We had the privilege of meeting a delegation from Ysee at the Polytheist Leadership Conference in 2014. Below, are some wise words from allies in the fight to restore our traditions.
I’ve been musing a lot about Heathenry the past day, what it was, what it is now, what it could be. I think we’re very lucky. For one thing, I think there is something profoundly powerful in throwing off the yoke of Christianity and/or secularism and seizing the threads of our ancestral traditions. It’s a beginning, a renewal, and a restoration and I think that is a good and holy thing. It’s the first step, a necessary step toward restoring our Gods to sovereignty in the world.
Yes. I said that. For all that I am severely critical of Heathens who use the lore to block and control their experience of the Gods, I do think we should allow ourselves to be inspired by our ancestors, by the stories in the Sagas and other lore. We should be ravening berserkers in driving back the filth of monotheism, in honoring our Gods, in offering to Them, and most of all in rebuilding our traditions. The lands of the north once belonged to Odin and His kin and they should again. I’d like to see sacrifices every holy tide in every major city in Northern Europe, and in Heathen communities in North America. That’s my dream anyway. It would be a start, a resanctification of the land and our relationship with both it and our Gods.
I remember a conversation my mother and I once had on esoterically warding our homes. She didn’t. She was ferocious in tending her space because she looked at her house as likewise the home of her gods. She said that nothing malignant could exist in her home because she made the environment one (by prayer, devotion, and quite practically and literally cleaning every day—she was what in German is called a ‘Putzteufal’ or cleaning devil) that was so hostile to filth (of every kind) that nothing spiritually impure could exist there. I wish we could make ourselves and our traditions the same, not through thought-policing, but through carefully tending to our devotions, encouraging the inter-generational process of offering and veneration, and protecting the Mysteries of our Gods’ cultus—all those things that comprise our “traditions.”
There are many Heathens that I disagree ferociously with about how Heathenry should be practiced. That’s ok. We have different traditions within Heathenry and I would stand shoulder to shoulder even with someone I utterly detested to defend our Gods and our right to practice unmolested. The traditions are more important. Seeing them thrive is more important. Re-mapping our world with a renewed awareness of our Gods is most important of all.
I want a Heathenry that doesn’t just obsess about the folk now but on where our traditions can be in a hundred years and how to best get there. It’s important to remember, crucially important I think because this is a bleak and dirty fight at times, that things can change in the matter of a generation. Our traditions were undone in the span of one or two generations. We can reverse that process. We are reversing it. We need to keep on changing it.
Midgard is a very special place. It is not that the Gods can’t simply work Their will here, but that in creating Midgard, They have given us a world where our voices and choices matter too in the forming of things, and I think They took a chance, those three creator Gods when They (perhaps foolishly) breathed life into this thing called “humanity.” I think we have been given a say in how Midgard unfolds. It was certainly the poor choice of some of our ancestors (and of others under coercion) to abandon our traditions a thousand plus years ago. We can choose differently now. I think maybe it’s part of our wyrd and if we choose to welcome the Gods, if we choose to burn down fiercely anything that would keep Their voices from shaking every inch of this world again, then we can bring those traditions back every bit as strongly as they were before, on the broken backs of those who would destroy them again if need be.
I care about one thing and one thing only: venerating the Gods, seeing our traditions restored, returning the world to polytheism. I want to see our world infused with the Gods at every level. I don’t know how to achieve that, but I do know that devotion and a commitment to our traditions is key. Maybe the Gods will help us with the rest.
So when you read things like this, put it in context. It, and so much else of the garbage floating around, is written by someone hostile to the very idea of Gods. What have they to do with any of our traditions?
(I like the mood evoked by “The Vikings.” It may not be 100% historically accurate but it inspires nonetheless.)
My husband and I were having a conversation about a couple of the pieces that I wrote yesterday on my blog at a local diner this morning when I noticed his gaze was fixed on the family in the booth across from ours and he was grinning. It took me a moment to notice what had caught his attention but when I did we both burst out laughing. The couple had given their toddler a butt-plug shaped toy to play with. I’m sure (pretty sure: our town has had a large influx of hipsters) that it wasn’t, and I’m equally sure that only a small percentage of the customers in the diner would have looked at that and had their minds go the places ours did. Which, as my clickbait title suggests, led to an insight about the ongoing debates within our communities – though not really John himself. He’s just a metaphor, a symbol expressing a certain set of ideas to which I’m opposed.
And I’m opposed to them because polytheist isn’t just a word for me; it’s a culture built on shared experiences of the Gods. I wrote about that here yesterday.
That shared experience is what makes things like humor possible and I think it just makes more sense for people to gravitate towards others with similar values and worldview and culture. These are not insignificant things. That is in part what helps to create a cohesive tradition. It’s not the only thing, but it is an important one. This of course begs the question of what is the shared experience of polytheism. I would hope that it is the experience of the Gods as Gods. That’s the thing that brings us all together despite our individual traditions and positions within the polytheist rubric. It’s the baseline that impacts everything else, every decision, and certainly our way of being in the world. I’ve seen John talk about having experiences with what we would call Gods but, in his own words, interpreting them differently. Ok. That’s a crucial difference. He’s having experiences but lacks the relational framework of a polytheistic understanding and perspective. He is not a polytheist, and that’s ok. Someone outside of the tradition can if they wish, become a good ally (of course part of being an ally isn’t trying to guide or define the development of the tradition, but that’s a different post).
Years ago, oh, maybe two decades now, I had an experience with a Holy Power that I’m pretty sure most of my Christian friends would call Jesus. It was cool, very cleansing, and my Gods were likewise very present. (I was dealing with a very wounded Christian client at the time – sometimes one must approach one’s client’s Gods). When that was done, I got on with the business of honoring my Gods. I told this to a Christian friend once and she simply could not wrap her mind around it. To her, it was a ‘born again’ experience but I was still a polytheist and still had and wanted nothing to do with the cultus of Christ. She could not comprehend. For me, the answer was easy: at best this is one of many Gods and not mine. What’s the big deal? For her, it was a mind blowing and paradigm challening thing. I lacked her framework of interpretation. Since I had zero desire to come into her religious world and space, in the end it didn’t matter but had I been trying to position myself as a member of her church, there would have been – and should have been—problems. My approach would have been corrosive and corrupting to their tradition.
That’s why I fight so hard to hold the line. Because when that’s compromised, meaning becomes diluted and confused. It’s not that I think people like John don’t have a right to exist, or to do their atheist thing (however incomprehensible that may be to me) – it’s not because they’re horrible people. Look, I don’t know John Halstead the man, only the character he plays on the internet through his various blogs. Nor has it been my intention with the majority of my writing to attack him personally. I want very much to attack and gnaw on his ideas and words. Ideas spread and have corrosive power. That being said, we really should hold ourselves to the standard of arguing ideas not people (and I fell short of that standard yesterday with one of my posts, for which I apologize. I got swept up in the argument and severely missed the mark).
Maybe in the time of our polytheistic ancestors, a tradition could grow and thrive by itself. It was a different time and a very different world. It was a world where everything in the dominant culture was also polytheistic. In our world, everything in our dominant culture is diametrically opposed to polytheism, either openly or, as some of my Hindu friends have experienced, more insidiously. There is nothing that supports the traditions we’re attempting to build. If we’re not dealing with a Christian influenced culture, we have humanism and atheism held up as normal and progressive. For them, maybe they are, but not for us, and opening the door to those things as polytheists is a problem. Those things have and deserve their own spaces. Likewise, we deserve ours. Each tradition needs uncontested space in which to grow and develop without external interference.
In the meantime, folks, please don’t give butt plugs to your children. Eostre is right around the corner, give them some chocolate eggs instead. 😉
I always get a bit wistful around our holy tides. I mean, we have our small groups and our individual venerations and that is awesome and absolutely crucial, and we have our online communities (and even when we fight at least it shows there are enough of us to be having these debates and that’s good), but I want so much more for our polytheisms. I don’t want us to have to sneak time away from jobs that wouldn’t acknowledge that it’s a holy time for us. I don’t want any polytheist or any pagan for that matter to feel they are the only one in their town or state. I want celebration and veneration to be joyful things that bring the community together, despite any differences we might have (because really, ancient people argued vociferously too). I wish we could have huge, mind-blowing public processions and rituals and sacrifices and performances (some Gods were traditionally honored with songs or plays or dancing), and a thousand other things.
I would like to live in a time and place, hopefully in the future, where our town will have its parts that are bedecked in celebration of our sacred times. I’d love to head home after a long day’s work and stop at a roadside shrine to make offerings to one of our Deities, and find the shrine thronged with people. I want to see our world colored with the joyful parts of veneration: shrines festooned with flowers, the scent of incense carried around corners, the shrine of Hermes outside a shop, well tended by the shopkeeper, or a shrine to Saga inside a library, overflowing with small offerings made by patrons, and all the many other ways that polytheisms are lived on a large scale. I dream of a polytheism that is big enough and unified enough to redefine our world .
It sounds like a dream, but it was the world once: shrines everywhere, active temples, objects of devotion and animals for sacrifice easily bought and priests available with skill and training to facilitate rites, diviners, oracles, dancing processions, chanting hymns, incense and devotion bound up in every paving stone. I don’t think our ancestors took that for granted, but I also don’t think they realized how quickly it could significantly change and change when it came (in the third and fourth centuries) happened almost before anyone realized what was going down. That is an intensely painful thing for me to contemplate. I tap right into it, see it, feel it – the joys of being an ancestor worker. It hurts terribly; but, and this is a big but that I often forget: it could change again. What we’re building is possible. We may need to sweep out some space here and there (and maybe in ourselves most of all for it to happen) but our polytheistic traditions can develop into something huge. Look at Lithuania. Under the communist regime, religion of any kind was, if not banned, then certainly actively campaigned against. Now, however, within a generation of Lithuania’s independence (and in large part through the resistance and pioneering work of Jonas Trinkunas) Romuva, Lithuanian polytheism, is a recognized and thriving tradition, in the land of its birth. It is growing and knowledge of it is growing. That is an inspiration.
Ostara is in part about renewal and restoration. So I want to share this dream. I want to see all our polytheisms flourish: Heathenry, Kemeticism, Hellenismos, Cultus Deorum, Canaanite polytheism, Romuva, Hinduism, and every single one that I didn’t mention here specifically (there are a lot of them!). I don’t know all the steps to get to that goal. I just know it’s possible. I have the image clear as fire imprinted on my mind by my ancestors a long time ago: what it was, what it should be in cohesion, what it can be in our world now. Well, maybe not now, but soon. I would move heaven and earth to see it happen.
This has been a topic of discussion this morning on several forums. I think for those of us initiated into multi-generational lineaged traditions, those of us engaged in protecting our own nascent traditions, those of us working within this construct for years the concept is self-explanatory but there are those without this background, or those coming from more liberal Pagan traditions for whom this may be a new or confusing concept.
Let’s start with polytheism. What is it? At its core, it’s the belief in many Gods as independent (especially with respect to humans) entities. It is also the umbrella container for a multiplicity of specific traditions (like Heathenry, Hellenismos, cultus Deorum, etc.). For instance, I am a polytheist and also a Heathen and practitioner of cultus deorum. I’m a polytheist working within those two specific traditions. One might view it as a wheel made up of many, many different spokes. (1)
What differentiates the open polytheism of the past with what we have today? In the past (and by this I mean before monotheism gained dominance) there was a cross-cultural agreement that A). Gods existed and B). were worthy of veneration. Today, we don’t have that. Today, even within Paganism we have anything but. The container of our society and culture is likewise deeply hostile to the idea of polytheistic religion and Gods, unless it’s the Christian God and even then your mileage may vary. Our world is vastly different and eminently more hostile. The religious understanding that underpinned the ancient world (despite its conflicts in many other areas) is completely and utterly lacking today. There’s no attendant baseline by which we can find workable agreement. There’s almost nothing upon which to build.
Likewise, on top of that deficit, we have people with a vested interest in forcing polytheism and its attendant traditions open to non-theists, atheists, monists (a step away from monotheism, thank you very much and yes, it existed in the ancient world, I’ve discussed that here.), pantheists, secularists and those with a vested interest in forcing polytheism to accept their ideas of the unreality of the Gods. One of the volleys fired in this campaign was the attempt, begun roughly last year, maybe a bit longer, to force polytheists to qualify their polytheism: i.e. devotional, relational, etc. I’ve even heard stirrings recently to bring such terms as poly-atheist or poly-agnostic into play (why? You need a special term for all the Gods you don’t believe in? no. no. and no. Let these people call themselves poly+any religious term and it’ll be carte blanche for them to insert themselves into our traditions). All of this of course, is just a veiled attempt to pry open the doors of our traditions, to force us to water them down until sooner or later, people who have zero interest in the traditions themselves (but likely just don’t want anyone else to have anything pure and unsullied that they themselves cannot devalue) will be able to creep in and seize control of the discourse. That is what is being attempted and the major weapon is rhetoric and sometimes an appeal to “tolerance” (a tolerance that never extends to leaving our traditions in peace).
I think it is particularly significant with these qualifiers that they are not terms that polytheists by and large themselves found necessary. We did not choose them for ourselves. These were and are terms of engagement foisted off on us by outsiders in a further attempt to edge themselves into our traditions. Do I mind the term “devotional” polytheism? Not so much. I’ve even written a book with that title, but largely because I wanted to answer the question of “I’m polytheist but I’m new. Now what?” Well, the next step is learning devotion. Using a term by choice within a tradition and with the framework of understanding granted by the scaffolding of the tradition is a far different thing from having a term forced on one by someone hostile to the very idea of tradition.
The thing about traditions (and I emphasize that there are many individual ones within polytheism but they all have that pesky Gods are real thing) is that they are not inclusive. There is absolutely no expectation that they should be. Or rather, they are happily inclusive of people willing to adapt themselves to the baseline standards of the tradition, which most of the humanist pagans most assuredly aren’t. Of course this always makes me wonder why “pagan” isn’t a good enough label for them. They certainly fought long and hard two plus years ago to fully co-opt the term (and by co-opt I mean claim so fully and in such a way that it is now rendered into meaninglessness. Pagan can mean anything you want it to and that’s the complete antithesis to a tradition).
Accepting that the Gods exist as independent Beings is not enough. There’s a logical corollary to that. Once you realize, really, really realize that there are Gods then to any deep thinking person it demands a reflected adjustment in one’s behavior. If there are Gods, then what does that mean for us in relation to those Gods? What then is our place in the world? For the devout polytheist the answer is simple: devotion/veneration. So to use the term “devotional polytheist” is rather…I will admit….redundant. When we use it within the tradition, we’re putting the emphasis on our practices. When outsiders use it, I’ve found that it’s often used to marginalize those practices. It’s an important distinction. Allow outsiders to start defining us and we’ll find them defining us out of our own traditions. Humanist Pagan: “oh them? They’re devotional polytheists. We don’t do that. We’re the polytheists who don’t really mess around with all that god stuff. They’re really the outliers of polytheism. You don’t have to worry about Gods at all.” Yeah…no.
Kenaz Filan, in a recent comment to my post here, said it best:
“My “litmus test” for Polytheism is this: do you believe the Gods are Many, the Gods are Real, the Gods are Here?
[b]The Gods are Many[/b]: if you believe in One God, you are a Monotheist. This is true even if you believe all Gods are merely masks for One God/dess and all religions are part of One Truth. Because the Gods are Many, their goals are divergent and sometimes conflicting. We can and should honor our Gods over others — but we should never forget those other Gods are also deserving of honor.
[b]The Gods are Real[/b]: if you believe the Gods are symbols, myths, archetypes, etc. you are an Atheist. Disbelieving in many Gods whilst using Their trappings for your personal gain is not Poytheism: it is psychodrama at best and blasphemy at worst.”
[b]The Gods are Here[/b]: The Gods are immanent in the world around us and are actively involved in its daily affairs, It is fitting to serve Them by prayer, by worship and by working to fulfill Their goals. Polytheism isn’t something you believe, it’s something you do.”
I would only qualify this by saying A). everything that you do should be grounded in belief, it’s not an either/or but it’s not enough to simply say “I believe in many Gods.” That belief demands action devotional and otherwise; and B). while the Gods are immanent, They are also quite often transcendent. We will never grasp the entirety of Their being and it is not dependent on this world or us and our consciousness. The oft posited split between transcendence and immanence is, at best, a false dichotomy, one that taken to its logical conclusion renders our Gods less than the monotheistic one. Our Gods are both immanent and transcendent. They are Gods.
Now, within any tradition, there will be many, many different ways in which people relate to their Gods. Each devotional relationship is going to be unique. That must always be considered by any teacher or elder or priest within the tradition. Those relationships are very precious, very sacred things and must always be nourished. Here’s the thing though, here’s what oughtn’t to be considered: those who attack the core structures of polytheism, who refuse to keep their hands off traditions they have only the desire to destroy, who don’t believe in the actual existence of Gods but want a voice in speaking for polytheists. Nor do I think we should be giving any space or tolerance at all to those who aren’t polytheist but who seem to have a vested interest in defining what polytheism is or worse what it ‘should’ be, but who likewise have no idea of what a tradition is within that structure.
No one is entitled to a place within a tradition. Traditions are sealed ecosystems, delicately balanced between structure and innovation, devotion and creativity. The only people with any right at all to speak to the nature or future of a tradition are those deeply ensconced within that tradition. No one has a right to demand entry. Traditions have baseline standards by which they are defined, structures that help protect and ensure clean transmission to the next generation and beyond.
This is about so much more than us here now. I think that part of the poison of post-modernity is that we’ve forgotten or lost the grace of looking beyond ourselves to something bigger. We’ve placed ourselves at the apex of the world and wonder why it’s crumbling. To build and protect a tradition, to fight for space in which that tradition might grow – not like bonsai, clipped and twisted by outside forces into a miniature of itself, but unfettered and free of outside influences—means looking not to what is comfortable or expedient for us now but what will serve multiple generations in the future. If I yield on this point now, what are the potential consequences to polytheism two hundred years from now? Thing it hyperbolic? There aren’t that many of us in the front lines of this fight. Each and every decision matters. Each and every choice has the potential to contribute to the growth of what will hopefully one day be a powerful and intact intergenerational tradition of substance and integrity or …not. Ground lost is very, very difficult to regain.
- Working with more than one pantheon of Gods was not uncommon in ancient polytheisms. There was no expectation of exclusivity of tradition – that is something born of polytheisms being reborn in the Diaspora. In the ancient world, one would venerate the Gods of one’s family and ancestors, one’s city, heroes, ancestors, as well as initiate into any cultus that appealed. It was very fluid within the polytheistic structure.
This is going to be short and sweet. Really, there’s not a lot to say when a ham-handed attempt at rhetorical manipulation comes flying across one’s computer screen. It looks nice, has lovely pieces, is relatively well-crafted, says everything so many people want to hear. It draws one in…and is rather like sitting down to dine on a beautifully plated pile of shit. Yes, dear readers, light a match. I’ve taken a look at Halstead’s latest post. I guess I can skip my daily dose of BeneFiber tonight.
In this tour de force, Halstead (obviously a product of the American school system) is attacking not polytheism directly, but the dictionary. Now, one may ask, what did the poor dictionary ever do to him? Well, apparently words having clearly defined meanings rains on his post-modernist parade; [and yes, I realize I’m probably taking his bait here – and I almost didn’t bother reading his article, it was so obvious what he was going to say–but this precise issue has arisen before and I think it’s worth addressing in and of itself. I’ve seen it even from those who call themselves allies. In fact, I think the prevalence of post modernism within our communities – whether we consciously recognize it as that or not—is one of the biggest problems we face in establishing sustainable traditions).
Now, I am not a post-modernist. I’m not even a modernist truth be told. I’m a staunch traditionalist. The only reason my ideas seem at times radical is that we’re dealing with a community influenced (I would say infected) with postmodern ideas. What does that mean? It means a Weltanschauung based on deconstruction of meaning, on relativism, and an absence of clearly defined boundaries. What does that mean for Halstead’s article?
I’ll be very explicit: he’s attacking the dictionary because for any educated or sensible person it is the first place one goes to lay out the parameters of a discussion, when terminology and language are in dispute. His “problem” with the dictionary is that it establishes clear parameters of debate, wherein both parties have a working operational understanding of the language involved. This is foundational for meaningful dialogue. Words actually do mean things and to ignore that is the worst sort of postmodernist sophistry.
The real question is why Halstead is so invested in relativizing our religious terminology.
That’s really what’s going on. He’s complaining about polytheists clearly and carefully defining our sacred vocabulary (including the word ‘polytheism’). In doing so, we are establishing a clear boundary and we keep having to do this. Perhaps that’s what we should really be looking at: why is this constant and adamant defining of terms so necessary ad nauseum?
The answer: because people like Halstead insist on repeatedly attempting to tear down the walls of our tradition, to insert their own ideas, their own secularism, their own atheism into the heart of our traditions. It’s an attempt to co-opt, to poison, and to stop any meaningful restoration in its tracks. He, as his past attacks on polytheism and polytheists have shown, wants to redefine polytheism, gods, paganism, etc. in a way that allows him access and control, so he’s attacking the very structure of our language: its common meaning, and he’s doing it by using buzz words guaranteed to get people’s panties in a twist. He’s talking the dangers of shutting down differing points of view, of oppression, and framing his narrative as one of resistance. Bullshit. Clearly defined linguistic parameters are only oppressive to people with an agenda of manipulation, desecration, and harm. The only reason to attack meaning is to insert oneself and one’s agenda into the thing or space or idea being discussed and twist it out of true.
A colleague of mine and I discussed this briefly and he offered the following, with which I completely concur and with which I shall close:
“Despite his claim about power, it is frequently people who possess some sort of power who encourage relativism, because it strips people who have only the power of their voice and their ideas from gaining any purchase, from having any access to power, because nothing means anything. And that’s what we see here. It’s the people with the power who are claiming that the essentially powerless are engaged in a power play. Words are used to *do* things, if you don’t have other means, and relativism is a way of preventing that, and consolidating entrenched power.”