The smoke rises from the little pipe
Whirling in the frosted air
I can feel a million bodies shuffle around me
Those long-Dead so near
I can feel two million eyes
Look to me, into me
I will be among Them some day
but for now
I smoke to Them
It is simple
Little puffs into great billows of smoke
but it is good
to live in Gebo
with one’s long-Dead kin
After reading the polytheism section of this post, and more recently here, that John Halstead has written over and over again, I have to throw my hands up. Granted, I disagreed with him vehemently on a great many points before he worked on this post and wrote an addendum to it, but I still deeply disagree with him over what I view as one of the most egregious forms of twisting words.
When someone speaks up and misuses words they need to be checked. It is wrong to take words out of their historic, and current context, and to twist them so that the words mean what you believe. Polytheism does not equate or equal panentheism or pantheism, which is more or less what I see John Halstead trying to say with his supposed paradox that “The Gods are many…but one.”
Nowhere in his first piece does he quote polytheists, now living or dead. He notes in his addendum there are folks in the polytheist, reconstructionist, and other camps that directly disagree with him on this point, communities that use this word, and yet goes ahead and writes what he wishes as polytheism is supposed to relate to his Neo-Paganism. I absolutely do not recognize what he quotes as polytheism as such; I do not ‘use’ my Gods, nor are They psychological constructs.
Mr. Halstead quotes from Waldron in The Sign of the Witch “From a neo-Pagan perspective polytheism is not the belief in a world of separate and distinct Gods but is rather an acceptance of the principle that reality and the divine is multiple, fragmented and diverse.” Okay, this may be a neo-Pagan perspective, but I do not find it polytheist at all. So far as I have seen, read, and understood to be true, polytheists treat and believe our Gods as complete in and of Themselves; They are not a fragment of some whole. Nor are They facets of a jewel. To use the metaphor, each God and Goddess is a jewel unto Themselves, and a great many facets or a single facet of Them may be seen, known, and worshiped by a person.
The question of “What the hell is Mr. Halstead getting at? What does John Halstead understand about Neo-Paganism, let alone anything regarding Paganism?” are some questions that have come to mind a few times as I have read his works, but never so much as here. How in the Nine Worlds is his idea of polytheism supposed to actually square with anything resembling polytheism such as it is lived by its adherents? How is it supposed to square with historical polytheism? All I see in his examples are panentheism, and monism. These are not polytheist. The quotes he has given are not polytheist. “The radical plurality of the self”? I have no idea what his point is here. Polytheist religion recognizes a plural Self, i.e. the Soul Matrix of the Northern Tradition. Polytheism has plurality built into it.
If Mr. Halstead’s point is solely psychological, i.e. ‘psychological polytheism’ then I believe has has missed his mark by not being more clear about what he is trying to define, and using improper words to try to define it. Religion helps shape a person and society’s psychology, its understanding of states of good or ill health, in the mental, physical, and spiritual realms. However, religion is not psychology itself. Nor should psychology, in my view, seek or be sought to supplant religion. If I have misunderstood his intent, I apologize. If I have misunderstood or misconstrued his meaning, I hope to have better definitions and descriptions written by him in the future without twisting words which I use as primary personal descriptors, such as polytheism. Were Mr. Halstead writing solely from his own view with at least something recognizable behind the words he wishes to redefine, and not using a word that people already use as a primary identifier, myself included, perhaps I would have less of an issue.
“According to the theologian, William Hamilton, the gods of Neo-Pagan polytheism are not to be believed in, but are “to be used to give shape to an increasingly complex and variegated experience of life.” (quoted by Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon). “
So his idea of polytheism is that They are to be used, to be a tool to help us shape, and therefore also understand the world around us. Yet we are not to believe in Them, even as They are supposed to be used to shape and understand the experiences of life? When I make a woodcarving I do not stop believing in the tools nor their effect on the wood any more than I stop believing or believe that the wood came to me as-is or was grown in the shape I bought it in. That wood had a life before it was cut and shaped. That wood was part of a tree, and that tree had roots in the ground, and that ground had an existence of its own well before I ever set foot upon the ground or happened upon that cut of wood from that tree. So too the tools and their components, which came from other places, and had to be fashioned into the shape they are now.
The Gods, then, are cast only into the form of the tool, rather than the ground. In the form of the woodcarving rather than the tree from which the wood came. I fully believe the Gods can be the ground, the tree, the tool, the toolmaker, the carver, the carved, and so on. In other words the Gods can be in and/or be each part of the process (the process itself may have God(s) and Goddesses over and/or involved in this, too), to say They are merely to be used as a tool denies Their actual involvement and reduces Them to an object to be manipulated. It takes away what is essential to a polytheist perspective of the Gods: personhood. Not that They are human or human-like, necessarily, but it denies Their Being and Self, as independent of us. It denies one of the basic understandings that polytheism, in any form I have practiced or been exposed to, teaches: the Gods are Beings Unto Themselves.
I do not use my Gods; I use a computer. I may ask a God or Goddess to lend Their power to a spell, or to intercede on my or someone else’s behalf, but intercessory prayer does not equal use. I do not use my Gods in ritual; rather, I pray to Them and ask for Their Presence. This point is perhaps the largest point of contention I have when anyone uses the word ‘use’ in regards to the Gods, or to Ancestors or spirits.
If I say “I use Bob on First Street when I have car trouble”, it does not diminish Bob’s personhood nor does it treat him as an end. I acknowledge his role in my life and that he is a person I trust. Saying “I use Brighid when I need healing” does not acknowledge the personhood of the Gods and instead makes the God’s identity and relationship one has with Them about their use.
It matters little if it is a Wiccan talking about ‘using’ Gods in ritual, or an atheist Pagan about ‘using’ Gods to understand the world, or themselves. If one is using this language, then they are talking about ‘using’ Beings, which I believe have agency, self-awareness, understanding, and sentience. They are talking about Beings I consider to be worthy of worship. They are talking about ‘using’ Beings from traditions which I believe to be holy and good. When the language of ‘use’ (as in using tools like an athame or wand, screwdriver or saw) is used in regards to the Gods it is disrespecting both the Gods and the traditions that hold Them as dear, holy, and worthy of worship.
One cannot utterly separate the Gods from the traditions or cultures which give/gave worship to Them. Understanding and knowledge of the Gods are informed by the traditions, cultures. The Gods inform the religions, cultures, and traditions in turn whether by mystic experience and/or simply by being the basis of the religion. This does not mean that you need to be a member of my particular Northern Tradition religion to worship the Norse/Germanic Gods, or to do it right. What it does mean is that one must acknowledge that to worship the Norse/Germanic Gods one needs to understand the culture and traditions out of which the Gods of this/these traditions come. It means that one must come to the religion with its background culture(s), tradition(s), etc. rather than trying to make it, and an understanding of and relationship with the Gods, come to you.
Taking the Gods out of these contexts renders the understanding of Them incomplete. When Ms. Krasskova or I, or another author say ‘take on an indigenous mindset’ part of this means is that one must meet the Gods on Their own terms rather than our preconceived notions, ideas, and beliefs of how our relationship should be. “Odin is the God of Wisdom” is an easy phrase to make, and while it may be true, is not the whole of all He is, and may or may not reflect my relationship with Him at all. I and other polytheists who worship Odin can come to independent understandings and relationships and so on with Him while believing Him as a God independent of our existence, and agree on basic clear concepts, on to deep details of theology. This does not necessarily make established tradition(s), culture(s), and so on, the do-all end-all of any relationship with a God, Goddess, Ancestor, spirit, etc. (although it may) but it will inform, shape, define, and further develop one’s understanding of these Beings, and the ways in which one relates to, worships, etc. Them. The traditions are the bones on which the meat of the relationship are built.
“It is the reality experienced by men and women when Truth with a capital ‘T’ cannot be articulated according to a single grammar, a single logic or a single symbol system.” (David Miller, The New Polytheism).
If you cannot articulate truth, or even try to articulate Truth, then your logic and symbol system have failed. We can debate the nature of reality according to different belief systems, and the extent that different polytheist traditions agree or disagree with one another on these things. Yet, without a single grammar, logic, or symbol system, our understanding of the Gods falls apart. Without coming to understand our Gods on Their terms, as best as we can, we are leaving our understanding of Them woefully inadequate.
Without a single grammar, logic, and symbol system, understanding the Northern Tradition, and most polytheism, falls apart. You cannot understand the Northern Tradition through the Kemetic, nor Roman polytheism. To say otherwise is saying that one can understand and speak German fluently after having done so with Greek. Are there some universal truths? If there are, (and to avoid speaking for all polytheists I will say if), they are broad, such as: the Gods are Beings Unto Themselves; respect is given for the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits; hospitality to people, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits; offerings are given in respect to the wishes, traditions, customs, etc. to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. The appearance of respect, for instance, will differ between traditions, customs of certain groups within a given tradition, the Gods worshiped by a group, the relationship between the people and their Gods, Ancestors and spirits as a whole and individually, and many, many other factors I could not hope to account for. Yet, on a baseline, there are similar beliefs, even if the shape and effects of those beliefs differ tradition to tradition, group to group, and person to person.
Polytheism is not just a term or a description; it is an identifier that an entire religious community uses to understand itself. It is an identifier people use as means to express who and what they are to others. It has an accepted meaning, Trying to dilute the meaning of this word is an attempt to dilute the meaning and understanding with which this word is used as an identifier. To try to redefine polytheism as something it is not is an insult at the least, and if enough people start using it in the way Mr. Halstead would care to, actively will produce problems in communication.
In the second post linked above, Mr. Halstead seeks to “’re-god’ the archetypes”. I take great pains to say that this is not polytheism. It is fine that he seeks to do it, but it is not polytheism. I believe that he, seeking to put the numinous back into archetypes, rather than Gods into archetypes, is a fine goal for him to do. However, it is not polytheism as I understand it, practice it, believe in, or acknowledge. It is perfectly fine that he believes, understands, practices, acknowledges, etc. in a religious context different than I. What is not fine, and what I will not stand for, is his appropriation of the word polytheism, polytheist, etc. to suit his own ends. What he describes and espouses is nothing I recognize as such.
He rightly points out that his beliefs are a choice. So too, is identifying as a polytheist, and embracing the beliefs therein. As he points out in the post, these are his beliefs. I am not attacking his beliefs, or him, please let me make that perfectly clear.
The spectrum of religious belief does exist on a spectrum, but rather than a singular spectrum, I believe it extends from many, of which extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism is just one. Religious beliefs are also a series of continuum on which belief and disbelief are polar opposites. These are tools which can help us understand where we lie in relating to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, ourselves, the world around us, etc. You can be a polytheist that disbelieves their own experiences in the extreme just as you can be a be an atheist Pagan and fully believe that your experiences of the Gods, such as They are, are real. The scale is only as useful as how accurate and accepted it is.
Mr. Halstead writes “The spectrum of belief regarding the nature of divinity ranges from extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism. I fall more toward one end of the spectrum. Others fall more toward the other end. But we are on the same spectrum. For example, whatever they believe about the ultimate nature of divinity, I would wager most people can acknowledge that the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical, in that divinity can at least seem to be both “in” us and “outside” of us, both a part of us and also other than us. ”
Well, yes, when we are placed on that spectrum of course polytheists are in a very different spectrum from him. In a great many places our various religious positions do not line up. We may be able to agree that ‘the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical’. In my case, the idea that the Gods can be cosmically as well as personally present is one place where I could say the experience of a God, such as Odin, is powerful and mind-boggling.
Recognizing that I may have attributes within me, or parts of me that resonate with Odin does not mean that Odin is in me. It means that these parts, attributes, etc. resonate with Him. Odin is Odin, Odin is within Himself. When He gave breath to Ask and Embla it was a gift, one which did not cease to be His breath or a gift, but much like my parents’ DNA, that gift of life and existence is part of me. I am, in the end, external to Him. For me, this in particular is not a paradox. It makes sense, since He is not I, and I am not Him. My parents gave me life, and their DNA is bound up in me, but I am not them, nor they I, and while there are parts of me that resonate with them and parts of my persona that match up very well with them, I am not them, and vice versa. Finding the nature of the Gods in ourselves is not a paradox. I can look to a great many things, fictional and non-fictional, in a variety of media, and ‘find myself’ or aspects of myself, things that resonate with me. So too may I see the Gods in the world around me even while recognizing that my personal experience of ‘if I see three pairs of crows it may mean Odin is present’ may either be inaccurate (i.e. it is just 3 pairs of crows, congrats) or simply a personal experience for/with me alone.
Devotional polytheists have contributions to the larger Pagan communities that we may make. Whether we can make these contributions depends largely on whether or not we are given space to speak in it from our own beliefs, experiences, and traditions. Our contributions will depend on whether or not our words and identifiers are respected. I do own the word polytheist the same way that I own the words cis-gender male. The same way that I own the word pansexual. These are identifiers. I do not make these on my own, since meaning is not made in a bubble. These words are accepted by the communities that employ them, and in larger society as meaning certain things. They are, in general, respected for what they are, even if not fully agreed upon. If Neo-Pagans like Mr. Halstead are going to try to include us, respect for us starts with respect for our identifying words, our beliefs, traditions, and experiences. We do not have to agree, that is not at issue here. At issue is basic respect.
Mr. Halstead says that using the words ‘polytheist’ and ‘polytheism’ in psychologized and naturalized senses has precedent. Yet, even he admits there is better precedent for how I use it: “there’s better precedent for using the word to mean a belief in gods as literal, independent, sentient beings”. So while he writes that he sympathizes, he will continue to misuse one of the primary words by which I identify myself. There are two definitions for sympathy, and I am not sure which one rankles me more in this context: “feelings of pity for someone else’s misfortune”, or “understanding between people; common feeling” (OED). What this tells me is that either he is unmotivated by his sympathy to change his behavior, or in the face of it, he is ignoring something that wrongs others so he can use words as he sees fit.
If someone is misusing a label or term, they are misusing a label or term. His belief that “that saying Margot Adler — or Doreen Valiente — is not a polytheist is a little like saying Paul was not a Christian.” No, actually, it is stating a truth. From what writings I have seen, and with my experience of having been on a small panel with Ms. Adler, neither one of these women are polytheists such as I use, understand, or acknowledge the term. The quotes given are monist, panentheistic and/or pantheistic. None of the quotes acknowledge the Gods as Beings Unto Themselves, nor even that They are differentiated from one another. Beliefs like “all the Gods are one God” and the like are not polytheist. There is no belief in many Gods to be had here. It is not polytheist. It does not make any of the contributions these women have made to Paganism and Neo-Paganism less, it simply means they are not polytheist. These women are Pagan (or Neo-Pagan if you will) but they are not polytheist. So no, this is nothing like saying Paul was not a Christian. It is saying Paul was not a Lutheran.
Whether or not trying to erase or silence polytheist voices was Mr. Halstead’s intent, it is no longer an issue for me; it is what he and like-minded people are actively engaged in doing that concerns me. If you wish to identify as a Neo-Pagan and the larger Pagan communities accepts this I will not stand against them; that is their decision. If the larger Pagan and Neo-Pagan communities accept atheist and humanist Pagans as Pagans and/or Neo-Pagans, that is their business and their right.
‘Polytheist’ and ‘polytheism’ are not just ‘something I found’ or just words that ‘capture’ what I believe. ‘Polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’ are words that identify who and what I am. It is an identifier of the communities and people I find common cause with. It is a religious identification. These words should be used with respect to and for the people, communities, and religions they represent.
In sharing his beliefs Mr. Halstead does not silence my beliefs or erase my community. His attempted co-opting of my words, most especially my primary identifiers, does. His insistence in using these identifiers as he has done and continues to, does attempt erasure and silence. Setting up his standards as norms for my community are further attempts at erasure and silence. His use of the words we primarily identify ourselves with in the larger Pagan community on an inter and intrafaith website decreases our ability to effectively define ourselves. Twisting the words ‘polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’ to mean something they do not dilutes their usefulness as words, silences our effective use of those words, and erases our identity along with it.
Update: My thanks to James Stovall for being a sounding board, and for the example with Bob in the middle of this piece. He helped me think on the term ‘use’, and how it can be used in a sentence without the loss of personhood, and with respect to the person.
On days like today I make prayers and offerings not only to the Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim, but the Sons and Daughters of Nifelheim. I smoke to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits to keep me safe as I go to work. To keep me on the road. To keep me safe from harm. For the snow to be gentle with me, to work with my car. I smoke for my car, that it carries me well, and gets me safely to my destination.
This is where my metaphoric rubber meets the road. When I engage with the world I engage with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. There is no, can be no separation. If there was, then the cold Ice around me as I walk to my car would not touch me nor inspire equal worship to the Fire I cradle in my hand as I light my pipe when inside it. If there was truly separation the cold could not touch me in heart, or body, inspiring words that praise the pristine beauty and fierce bite, and the heat would not inspire words or prayer to praise the warmth in my hands or the small flame I put to tobacco to say my prayers. There can be no separation because the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are all around me.
Yes, even in something so mundane as starting my car there are spirits: the spirit of my car, the spirits of all those that fill its tank, the spirit of Fire that makes the engine go, the spirits of Earth that form the car, the spirits of Water that lubricate the car, the spirits of animals whose bodies line the cars’ various innards, the tires themselves made from rubber with spirits of their own, the spirits of Ice that keep the car cool in the summer, and the spirits of Air that help to warm my car. There are Gods and spirits of roads and crossroads, local and large, great and small. There are Gods to pray to, to worship everywhere one turns, if one but pays the mind and chooses to. I could split myself into a million millions of me and still not have enough of me to pray to, offer to, worship all the spirits great and small that surround me. So, I do what I can. I light the tobacco after a prayer to It and Fire, and smoke and pray to all Who wish to hear to my words, praying to my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, speaking to the breathing, living Jörð and all Who share this time and space with me upon Her. I pray to Odin, my Father, through His heiti Gangleri the Wanderer and Traveler to help keep me safe and keep me keen, first among the many Gods I will pray to quickly before I pull out of the drive.
There are the landvaettir all over, some I would call local Gods, such as the rivers that run near town, and Others that live in the heart of parks and Others that live with humans, landvaettir and housevaettir. There are spirits, vaettir, all around, and though I may not worship Them all (how could I, They are so many?) They all are due my respect as I pass through Their homes, territories, holy places. I pass what I view as a herme each and every day on the way to work; one of my neighbors has 3 large stones set one upon the other, and there is a spirit there that, when it catches my eye, I nod to in respect as I drive past it. The ground I walk on is full of life, covered in snow. The sky is alive with little spirits that twinkle in my headlights, some landing on my windshield, melting from the heat of my car.
There is no place I, or anyone can go where the spirits are not. I am truly blessed.
These two quotes in particular stand out to me here from Anomalous Thracian:
I encourage folks — especially those who like to have clearly defined use of terms and ideas of what certain things mean — to suspend those for the sake of this discussion, and allow a certain level of elasticity to come into things so that we can navigate to the core of what is being discussed. It isn’t exactly about how one defines atheism or piety, but rather about some basic and intrinsic expressions of respect and acknowledgement-of-the-personhood-of-the-divine.
I think that polytheism itself, as a collective movement (which is ever held in measurable space by its slowest parts or its most aggressive instincts or its most passive concessions), would and should and could be greatly bettered if more people engaged in a learned discourse around the practical implications of animism, which is in some ways far simpler than -theism (as it does not require a specific definition of deity) and in other ways far more complex (as it steps outside the realm of little theories and big theories and into the space of lived fact and acknowledged reality).
These quotes from PSVL got me thinking as well:
But, ritual to the gods and other divine beings is an entirely different matter. And, in my mind, it all comes down to the ethic of hospitality.
If we are polytheists who acknowledge (note, not “believe in”!) the reality and existence of our gods, then “belief” becomes irrelevant (outside of a few possible definitions of the term that, again, I’m not seeing used widely), and whether or not someone else likewise acknowledges the reality of the gods we have come to know and experience and interact with, nonetheless we do, and thus the gods are as real to us as the air we breathe, the sunlight we bathe in, the waters we drink and offer, and the joys and sorrows that we encounter in our dances with the gods (as well as those we dance with others) in this world.
This hit it home for me:
I would, therefore, exhort all polytheists who are reading this to seriously consider shifting their usages in this regard. “Belief in” anything does nothing, and lack of belief in anything likewise does nothing: believing in something that doesn’t exist will not make it exist, and not believing in something that does exist will not make it cease to exist. Polytheists stand and triumph only on the foundation that their gods do exist, and that is a foundation that we don’t “believe in,” it’s a foundation that we know, in the most basic and primal and powerful Greek gnosissense of the word.
This last quote in particular made me sit back and think, really think. It seems I have been using the terms ‘belief in’, ‘believe in’ and such, when what I mean is acknowledge and know. I have a living, working knowledge that my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are real from my understanding and experience. I do not need to believe in Them, as such, except in times of crippling doubt. Belief, then, becomes not really some state of mind, but a choice. The choice to acknowledge the Gods are real and to treat them in that manner, with respect, or without that respect. I made a point of this in my post on Piety and Being Poor:
Devotion is not just important; devotion is VITAL. It is how a living, breathing religion continues. Acts of devotion keep that bridge between us and the Gods alive in our everyday life, whether it is a glass of water and a prayer, prayers made on prayer beads, food made in their honor, a pinch of mugwort or a small glass of mead offered at a tree, or an act of kindness for a human being. Offerings, in and of themselves, are vital, and have always been vital regardless of which tradition one comes out of.
I went into why this is so important at the end, namely:
I put the Gods first because that is where They go in my life. The Gods are first; it is from Them that all good things in my life have come.
If what we are discussing is “the basic and intrinsic expressions of respect and acknowledgment-of-the-personhood-of-the-divine”, then we need to understand what the implications are when one recognizes that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits have personhood, and how respect plays into that understanding.
If a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit has personhood, that is, if a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit is a Being unto Themselves and not a means to an end, mental projection, thoughtform, etc. then a host of implications immediately come up. If we acknowledge that They are real, then They have or may have expectations, understanding, views, opinions, and so on. There is a relationship to be had, with understandings on both sides of that relationship, and ways of conduct that are expected.
To my mind polytheism cannot be without animism involved. I can think of no polytheist culture in which smaller spirits, local Gods, etc. did not play a part, and were not actively acknowledged. Forces and Powers on, in, around, about, and beyond the Earth are given names to call to, and/or ways in which They can be known, and ways They may be propitiated. Some are called Gods, others may be called powerful spirits, and yet others might Themselves be Ancestors whether of blood, lineage, adoption, etc. This, of course, depends on one’s tradition(s) and personal interactions. Yet still, in acknowledging the personhood of Gods then it stands that the personhood of Beings beyond the Gods are worthy of acknowledgment.
Acknowledgment inspires action because belief is bound up in acknowledgment. In acknowledging Gods, Ancestors, and spirits as Beings with personhood, it is an active belief in, and knowledge of the Gods, rather than simply believing the Gods exist. Belief is utterly simple; it is ‘something one has accepted as true’ (OED). Acknowledgment is an action and requires action in connection with the act of acknowledgement.
I can believe in the Gods as Beings unto Themselves and give no offerings at all. Belief in the Gods as Beings does not require offerings, it merely says “I believe the Gods are Beings unto Themselves.”. In acknowledging the Gods as Beings unto Themselves, I must then treat Them as such, with respect. The giving of offerings comes about due to this understanding, and my place in the relationship with Them.
I can believe it is wrong to give the Gods rotten food and do it anyway. I can acknowledge offering rotten food is wrong because it is inhospitable and reprehensible, and not offer it because that is the right thing to do. Belief on its own requires no action except to believe. People abrogate their beliefs each and every day; holding beliefs does not require acting on them. Acknowledging one’s beliefs requires action when a violation of them may, or have occurred.
If I acknowledge my Gods as real persons then to offer rotten food is disrespectful in the extreme, and unbecoming of a host. So, I do not put rotten food on my altar.
How did I become a host? By inviting Them into my home with the altar in the first place, asking Them to take up residence on the altar in my home.
How did I know They wanted to be invited? I prayed, I divined, I intuited, I listened. I gave space for my understanding to grow. I asked questions of people who worshiped these Gods before I did. In some cases I had the spiritual equivalent of a whisper in response, and in others the equivalent of a two by four to the back of the head. Some, such as Anpu, invited me worship Them, and others, such as Odin, grabbed me up and said ‘Come this way’. In some cases I had the spiritual equivalent of dead silence and had to rely on others to help me along and muddle through.
The particulars of codes of conduct differ God to God. For instance I may feed Anpu’s statue directly, or drink an offering made specifically to Him, dependent on what it is, His inclination at the time, and etiquette understood before and during the offering being made. For Odin I will generally offer to Him and pour out the offering when He is satisfied. It is rarer for me to eat with Him, though I sometimes feel His Presence at the Ancestor shrine when I eat with the Ancestors. In the case of a blood offering, such an offering will mean different things dependent on the God, the understanding we have, etiquette expected, and a host of other things. This is why I make blood offerings to Odin and the Runes only, and not to every single God. Some Gods do not want my blood and with some Gods an offering of blood would promise things I would not want to promise.
I and Sylverleaf gathered things that we felt, understood, acknowledged, were told, etc. that the Gods wanted or would accept as vessels, offering bowls, and the like, and set up the altar. We adopted codes of conduct that were agreed upon or acknowledged without having to be said between us as conduct becoming of a host. There are general codes of conduct we keep with all the Gods present in our lives. A general offering to the Gods, often kept on the altar in the glass chalice, are usually poured out onto the local oak tree. This is accepted by all the Gods present on the altar as a good, respectful way of dispensing with offerings.
In acknowledging the Gods as real, we acknowledge our relationships as real. In acknowledging our relationships as real, we acknowledge that our actions have real effects in those relationships. In acknowledging our actions have real effects we must then acknowledge that the giving of physical offerings has meaning, both in terms of our relationship with the Gods we offer to, and in the offering itself. If this is accepted, then a physical offering will mean something real in a way that is different than a non-tangible offering. A physical offering will mean something different rather than an offering made purely in sentiment, that is, made with feeling or emotion (OED). Likewise, a physical offering made away from the altar will mean something different.
This is not to say that non-physical offerings can offer nothing to the Gods; as I wrote above, I went through a process of figuring out what are and are not good offerings. Some good offerings we give which are not immediately physical at the altar to the Earthvaettir are made when we walk around our local park and pick up trash. Doing this does not, however, impart the same effect, meaning, or effect in the relationship with the Earthvaettir as the giving of good clean water, incense or recels, and so on. Giving an offering of bread, water, or the like does not impart the same meaning or sacrifice on my part as writing and saying a poem, or singing a song does. It does not, however, automatically denigrate an offering of song, breath, or the like to say that water, for instance, may be expected as regular offerings. A song or poem may be sung or spoken for a special occasion.
In each of these cases where the offerings are not immediately physical ones at the Earthvaettir’s altar, these offerings carry different meaning and weight in the relationship than the regular water and/or food offerings we give. They simply cannot be replaced any more than food that I eat can be replaced by song. If I am feeding guests, I am feeding guests, and if I am singing for Them I am singing for Them. A loaf of bread is not a bar of notes. To pretend otherwise is insulting to the guest, and intentionally stupid on my part as the host. I could no more feed my Gods an offering of notes than sing to my son to fill his stomach. Even in the case of the Egyptian Gods and some of the offeratory formula, there are at the least carvings of bread. It was not as though the notion of food was wholly lost even if the offerings themselves were not strictly physical.
Perhaps this is an extremely literal way of interpreting one’s offeratory relationship with the Gods, yet it seems to me if all we are going to do is carve offerings rather than give them the physical offerings they represent what is the point? If symbols are all we have to offer to those we acknowledge to be real, what can we expect in return? What can we expect from a relationship where all that connects is a gift of symbols and an expectation to have some interaction? This does not work (well or healthily) in any other sphere in regards to relationships, yet, it seems, this is expected here. This line of thinking applies equally well to non-physical or non-immediate offerings, such as song or picking up garbage at a park. If that is the Gebo expected from the Earthvaettir and I try offering bread as a substitute for those actions then I am not fulfilling my end of things.
I have had instances where physical offerings were refused because they were easier for me to give than the non-physical offerings the God, Ancestor, or spirit wanted. Learning to make fire, for instance, was an offering to Skaði and my head Disir. Giving water is far, far easier than trying to learn how to make a Sacred Fire using flint and steel. It would have been entirely insulting and inappropriate for me to try to do so. So, giving myself a good couple of whacks on my hand and some hours of effort I have been able to make Sacred Fire for the first time in my life using old methods. No offering could have taken its place, its meaning, its impact.
I will continue these thoughts on Ethics and Animism in Polytheism in Part 2.
May the Gods be pleased by our offerings, hear us, and bless us. May the spirits be with us and bless us. May the Disir, Väter, and all our Ancestors be with us, and bless us. May the Norns bless us with good fortune. May we live in Gebo with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits in the coming year. May They bless us in kind for our Gebo. May those who have suffered this year find peace. May those who have struggled find resolution. May those who have been ill be healthy.
Happy New Year everyone. See you in 2014. Blessings to you and yours today and in the New Year. Ves ðu heil!
Continuing the series of posts on altars and shrines, we come to how our shrines look like now, just before Yule. The altars and shrines are more than just a place to leave offerings; these are places where we can devote ourselves wholly and fully to worship, to good relationships. In my own case I am doing my best to make sure I spend at least 10 minutes a day with my Ancestors. Much of the family’s altar and shrine times are when we pray. Our lives are hectic, and our schedules are up and down. In my own case I work midnight shifts and Sylverleaf morning and evening shifts, and our son goes to school. These altars and shrines give us places, even for a few moments, to slow down, remember our blessings, pray, and give offerings for all we have.
These altars and shrines, as I have mentioned, change throughout the year. Much of the decorations, and the altars and shrines themselves were gifts or bought from thrift stores and garage sales. The cloths come from our local JoAnn Fabrics when we cannot find the right colors/patterns in thrift stores. There’s nothing saying you cannot buy good/expensive things for your altars or shrines any more than cheap. We take care in selecting what goes on our altars and shrines, regardless of where it comes from. We listen to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits for what They want on our altars and shrines, what offerings They want, and so on. What matters, in the end, is the care you put into crafting your altars and shrines.
Cleaning and Preparing Altars and Shrines
What also matters is the prep work done before making an altar or shrine, and/or when transitioning between set up and take down. When we make a new shrine we first clean the area, vacuuming, dusting, the works. We then will clean the shrine inside (if there is an inside) and out physically with water and soap, if needed. We will then cleanse the altar or shrine with blessed water and/or Florida Water, and may use this water in lieu of soap and water, using fresh towels when needed. Whenever we transition the altars and shrines, we clean all their cloths. We also clean any new cloths prior to their use. While those are in the washer and then dryer, we will clean every piece of the altars and shrines that we can, bathing the statues, if we can, and scrubbing everything that can be scrubbed clean with fresh towels. We then dry with fresh towels, and they usually wait on my bed until the cloths are ready.
When the cloths are ready and we have all the items we need for the shrine, we will take some time and ask the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits for whom the altar/shrine will be made, what color altar cloth They would like. We usually do this well ahead of time for new shrines, but with transitions between seasons and/or cleanings, we will not know until we the cloths are clean. When we have an answer, or if we are left by Them to suss that out, we will lay the selected cloth on the surface and adjust until it looks/feels right. Then we decorate the altar, first with the direct representations of the altar or shrine itself, such as the Gods for the Gods’ altar, the Ancestor for Their shrine, and so on. We generally start in the middle and work our way out, so the main Gods with whom we work are in the center of the altar and those who we give honor to are on the outside. This does not always follow, though, as sometimes Gods we have had long relationships with, such as Sunna and Mani below, end up outside of the granite tile and on one of the sides of the Gods’ altar.
The Gods’ Altar
At this time of year since our families are coming together we put our Gods together on the Gods’ altar by families wherever we could. So Odin and Frigga are together, Brigid and Bres, Mani and Sunna, Freyr, and Freya, and so on. The green altar cloth was laid down in reflection of the evergreens. The Gods our family actively worships are in the center, with many Gods whom we have connections to have prayer cards, such as Sekhmet and Hermes below the two paintings of the Valkyries. On the opposite side is a sword I received at this last year’s Renfaire from a Michigan-based blacksmith. The glass crystal chalice was a gift from a dear friend, someone I count as a Sister. In the corner are my journey staff, a sword I’ve had for about 7 years I used in evocation work, and a spear I received as a gift from a dear, old friend for work I did with him.
The Disir’s and Väter’s Shrine
This shrine is relatively new. This was made in the Fall after we picked up the table at a garage sale, and the batik patterned cloths at JoAnn Fabrics. The batik patterns struck us as being perfect for each set of powerful Ancestors. The two ceramic pieces we picked up at our local thrift store. The left part of the shrine is for the Disir, and the right, for the Väter. The plastic container has my necklace for the Disir, bought from an excellent craftsperson at ConVocation, which broken recently. The necklace on the left was made by a good friend of mine, made while she meditated on all the men who had an impact on her spirituality.
The Ancestors’ Shrine
The Elemental Ancestors have spaced out a bit since the last time I took photos. They now are part of the four pillars of the shrine. Sometimes the Elements switch places entirely. At one point Earth and Air were in the front of the altar, and now They are in the back. This is reflective of the relationships we have with the Elements as with the seasons we are in. Earth and Air were in the front through the Summer, if memory serves, and come Fall we transitioned to the layout we have now. This new layout brought with it important additions to the shrine. The first that was placed on the shrine is the glass insulator my Brother gave to me. It belonged to his grandmother, and now sits prominently on the shrine. As with adoption, when I call someone Brother or Sister, and am called a Brother in return, our Ancestors mingle and become part of one another’s lives, part of our family as surely as we are. With my adoption into the Ojibwe and Thunderbird People I placed the Native American bust in the back, given to me a long while ago by my Mom, on the shrine. Given my own tribemates have similar statuary, one on their own Ancestor shrine, I felt it was about time I did so too.
The Earthvaettir Shrine
The Earthvaettir Shrine has changed quite a bit. Ramses II is now on the Warrior Dead shrine, per His request. The shrine has new offering bowls, part of a set we bought from the local thrift store to replace the bronze ones. While the bronze bowls would work for dry offerings, they got weird and green with liquid offerings, so we have switched them out for the time being. The shrine to the Roadside Dead, which has been part of the Earthvaettir shrine for a while now, has a more prominent place. A moonstone sits at the feet of its incense holder, which our son made. At its top sits the offering bowl. Behind it is the cairn, which, as mentioned in the last post, changes position and structure each time the Earthvaettir shrine is cleaned and remade. In the center of the shrine behind the ceramic offering bowl is the Gebo stone on the left, the Earthvaettir stone on the right, and the large stone in the back is the Landvaettir’s stone. On the right the Gnome and Dragon of Earth have more prominence, and before Them are the stone we have used in magical work and healing over the years. At each of the four corners are stones, which change between them and other stones when the shrine is remade, symbolizing the four directions and the Four Dwarves who hold up the sky.
The Watervaettir Shrine
This is the newest shrine. The table is a temporary one, given it is a wooden TV table and likes to wobble. It sits between the two bookshelves on which the Earthvaettir, Housevaettir, and Moneyvaettir shrines sit. This was almost exclusively made by our son; he insisted we make it one day, and all we did was buy the cloth and gave him a choice of containers for offerings. The paper image he made at school, and while he has not explained to us what it is, he made it with a friend and told us “It is for the water spirits.” While he is involved almost every time we clean and set up altars and shrines, this is the first he has made by himself. We are very proud of him.
The Housevaettir and Moneyvaettir Shrines
These two shrines have not changed much at all. The Housevaettir now rests atop a woodburnt Ægishjálmur that I made here at home. The Moneyvaettir Shrine has more shell and coins added to it, and some taken from it. The coin jar has sheaves of coin holders in it, with the idea of ‘we hope to fill these’ and ‘we have a place for you’ in mind. There was a point in the Fall where we emptied the coin jar of a good deal of coins to help pay for things. That adding and taking from the coins is part of a good relationship with Moneyvaettir; sometimes you have a lot and sometimes you do not. Every time we’ve needed coins on hand They have been there for us.
The Dead Shrine
This is a shrine that I set up this year as a priest of Anpu. My work with the Dead as His priest had a long break, about 4 years. When I started to do prayers for the Ancestors of my House, House Sankofa, I also felt called back to offerings prayers for the Dead, especially the lost Dead. I was pushed by Anpu to go back to the work of helping lost Dead and whoever comes to the shrine cross to where They need to go, with His help. The shrine has four candle holders around a censer in the middle. The four fires are there to cast light and warmth to the four directions, inviting the Dead, and the censer as a gathering place where They can smell the sweet fragrances and be comforted by the frankincense, myrrh, and other offerings left there. Anpu’s image is above His wand, which I use for Opening and Closing the Door every Sunday in the work. There is a bowl of water below the censer to quench the Dead’s thirst, and a place for more incense and other offerings to the left. On the right is a bell that I use in the weekly work to soothe the Dead, and call to those who wander.
The Warrior Dead Shrine
The Warrior Dead Shrine now has Ramses II on it in the back of the shrine with a stone star above His head. The altar cloth is now white, and the placement of its items have been switched around a bit. The last of the Ezra Brook is now in the flask, and the offering liquor is now Lauder’s Blended Scotch Whiskey. The formerly white ceramic offering bowl now is stained with the offerings I have given despite my best attempts to get it back to white. Given the candle-pot was both unwieldy and I could not light a candle in it, it was moved off of the altar. The Warrior Dead did not seem all that attached to it, as it was. The shrine is closer together and simpler, but feels better overall, and Ramses II has settled in well here.
Animal Spirits Shrine
Only the placement of things has changed on this shrine, but I thought it would be good for people to see how things can change even on altars that don’t change all that much throughout the year. Aside from dusting on occasion, and cleaning Them as needed, the animal spirits prefer I not change out the altar cloth.
The Runevaettir altar has not changed all that much. It now has many Rune mandalas made with ink on paper, and holds the communion talisman, one of two I made for the 30 Days of Magic Talisman Challenge put on by Andrieh Vitimus. The offering bowl now is in the back left corner where it can sit without blocking the mandalas when I use them or make another.
Come the Spring I will need to take photos and write about shrines we keep outside, since at least one of them cannot be seen well right now. These shrines include the shrine to Hela and Niðhogg, the Landvaettir’s outdoor shrine, and the Air spirits.
These pictures were taken back in 2012 when I moved back home. This was prior to my son and Sylverleaf coming to stay with us. At the time I lived in the basement, as the entire living arrangement had been changed since I moved out. I finally had a bit more room to make altars and shrines, and much of my parents’ resistance to such things in their home was gone. They recognized my need for space to set out devotional space for worship, and I will always be grateful to them for this.
I made an altar to the Gods, a shrine to the Ancestors, a shrine to the Earthvaettir combined with the Moneyvaettir and Warrior Dead, and a shrine to the Animal Spirits.
The Gods’ Altar
At this point in time my Gods’ Altar was still fairly squished, at least compared to how it is now. It is also a lot more simple; the Gods’ Altar as it is now has a lot more statuary and representations on it, whereas this was me trying to get back to some simplicity. For example, the Chaos Star got packed away, as at the time I felt I’d had more than what I had needed of that. The drum I made my journeys with was placed on the Gods’ Altar as I did a lot of journeywork to Their Realms at this point in time with Its help. There are two chalices on the altar here: the pewter one I dedicated to Freya as our relationship was going very well, and She was teaching me a lot at this time. That, and the chalice, which, if memory serves I had picked up at a thrift store, had at one point been given to someone as a Valentine’s gift back in 1985. I found not long after I started using this that anything placed in the chalice would degrade and mold quick, despite repeated cleanings. It has since been retired from service to any Gods since I can’t get it stop doing weird stuff to the contents within a few hours of being in the thing.
There’s also more prominence to the Valkyries’ representations here, with Brynhilde being directly behind Odin, and another to Her right. The blue vial to the left of the pewter chalice long contained the last of a Dansk Mjød Viking Blod that I eventually ended up offering that year. The crystal in front of the altar is selenite, a crystal I and my family still use to cleanse ourselves before some evening prayers. The Negative Confession is on this altar in front of the vial and pewter mug.
The Ancestor Altar/Shrine
The Ancestor Altar/Shrine had finally come into being. I had not been able to have a separate shrine for Them due to space issues, so being able to give space to the Elements as part of the Ancestors was wonderful as well as connective for me. With this came a sense of connecting not only with Them individually as Elements and Ancestors, but in the space of the altar/shrine itself, each Element having Their own space in the way it is laid out. This time also marked, roughly, when my Ancestors started asking for semi-regular tobacco offerings. I started doing smoking offerings in 2009, 2010. I had long held a taboo in my mind because of my parents’ smoking habits. The deal I made with Them was that, so long as I was not going to become addicted I would smoke for Them. So, cigars and cigarettes became part of the Fire area of the Ancestor shrine at this point, but that ended when Sylverleaf, our son, and I, transitioned as a family into the whole of the top floor of the house.
The Earthvaettir, Moneyvaettir, and Warrior Dead Shrines
This was the second shrine I had set up for the Earthvaettir and Moneyvaettir; Their previous places had been set into a bookcase on a whole shelf. I do not believe the Warrior Dead had a shrine before this, and if it had, it had been rather squished in between everything with the Earthvaettir and Moneyvaettir. Here, again, I felt a sense of being able to breathe, of expanding not only my physical limits, but practice. Of having space to actually physically acknowledge Their place in my life, Their Presences, and to honor that not only with space, but with prayer in that space. Of giving offerings to those beings, whereas once They may have been lumped all in together with a single offering chalice between all of these great, diverse Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir otherwise, now I had space and ability to honor each closer to Their own ways and desires.
The Animal Spirits’ Shrine
It was relieving to finally have space to do this. I honor a great deal of animalvaettir not only as representations of the Gods (i.e. the snake as Bolverk), but as the animals Themselves who have come and shared wisdom and training. Some of these representations pull double-duty; for instance, the wolf in the top above the center of the shrine is representative of both wolves, and Lupa, the Wolf Goddess who came to me early in my journey as a Pagan and in my self-discovery, helped me to realize a lot about myself. More, She helped teach me how to not only explore it, but integrate it into my life as best as I could. As the Wolf has been a central figure in my life as a whole, and as I mark It as kin, it forms the center of this shrine. The patch of fur and wolf bones were gifts by the wonderful Shin Cynikos. I keep these as sacred items to this day. They still lay upon the animal spirits’ shrine.
It wasn’t long before I transitioned out of this kind of layout. When I moved back into my old room upstairs to live with my family, there was a lot more room to expand, and express the changing relationships and growth in our lives together. The next post will go into the expansion that occurred at that time, and what the altars and shrines tend to look like nowadays.
The next few posts I will be going over how altars and shrines can change over time. My hope is that this will give people different ideas of how altars and shrines can be made, what can go on them, and help people see a different way of doing things.
When I lived in the dorms this is what my altar/shrine looked like. Everything was together onto this little dresser. The only other flat surface I had needed to keep my desktop PC and studying desk. So, my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits all shared space on this tiny little thing. I wasn’t supposed to light the candles or use the censer in the back. There was a single offering chalice for all the varied Gods, Ancestors, and spirits present, and when liquid offerings needed to be poured out I either did so in the sink, or took it out to the trees near to the dorm rooms.
Starting on the left was my tarot and my athame/working dagger, and behind them the mead I gave for offerings. In the back, to the right of the mead, was water I had collected from a lake, and a Chaos Star I had won in a raffle to the right of that. The box beneath the censer contained things like prayer beads, as did the box behind A Book of Pagan Prayer. To the right of the chalice was my representation of the Ancestors (it still serves that purpose) and of course, Odin with representations of Geri and Freki. The little pouch before the Ancestors to the left of the Wolves was given to me as Gebo for help I gave to someone. Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir, sat resting before Odin’s feet. In front of the Wolves to the left is Brighid’s Candle, and to the right is Her Cross. In between the wands and Wolves were two sigils to the angel Haniel, who I asked to help me in my relationship at the time. The silver skulls were what I used as representation of the Dead and as prayer beads (if memory serves) to that purpose. In front of the Dead representation are wands, while the ceramic container was used to hold herb offerings. To the right of the skulls was an offering of an apple, which, after a day or three, was taken outside and put under a tree.
The altar/shrine was near the door to the dorm room, and since I didn’t want to get brained every time I came home, the staves were set on the left of the altar. A lot of this altar was put together the way it was out of necessity. It taught me to use space effectively, and making sure I knew what was essential to me, both in terms of representation, and what I was worshiping and working with.
I was reading a post by Aine Llewellyn on identification at Patheos.com and I thought about my own identity.
How did I come to know who and what I am?
I looked for something to identify with myself, a model or series of models to compare, contrast, follow, and reject. It necessitated looking at how others described themselves, seeing which words fit best. This is part of every person’s foundation. Self-identification and self-definition cannot happen in a bubble. While it is personal to some degree for much of our lives identity is communally developed.
Consensus reality is built with a standardized understanding of the world around us. Even with words that have their own continuum, words such as hot/cold, good/bad, etc. there must be a root knowledge of what is being described and compared for any meaning to be built. To understand hot we must understand ‘hotness’ just as we must understand cold by its ‘coldness’. We must also understand where those dividing lines are defined, even if it is relatively arbitrary. Without these foundations there is nothing for meaning, or identity to build on. These basic identifiers of reality then expand outward to more complex topics, such as religion.
If identity cannot be built in isolation how can identity take such as central role when only defined by oneself? If self-identification is all that matters what would the point of words, let alone consensus-based reality, matter?
I recognize that writing this post is, in and of itself, setting a healthy powder keg with ample matches nearby. To even address identity in so straightforward a manner can be viewed as threatening, confrontational, fundamentalist, or simply being a jerk. Or all of the above. It is not my intent, either in writing this or pointing out Aine Llewellyn’s post, to be antagonizing. It my intent to make some points on things I feel very strongly and develop constructive, needed dialogue.
If I cannot point to x, y, or z and discern x from y, y from z, and so on, what is the use of words? Words can, by their nature, restrict meaning, but it also gives us the means to sharing and understanding meaning with ourselves and with one another. In so doing it gives us the means to understanding, appreciating, and developing meaning itself.
Words like hot and cold exist on a spectrum, yet we can say that hot is not cold and cold is not hot; to say otherwise is to destroy the meaning of both words, and the concept for each completely falls apart. We can say where freezing is, where lukewarm (aka room temperature) is, and where the boiling point is for water, both in terms of scientific measurement, and in terms of common parlance. That is why I sincerely believe that exclusionary definitions must come into use, and be respected, in order that our words mean anything. If ‘Pagan’ is to mean anything substantive, at some point we must confess that hot does not equal cold, and thereby, cold does not equal hot. While pinpointing where that dividing line is may take some work on our part, it is a necessary thing.
I cannot, as a polytheist, animist, a priest of two Gods and a Northern Tradition shaman, walk into a Catholic Church and declare myself Catholic with any honesty or in truth. I do not believe, think, or have the worldview of a Catholic. As importantly, I do not attend Mass, believe in the Nicene Creed, or perform the sacraments, hold the Roman Catholic Church as my authority figure, or Jesus Christ as my Savior and YHVH as my God. For me to say “I am Catholic” would not be honest or true. I am not only ill-suited to being Catholic but it would be dishonest and untrue of me to identify as one.
I use the words ‘honest’ and ‘true’ because of their definition:
Honest: “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere”
True: “in accordance with fact or reality”
So one may be totally honest in the presentation of their feelings but untrue in what reality is. One may sincerely believe believe that a hot cup of tea is in fact cold, even while steam rises from it.
Would honoring St. Francis de Assisi, to the point of setting aside a shrine for him where I could commune with him and leave him offerings, make me a Catholic? Absolutely not. I would be a polytheist animist honoring the spirit of a man who deeply touched my life, whose namesake I took when I was Confirmed, and whose prayers I still enjoy.
To even try to breach this boundary would be an insult, if not a direct affront to myself, my Gods, many if not all of my Ancestors (polytheist and monotheist), many, if not all of the spirits I call friends and allies, and my Elders. It would equally be an insult to YHVH, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, devout Catholics, Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Pope. In short, I would be honoring nothing and insulting everyone.
What of those Catholics (few, I imagine, given my experiences in the Church) who are in between the points of boundaries, such as those who think you can be Catholic and worship Gods? What of those Pagans who believe that the words ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ should mean whatever their user wishes them to mean? At some point there needs to be a consideration on whose voice matters, why, and for what reason their words should be recognized as honest or dishonest, true or untrue, valid or invalid.
A layperson in the Roman Catholic religion may make all the pronouncements on Church doctrine that they wish, and for all they may articulate their position well, with full citations from accepted Church sources, they will not be an authority within the Catholic Church. A layperson has no power to set theology, doctrine, or ways of conducting oneself within that religion. Few forms of Christianity exist which allows their laypeople to have this authority.
If one is truthfully and honestly identifying themselves as a Catholic then, according to the doctrine of the Church, you are placing yourself under its authority. If one is to truthfully and honestly self-identify as a Catholic you cannot be anything other than a Catholic who adheres to the beliefs of the Church. These are part of the rules laid out by the communal body of the Church through its doctrines and theology. These are the rules that one accepts, even if one disagrees with them and is seeking change within the Church, as part of being identified as a member of the Church. You can personally identify as a Catholic, going to Church, and believing as you will, even being fully polytheist, and your feelings may be completely honest and true in and of yourself, that you feel that way and identify as a Catholic. However, it will not be honest or truthful in regards tobeing Catholic.
A Pagan operating purely from personal gnosis alone will likely not be accepted as any kind of authority within reconstructionist circles no matter how fervent their beliefs or powerful their experiences. A reconstructionist Heathen will probably not be an authority figure within British Traditional Wicca. Pagan communities already practice discernment as to whose identification is accepted, who is an authority figure, and who is part of the community’s in-crowd. However, it is seen as rude and/or outwardly hostile when one tries to apply any rubric of discernment in determining who belongs to the larger Pagan community.
At this moment, one can truthfully and honestly identify themselves as Pagan regardless of personal theology. Among a great many, one of the differences between the Christian and Pagan communities is that Pagan communities each have their own standards as to who belongs. Some of these standards may be so lax as to be nonexistent. Some Pagan communities have no standards of belief and/or practice whatsoever, accepting all comers to the identification. Others, by contrast, are quite strict in their definition of who belongs to their particular community, while others’ boundaries are quite porous while still having a core of adherence required. In the case of Paganism, as it exists right now, the only way to identify a Pagan is to have one identify themselves.
In order for Pagan to gain more substantive meaning it needs to be become more exclusive. Why should Pagans embrace exclusionary statements? If there are 30,000 or so (and growing) denominations of Christianity, why not follow suit and embrace as many variations of ‘Pagan’ as come to the term?
Christianity as a whole discerns between itself and other religions in its namesake and its theological position. To be Christian is to follow Christ. That marks it as different from other monotheist religions as well. It is exclusionary in its very name, demarking itself from all other religions in that Christ, regardless of what denomination one follows, is the head of the religion and that one is a follower of Christ. There is no such thing in Paganism. There is no positive differentiation between Pagans and other faiths. We are defined by negative differentiation, by not being Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Shinto, etc. In other words, we are not even self-identified.
The Pagan identity is all but completely constructed outside of our communities. There is no absolute baseline for belief as the term is used today. There is not even a requirement for belief in a God or a Goddess, let alone Gods or Goddesses. Nor are there requirements for even a belief in a spirit, let alone spirits. If the word ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ communicates essentially nothing in terms of belief within our own communities, and communicates little to nothing of our beliefs when used by other religions as an identifier, what good is it as a description for any belief, let alone an umbrella of them?
By contrast, there is a profession of belief in declaring oneself a polytheist. It is simple and direct: the belief in many Gods. Individual groups within the polytheist communities may have different standards of belonging, belief, right action, right practice, ethics, etc. but the uniting factor is that belief is actually involved and it is in many Gods. This definition excludes atheists, monotheists, monists, and others, but that is what makes it an effective word: it does not say ‘the belief in Gods if you can believe in Them’, or ‘the absolute belief that the Gods are x, y, z, etc”, merely that one believes that many Gods exist.
If ‘Pagan’, ‘Paganism’, and related terms are to be of use they must be more than negatively outwardly-defined. They must be internally defined, and, more importantly, positively defined with a clear meaning.
From the First Fire
I call to You
From the Icey Birth
I call to You
From the Trees
I call to You
From ash and dust
I call to You
From ages past
I call to You
From memory’s hearth
I call to You
From the youngest lines
I call to You
From bonds of love
I call to You
From home and hearth
I call to You
From Wyrd’s ties
I call to You
Hail to the Disir!
Hail to the Väter!
Hail to the Ancestors!
Of blood and bone!
Hail, Ancestors all!