the Catholics before the abattoir that was Vatican II. Traditions are meant to be nourished not picked apart into irrelevance. 

The Gods Will Sort It…

An Episcopalian colleague was sending his prayers for my husband and made the comment “ The Gods will sort it out amongst Themselves to Whom the prayers should go” and…that is exactly what I believe about prayer. Don’t ever hesitate to pray. Especially don’t ever hesitate to pray for those you love. The Gods will sort it out. I firmly believe our prayers are heard. I believe that prayer is one of the most potent tools for transforming ourselves and our world that we have. They hear us and I firmly believe They cooperate in getting things done. So, don’t hesitate to pray. 

(My caveat would be this: I never pray that anyone converts. I personally think that’s an evil act. As much as I”d like to see a polytheistic dominant world, people have vows and bonds and responsibilities to their Gods, the Gods of their families, of their lineage. If they are meant to come to another family of Gods, it will happen. To pray for conversion is to pray that someone abandon their Gods and we don’t like it when evangelicals do it to us. It’s a type of spiritual attack. I’m not going to do to that to someone else. I pray instead that we all serve our respective Gods to the best of our capacity). 

Reader Question about Mythology and the Gods

I received a really good question about devotion and the Gods a few days ago but this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to respond. This is a really good, basic theological question about why and how we view our Gods and I thought it deserved its own post so here y’all go. 

P. asks: I’m wondering how, as a devotional Heathen, you envision/understand the gods especially because all we have of the Northern deities is the myths and like the Greek and Roman myths, they’re not very flattering sometimes. I was listening to a podcast you did like 3 years ago and you mention this as well, that the Greeks for example, have other material like the Neo-Platonists, or the Romans the Stoics, where the gods are discussed philosophically. Of course deities are not bound by human confines and I know what is meant by, say, siblings mating/marrying (that They are equals, etc) and a nature goddess being promiscuous but, perhaps I never had a new-age, free love mindset EVER, the lack of morality sometimes gets to me whilst reading the material. This is true for most myths of course, not just the Northern tradition. But AFAIK, those are the only material we have. And, on a similar note, the gods are usually so…mean, it’s difficult to like them (not all, obviously!) I’m not being frivolous, and I hope you don’t get this the wrong way, gods are gods and not besties obviously but to have a devotional relationship I feel like there needs to be some sort of affection?”

There are actually several good questions here so let me try to take them one by one and I’ll do my best. 

Firstly, here is an earlier article I wrote on, amongst other things, reading theologically. I would suggest reading that piece first. Here’s another piece on lectio divina

I don’t believe the myths were ever meant to be taken either literally or as exempla of how to behave as human beings. I also detest the new age, free love crap fwiw. I find it morally and spiritually repugnant on every possible level, and there were Deities that I really struggled to honor for precisely that reason. Either the devotees that I had met were gross or Their stories presented a morality with which I simply could not accord. It took me many, many years of devotion and study to realize that the Deity is not confined nor even particularly well represented necessarily in His or Her stories (or by Their devotees!).  The myths are not revealed scripture and they do not function as the unerring Word of God ™. 

How we approach the myths and center them in our minds matters. It matters because it sets the framework for engagement both devotionally and liturgically. These stories contain windows to the sacred but they aren’t sacred in and of themselves in the same way that a Christian might hold the New Testament sacred or a Muslim the Qu’ran (and we are primed in our culture to not only give precedence to the written word over other forms of tradition transmission but also to expect all sacred stories to function like such “scripture.”). The myths that we have are more pliable and I think they may point to different facets of our Gods’ personalities, or certain immutable lessons (like the danger of putting oneself above the Gods) but often storytellers wanted to tell a good story about human events that were shaped in part by their understanding of the power of the Gods to impact our lives (I’m thinking of the Iliad here). The same story can serve many different purposes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doorways to the sacred, but they aren’t holy in and of themselves. Many story tellers including the poet or poets otherwise known as Homer, were soundly criticized by later philosophers for the way in which they presented the Gods in their writing. It was considered impious. I tend to think that in such cases it was more a nod to the ways in which the Gods are able to inspire us and act in the world. Also, Norse culture particularly was an oral culture. What we have written down, what we consider “lore,” i.e. the Eddas, Sagas, etc. is but a bare fraction of what actually existed. There are some serious lacunae. One can get glimpses in art and material culture of stories that we simply no longer have. In oral cultures like these, sacred things were not the types of things that would’ve been transmitted via the written word because to write it down traps and closes the circle of the narrative. It removes the possibility for future revelation.

When I read a myth about one of my Gods that rubs me the wrong way, I sit with it and look for the greater cosmological lesson (1). What does this say about the nature of my God? What does it say about how that God is able to act in the world, but most importantly, how does it reflect creation and the impetus and actions of our Gods therein. Quite often, there is something in these stories and their presentation of the Gods that hearkens back to the creation narrative. I’ve written about that here

Are there any patterns that recur in the story? Where do things start to go awry? All of these are important textual markers for places that may serve as windows for something holy or for a mystery belonging to the Deity in question. Stories are never just stories if we’re reading theologically (2). 

I think the highest form of interpretation is through the lens of devotion (not philosophy and certainly not recitation of lore) but one text that might be helpful is Sallustius’s “On the Gods and the World.” Sallustius was a friend of Emperor Julian, and this was written, if I’m not mistaken as sort of a primer of how to read poly-theologically. It’s not a bad place to begin. As he notes, the myths never happened and are always happening. That is the essence of Mystery. 

I love the Gods. I believe that They are eternal creators of all the worlds, that They are good, essentially, ontologically *good*.  I was thinking of this when my assistant Tove played this song for me and we had a long discussion about how *no one* is unloved by the Gods. That is the profundity of Their nature. They imagined us, willed us, crafted us into being. We are Theirs in ways we can barely imagine. 

Tove, when I asked her, because we are sitting here discussing this, added, “Our Gods are ineffable and limitless, and the scariest thing is that They see the fullness of our potentiality and the closer we come to Them, the more we see that potentiality juxtaposed against the reality of who we are now. They love us in our whole form, including who we CAN Be and there’s a challenge there: how far can we stretch, how far can we grow. I believe They want, like all good parents, want us very much to grow. This is probably why people say it is a scary thing to be loved by a God. It forces one to be bigger, to be more.” 

I have rarely if ever experienced a Deity being “mean.” At least, I’ve never experienced it as being mean just to be mean. Sometimes I have had a God or Goddess push me in some way beyond my limits, push me to the point of challenge and then one step farther. That is a good thing. It is only by pushing against our limits that we grow stronger. I have seen very wounded human souls incapable of experiencing the power of the Holy Ones save through the lens of their own terrible abuse. That is not something that the Gods did. That was a damaged soul unable to see divine love as anything other than terrible…and still something to be longed for jealously. Of course, I belong to Odin, the personification of ecstatic frenzy. His love is the tip of a spear penetrating the heart and it is glorious. 

In devotion, the relationships we develop with our Holy Ones may start out in fumbling awkwardness but they grow. Like any relationship they grow in intimacy, in trust. That’s what is really key: trust. We learn to trust our Gods, to let Them in a little more, to go a few more faltering steps forward in devotion. “Affection” is too small, too weak a word for what the Gods are capable of evoking in our hearts. Their love is like the blood beating in our veins. It is like breath forcing itself into and out of our lungs again and again. It is all that sustains us, and all that challenges us to be more. 

Notes:

  1. While one may argue that some myths like Homer were ancient fanfiction, I think the difference between then and now lies in the fact that the culture of Homeric Greece (to give one example of “mythology”) was infused with veneration of the Gods at every level. The tradition was deep and intergenerationally embedded. That is not the case now, quite the opposite. So much in our world is hostile to devotion of any sort, esp. media which often makes a mockery of it or puts humans above the Gods. 
  2. For pre-Christian polytheists, religion was about devotion and engaging in some way with the Gods. Soteriological concerns were handled via mystery cultus, and building character, virtue, learning how to be a decent human being both by community nomoi but also in some cases philosophy. The myths aren’t examples of virtuous living for mortals because that’s not the correct place upon which to put that weight. That’s not the purpose of religion. Religion is about engaging properly with the Gods. Now, they can teach virtue by dint of teaching what is proper behavior, but it’s through custom, upbringing, and philosophy that one really developed those things…otherwise, the purpose of religion is subtly shifted in unhelpful ways. It goes from being about the Gods to being about us, humanity. It becomes vanity.

The Power of Art

Why do I write about ballet, art, and music so much on a blog dedicated to polytheism/theological topics? Over and above my own involvement in these things, and the relevance of ancestor veneration and lineage ancestor veneration, I write about Art (and here, read this as multivalent: dance, music, writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, pottery, glassblowing, weaving, embroidery, sewing, etc. ALL art) because it is sacred. I write about it because it is a conduit through which the Gods may work. I write about it because bringing Art into the world at any level of competency is a holy thing. It drives back the Unmaker. It reaffirms creation. It aligns us with the Gods who carefully designed and wrought the worlds. It restores and cleanses and preserves the soul from evil. To bring art into the world, to facilitate its expression, to experience it with wonder, to allow it to work its healing is sacred. Not everyone is a priest or spirit-worker, shaman or other specialist. But just as everyone can pray, everyone can experience Art in some way, and doing so heals the soul of pollution and the fury of evil. It’s important, just as remembering and calling to mind our lineage ancestors is important.

It is not a waste of time to look at a painting and ponder it, to dance, however inexpertly, to music you like, to listen to a song, to embroider a pretty design, to make a wobbly pot, to practice an instrument, to muddle out a painting even if you think it sucks. Make art. Craft things. In all ways large and small, make it, inhale it, imbibe it, devour it, bring it into the world, and open space for others to experience it. Allow yourself this gift. It cleanses. It allows the Gods to speak. 

Lectio Divina: July 23, 2022

I haven’t done one of these in awhile so I thought, since yesterday was the anniversary of my Mani devotional, that I would look at one of the few references that we have in the lore pertaining to Mani. There really aren’t many and in some respects, that’s an incredible freedom in figuring out how to venerate Him. On the other side of that, I do wish we had just a bit more, a prayer, a hymn, something for Him because given how important agriculture and farming were to our ancestors, the House of Mundilfari must have had Their share of devotion, and more so than They receive today. We forget in our urban lives how important seasonal cycles – governed by Mani and Sunna – are to a farmer. 

Of course, that’s not how I personally connect to Mani (through farming or agricultural cycles) but it’s something I’ve come to recognize and respect over the years of my devotion to Him. Now, onto the reading. 

The passage I chose for today is from the Vafþrúðnismál stanza 23: 


"Mundilfari heitir, hann er mána faðir
ok svá Sólar it sama; 
himin hverfa þau skulu hverjan dag
öldum at ártali." (1)

He is called Turner of Time, He is Moon’s father
and also thusly of Sun (2);
They (dutifully) journey round the canopy of heaven every day
to determine for people the liturgical year (3).  

I do augury in the mornings and today’s message was that today is ok, but it’s one that will require patience in many little things, especially the early part of the day. That being said, I hope y’all will be patient with me as I pick my way through this verse. Also, I’m reading devotionally and to some degree theologically, not as a literature major. Do keep that in mind too! So, once I sat and translated this passage to the best of my ability, I noticed a few things. 

Firstly, the word “it” may at times imply a dual form, which means it refers to two of something. Some languages have special forms for a pair. Ancient Greek is like that, for instance. If you’re referring to a pair of something, the verb takes a special form. Modern English doesn’t have a form like this. We would just use second- or third-person plural depending on the grammatical case required. If I’ve interpreted this correctly, then it stands out for me. When I read this, that use of the dual, while absolutely grammatically correct also creates a unique connection linking Mani and Sunna.  They are a pair; They work together; and devotionally, I have to say this is true. When I think of One, the Other is not usually far behind in my thoughts. When I engage devotionally with One of Them, I often sense in my soul, echoes of the Other far more so than with any of the Other Powers Whom I venerate. While the lore doesn’t say anything about it, I’ve often assumed that They are twins. Regardless, They work hand in hand and the holiness, goodness, and journey of One reinforces the same in the Other (4).

The word himin or ‘heaven’ may actually be translated as “canopy of heaven” which immediately brings to mind, not the heaven of Christian religion but the dome of Ymir’s skull, the gleaming circlet that formed the space-making division between sky and land. When the three creator Gods Oðinn, Hoenir, and Loður slew Their primordial ancestor Ymir, They skillfully formed the scaffolding, the framework of creation with his blood, bones, and viscera. From Ymir’s skull these Gods created the vault of heaven, the sky, the galaxy, the cosmos – all that is above us. The verb skulu denotes obligation and duty (it’s where the third Norn Skuld gets Her name. In the case of skulu though, Cleasby/Vigfusson notes that it carries a relatively positive connotation), so here one might read it that “they must journey everyday around the canopy of heaven.” The word “at” when connected to a verb of motion carries a sense of traveling around the borders of a space or thing (5). So, Mani and Sunna each day have the duty of traversing or circumnavigating the great vault of heaven, the canopy of Ymir’s skull. In doing so, They are reinforcing creation, reifying the moment the three Creator Gods brought the whole structure into being and set it in motion.  That means that Mani and Sunna, and by extension the House of Mundilfari, are absolutely essential cosmologically to creation, the ongoing sustenance of that creation, and the fabric of being. 

Moreover, the text reads that they are doing this to determine for the people —öldum (6), that is humanity, ártali, not “fate” as I have seen several translations render this passage, but the cycle of the year. I would go so far as to say the liturgical year. This word can be used poetically as a gloss for the Moon, specifically because the Heathen year was partly lunar (7). This makes sense agriculturally– and we have a lot of folklore in Germany, England, Appalachia, and amongst the PA Deutsch about planting according to the phase and/or sign of the moon. Likewise, there are names are given to each month’s moon that often tie into the month’s agricultural happenings, and while the winter and summer solstice are important liturgically, so are the autumnal and vernal equinoxes. Here is an interesting article that mentions why so many calendars are “luni-solar”. Basically, both Mani and Sunna play Their part. 

Despite being something of a misanthrope, I think it’s important to note that humanity is mentioned in this cosmological equation too. It is for the good of humanity that the cosmic cycles are thus delineated. We were created, carefully crafted. Our place in the architecture of the worlds was not an accident. Of course, neither are we at the apex of that architecture and piety demands that we know our place to be one of reverence for the Powers, but we matter to our Gods. We matter to our Gods, and They continually bless us in ways large and small and have from the beginning. 

The next question I ask myself when reading something like this, after looking at the words in both English and ON is this: what do I do with this? What impact will I allow this knowledge to have on my devotional practice. Every word in this passage has opened up a world and we have so little written on our Gods, especially those in the House of Mundilfari, that each word is a treasure. 

Notes: 

  1. I snagged the Old Norse text from this site. The English translations are mine unless otherwise noted. 
  2. My translation. Dutifully is implied in the use of the it. My Old Norse is pretty basic, but I have to disagree with many of the translations I have read. The translation is usually given “flaming sun” and to the best I can determine, there is just nothing in this sentence to indicate that there is any attribute of Sunna mentioned, other than that of being Mundilfari’s daughter. 
  3. “Sol” is another name for Sunna. Sunna seems to be the more poetic form of Her name. I personally prefer “Sunna”. See entry here. There’s a very interesting note in the Cleasby/Vifusson definition that in Iceland children would greet the sun every morning. If this is a hold-over from Heathen times, which it reads as though it is, then it further reinforces the cosmological importance of the House of Mundilfari in our tradition. 
  4. I never connected Sunna to holiness in quite the way that I do now until I watched an historical special with historian Ruth Goodman. I think it was either her Tudor Farm series or Edwardian Farm series. I can’t recall. What I do recall is that she was showing how a traditional dairy worked and noted that the wife or dairy maids would not only scrub out the churns and other vessels but would let them dry in the sun because it sanitized them. The sun brings wholeness and healing, but also purification. It opened up an entire avenue of exploration for me in how I honor Her, in meditations, and even offerings. 
  5. See Cleasby/Vigfusson here.
  6. From the noun alda, which in poetry can mean “people.”
  7. See Cleasby/Vigfusson here.

A Reader’s Question about Freya and Her Cats

From Katherine B.: What are the names of Freya’s cats? 

Normally, I would have answered this one privately and moved on with my day, but I’ve been seeing erstwhile answers to this question cropping up lately and they’re just wrong. This mildly annoys me and so, I figured I’d answer the question here. The answer is simple too: we don’t know. 

Firstly, we don’t even know how many cats Freya has, and we certainly don’t know their names. 

I have seen two answers posited, but both are assumptions not anything drawn from extant lore. 

The first is that Her cats (and both answers assume She only has two) are named after Her daughters Hnossa and Gersimi. 

The second is that they’re named Beegull (bee-gold, i.e. honey) and Tregull (tree-gold, i.e. amber). This is not in the lore. It’s from a series of fiction novels written by Diana Paxson, who is Heathen. These names likely have traction partly because of that, and partly because they represent two things that are sacred to Freya as well. Still, nowhere in the surviving lore do these names, as the names of Freya’s cats, exist. 

I should also note that the names Diana Paxson gave are also used in a very sweet children’s book, which is a lovely way to encourage young kids to think about the Gods and to start learning devotion. There’s creative license, however, inspired by devotion, in this case to acclimate children to our Gods, and then there’s actual lore-based knowledge. It’s important to know the difference.  (1). 

Freya’s cats are supernatural, powerful beings that are part of Her retinue. They are part of Her mysteries, and knowing Their names is a privilege, one probably reserved for those initiated into Her mysteries if even then – Their names are part of these Beings’ power. Her cats are cats but also “Other”– just like Auðumla is a cow, but so much more. To even say they are “cats” as we conceive of them is somewhat questionable and I’ve known those devoted to Freya who saw very large felines, much larger than housecats in their contemplations of Her. I’ve seen regular cats, lynx, other large predatory cats (cougars, lions), Norwegian forest cats, and even wolverines suggested by Freya’s folk. The answer is we just don’t know and as with any Holy Being, maybe They choose how They appear to our limited vision. What we can assume is that They are creatures of power, part of Her retinue, and perhaps we can learn much by considering why cats are so clearly Her creatures in our tradition. 

On an only slightly related note (because cats lol), here is a video about Manul cats. They are awesome. If I ever see one, I will probably die having been bitten to death because I will not be able to resist petting it. LOL.  . 

Notes:

  1. There’s no issue if one agrees, based on one’s own devotional experience, that “Beegull” and “Tregull” are the name of two of Her cats, but were I writing about that, I’d footnote exactly this: “no names are given for Freya’s cats in the surviving lore, but drawing on the work of Diana Paxson (and I’d note which works), some Heathens believe Her cats are named Beegull and Tregull.” Then I might note whether or not I agreed with this on my own devotional practice. Personally, I’ve never been given any names for Her cats, but She is not one of my primary Deities. Though I honor Her regularly, I don’t carry Her mysteries.

My exams are complete

I just received notification from my academic department chair that I passed my qualifying exams. I sat for the written exams last week and my orals were yesterday. I am so grateful to my department for their generosity and support.

The process was exhausting — really an initiation of sorts– but we are given a year to prepare and a great deal of feedback from our examiners throughout. I tested in medieval theology, patristics, ante nicene christianity and then my dissertation field (that exam was very theoretical). Now I can focus on teaching my summer courses before settling down to work on my dissertation proposal. I also have a little stack of books that I have been savoring and setting aside to read right after my exams were done (the reading lists for my exams were quite extensive, leaving little room for anything else). Today I plan to crack the first one open and settle down for fun—of course it’s a book on … medieval theology ha ha.

Several of you have been asking me privately how the whole process is going, so now you know: I PASSED!! WOO!!! ^___^.

What Makes a “Mystery Religion”?

With Swain Wodening/Berry Canote rearing his head again, trying to creep back into our communities, I’ve been reading up on various online critiques of Theodism, the denomination of Heathenry from which the Wodenings arose (1). One of the pieces I found was this blog post. The guy who runs it is a complete asshole (2) but the piece itself gives an online trail of websites and information that show how Theodism, is an egotistical boys’ club that cares far more about preserving (or hiding) the lack of honor, integrity, and character of the men involved than speaking the truth, taking an ethical stand, and definitely more than venerating the Gods. I worked in Theodism for maybe ten years and venerating the Gods properly was always much farther down on the list than stroking the mens’ …um…egos. But I digress…

In the article above, the fool who wrote it, calls Theodism a “Mystery religion.” He bases this on the fact that Theodism has a hierarchical social structure in which most newcomers begin as “thralls” and earn higher social rank as they learn Theodish customs and ingratiate themselves with their higher ups (3). He also uses the term “Mystery religion” as though it is a negative thing. The dude has no idea what a mystery religion is, or he’d never use the term for Theodish Heathenry, and it is that question: “What is a Mystery Religion?” that I want to discuss here. 

The word “mystery” comes from the Greek μυστήριον. It means ‘mystery’ and refers to ‘secret rites,’ religious mysteries, particularly those associated with a specific Deity, and those things revealed by a particular Deity—theophany or revelation—during the enactment of that Deity’s rites (4). It was used in ancient Greek polytheism, Roman polytheism, and even early Christianity to refer to certain rites and practices. The term “Mystery Religion” could refer to a broad range of traditions and rites but there were certain aspects of cultic praxis that traditions under this rubric generally shared (5): There was some type of initiatory rite in which the initiate, having been properly prepared, experiences and receives sacred knowledge from a Deity; these rites were secret and definitely not open to the entire community; they permitted the initiate to “share in symbolic (sacramental) fashion the experiences of the God” (6); they may serve a cleansing or even piacular function; they carried soteriological and possibly even eschatological impact. Obviously, the a priori position from which such mystery traditions worked was that direct experience of the Gods was possible and the initiate could be prepared to (more or less safely receive this) via preparation through particular levels within that tradition. 

Mystery religions were separate things from civic religion, or from common and public veneration of a particular Deity or family of Deities. One could honor any Deity without participating in a Mystery tradition. Usually the mysteries were developed (or received) within a cultic context centered around particular veneration to a specific Deity, but they existed within the larger religion. Participation in a mystery cultus was not required to be good polytheists.  A tradition could be commonly open to everyone but contain within it a Mystery cultus, or even more than one, (7) that had rites and initiatory procedures that were restricted.

The word μυστήριον itself was even used by the early Christian Church to refer to its rituals, particularly baptism, which was viewed as a type of initiation, available only after extensive preparation. It did what any initiatory rite was believed to do: created an ontological change in the initiate’s soul, thus moving that initiate from one state of being to another (8). Now, if we’re looking solely at the idea of moving from one state of being to another, then I can see why the author of the aforementioned blog [incorrectly] attributed to Theodism status as a mystery religion. A thrall can rise through the social ladder to “thegn” for instance. But this doesn’t actually make Theodism a mystery religion. That elevation in status has nothing to do with cultic rites to any Deity. It is a purely social practice within Theodism. 

Moreover, not only does theodism not possess any expectation of rituals involving theophany, but they are also openly hostile to the idea. Devotion and the logical extension thereof of mystical experience are not things valued in this tradition. There ARE Heathen denominations that I would say are mystery traditions (I myself work within one). There are other polytheistic traditions that I would say are or contain Mystery traditions (9). Theodism isn’t one of them though. A “Mystery Tradition” is centered around direct experience of a Deity’s mysteries usually through some sort of initiatory experience mediated by others who have been initiated. The point is the direct experience of the God. The point is that ontological change that takes place in the person’s soul, a transformation that affects everything from that point on, especially what happens to that soul after death. Going from thrall to thegn does not change the status or nature of the person’s soul. Nor are Gods involved. Now, when I was in Theodism there was a warrior “cultus” (10), but it was a social transition not a religious one effected. 

Now, in my opinion, Mystery Traditions are the heart and soul of any functional, sustainable religion, as important – if not more so—as the essential balance between good, pious laity, and well trained specialists (spirit workers, shamans, priests, mystics etc.). For a religion to be healthy in its relationship to the Holy Powers, that gifting of mystery to the initiate, and the initiate carrying that back into the regular community, standing as an example and a carrier of holy power to the group is absolutely essential. It requires a community to be focused on the Gods and to understand what constitutes right relationship – what the Romans might have termed pax deorum and what our Heathen ancestors quite likely included under the term frith (11), and in understanding it to allocate to it the highest value across all demographics of the community. It is here that true unity in a group is achieved: that prioritization of piety, of maintaining right relationship with the Powers, and of understanding that it takes each and every one of us working together to properly nourish it.  If any of that is present in Theodism, then it’s something that’s surely changed quite a bit since I was there in the early oughts. 

Notes:

  1. I will give credit where credit is due. Theodism has done more to restore proper blòt than any other denomination. They did a remarkable and praiseworthy job there. That is pretty much the only area in which I will ever say this. 
  2. His critique of Theodism was good enough that I mistakenly assumed he had critical thinking and close reading skills. Also, he’s been deleting comments from both me and my husband, likely so he can twist his fictional narrative to his own ends. Still, the critique of Theodism itself provides useful links to that denomination’s more appalling dirty laundry.
  3. The term ‘thrall’ is ugly, but it must be noted that what this means in practice within Theodish communities is that the person may be present, participate in most rituals, and be part of the community events but have no voting voice in how things are run. It does not mean that such a person is misused or treated like well, a thrall. It signifies a time of learning the ritual and social customs, rules, practices, etc. where mistakes are expected, and no onus will be attached to the person for any gaffe. It’s a watch and learn, participating in light carefully mediated ways entry into Theodism. It’s not that different than numerous other cultural traditions around the world, for instance religions like Lukumi also differentiate between newcomers and those steeped in the tradition, and the former are not permitted at every rite. 
  4. See https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=musthrion&la=greek#lexicon.
  5. See Martin Luther King, Jr’s early work on Mystery Traditions in the ancient world: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/influence-mystery-religions-christianity.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The word cultus comes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultum which means ‘to till or tend,’ as in tilling or tending a field. When I use this term to mean “a system of veneration directed toward a particular Holy Power,” to paraphrase the definition given by the OLD. The register in which I am writing utilizes it as a neutral term, with this classical definition. If I am using it to refer to dangerous, fringe religious groups, or a dangerous “admiration for a particular person” (Again OLD)  which is a modern, usually negative connotation, I will say so. 
  8. Μυστήριον became the word Christians used for “sacrament” by the very early medieval period. See https://research.library.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=theology_facultypubs. The term is used twenty-seven times in the New Testament, often for something ‘secret,’ or more commonly for revelation of the Gospel and/or the Incarnation itself. See:https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Mystery (yes it’s wiki but it’s really a reproduction of a Catholic Encyclopedia entry).
  9. Ironically, BT Wicca would qualify as a mystery tradition. There are levels in which everyone may participate, but then there is also an initiatory structure where mysteries are conveyed…religious mysteries. 
  10. This was a group that excluded women and had the most pathetic initiation rite that you could ever imagine—I’ve done more challenging rituals in my first year as an ordeal master ffs. I should also note that not all mystery tradition initiations change the afterlife. They may change your status in relation to the Gods Who then offer special protection. Still, the change involves Gods. It involves a theophany, a direct encounter of some sort with the Holy and then your subsequent relationship with that Deity is transformed.
  11. Though both of these terms are polyvalent and have relevance in ways large and small within a community. Frith particularly refers to the right relationship between all parties and may be used in social relationships as well. Pax Deorum had civic and political implications for the Roman Empire.

Initiatory traditions and mystery traditions are not necessarily the same thing. Mystery traditions have initiatory aspects but there are groups that have initiation that don’t have deeper mysteries or a focus on theophany.