I am trying to have respectful dialogue on something I have intense feelings rooted in my religion, beliefs, and understanding of my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. I understand that for those who engage in Pop Culture Paganism their feelings are probably similar if not the same towards their own Gods. I am trying to open up dialogue about something that I nearly destroyed all bridges with my family over and have dedicated my life to.
Part of my reluctance to engage is recognizing from talking with people near me, as one put it, that “You are too engrossed in your worldview to see another’s”. And you know what? That is a valid point, and one I raise to Christians when they deny the whole existence of my Gods.
I also ask ‘does my engagement actually engender frith?’ I am unsure if my writing did anything beyond preach to a choir and alienate others. I felt a compulsion to write it, out of frustration and anger at what I found to be something that I felt was insulting to my Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and I. I have issues with definitions of Paganism already, and this was one more thing that I feel that takes away from that understanding.
My point in my articles is not that Pop Culture Paganism is evil, but I admit in several places where I have weighed in that I cannot understand it. It does not make sense to me. I don’t mind that people use statuary as stand ins for Loki, or they derive benefit from using iconography and such from another medium. I recognize that my approval probably means nothing to people engaged in religious devotion to Gods I don’t worship. I happen to use Dryad Designs’ depictions of my Gods (Odin and Freya thus far, and I’m on the lookout for Frigga) because they click with me. If Loki-as-Joker works for you, I’m fine with that. What I do not understand is the worship /of/ Joker. Or Batman.
In the article I wrote I expressed that I could not conceive of worshiping Batman or developing a devotional relationship with him, and then go on to compare and contrast it to heiti. I ask the question: “Which Batman?” among others. Which comic do I take as an understanding of Batman? How do I verify this is indeed Batman the spirit, as opposed to a spirit wearing Batman’s face? I assume that similar methods if not the same methods I would use to check if the spirit that answered my call to Odin is Odin Himself or someone wearing His guise. However, I don’t know because it is not something I have done.
I have had revelatory experiences in my car listening to the radio. Does that mean that the artist whose song I have listened to is a prophet of this or that God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit? No, my Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits used a medium to communicate with me.
In the post I recently wrote I cited my Great-Grandfather’s journey here from Holland to America at the open of WWI when the fear was that there would be an invasion. He came to a country where he had some relatives, but he could not speak the language well. He made his life here success by success and mistake by mistake. I do not understand the process that puts his life story, one of my heroes, alongside Batman’s. I attended my Great-Grandfather’s funeral and heard his life story several times over the course of my life. I saw his ship records; he has a concrete place in this world, in my Ancestors’ House, and in my life for the little amount of time I knew him in life. He sang to me songs in broken Dutch and English, and gave me a harmonica to remember him by. Batman does not and has not done these things for me. How could he?
I use Batman here because I really like this character, especially from the 90s animated series voiced by Kevin Conroy, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and the Arkham Batman games. Have I been inspired by Batman? Sure. He was a part of my early childhood and helped form it with his stories, just as Spider-Man did. I spent a good deal of time watching both with my Dad and it helped to form dialogue between us on religion, revenge, the use of power, the poor, mental health and mental health care, the difference between reality and fiction, and so many other things. I suppose where I come to the difference, beyond ‘my Great-Grandfather lived’, is that Batman never came to me in a vision, or when I thought “Man, I could really use Batman right now.” The Gods did. When I was a Catholic, Yahweh, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary, as well as St. Francis de Assisi did.
A worthy point Sannion brought up is if indeed these are spirits unto themselves, then what if they would actively deny our worship, or worse, be insulted by it? I.e. Batman, I am fairly sure given my experience of Batman through the comics, movies, games, etc. would balk at being worshiped and would not answer. Perhaps that is me just lore-thumping with a comic book instead of an Edda. How does one enter into such a religious cultus and culture and keep a sense of discernment and sense of sanctity for Gods I consider to be more real than comic book ones that are worshiped?
So the challenge could be one where I would say “Okay, I don’t believe on whit of this, but I’m willing to entertain the notion, so here we go: I’ll buy a Batman action figure or print a picture and put it aside from my Gods and give it worship as I might my Gods. It won’t go on my God altar, but I’m willing to entertain this notion.”
Then I think about it, and what that worship means to me, to my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and I cannot do it. I can’t go that far, and I admit that. At the risk of insulting you, and your own religious path, I don’t look at it as a negative, because I see such a thing as debasing my religion, of saying to my Gods “you are like this fictitious being to me”. It insults me, and from my perspective, and my religious training and beliefs it insults my Gods to do so.
I’m all for people worshiping whatever Gods they want to, and at the end of the day, I recognize that my voice means relatively little in the course of whether or not someone will call me wrong for worshiping Loki the way I do when they take their inspiration of worship from Marvel. They still may feel the need to say it, even if I don’t respond to it, or they may strike a dialogue with me and explain why they find the Marvel Loki more spiritually fulfilling than the Loki I know.
I think that part of the importance of my engaging with Pagans who engage Pop Culture as a source for their Gods, is to say that “I do not believe this, but I am willing at least to hear it. I won’t shout you down, but I will probably not accept it.” People may well come to me tomorrow asking for help, or I may be called upon to engage with them by my Gods, and rather than close myself off wholly to them, I think that the middling ground of “I respect your right to have your religious experiences, but I do not look at them as I will my own. If you can handle that we can continue.” If their response is “If my Gods are not welcome/respected as I respect Them I cannot treat with you” I can respect that in the larger sense; I have the exact same response to places where Loki is forbidden. I cannot go there, and cannot ask you to either.
If your devotion to your religion and/or your Gods is that deep, let me give a heartfelt hurrah for you. I can at least nod and say “I respect your right to worship who and what you wish. I don’t understand it, I may not accept it as valid for my religion, practices, beliefs, etc. but that, ultimately, is between you and the Gods.” Hell, if your religious devotion is deep you’re doing better than a lot of so-called religious people, Pagan and not. Where I would have harsh words is if, as I have seen insisted on Tumblr, that Marvel’s Loki is the real one, and any of us who go “Wait, our understanding of Loki is based in the myths and legends and our experiences of Him through that lens” are told we are wrong. My Gods are not revealed to me in fiction. While my understanding may, in some cases be informed by fiction, i.e. I still ‘see’ Thor with blond hair rather than red as is depicted in the myths, I do not believe They should not be placed in the same category as fiction or fictitious beings. I cannot treat Batman, or any other superhero with the same religious reverence as my Gods, my Ancestors, or the spirits with whom I work.
This post was inspired by this one on Patheos by Sunweaver.
The comic book heroes I read about and watch are not worthy of worship.
If I need help I cannot call on Batman to lend me aid any more than I can call upon Wolverine to lend me strength in battle. Could a spirit become invested with that power? I could see where a spirit would be happy to piggy-back on the following certain characters in fiction get, such as those above. But it would not be Batman or Wolverine in any meaningful sense.
Batman, with all of his iterations, may have a core story, but many are so spaced apart that calling on ‘the spirit of Batman’ is chaotic. Do you get the early 1940s Batman? Adam West’s? Kevin Conroy’s? Or perhaps one of exclusively toy line Batmans that float around after a new movie, with only the costume and some items to go with it?
This is nothing like heiti. In calling upon Odin, or perhaps upon Him via one of His heiti I am calling to a particular part of Him that was known, and that corresponds to Him in some concrete way. As Runatyr I get a very different aspect of Odin, but unlike the Batman example I give above, Runatyr is still Odin, not reimagined, or, as in the case of Batman 52, rebooted, but simply focused upon in a different way. Rather than focusing upon His qualities and Being as a God of inspiration, for instance, in praying to and calling upon Him as Runatyr I am desiring a connection to the Runemeister, to the God of Runes. I cannot confuse this with another spirit; it is utterly Odin’s name, likeness, and Being in conjunction with this heiti. There is no ‘alternate universe’ so to speak, ala Universe 52, where Runatyr is the essence of Odin and not His heiti.
Okay, well, we’re talking about heroes and superheroes. So what about Egil Skallagrimsson or Olvir of Egg or, more close to home, those of our Disir or Väter who we know as our recent Dead? Batman is as worthy of veneration and worship as my Great-Grandfather? Batman, while I find him a really cool comic character and many of his qualities good to emulate, is not and was not a flesh and blood person. The story of the Dark Knight movies, while fun to watch and in many cases a good meditation on justice, desperation and a good deal of other themes, is not the story of how my Great-Grandfather sailed into America with few possessions and laid down new roots here with the few family members already settled here. Batman, while a human-like story, is not a human story. Likewise, my Great-Grandfather’s story is neither allegory nor metaphor, but history and the lore of my family. I can visit his grave; I attended his funeral. I may tell his story as a metaphor or allegory, especially if I find the telling the story may help another, but Great-Grandfather’s story is his life retold, not a reimagined character. He embodies the story, even as I tell it, even if I miss details, or intentionally focus on others. When I tell Great-Grandfather’s story, it is not some New 52 Great-Grandfather, but he as he has come to me in understanding from my family, from my interactions with him, and my understanding of his story, its places in my life and how it can touch others.
Our heroes are real. These people, our Pagan and Heathen heroes and martyrs are real. They lived. Their stories reach out to us, many lives ending in supreme amounts of pain in devotion to their Gods. These, these are people, Holy People worthy of worship and remembrance . I can raise a horn to these People, write a paean to Them, hail them as Ancestors. These are people I can look to for greatness, for devotion, as exemplars.
Stories carry life | so raise them like children,
Well-fed and disciplined;
When they leave | oft reflected upon
is the teller of tales
One of many tragedies of our time is that we have lost connections many of our to our past. Whether one looks to agriculture, to handicrafts, to the stories from the past, or even to just knowing basic information of our Ancestors, many of us have lost these connections.
Some of these connections we are happy to lose, and others we lose to our detriment. I, for one, am happy that women are not considered second-class citizens, are able to hold a job, vote, and make their own way without a man. I am happy that LBGTQI rights are in the forefront of discussion in America, and our society is, albeit slowly, moving towards adopting them into full protections that any citizen can expect.
I have lost many connections with my Ancestors. I am only recently learning how to grow crops with my Dad, I am rediscovering handicrafts for myself, and I know very little of my family outside of the last generation or two. I am missing some very vital ties back to my older Ancestors, from knowing how they were able to provide shelter, to how they grew/raised their food, to my own genealogy.
Why would I consider these vital ties? Providing shelter is a basic survival tactic, one that many of us, myself included, do not know how to employ. Providing shelter also brings together people, whether they are communities or families. One need only mention a ‘barn raising’ and what instantly comes to mind is a community coming together to build together. When I think of agriculture, I remember the stories my parents told me of how they got up every day before the sun and grabbed eggs, milked cows, and sometimes weeded the crops before heading out to school. They did most everything as a group, as a family. In short, my Ancestors were far more collectivist than individualist, and this seeped into everything they did, even after the Industrial Revolution. It is only the recent generations that have really forgotten how to rely on one another, and with the forsaking of these connections, we find ourselves in communities we barely understand, let alone with people in them that we know.
Handicrafts, whether sewing, leatherworking, woodworking, sculpture, etc. often provided ways of telling stories of the Ancestors, whether through stone sculpture telling myths and legends, or quilt-making that brings people together to celebrate the lives of AIDS victims. They can be functional, as well as decorative, and losing these crafts has meant many stories are simply not passed on. So many stories are told through the simple building of a thing, such as the Lushootseed people’s construction of their homes. Losing these connections has sundered many people from their own creation stories. We can recreate these with our Ancestors, and make new connections to our future generations. We just need to reach out, learn, and do it.
Agriculture and other forms of self-sustaining lifestyles are ways that many Americans have simply never connected to. There was a time when most Americans farmed. There was a time when most of the human population farmed, foraged, or hunted for their sustenance. Cutting ourselves off from food production has put many of us, myself included, in the thrall of whatever is cheapest to buy and/or make for our meals. By reintegrating our Ancestors’ ways, perhaps alongside ways that work better with our modern world, such as permaculture and transition towns, we can reconnect not just to Them, but to the landvaettir as well in a deep way. As much if not more than barn raising and similar practices, the growing and harvesting of food brought communities together. It helped to feed the heart as well as the body and soul.
There are many reasons to despair of this loss of connections to our Ancestors, but so many more to reestablish these connections. In my experience, when you come to understand your Ancestors you can better understand yourself. We are Ancestors-to-be, the iteration of all our families bloodlines. Our Ancestors are part of our makeup, from DNA to soul. In addressing our relationship to the past, and to our Ancestors, we can be better equipped to not make their mistakes, and to take strength from and in their strengths. In addressing our Ancestors, we can also better address ourselves. In addressing our Ancestors’ wrongs, we can heal old hurts, and teach our children and those who share this world with us better ways of being. By reaching back we can relearn old skills that will help us survive both in our everyday life, and in times of trial. One of the best things, in my view, that results from reintegrating one’s Ancestors into their life is all the learning you can do. For the Ancestors, in my experience, it is the relationships they forge anew with you, and the ways of passing Themselves onto the next generation in ways that may have long been denied to Them. Whether you are doing basic genealogy research, or integrating Ancestor worship and veneration into your everyday practice, each reach back brings Them that much closer.
I am not for a moment saying that those who have left from abusive family situations must reestablish those connections in the flesh. I am not even saying that they should do that in the spirit; that decision is between them, their Ancestors, Gods, and other spirits with whom they work. Yet, it may be helpful to perform elevations with their Ancestors, helping Them rise out of past pain and anguish. Again, that is a decision up to each person, their Ancestors, Gods, and spirits. For more information on this kind of work, please look to Elevating the Ancestors by Galina Krasskova here.
Losing our Ancestors’ connection creates a hole in our lives. It is not knowing where we come from. It is not knowing where we’ve been, or how we came from there to here. It is a vacuum which will fill itself where it can, in a search for identity. Taking nothing away from all humans having the same Ancestor, Mitochondrial Eve, our more recent Ancestors, even those from a thousand or better years ago, inform our lives in deeply intimate ways. How has your ancestry shaped your life?
My great-grandfather came to America during WWI when he could hear boat guns off the shore. He could have stayed in the Netherlands, and rather than become a citizen of America he could have stayed a Dutch citizen. I can’t begin to think of how very different my life might be if he had not gotten on the Rijndam on April 14th, 1916, leaving the only home he knew, and sailed into Ellis Island on May 3rd, 1916. Yet this is only one of thousands of stories that distilled into me.
Each and every one of us is a distillation of these stories, legends, myths, truths. Reconnecting to a story helps to fill a hole in my memory, my understanding of where I come from and what has happened so that I am here. Listening to my Ancestors in meditation and prayer has helped fill others, brought lessons on how to do things, such as making a fire, into my life. The Ancestors can reach out to us, as surely as we can reach to Them. Whether we recognize Them reaching out to us is another story. Some of the many ways Ancestors can reach out to us is by giving us a feeling of Their presence, reaching to us through dreams, working with us in our magic and other spiritual work, helping to effect change in subtler ways (i.e. ‘coincidence’, coming into contact with their graves/things by chance, etc.), a story of Theirs being told, or even inheriting things from Them. Our Ancestors can use each of these ways, and more to grab our attention, give us a clue, communicate with us.
The biggest challenge I faced when I started seeking out my Ancestors was reaching out at all. In most of America, even mentioning you want to speak with your Ancestors will get you odd looks, if not outright anger. In this Protestant-dominated discourse on religion, it is sometimes difficult to talk about mystical experiences, let alone actively seek them. Yet, seeking our Ancestor’s is a mystical experience, even if it is not Earth-shattering. It leads us back, and by following the paths back to Them, we can follow new paths forward. We can invite Them along, or They can come as They will, with us on our journey through life. Simply sitting and meditating, perhaps with a photograph, or looking through old records can be connective. It can be a walk through the forest in contemplation of our Ancestors, it can be building a fire. There are innumerable ways to invite our Ancestors into our lives. We just need to invite Them. Even if we don’t recognize all the faces, voices, or figures, They will come, and They will work with us to understand Them.