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!!! ^___^.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- See https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=musthrion&la=greek#lexicon.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I hate having to make this post. The subject is one, however, that needs to be addressed by those of us who have been in the community long enough to know the history of the person in question. I really hate having to write this.
Apparently Swain Wodening is back, after having apostatized, broken faith with our Gods, after he returned to Christianity, and after he’s written at least one book “Letting Go to Live with Christ” (and this is not going into detail about what an execrable human being he is on a personal level). He’s lurking in multiple Facebook Heathen groups under his legal name Berry Canote.
So far, there has been no explanation of his apostasy, no contrition, no humility. Is he coming back in troth or coming back to proselytize? Or is he coming back because he didn’t get enough attention after his apostasy (after all, Christian groups might pet and fawn over the converted Pagan for a year or two but eventually that fame fades). Why should we ever trust the word of a man with so little honor?
Swain was not just regular laity. He was in positions of authority and leadership within Heathenry. He broke his word and turned his back on the Gods. We need to hold our leaders and elders to a higher standard or what’s the point? If someone is going to constantly swing back and forth between Heathenry, Christianity, Heathenry, Christianity, etc. they are unreliable and having broken their word, having broken troth to the degree that he did, we should not easily allow such a person to return to our communities without censure. Nor should he ever be given any position of leadership again ever.
It’s not even that he went Christian…a polytheist can honor the Christian Gods if he or she wants. No, Swain fully turned his back on the Gods and became a monotheist. This isn’t the same as syncretic practice, adding more Deities to your family shrine; this is a renunciation of our Holy Powers and once you do that, there should not be an easy way back. Personally, I don’t think there should be a way back at all, but if we’re being generous, the fucker should have to prove himself for a very long time.
At some point, we need to establish strict standards in dealing with garbage like this. There is no place in our community for atheists and there’s certainly no place for those who abandon the Gods in the way that he did to traipse back in expecting to be welcomed with open arms. This is a religion not a fucking social club.
EDIT: I would add if it were a lay person struggling with his or her faith, we could work with that and probably should work with that, but this was someone who was a leader in the heathen community for years, who influenced many people, and who behaved abominably. and, moreover, who has evinced no contrition or explanation upon his return and who is sneaking back in under his legal name, not the one he used before as if to hide. no. no. and no
I posted this a long time ago, but given the conversation over at House of Vines, it’s become particularly relevant right now, so I’m giving it a repost.
A thing came up today amongst some colleagues: the difficulty of loving savage Gods. I belong to Odin: I know a thing or two about loving in the midst of Terror. A friend said “but He’s only ever kind to me. Why honor Him in His savage aspects, why not just focus on the beautiful?” Oh what a powerful question, and one that I have seen arise again and again and again.
We are fragile and sometimes hurting so deeply and the Gods are so big. We carry our hurts like a grey fever in our bones, and when there has only been hurt for so long in our lives, how can we not flinch and flee a Terror so much beyond any human fist or scathing word, or yelling voice? Gods are supposed to be nice and good and never, ever angry aren’t They? Why not just call upon Them in the sweetest of guises and avoid the cognitive disconnect (and fear) all together? Why risk one’s world of devotional safety being breached?
Well, there is an answer–at least I have found one loving Odin as I do– and I’ll share it with you now. In truth though, I suspect that this is a devotional hurdle that every devotee will likely have to surmount on their own. Why love and honor the Gods when Their face is terrible? Because not doing so truncates one’s potential relationship with that God. Because terror is subjective and for some of us, our Gods are most beautiful when They are the most terrifying.
When someone comes to me, either having gotten their first glimpse of their Deity’s more savage face, or having encountered someone for whom that is simply the way that same God is, this is what I tell them:
You are not alone in being disturbed when encountering one of the fiercer faces of a God. It is difficult to see such a different manifestation of a God so close to one’s heart. It doesn’t negate the gentleness and kindness with which that self-same God may come. It fulfills it. It enhances it. It renders those things an even deeper grace. That a God can be fierce and harsh but chooses not to be so with a particular devotee, oh that is a blessing. And likewise if a God does present a savage face, I think that is also a blessing – it is showing a tremendous amount of trust in the devotee that such a one is able to stand in the furor still rejoicing. Every aspect of our Gods is a blessing, as far as I’m concerned. I would not shut the door to a single one, even if it means I stand in terror until my bones ache. My heart will still be rejoicing because in doing so, I have glimpsed a Mystery.
A God’s nature is manifold and varied, and be He kind or be He savage, it is all part of the God Himself (and Goddesses can be every bit as fierce but the conversation I initially had today involved a God). To love and venerate a God means loving and venerating ALL of that God, not just the parts that don’t challenge us. That is what devotion is all about and it can be really, really scary.
You may never, ever be called upon to engage with your God – be it Odin, or Dionysos, or Sekhmet, or any other Deity as a ferocious and terrifying God; and that is perfectly ok. I very much believe that the Gods know best how best to come to us. We need different people engaging with different facets of our Gods … as many as possible because each of us is a window for our Gods onto this world. There is work and devotion that only you can give, and only I can give and only devotee X can give, etc. and if we choose not to do it, we will be failing our Gods. We will also be failing ourselves and maybe even failing our fucked up world as well.
So if your God is not asking you to venerate Him as a terrible God, awesome. But He does ask it of some because that medicine too must be loosed on the world. We need it, desperately. It is transformative in a different way from the kindness, liberating in a different way from the gentleness and there are some aspects of our world’s dysfunction and dis-ease that only such terror can cure; …
and Their terror is beautiful, breathtaking in ways I lack the skill with words to tell. We must be brave in our devotions, brave in loving Them, even when our souls quiver in terror. We must move from a place of trust. That is the core of devotion and if it is lacking then everything else is for naught. These things are Mysteries. Even if I am never called to engage with the Gods (other than Odin) I love in this way, I am glad these Mysteries exist. I am glad too that Odin has allowed me to see a whisper of His savageness. It is holy.
I’m sitting here preparing to give the third of the four initiations my particular tradition (or denomination) might bestow. All day, I have been engaged in sacred things: cleaning shrines, preparing offerings, preparing our ritual room, laying out garb, putting together the herbs for a cleansing bath, reviewing initiatory protocols and the like. It is a good day, the night before Modranacht, where the Mighty Mothers, the Goddesses and Disir of our tradition are honored. It is two days before our Yule rite proper.
I’m sitting here, waiting for the initiate to finish her preparations, sitting with a heating blanket tucked around my back and hips – damp, cold weather makes all my old injuries ache ferociously—and as I’m doing so, I had an epiphany about this liturgical period. Our rite today honors the three creator Gods: Oðinn, Hoenir, and Loður, Who crafted the worlds, set the architecture of creation into motion, and carefully shaped and gifted the first humans Ask and Embla. Oðinn gave soul on the current of His breath; Hoenir gave sense and cognition; and Loður bestowed the gift of our sensorium, the running of our blood, and the grace of our complexions in all their glorious variety. We are infused with God-stuff: Their blessings and the ability to come into conscious awarness of the Holy Powers, and through devotion to draw closer to Them, to parse the divisions between our world and that moment of goodness, tearing down that self-imposed wall in our souls and again letting the synergy of THEM and Their will rush like life-giving waters over the desert plain of our world. They are artists these Gods, and I do not believe that the creation of humanity was thoughtlessly done. They shaped and blessed us carefully, and then moved amongst us, sent Their children amongst us too in order that we might learn how to live rightly and well.
Yule is a time where we can center again on those blessings, on that moment of creation. Sunna and Her retinue carry us into this interstitial period where the Wild Hunt rides and Odin, Perchta, and Their retinue hold sway, blanketing the worlds in Their wild and sometimes terrifying presence. We are reminded of our place in the cosmic hierarchy, of the numinous terror and ecstasy our Gods can bring, and of the great unknowability of our Gods, for They are vast and deep and beyond the masks They sometimes wear for our benefit, eternally unfolding in Their power.
Agriculturally, at the most prosaic level (nothing wrong with this – no agriculture = no food. No food = starvation, famine, and death. Agriculture and farmers are worth respecting!) Yule is a time where we look to the return of the Sun. As the longest night of the year, this is the time after which, even though winter might be hard, the days slowly grow longer and eventually the land, after its winter rest, becomes ready to receive plough and seed once more. It‘s a time of hope and celebration. We celebrate our good stewardship of our land, home, and household resources knowing that we will make it through the winter; and we look forward to the return of the sun and the fertility of the earth in the spring. On a deeper, more esoteric level, this is a time where Oðinn’s presence permeates everything. It is a time to contemplate His mysteries, His sacrifice, and the mysteries of the Gods and Goddesses that ride with the Hunt, as well as the Hunt itself, the eternal cycle of predator-prey, destruction-creation, terror-beauty-ecstasy-mystery and all the many lessons these fierce Gods have to teach. Why does the Hunt ride, and what is it doing in the architecture of creation? Why must it ride (because this is not about us. We are small in the scheme of the worlds, but about something bigger and more important, about cycles that we can barely grasp, about driving out pollution, about restoration, and about remembering the moment where ice and fire danced their terrible and violent dance. But, over and above that, it is a time to remember the means of our creation, and to reify it with the rituals that we do. One time Three Gods worked Their will upon matter and Being. Being transformed to becoming, and from that raw and primal bounty, worlds were made. They continue to be so, as creation continues ever and always to unfold. It is always happening. The Gods are always creating, always poised at the moment of the slaughter of Ymir and the distribution of His divinity.
These Gods took the body of their eldest ancestor and under the gaze of the watchful moon, pierced Ymir’s heart, hacked up his limbs, plucked out his bones and worked that divine matter into the fabric of that which They created. They infused the worlds They brought into being, with the bloody primordial ooze and viscera of divinity, of that which cannot die as we define death, of that which is ever transforming and unfolding, and that transformative power is the promise of our own ongoing creation.
Yule and the fires we light, signify the moment three Gods rose up out of the great labor-lurch of the Gap and spewed forth in will and holy fury, the actualization of the material abundance Auðumla guards. Let us remember and carry forth the knowledge of Their blessings and know that we too are part of that ongoing, unfolding promise of Their action of creation.
Now I need to get myself back in gear as the rite is about to begin.
In response to my last post, Xenophon asked two very good and practical questions, and I’m going to take a stab answering them here.
QUESTION: “How do you go about worshiping Gods that are antagonistic to each other without getting on the other’s bad side?” IE: Loki and Skadi, or Loki and Heimdall, Thor and Jormundgand or Odin and Fenris (still trying to wrap my brain around the notion of veneration for him or Surt ), Or even the Aesir and Jotnar. Oh…and one I just thought of….what would be the most basic way of worshiping the Gods as a stepping stone?” — Xenophon
I think you actually have a third question squeezed sneakily in there with your comment about Fenris and Surt. I’ll give you my thoughts on that one too in a moment. I think how one treats the Jotnar, whether or not one venerates Them, and which Jotnar one venerates (most mainstream Heathen denominations would say there is a difference between honoring Gerda or Skadhi versus Surt and Fenris, for instance) is really one of the key denominational divisions. This question right here, almost more than any other (what I sometimes call, in a rather tongue in cheek manner, the “Got Loki?” question) is a key identifier within Heathenry and the various Northern tradition denominations. See, I’m digressing already. Let me hit your first question first, before I wander too far out into the weeds.
Re. worshipping Gods that are cosmologically antagonistic to each other, specifically Loki and Skadhi, Loki and Heimdallr, Thor and Jormundgand, and Odin and Fenris (good exampla all) there are a couple of things I keep in mind.
Firstly, how do we interpret the lore? Most scholars, I think would agree that there has been a certain Christianization of the lore. This isn’t unexpected given that so much of what was written down was recorded by a Christian politician and poet and various of his peers at least two centuries after conversion. Such muddying of the waters is inevitable, and we can learn a lot from it, from what was shaded in that way, and what wasn’t. As I learned in divination: what isn’t present is every bit as important as what is. Also, we should always keep in mind that we have but a fragment of the sacred stories our Heathen ancestors enjoyed. There is so much more to our cosmology than what we have enshrined in written record, even if one takes into account folklore.
When reading a sacred text, there are numerous ways that one can approach the text: literally, allegorically, anagogically, tropologically. I would add onto that mystically. What does all that mean? Well, while we don’t have something holding the authority of “scripture” in the way that the bible might be positioned for Jews and Christians, we have texts that are maps to the holy. Not holy in themselves, they provide keys, windows, and doorways to Mystery. Mysteries seem to be wellsprings of unending depth and we can return to a story again and again finding new meaning, new ways to construct our world, new insights into our Gods, our cosmology, and our devotion. That’s why these stories are so powerful. That’s why any religious text is so powerful: it teaches us how to navigate our world.
One can read a text literally, taking everything as a literal, even historical account (I don’t recommend this. It flattens out the texts, the religion, and the mysteries therein and often leads to very black and white morality). In an allegorical interpretation, we look for hidden meanings, for mystery. Likewise with a mystical interpretation, we filter our understanding of a particular story through the lens of the God we are venerating. Anagogical interpretations tend to utilize a text to refer to or interpret future events (often there is a sense of foreboding, foreseeing, prophesy, or eschatology here). A tropological reading looks for the lesson, the moral of the text and seeks to apply that to our current behavior. I tend to be hesitant about indulging in this type of reading too much with polytheistic texts because religion – however much devotion may have shaped our ancestors’ morality—was not the proper locus of morality and virtue development for ancient polytheists, not generally. Rather, they would have looked to philosophy, to their culture, their family, civic awareness, and their laws and customs for this. At least, they didn’t enshrine a moral code into their cosmological stories in the way that the Bible seeks to do (and really, either one is ok but it’s important to realize the work that these texts are doing within the religious communities that use them. We have a lot of converts still who may instinctively want the lore to do the work that the bible does, but, at least where morality is concerned, it just doesn’t and was never meant to do so).
On top of that we have the three worlds of any text (1): there’s the world behind the text. This would be the social, cultural, and historical context in which the text was written. There’s the world in front of the text. That’s our world and all the things we bring to it from our own experience and understanding today as we sit down to read. Then there’s the world *in* the text. This is where one can find the little doorways to the Gods and to Mystery. It’s the world the text creates, the story that unfolds therein. On top of that, I layer a healthy dose of philology. I want to see the original text, not a translation (or the original text and a couple of translations in most cases) and I will meditate upon individual words sometimes for a very long time.
All of this has to be taken into account when one takes up a section of the lore. On top of that, the whole process should, in my opinion, be framed with prayer, offerings, and devotion. What can the Gods tell us, where will They lead us, what inspiration or insight might we be given? It all gets woven together into the filter through which we can do what I’d call a polytheistic lectio divina.
When I read a story where two Gods are antagonistic to each other, the first thing I do is ask how this ties into the creation story. Creation stories are key to any tradition. They set up the scaffolding upon which the tradition will be built. So much of what happens in the creation narrative is reified again and again throughout other parts of the cosmology, other stories, etc. So, when I see antagonism, I immediately think of the grinding together of the world of fire and the world of ice, a process from which all being and materiality evolved. It reifies and makes new again that moment of creation. It is a point of vitality and re-enactment of something very, very sacred, *the* mystery that all the Gods protect. What is the work this story is doing when placed against our creation narrative? That’s the first question I’ll ask. (Well, ok. I’m a spirit worker. I’m going to ask the Gods for insight and then let my mind open to Their inspiration but that’s not helpful if one hasn’t been taught to do that! It’s cleaner, and leads to better discernment for the majority of people, I think, to learn this process of reading and engaging with a text first, so long as one understands that at its core, are the Holy Powers and all the Mysteries They carry, and the text is but a vehicle for engagement, not engagement itself).
I also keep in mind my place in the cosmological hierarchy. In the grand scheme of things, any politicking between Gods is well above my pay grade. My job is to be respectful, make offerings, pray, and otherwise engage in cultus. This is where one’s religious protocols come in, and lacking that, the guidance of teachers and elders. Protocol is a good thing. It is all the courtesies and etiquette by which we can safely and respectfully engage with the Gods. Each God has His or Her own protocol – all the things that make up the cultus of that Deity. We can sus this out through a close reading of the lore, or the God in question may inspire us directly. Regardless, protocol is important and often that will be a great help in how to manage the practicalities of cultus to opposing Deities.
On a purely practical level – and I probably could have started here – keep Their shrines separate. Do not honor Them closely in the same ritual (as in don’t do a rite dedicated to Both. Individuals may offer prayers to Whomever they choose when the horn is being passed, if it is that style of rite). Respect the antagonism as something sacred, as pointing to something crucially important and vital embedded in the very structure of our cosmology. Such antagonisms often point to powerful Mysteries and in such, each God is holding space for that Mystery to unfold. It’s not actually antagonism I would warrant, but something much, much more primal and primally important. It’s also a tension that as a devotee you most likely won’t resolve (or won’t resolve for a very, very long time) in your devotion. It’s up to you whether that becomes a fruitful tension or not (and I’m not being bitchy here. It really, really is and sometimes those points of unresolved tension can lead to the most fruitful of places). But understand that the perceived antagonism is key to maintaining the structure of creation. It does something, performs an important task within our cosmology and in the end, I have often suspected that when we move away from the more personal manifestations of our Gods to Their more cosmic and overarching emanations (2) – I don’t like that word emanation so consider it a placeholder until I find something more appropriate—we may find that it’s not antagonism so much as partnership and performance of a cosmic reality.
So, that being said. Go with it. Honor Them separately. Be respectful to both. Meditate upon Their stories; and pray with the fervor of a Christina mirabilis (3) doing medieval parkour.
I’m going to stop there, because I’ve pretty much just given you a primer on how to read theologically and it’s a lot, and I just want to let it sit for a bit before continuing. Over the weekend, I’ll discuss your other two questions too. Right now, I’m off to prep for Sunwait.
- This way of reading is something I learned from Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse: Reading Beyond Thecla by Caroline Stichele and Todd Penner.
- One of my colleagues Raven Kaldera offered a model for the way Gods show themselves to us. If I remember correctly, he used the model of a stalactite, positing that the Gods narrow Themselves down becoming more anthropomorphically “human” to allow for intimate and mystical contact with us. But then, at the other end of that spectrum, they are immense, far, far too enormous for any human intellect to comprehend. I’m not sure how fully I agree or disagree with this, but I do find it tremendously useful for conceptualizing the sheer complexity of our Gods. I think he wrote about it in this book, but I’m not 100% sure.
- See the wiki article on Christina Mirabilis here. She is awesome. Nick Cave wrote a song about her too, which you can listen to here.
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I’ve had a few questions coming in the last four days, so I figured I’d handle them here all at once. I have also been reading a couple of interesting articles so I’m sharing those too. Questions two and three were from the same person.
- What is your favorite of Odin’s heiti? – J.
J, that is a hard question. I probably resonate the most devotionally with Odin as Gangleri or Runatyr but it really varies depending on where I’m at devotionally at any given time. Eventually, I want to explore Him through the lens of as many of His by-names as possible devotionally. Each one is a mystery and each heiti an opportunity to get to know Him better, to go deeper into devotion, and more importantly to push oneself outside of one’s comfort zone in devotion. Right now, with Oski’s day just past, I realized that while I’ve honored Him as Oski before, I don’t think I’ve written any prayers to Him in that capacity. I was shocked! Lol. So, that’s the heiti I’m most focused on but is it a “favorite?” I would say no, which is not to say that I have any personal issues honoring Him that way, it’s just not the primary way that I’ve encountered Him in my devotions and I tend to only address Him in this way in December. Mostly, there are so many heiti from which to choose that I find it really hard to say, “this one is a favorite.” There’s also liking a by-name and connecting most strongly with Him through that by-name. Those two aren’t always the same thing. So, it’s complicated.
In the New Year, I plan to start my series here discussing Odin’s various heiti. Many of you had great suggestions for which heiti to examine first when I first mentioned this a month or so ago, and I’m looking forward to delving in. I didn’t want y’all to think I’d forgotten!
2. How do you justify being folkish? Why do you support the AFA?
(I’ll leave this and question three anonymous)
I’m not folkish and I don’t support the AFA. I’ve never been a member and I have significant problems theologically with their positions. They are however, entitled to have those positions just as I am entitled to disagree with them. That is their first amendment rights granted to them by our Constitution. I can disagree with them and they with me, but I won’t abridge their right to practice as they wish. I’ll simply not engage with them or join their organization. I will vote with my feet!
Here’s where I stand. I believe that anyone of any race or ethnicity can practice any tradition including mine and I would not allow discrimination against anyone in any of the religious spaces that are mine to tend, whether that discrimination is based on ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, or any other personal characteristic. My job as a priest is to nurture devotion and faith, to teach the tradition, the right relationships between people and their Gods, ancestors, and other Holy Powers, and to work to the best of my ability to serve my Gods well.
Now ancestor veneration is an important part of my practice, of Heathenry, and of most polytheisms in general. We know that all those alive in the world today are here today because there is a line of ancestors who fought and struggled through hardships to keep living. We respect and love and venerate them for this and the sacrifices they have made. That doesn’t mean we don’t venerate or respect other dead, or that we think only ours should be venerated – everyone has ancestors. Honor them. It’s a simple equation. People call me folkish because I tell them not to forget those sacrifices and to respect their ancestors, remember them, learn from them. We all stand on the shoulders of our dead. Every last one of us.
3. What do you think about Hindutva?
(Several links that I won’t share here were included in this email, many of them accusing former acquaintances of mine of being fascists because they have in some way worked for organizations that have ties to Hindutva).
What I really think you’re asking, is what I think of Western polytheistic attempts to make alliances with Hinduism, and also, Western polytheistic attempts to visibly support larger, extant indigenous polytheisms.
I think for the most part, those attempts are foolish—until we build up our own communities how can we be a credible help to any other polytheistic tradition that is under attack or in danger? Yes, we should absolutely stay informed and speak out when we see other polytheistic and indigenous traditions under attack – especially when those traditions are under attack by monotheistic attempts at proselytizing and erasure. However, until we get our own house in order, we’re not useful to ourselves or anyone else.
I think right now, we are better served spending the bulk of our energy building up our own traditions. With all due respect to my Hindu colleagues, and my colleagues in any other indigenous tradition, these traditions have nothing to gain by any alliance with any Western polytheistic group. While I do think that it is good when polytheists can stand together as a block, and it may be emotionally satisfying to sidestep the difficult work of building our own traditions by friendly alliances with Hinduism, or Ifa, for example – lineages that haven’t been sundered, in the end, I don’t think it’s beneficial to either side right now. Maybe on paper. Maybe as a public relations stunt, but what is really accomplished in actual, concrete actuality? Not a damned thing. Our energy would be better spent focusing on our communities.
When we can enter into these alliances as equal partners then I would be all for it. Right now, at very best, we are the ones likely to be changed or absorbed by any such work because we have not taken the time to develop a backbone, a cohesive sense of identity as religious communities, or any clear sense of piety. We have no ethics because too many of our people mistake politics (usually progressive but not always) for religion. We need to start and really commit to the process of building solid, in person communities, religious houses, temples with the attendant infrastructure to think and act like the communities we can be. We need to be raising children in the faith and looking to restore the framework for intergenerational transmission of our traditions. Then, maybe we can step up and enter into larger alliances with something to offer other than pretty words. In other words, we actually have to HAVE communities before we can have any type of productive alliance.
Now onto some interesting links that I read this week and think some of you may find interesting:
An article about how birds perceive time. Read here.
Vikings got here before the eleventh century. Read that here.
Finally, I just saw a new book came not too long ago on Heathen concepts of the Soul. I have not read it yet, but it looks promising. The book is called ‘Heathen Soul Lore Foundations: Ancient and Modern Germanic Pagan Concepts of the Souls” by Winifred Rose. You can find it here. (and … half way through the first chapter I disagree with the definition of “soul” offered so strongly I may have to write a review. This is theological work but it’s not approached theologically and I find this frustrating. That being said, I am looking forward to seeing how Rose develops her ideas historically and philologically).
Finally, over at House of Vines, a commenter (Xenophon) gave the perfect response to those that are constantly nattering on about how everyone who practices actual religion instead of politics or who disagrees with the political position du jour is a fascist: “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my prayers to the Gods.” That’s it, folks, the best advice of the week: ignore the haters and get on with devotion.
Here is an apotropaic phallus.
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Last weekend I reread C.S. Lewis’ beautiful, poetic, and absolutely wrenching novel Till We Have Faces. It was the last novel Lewis wrote and I’m using it in an intro to theology class that I’m teaching. As it’s been nearly a decade since I had read it last, I’d forgotten how powerful a text this is. For those who may not have read it, Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the story of Psyche and Eros and no novel I have ever read better encompasses and explains the story of a soul’s journey to its God. By the time I got to the end of the book I was sobbing my eyes out. It happens every time I read it.
The story centers around three sisters: Oruel (the protagonist of the book), Redival (her second sister, a fairly minor character in the book), and Istra (whose name in the fictional world of the book means ‘soul,’ or Psyche in Greek). Oruel, whose physical ugliness is highlighted by the book, which in turn is written from her perspective, loves her youngest sister dearly and very, very possessively. Istra, in turn, is so incredibly beautiful and kind as a child that people begin to treat her like a Goddess. They begin to venerate her. Neither she nor Oruel encourage this in any way. Of course, those familiar with Greek myths will know immediately how spiritually dangerous this is, and the problems that may (and do) ensue.
Receiving praise due to a Deity is a form of hubris. It is violence against the proper order of the cosmos. It is a way of placing a human being and the human ego above the Gods in that cosmic order. Allowing this, even passively to occur, is tremendously disrespectful to the Gods in question. It’s a type of impiety that has the potential to spread like wildfire too. This is exactly what happens in the fictional city of Glome, where all the action of the story occurs. The people began to venerate Istra in place of the Goddess of Glome (a Goddess named Ungit, who, as the text tells us, is their Aphrodite). This leads to devastation in the land, with the result that Istra must be taken up to a sacred mountain and given to Ungit’s son. This spurs a painful, bitter, but ultimately enlightening journey for the book’s protagonist Oruel.
Oruel, for the first 2/3 of the book is deeply resentful and bitter toward the Gods. She spews vile, impious, and hateful things toward Them because They have “taken” Istra away from her. (Istra for her part, until Oruel intervened with bullying manipulation, was supremely happy and fulfilled). We see through the course of the book that Oruel doesn’t love. She covets. She is greedy, selfish, and deeply self-centered. Her idea of love is possession. Her complaint against the Gods was this, “I was my own, and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her.” This included Psyche’s right to herself. Like so many self-centered people, Oruel was fully prepared to destroy Psyche’s happiness because it wasn’t centered on her (Oruel). She was fully prepared to shit on anything holy, to pull those she purported to love down into the empty, shallow morass of her own mediocrity and misery rather than allow them to exist, whole and happy away from her control in loving relationships with their Gods.
The book is about the consequences of jealousy. Spiritual jealousy – that is jealousy over someone else’s spiritual gifts, is one of the most destructive things in the world. It twists, corrupts, and destroys everything good, clean, and holy. It destroys the jealous person most of all. Oruel spends 2/3 of the book complaining that the Gods never answer her accusations, that Their answers are confusing, misleading, impossible to understand. She is presented with mystery and refuses to see (even when she is granted a vision). It is easier for her to condemn it as madness and her sister as mad. Oruel eventually becomes Queen of Glome and sovereignty begins to heal her, forcing her to care for those in her kingdom. What really cements that process is writing her account of Istra’s being taken up by the God. Only in the end, when Oruel herself begins to realize how misguided she has been, how cruel and selfish, do we see the true nature of this manuscript.
Here’s the thing: every mystic, every devotee, everyone who loves his or her Gods and works diligently to center their lives around piety and devotion is Oruel as much as we have ever been Istra. Every one of us must, at some point and often more than once face the “holy darkness” that Oruel so pits herself against again and again in the text. Every one of us faces the choice over and over again, day after day in how we respond to the call of our Gods, the press of devotion, or the press of the world and what we have been taught is “rationality.” Every day we face the temptation to dismiss it all as “madness,” just as it was easier for Oruel to claim that Istra was “mad” rather than to accept that she was loved by a God. The book even has Oruel asking, “Was it madness or not? Which was true? Which would be worse? (142).” It’s so much easier to dismiss a life-changing (or challenging) theophany as madness than accept that it is real and have the safe, known pattern of your life fall away. It’s so much easier to call it madness than accept that someone else has received this and you may not be there yet. Jealousy is a terrible thing, especially spiritually, and it twists our souls all out of true. It’s a challenge I think we all face at some time or another (1).
It’s with part II that Oruel starts to heal and come to fruition spiritually. After writing the first part of her story, she has an epiphany, and a theophany that causes her to realize the horrible evil she has done in trying to tear Istra away from her God. Moreover, she comes to repent of it and, gaining both insight and humility, enters finally into right relationship with the Gods. It takes her entire life, as the story is at its core, the story of the soul’s journey. Toward the end of the book, she asks her teacher ‘are the Gods just?” His answer moves me to tears every time: “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? (p. 335). They are ever and always better than we deserve, even though it might take us our entire lifetimes to realize that. It is a touchstone, a thing to contemplate, a thing that urges one to cultivate virtue and piety *better* — whatever better means for each individual soul.
One of the other key questions, the question that gives the title is something Oruel asks after she’s had her epiphany: “How can They meet us face to face until we have faces? (p. 335)” and the novel asks the reader to contemplate exactly what that means. What does it mean to have a face? Why is it necessary before we can experience the Gods? I don’t have an answer to this save that the story of the soul is one of becoming, of growing, of peeling away layers of pain, jealousy, and misunderstanding until we see what Orual finally grasps in the last couple of paragraphs of the book: throughout she has been demanding answers from the Gods. In the end, she realizes that the God –in her case the “God of the Mountain”—IS the answer. In the end, our Gods are enough.
- I’m not saying that one should not engage in clear spiritual discernment. This is always necessary. Just because one is engaging in deep devotion to the point of having mystical experiences, doesn’t mean one should ignore one’s mental and physical health.
All page numbers are from this edition of the book.
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You lurk in the marshlands, a pale and ghostly figure. It is Your treasured abode. The creatures there know You well. They heed Your will and do Your bidding, carrying Your messages far and wide. Once, before creation truly was, You stood with Your Brothers: Fury and Fire--Frenzied inspiration and Holy Power-- at the moment You all slaughtered Ymir, thus becoming Architects of creation, erecting the pristine structure of the worlds. You were the will that held it all together in those first crimson-encrusted moments. Before it was done, You saw it all unfold. Wyrd is a flicker of light on Your bone-slender hands, and You weave it as You will. You are the silent Watcher, often overlooked and under-estimated. That is fine. Nothing escapes Your notice and silence won You freedom once. You save your incantations for moon drenched nights in the fens. Then You willingly unleash Your power. You are a God of strange and liminal places, and the mind is the most liminal threshold of all. You gave us this gift, cognition, worlds unfolding within us, divine in their potentiality, imprinted the senses on our souls, when Loður gave us our physical sensorium. It is both a grace and blessing. Thanks to you, we may walk in many realms, tasting the savor of the liminal, and that is Your gift to us too. Everything is full of meaning. Three Gods made us. Three Gods loved us enough to carefully craft us into being. The persistence of Their regard holds us all together. May I ever see with the eye of my understanding, and hear with the ears of my soul, all the glories You and Your Brothers have wrought. Hail to You, Hoenir, Wili, Lord of the Marshlands. Hail Great God Who blesses the work of my mind. Ever and always will I praise You. (by G. Krasskova)