A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part -Critiques

February 4, 2016 6 comments

My post here is written in response to critiques I am reading of folks in the peak oil community, and are several responses in one to common points I have seen brought up on Facebook and Tumblr today in relation to this post.

One way or another the capitalist/industrial model is, by how it is deployed in the landscape and how capitalism is interwoven with mass industrialism, doomed to failure. Both are running up against hard limits on a finite planet. The simple fact is sooner or later peak oil will hit. Climate change is happening right now.  There is nothing on this planet that can replace what oil does for us. Not coal, not natural gas, not any of the systems of electricity production such as solar or wind, and certainly not nuclear. There is no infrastructure in place on a national scale ready to bear the weight of all the needs United States citizens have now, let alone need to keep that infrastructure operating far into the future. Neither system of economy or production has the ability to address the hard limits being placed on them, whether one looks at the limits to growth in an infinite-money paradigm as capitalism has right now, or the ‘technology can solve all our ills’ on the other.

I absolutely agree this needn’t be an all-or-nothing deal, but technologism, much like critiques of scientism, is part of the central critique of folks like JMG and myself. If capitalism fails, with the way it is interwoven into the technology industries, it will take many, if not most of the technology industries with it. Technologies by themselves cannot allow us to live on if we continue to use the technologies we have in the ways we are right now, especially as dependent as it is on the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in order for them to be viable in the first place.

The idea of ‘seize the means of production’ sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, not because I think capitalism is invincible or that we could not actually seize them, but because I cannot see how seizing the means of production actually will help anything if all the feedstocks for, say, my diabetes medication, fall right along with the production of the meds themselves.  How many means of production can we realistically seize and kept running? I don’t see how ‘seizing the means of production’ will actually help anything, either as a narrative, nor do I see a practical application of this idea. Unless folks who want to seize the means of production can also seize provide upkeep for the means by which production is maintained and kept running in the first place, and can keep the people fed who do the maintaining and producing, and so on, there’s little point in my mind of engaging with the idea.

If we look at the ‘seizing the means of production’ from socialist countries or Marxist literature, this may be a good model to start with, but it runs into the same problems sooner or later. These are finite resources and we have no plans for what to do when they run low enough where the cost to produce goods and services exceeds the ability of the resource to provide energy and/or end product(s). Once a given thing, whether oil, natural gas, neodymium, etc., hits peak and begins decline nothing we do to extract, refine, or design more effectively will stop the decline of the availability of the resource. The hard limits problem must be dealt with, or anything proposed ignores the outcome of diminishing resources and at the end of the day is not realistic.

Technology is not a monolith. A stone arrow is a piece and product of technology as much as a smart phone is. Both requires certain resources, skills, and time to fashion. There are technologies which require significant investment of resources in order to make viable. If the neodymium mines which allow our hard drives to be built start running out of neodymium, 90% of which are located in China, how would we seize the means of production in order to keep our computers’ hard drives, and all the things that rely on good, working computer systems to function? This is my issue with these kinds of narratives. The baseline resources required to pull this idea off actually belong to someone else, and are only viable so long as production and refinement of these resources is able to maintained at a certain level.

As I said in Part One of this series:

“This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live? Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death. If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do? My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then. It is about answering this question on a practical basis. If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live? Well, in the short term the answer is no. However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically. I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis. I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent. So, I won’t. ”

If anyone here read any of JMG’s books or watched his talks on this subject, I would think it would very quickly put to bed the notion that he thinks this is some kind of utopia. It won’t be. There will be suffering, whether it is because people refuse to come together and put what technology they can put theirs hand to into use, or because they refuse to understand and/or act until the hard limits of reality come knocking, or because communities do not do the hard work to prepare for peak oil and climate change now.

The Long Descent is not some fantasy I want to have happen. I’ve looked at what evidence is out there, what I understand lies before us, and accept that I may well die because the means of producing the metformin, insulin, and other medications that keep me alive will cease to be viable economically or technologically because of resource depletion.

I am not telling people to reject technology, nor do I believe others who I identify with the peak oil and permaculture crowd such as JMG are. I am saying we need to understand the limits to growth, especially within the paradigms technology operates, and what these things allow to occur without significant personal investment for other means of making and operating the technology we rely on. I do not understand JMG to be saying that we should simply accept out of hand the suffering that is coming.

What I do understand is that peak oil and climate change are real, occurring right now, and there are things we can still do to prepare for it, and things that are beyond our reach.

As I have written about this previously, I don’t think top-down approaches will allow us to survive climate change or peak oil. I do not put much stock in theories and ideas which do not have a practical application. Much of my issue with much of the Marxist, anarchist, and other ideas currently out in the public sphere right now, is that there is no one saying “This is how to practically apply these ideas”. I can look at JMG and those of his ilk and see the solutions in action. I can do them myself. More to the point, I am enacting the changes in my life and learning the skills that will allow my family and I have a good chance at surviving peak oil and climate change. It is entirely possible I haven’t run across places, books, and other resources where anarchist and Marxist ideas on how to address climate change and peak oil are being applied. There are overlaps between folks in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, and other communities in the peak oil and permaculture communities, but I have yet to see this as centrally addressed in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist communities, as in the peak oil and permaculture communities.

One of the things that gets hurled around in some of the posts I have been reading is how privileged it is for folks to be talking about looking for alternatives to factory-produced medicines and the like, which require great amounts of resources. I’ve actually taken time to respond to the notion of my diabetes killing me because of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.  I have also noted on this blog and elsewhere, that I make an hourly rate just above minimum wage, and I qualify for Medicaid.  To me, looking for and engaging with alternatives to mass-produced medicines is as much part of the overall idea of surviving and thriving in a powered-down future as growing my own food is.

I’ll be honest: I’m getting tired, damned tired, of privilege being used as a club and thought-stopper when there are folks, like myself, with these diseases and issues who are working through the understanding of “Yes, I may well die from lack of access to medicines I need”.  There are folks like myself who, knowing this, recognize that climate change and peak oil need to be addressed, and that a powerful response to them is to build community ties, personal and communal skills while developing human-scale technology on the ground level to deal with these challenges as much as we can.

I recognize that I may not survive if, say trade or the medical industries that produce my medicines are hard-hit by peak oil or climate change.  That’s not the fault of green activists, permaculturists, transition town communities, or the like.  As I have said before, there’s not a lot any of us can really do about it.  Like it or not, the means of getting these medications will become harder and harder as peak oil and climate change continue.  This is not a call to ‘revert’ or go to a primitivist lifestyle, though that may be the answer for some, but to take what technologies we have right now, and do all we can to prepare for a future where these things are hard to access, if not cut off from us. This is not a zero-sum game, and it does us and our descendants no good if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality.

Capitalism, technology, and science are not monolithic, and are not untouchable.  We live in a world where the ability to pour massive amounts of money and resources into projects that do not further the survival of our species is being left behind.  We need to look at whether or not certain ways of using our resources are actually worth our time. This is not anti-science nor is it anti-technology, though in many ways it may be anti-capitalist. What it is, at the end of the day, is the use of discernment.

The process of coming to grips with peak oil and climate change, and how we live in this world becomes even more important to the animist and polytheist. Our world, and all of the things within it, carry the potentiality, if not the actuality, of being Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The working with and/or caring for the Beings around us, treating them all as Beings, including what we usually think of as ‘resources’, is a dynamic shift in thought. Look at oil as the distilled essence of the lich of the Dead which comprise it, and your relationship to this object which permeates our lives takes on new meaning. Look at Fire Itself as the Eldest Ancestor, and your relationship with all things Fire, whether the fire that burns the coal, natural gas, etc. that heats one’s home or powers one’s electronics, or that enables us to travel by bus, takes on a new dynamic.

We never stopped relying on all these Beings. What we have done is find new ways for them to inhabit our lives, and use more of the bodies of the Dead and the Earth than we ever have before.  What Westerners especially have done is taken and demanded more from the landvaettir than They have hope of giving while maintaining Their own homes.

Technologies, for all the ills we have wrought with many of them, are not our enemy. Using our knowledge of and expertise in technologies is part of how we can address climate change and peak oil.

I think that this person’s concerns need to be addressed directly, as I have seen variations of this come up.  I do want them to know I’m not picking on them personally.

This kind of anarchic tribalism mentality growing in, let’s be real, mostly English-language-dominant radical & occult circles, is seriously troubling to me. Part of the problem is, as you said, lack of consideration for all the horrific suffering that medical technologies and research either keep just behind the door or completely shut out. Anti-establishment thinkers in North America, the UK, and the European-dominated Antipodes have lived with the unacknowledged benefits of vaccinations, advanced sanitation, and disability aids for so long that I honestly think we don’t comprehend anymore that our life spans of 80+ years borne out in relative ease are because. Of. Science. Not natural immunity. Influenza anyone??? Yes let’s develop this the “““natural”““ way by letting viral infections wipe out 1/3 of our national populations every 30 years or so, GREAT PLAN.

Medical technology and therapies have given rise to immense advances in healthcare, no doubt.  I don’t think, though, that there is a lack of consideration for suffering.  We simply don’t have answers.  If oil becomes cost-prohibitive, as it will in a peak oil future and Long Descent, then very basic questions come up in regards to developing and maintaining medical infrastructure. How will we transport medicine?  What will the containers the medicine comes in be?  What kinds of medicines will be able to survive in such a future?  There are a myriad of questions, and very few good answers come to mind.  Sure, we can hang to what infrastructure we have for awhile, and maybe it could last a generation or two.  If we’re careful, the infrastructure we have, or better yet, develop, could last even longer, but that would require we start doing that now.

Here’s the truth though: the only reason a vast majority of folks are alive is because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, and a climate that allows regular food/medicine production, trade, and storage.  It isn’t a pleasant truth, but it is the truth.  Without the infrastructure, from roads to bridges, from trade networks to universities that do the research for a lot of the medical products in the first place, the only thing that keeps a lot of folks alive are the same fossil fuels that are polluting the environment and causing CO2 levels to rise.

Not everyone will get out of this alive.  Actually, a good number of us will die, or our descendants will because of the effects of peak oil and/or climate change.  No human gets out of life alive, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat The Long Descent as a Vale of Tears either, because it needn’t be that way.

By the way, when The Collapse happens, say goodbye to literally everyone in your little clan with a hereditary predisposition and / or environmental exposure to cancers that weren’t classed as surefire killers before.

This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous.  Not everyone with genetic predispositions develops a given disease or disorder.  Peak oil and climate change by themselves aren’t going to increase the cancer rates.

Corporate greed and pollution did its damage to your locale and your body’s cells long before you became politicized over it. You can’t undo that no matter how many animals / plants you “naturally” harvest & prepare yourself.

This is true of chemicals like lead, but this is not true of all cancers or diseases.  This is why most of the literature I have seen on the subject deals in probabilities rather than certainties. There are ways foods can reduce the impact of lead, noted by Michigan Radio here, and the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services here.  There are people seeking to reduce the impact of lead in communities hit by the Flint lead poisoning by getting good, fresh foods into the hands of Flint kids.  It isn’t a total fix, but it will at least help mitigate the damage.  This person is right, in that sometimes the impacts are out of our control, but once we understand these factors that are involved, that means that what remains is within our hands to work with.

That’s another blind spot, the idea that literally the day after you start back-to-nature living, you are magically (pun very much intended) cut off & protected from the ongoing damage caused by ill-used & unregulated technologies.

This actually isn’t a blind spot that I see in these circles except in all but the most naive. For example, when I talked about the plans I and my fellows had, the Strawbale Studio folks actively warned against the idea that living as they do would magically fix all the problems.  The idea that back-to-nature and living off the land can occur in our cities and towns is an idea that has taken root in permaculture, urban gardening, and natural building communities.  The tiny house movement has, in part, exploded because of the need for small, developed parts of land within cities.

If people abandon towns & cities en masse for the idyllic countryside, unmaintained lead pipes will poison waters & wreck ecosystems downstream for decades, if not centuries. The Pacific Garbage Patch will still be there, and oceanic fish will still build up particulate plastic in their bodies long after our grandchildren grow old. If we go off science & technology cold turkey, we will only be less equipped to deal with the fallout from the Industrial Age frenzy & late-capitalist lawless exploitation.

Because we are human we will never ‘go off of science and technology cold turkey’.  What is happening and will continue to happen as the Long Descent goes on, is that the technologies that require great amounts of energy to operate that are required for our complex societies to keep chugging along will get harder to come by, and thus, more expensive.  The sciences that requires great inputs of energy and material may keep on getting funding, but we thought that by now we’d be on Mars.  The NASA manned space program is pretty-much dead.  Maybe Space X, Boeing, and others will pick up the slack, but again, the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) of these missions will come into question as time goes on.

There will be a point at which the cost-benefit analysis will tell us there’s only so much we can afford to put towards getting this resource, like oil, or that material, like copper, and still break even, let alone make surplus of the resource or material, or a profit off the sale of them.  There’s a reason folks are relearning and reskilling for a powered-down economy, and it is not because we don’t like our laptops, phones, and other modern conveniences.  It is because these things require energy and materials that are getting increasingly rare to build and maintain.

The lead pipes are already breaking down.  The ecosystems are being poisoned right now. We can only do so much to stop this, especially with the major infrastructure systems unable or refusing to address these issues head-on.  Lack of regulations are not the only problem.  Collusion and cooperation between private businesses and government agencies is as well.  The MI Department of Environmental Quality stepped aside when Graymont sought 10,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula for development of a limestone mine.  The MI DEQ failed, or intentionally did not stop the poisoning of Flint citizens.  Citizens are left with few means by which to stop such things when our representatives and state workers step aside, or intentionally stop doing their job for us, the people.  It actually makes sense, for those who can afford to, to get the hell away from all of this infrastructure which is falling apart inside folks’ communities and homes.

I think part of the reason this “run away into the woods” reaction is so strong in the previously mentioned demographics is that we’re so used to having that choice. And still having some power to curtail the consequence of that choice. Don’t like your 9-to-5 city life, dominated by glowing screens and pointless work for the benefit of companies you resent? Form an “intentional community” and keep out the technophiles & corporate shills. And coincidentally the lower class neighbors who can’t afford to build an eco-friendly straw-bale home 2 hours’ drive from town on 3-day weekends they don’t have.

This is the other part of a lot of permaculture, transition town, and similar efforts though: staying where you live, stick it out, and make something of your home.  For some, going to the country is their answer.  For some folks, and I include myself here, I won’t make it in a city.  I’ve never lived in one for longer than a few years in my life, I don’t much care to visit them, and I don’t feel right in them.  Some folks thrive in cities, and that’s why they live there.  I don’t think the back-to-land movement, permaculture, transition town, gardening, and other folks have an all-or-nothing mindset as a whole.  Some folks do, like myself, because we’re just not suited to city living.  Some folks are all about city living and couldn’t see themselves living in the country.  Neither of these approaches are bad in and of themselves.

I lived in Flint for a few years, and I really, really didn’t like it.  Flint itself was not a bad place to live.  I just did not get city living and felt really out of place.

The downside to city living is that unless the infrastructure is in place, food access, recycling and reuse, and energy production are big issues.  Add to this aging infrastructure that struggles just to have basic maintenance because of budget cuts, and the pressure gets even harder.  Cities and towns can compound the issues because of how close everything is, but then, transportation between people can be a lot easier because its a matter of walking, biking, or taking a bus, whereas living in the country or even suburbs in America requires a car and all the attendant costs.

There are downsides to country living, but I find myself feeling better out here, and this is where I would prefer to live.  I don’t deal well with the compact spaces, the alleys, all of the noise of a city.  The city spirits are nice enough to me when I visit, but after getting lost in Ann Arbor a few times and making plenty of offerings to Her just to find my damned car, it’s safe to say this isn’t the place for me.

But another part of it is, I think, the sheer density of despair that we’ve grown up with. At least, this is my experience, and my internal struggle regarding the current state of science & tech as commodities under global capitalism: this system has deeply entrenched itself in my country. You only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine, materials tech, and automated services if you can pay for them. Human life is a utility, and will be cut off without a second thought if you get too behind on your bills. And that’s if you were born into one of the categories of people the ruling party WANTS to survive. The rest are consigned to ghettos and the prison-industrial system.

I understand how you only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine very well, especially when I didn’t have insurance and had to buy, or ask my folks to buy, for my insulin out of pocket.  Holy fucking shit.  I need this medicine to live and it costs $260-$470 per vial, and that vial might last a month.  Survival being a function of what you can afford is baked into how we survive.  It isn’t a specific evil of capitalism, though how capitalism sharpens that knife on the bones of the poor is especially egregious and vile.

My culture has already imagined dozens of future-Earth settings for entertainment purposes where the capability to live comfortably and to improve one’s basic living is actually a universal right, in deed & not just in words. We have the means to achieve that before I breathe my last breath on this Earth. But I won’t see that world, or be able to give it to my successors, because an oligarchy of national figureheads and business leaders have decided they want to win this ridiculous numbers game that is capitalism, which has tied itself to all human activities in order to effect a stranglehold on humanizing endeavors.

This assumes a top-down structure that would be able to stay intact for future generations, though, and I’m not sure that is going to be the case, or could be even if everyone did get on board with universal healthcare.  What makes socialism work, just as much as capitalism and communism, and any other modern mass societal organizations that I am missing here, is the cheap abundant fuel to make all of the programs, companies, and so on able to work in the first place.  The assumption that we would have the means to provide such a future is in deep doubt where I am standing.  This is also why, while I am a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I doubt we will have such a future.

There’s a deep despair in my own mind and likely the minds of a lot of comrades who see tech companies colluding with fascist governing bodies to spy on political dissidents & community leaders, or to remotely slaughter brown & black civilians of other nations because they’re on the wrong side of a war over toxic fuel for outmoded machinery. It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them. Our media is bent on national distraction & playing all sides against each other, another abuse of communications science that’s become background knowledge taken as given by most Americans I know under the age of 50.

I want to touch on this part in particular: “It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them.”

We cannot beat them at their own game.  This is why I, and those in my family, alliances, clan, and tribe, are looking at going off-the-grid as soon as I can as much as I can.  They have less control over me the less control I give them.  This is why we need to reweave local industries with locally produced goods.  If we’re not beholden to giant corporations for the wool for our looms, then the power to produce them lies in our hands.  If we’re not beholden to conglomerates of companies for the foods we need to live, the power lies in our hands.  The more we empower our own the less power we give to them. Its full effects may not be seen within our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for.  A given community member may not see the full impact of a community garden on their community before they die, but that does not mean these roots are not worth planting.

We’re constantly reinforced in the belief that with technology comes commodification – if you can fly or drive an oil drill or fracking rig there, you can exploit anyplace to ruination for profit. We don’t get widespread coverage on, to give a recent example from the Paris climate talks, other countries in the Americas approaching 50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources. The rest of the world outside of the villains given top billing in the U.N. are actually taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously, are both curtailing and evolving their technological sectors to mitigate harms perpetrated mainly by the Big 8. One can’t help but foster the impression that if we could just… just kinda sorta blast ourselves back into the Stone Age, the absence of the U.S.’s corporate-funded political maneuvering alone would leave so much more room for positive change.

I think that fostering the impression that ‘if we could blast ourselves back to the Stone Age then the US’s corporate-funded maneuvering would leave room for positive change’ is another form of delusion.  Countries like Japan, Brazil, and China, a few among many, snow the reality of things as we do.  China’s markets are coming unraveled, and yet the nationalist spin machine can’t twist the message hard enough that progress and good things are yet to come, even as the industrial economy takes a huge beating.  Brazil’s energy production is, in no small part, made possible because of massive damming operations which destroy indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and threaten the Amazon Rainforest Itself.

The problem with the sentence here, “50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources”, is that it belies what is actually going on.  It isn’t 50% or more of their energy needs being met, it is 50% or more of their electricity needs being met.  The cars still require 7 gallons of oil per tire, the roads still require diesel to power the equipment and make the materials that makes and maintains roads, lighting, signage, and so on.  Actual costs of maintaining many ‘clean energy’ grids are actually quite environmentally destructive, and they’re stopgaps at best. When our usual methods of getting cheap abundant fossil fuels are moot, what then?  We’re largely no longer dependent on what was called conventional reserves, like the big oil fields that were in Pennsylvania and Texas and sustained us through our own production peak in the 1970s.  The Bakken shale oil fields started being tapped at high rates because they were positive in cost-benefit analysis when oil prices were high.  At $25 or so a barrel of crude oil, that evaporates.  There are only a handful of shale oil, tight oil, and other similar plays that even make sense to exploit, and the EROEI is relatively small compared to historical levels.  Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, and related fields of technology are not new.  They just were less expensive than other options for a little while.  The only way a lot of companies are making any money in the fracking business is leasing, and it’s a matter of time before this glut dies a horrible death in a bubble/bust not unlike the housing market.

We’re going to go to a time where less cheap, abundant energy and less convenient material goods are the norm. The questions that arise from this understanding, then, are:  When we will get there?  How will we get there?  Will it be voluntary?  What actions can I and my community take now to prepare?

Technology makes dissent & better world-building possible – Twitter and Tor relays are among the best tools of anti-establishment & radical organizers. The Internet is the only reason many of us know what goes on in other countries, what progress others are making with science & conscientiously deployed technologies, while we wax faux-nostalgic about “simpler” lives.

I cannot wax nostalgic about a time I’ve never known.  If anything, folks like me get accused of being romantics, Luddites, and similar things.  As I said before, technology is not a monolith, and I think we need to be more clear about what kinds of technology we are talking about.  Food-oriented technology such as those used in GMOs’ processes are different from other food technology and distinct from mechanical technology like combines, and permaculture techniques that use earth movers are using different technologies.  Natural builders using axes, chisels, snap lines, and rules for roundwood timber framing are using different technologies as well.

With the resignation of four top executives, Twitter may well be going away, and that needs to be watched since so much activism is done on its platform.  What kind of technologies will be called on to replace it, and if it will have the ability to do the work for activism Twitter did, will be a hard question needing answering.  Part of Twitter’s success has been that it is accessible by non-activists, who can spread the word through the media conglomerates attached to it.

Winamp Internet TV streaming is how I found out about peak oil in the first place, and I do a lot of research online. Computer technology is how I do a lot of communication, and I include my phone in that technology camp since my phone operates more like a computer with phone functionality than a straightforward phone.  I would mourn the loss of such technology, but I also understand that living with it less is becoming more and more a survival skill as cell phone companies cut back on maintenance, and State and local money is less inclined towards basic infrastructure.  It’s part of why I am working on retraining my handwriting skills, which, especially compared to my typing skills, are atrocious.

What enables utopian-monolithic understandings of ‘Technology’, especially ‘green future’, medical, computer and communications-based ones, are the myth of progress.  It’s a very nice image, but it is a poor map of a very beleaguered territory.

And as much as the nihilist in me would love to see the total collapse of bloated Western wealth machines & all their tech & infrastructure, I cannot in good conscience wish for, work magic towards, or participate in radical subcultures that turn away from the misery and death such a collapse would unleash primarily on people who were only captive to this system, not its architects.

I think that if a given person’s morality calls for this that is fine, but I hope that they, and the others who contribute to the ongoing conversation, understand that it no longer matters what our wishes are in this regard.  Sooner or later the fuel will cost more than we can put towards pumping it out of the ground.  Saudi Arabia is looking to sell off parts of its nationalized oil company, and it is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia has been doing more and more offshore drilling.  That is incredibly expensive, environmentally dangerous, and should push people to take note.

Sooner or later the resources for production will cost more than we can put toward extracting it out of the ground.  Copper mines are a great example of this and Chris Martenson explores this idea pretty well in this video.  This is keenly seen in places like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, which is 2.5 miles across and 0.75 deep.  It’s a strip mine, the largest copper mine in the United States, and the deepest in the world, producing 0.2% ore concentration.  This means that, per 500 pounds of ore, you only get a single pound of copper.  This is simply unsustainable.  No, really, go look at the environmental damage in the Wikipedia article that the damn thing does to its surroundings.  Think on what Martenson says in the video above: look at how much energy and how many resources we are pouring into getting such little amounts of copper in return.  How long can we continue to justify these expenses?

It no longer matters if you are working towards dismantling the system.  The system is falling apart.  What is of utmost importance, in my view, is working towards building up communities that will last during and beyond the Long Descent.  Rather than staying tied to such a system, I am trying to mitigate the damage it will do to my tribe, my clan, my family, and my allies.  I cannot hope to save everyone, and I can only do what is within my quite limited capability to do.  Whatever I can do, though, is worth it.

This Greek proverb is part of the vision I hold for the future:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

We cannot do everything, but there is no reason for us not to do all that we can.

Learning the Skills and Getting to Work

January 26, 2016 2 comments

I just got back from a weekend at Strawbale Studio, taking the Rocket Stove and Earth Oven workshop this last week, and the Roundpole Timber Framing workshop with Sylverleaf, gifted to us by her mother.

There are some things where you just need to do them to know you can do them, and this would be one of those.  Like a lot of things we’ve fallen away from doing, building our own structures can garner a quality to it that makes it seem only able to be done within the realm of professionals.  We forget that our Ancestors used to build their own homes from the ground on up.  We disconnect from the understanding of knowing the land, and our place in helping to keep the trees, the forests, all of that healthy, by being collaborators with Them.

This is not to say I’m an overnight expert; hardly.  What it does mean is that with very simple tools and techniques, what I have learned can empower me and mine to build a house.  Given enough people, a community could raise several homes if we put our minds to it.  A small build team supported by a community could do the same if there was need or desire for it.

That is part of the power of places like Strawbale Studio.  You not only can learn the skills and get guidance on where to go from there, you understand in a real, in-person way that you can do these things.  It goes from a conception or an idea of the thing, into hands-on experience with the skills and techniques with the tools and materials.  It goes from feeling so far away, to very here.

I found myself at several times thinking, or saying aloud, “Oh wow.  If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.”  Every time I went to one of the classes, or watched the Roundwood Timber Framing DVD by Ben Law, I could feel the push that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were giving us were actually able to be achieved.  That the dream our family and friends have can quite readily become reality.

We were taught what kind of growth we needed to look for in our wood, and when seasoned vs. green wood was useful.  With teams I helped to make roundwood joints that, with a bit of refinement, could hold up a roof or become a support beam.  I learned how to use a sawhorse and draw knife to debark wood, and also to make square pegs into round pegs.  After drilling out a hole and inserting the peg into or behind a joint, then splitting the peg and inserting a small wooden wedge into the peg, it would hold them together tight.  All of these were simple building techniques that utilize the wood harvested around the place we were learning.  I went to the chainsawing demo, because even though I do not currently own one, learning the basics of tree felling is a skill I may need.  Granted, if I need a chainsaw I’ll be taking a safety course on that as Mark Angelini recommended.

There was a deep communication with the wood I was working with, and it’s not dissimilar from working with the body of an animal.  After all, the tree’s bark is the ‘skin’, and the wood is the ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ of the tree.  It once lived.  Learning to work with a tree by shaping its with a chisel is a very different experience of that tree and working with its body, and its spirit.  It’s similar to when I skinned a mole; it is one thing to work with an object in which leather is part of it, like a book cover or a drum, but a whole other thing entire to work with the skin before it becomes anything.  Same with the wood before it becomes a mallet, a peg, or an a-frame.

I had a similar experience this last week in working with the rocket stoves and forming the earth oven.  As with the previous workshop, I would catch myself thinking and saying “If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.”  Sylverleaf and I have a few books on our shelves, one of which is the Cob Builder’s Handbook by Becky Bee, and we picked up The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linday Smiley, and Deanne Bednar. As part of the workshop we received a copy of Rocket Mass Heaters by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.  It’s one thing to read these books, and a whole other thing to experience their contents.

The books can only describe so well how good cob feels in your hands for making the earth oven, how the slip layer for insulation should feel and look.  While I find it fairly easy to learn by sight, most of these things can only be learned by doing.  For instance, I was having a really hard time visualizing how the dividing bricks between where the feedbox for the firewood is and the chimney were supposed to be put down.  Seeing it done and helping to do it put it together made things click in a way I just couldn’t wrap my head around looking at the diagrams.

During the workshop on the second day I was the only person who took their shoes off to feel what the cob should feel like as you work it through the stages of adding water to the mix, which will be helpful when we do it outside in the spring or summer.  After doing that, I can hardly blame the other folks.  The cob was so cold my feet were aching till I put them near the rocket stove and scraped the mix off of my feet.  It was a lesson in why cob is used for mass thermal storage, though.

I really, really wish we could have finished off the earth oven.  From what I understand the drying process can take most or all of a day, depending on how big it is.  All we would have had to do was apply the insulation and the plaster layer, and we could have started making bread or pizza.  Albeit, since we made the earth oven at half scale, it would probably be more suited to breadsticks.  When we go to make our own we’ll be putting down foundation for the first time, since the model we worked on we really couldn’t put down a foundation as our diagrams depicted and all work on forming it.

One of my big takeaways from the weekend was that we really can put our hands to making a new world with the things around us, and do so in a respectful manner with the Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir.  As with the coppicing, working with the materials around one’s home or locally sourced materials harvested with care worked very, very well for the work we were doing.  Having actually seen Strawbale Studio’s full-size earth oven work, and what’s more, tasted the amazing pizza that came out of it, I appreciate the art of making it all the more.

As with the roundwood timber framing, what I deeply appreciate and enjoy about natural building materials is that working with them is not some locked-off secret no one can access.  It’s the accessibility of the material and the building process that is really the key to it all.  The natural building techniques and skills I have learned require relatively few tools, almost all of them simple ones.  Most of the tools I was able to pick up for less than $100 all together.  Some day I will commission or make my own.  Especially when I sit and watch an episode of HGTV or DIY with the folks and see how much it takes to even remodel a kitchen using contemporary building measures.  What galls me about watching these shows is how often the turnaround time comes for needing to gut them and remodel them.  There are wattle-and-daub structures that still stand 600 years after their construction with relatively little input.  With cob thatched roof homes, the thatching needs replacing every 20-30 years, but do not required reconstruction of whole sections of the home.  The multigenerational aspect of working with the land, multigenerational homes and home ownership has been lost in going for materials that have built-in breakdown times, planned obsolescence, and we’re worse for it.

OthilaOthila or Othala presents the idea of odal land, ancestral land, and it is this concept that, in part, inspires me to learn and to pull together all these skills and to work with those in my family, clan, tribe, and with those in alliance with us.  It is why I am looking at working with those already in the community and doing these things, and it is why I encourage folks to take the steps for making firm ties now.  Putting our hands to crafting our own homes and things, or supporting those who do, strengthens our ties as community, and our resilience together.  If you get the chance to do something like this, formally or informally, I would take the opportunity with zeal.  If you’re not in the Michigan area, check around!  More and more folks are engaging with natural home building, reskilling, and networking with those willing to learn.

If you are not sure where to start, I am putting together a post which will give a general start for folks to work with, including basic internet resources, books I have read or worked from, and video links to get started.  There is a lot out there, so if you find or have done work from a source, let me know either in the comments section or by email, and I can add your recommendations to the list.

Reflections on Blackstar, Heiti, and Persona

January 18, 2016 3 comments

I owe a special thank you to Sannion for talking with me on these matters, for hosting a discussion on this via the Bacchic Chat, and for providing an excellent sounding board and helping me to dig into different aspects of David Bowie’s music and other personas besides Blackstar that I had not encountered before.

I think it is interesting that I feel more comfortable saying Blackstar than I do David Bowie in regards to my feelings on him and understanding of him.  Especially since David Bowie’s recent passing.  I am still putting together my thoughts and feelings on all of this, but something I decided right after hearing of his death, is that I will be extending the same courtesy to David Bowie that I would to any of my Ancestors, or Dead I would worship, venerate, or pay homage to:

Wait a full year before putting Them on the Ancestors’ altar.  This gives Them time to acclimate, gives Them time to get through the journey They may need to do in the afterlife(ves) that They may be going through.  Doing so for him would be respectful and give him time to settle in, get the lay of the land, and so on.

I did not, and will never know David Bowie.  Given how private he was, I would be surprised if all but the closest of family members and friends actually knew him.

Bowie is different, and that’s part of why I am trying to be cautious in going forward.
In my understanding here, I understand Blackstar, and the other personae Bowie has adopted, as akin to heiti.  That is, David Bowie is still David Bowie under all of the makeup, outfit, and persona-crafting, but that his stage personas are distinct enough to receive cultus without affecting his primary persona(s) journey through the afterlife(ves).
I ran into Blackstar about a week, maybe two before David Bowie died.  I had never been exposed to his other works.  He strikes me very-much as Odin and Loki.  He reminds me very-much of Twice Blind, and also of The Bound Loki, especially in his Lazarus video.  Oh man.  Then back and forth between with that Twice Blind symbolism and the oracular writhing that looks like fucking seiðing, both in the Blackstar and Lazarus videos.
Given what I heard about David Bowie’s flirtation with Nazi aesthetic and stuff, it wouldn’t shock me if some Norse things, however shaped by that lens, would have found their way into his work.  I have not seen evidence of this yet, but then again, I’ve only just discovered his work, and I know next to nothing about him.
Sannion recommended to me listening to Helden, the German rendition of Heroes, and the original English version of Heroes, as well as The Doors’ Alabama Song and then David Bowie’s version.  As I was watching the German video, I see that he uses eye-covering imagery in his Heroes artwork cover too.  Layers.  I wonder how often this imagery comes up in his work?
Damn Helden and Heroes are good, though I gravitate more toward the German version.  I think a commenter in the video nailed it: there seems to be more emotion in the German version.  More…fury?  More ferocity.  Tenacity.
Alabama Song reminds me of a revival song, between the organ and beat.  Carnival-esque too.  I can see why Jim Morrison is one of the Dionysian heroes after listening to it!
Oh holy fuck I’m getting the grinning crafty Odin-drinking-a-whiskey-and-grinning-at-you-from-the-corner-smoking-a-pipe vibe from this.  Almost Mr. Wednesday-ish, especially the little girl bit.  Bit of Loki fiery flare too.  Hee.  But whiskey is one of the big offerings I offer to Them both when I get something to drink.  The Morrison version didn’t hit me over the head with this feeling.  Definitely felt more Dionysian, not sure which Name/title? but woof.
I feel, though, that we’re in this tricky-odd space.  As Sannion pointed out to me in an earlier email, we’ve never had an icon like this die in our lifetime.  By the time any of us would have come to our paths, Jim Morrison was dead for quite a while and well settled into the realm of the Dead, and with Dionysus.
I wish to respect the memory of David Bowie, and further to the point, his spirit.  So, despite being flushed with what I feel are very Odinic and Lokean connections through Blackstar, I will not be putting David Bowie’s picture on any of the shrines or altars I maintain.  Unless pushed to do otherwise, I would rather wait at least three months before I put anything referencing or relating to Blackstar on an altar, and do divination just to be damned good and certain this would be in good stead with Hela and David Bowie’s spirit.
This may be the emergence of a new hero cultus, and I would be surprised to find out folks within and without the polytheist communities have not already taken to this.  All that said, the abundance of caution I am trying to walk here is out of respect for David Bowie’s spirit, that of his family, and in due honor to Hela.  David Bowie was, from everything I have read, a very private person and kept as much of himself out of the limelight as possible, and so again, in regards to his family.  If it turns out I’m walking too cautious, I’m sure I’ll know before long.  That said, I’d rather not rush into this and take time to feel this out as things come forward.

A Tribute to Blackstar

January 13, 2016 4 comments

I had just ran into David Bowie’s music full stop last week. I’d heard him sing in Labyrinth, but nothing from any of his albums. Blackstar and Lazarus hit me over the fucking head, and it was like…echoes from Odin. So I went back and forth on writing something for him. Then, I read Sannion and Galina were going to go to SoHo to lay down offerings for him.

I finally just broke down, sat down and wrote this for Blackstar. I hope he enjoys this and it is a worthy tribute.  I have made a recording of it here.

I know not if Runes had touched your tongue;
If you had drunk from Suttung’s well
But I know that I felt sadness
When the elder Blackstar fell

I know not if Bragi blessed you
With a voice of silk or gold
For I saw you in your end
In Olmen burning bold

I know not if Odin blessed you
With wisdom deep and harsh
But I know my soul was touched
By the darkness of Blackstar

I know not if Loki blessed you
With shifting form and face
But I know you touched the generations
With what you shared in grace

I know not what you saw
In your button cloth-bound eyes
But I know Who you recalled to me
The God known as Twice Blind

I know not what you were
Priest, prophet, saint, or star
But I know you shaped whenever you were
By being who you are

I know not what you are
Apotheosis ascended or inspiration in the Earth
But I know your mark was made
Before I knew my breath or birth

I know not what you will be
A God? A Guide?  A Guest?
But I know you will be welcome whenever
At altar, stage, and desk

I know not if you would know me
In Helheim walking well
But I thank you for sharing, anyway
With all of us, your spells

Broken Lines

January 11, 2016 6 comments

Broken lines run through many animist and polytheist religions.  In some places, those lines are fairly stark.  In others, the division between what was and where we are is sometimes bridged by practices and beliefs based in the old ways.  At least for Americans, most of us are completely divorced from even the lived folk ways and folklore that remained with pir Ancestors due to successive generations assimilating, by force or choice, into monotheist and then US culture.  We lost connections to where our Ancestors came from, their language, and their ways along with it.

I was never taught any folklore or folkways from Germany, England, Ireland from our family.  No songs, no stories, no practices, and only a few recipes collected from family members.  I was taught a smattering of German words.  There was nothing left by the time I was being raised.  I was raised a Catholic, which at least taught me virtues of regular prayer, piety, an appreciation of the Ancestors that came before me, and an appreciation of ritual.  Still, by the time I was being raised every vestige of any animist or polytheist inkling had been wiped out of my family.

So, when I felt the call from my Gods, I did what anyone would do in this situation: I read about Them.  As I read about Them and learned how to make offerings, and what kind of offerings specific Gods might like, I started to do prayers, to make offerings, and learned how to divine so I could better understand Them.  I had to reforge links with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir through trial and error.  Only after a few years of being a Northern Tradition and Heathen did I finally have an Elder to look up to, ask questions, and seek guidance from, and it dramatically changed my life.  She had done the same in her own turn before me, and I benefited from that.  There was so much I was able to grasp and explore because I had help in filtering things through a sift of experience, someone with the ability to separate ice cream from bullshit.  It helped me to grow in the religion, and it helped me to better understand myself, the Holy Powers, and my place in things.  While we are having to work with a broken lineage to our ancient, polytheist past, having Elders and co-religionists to rely on now helps to ease the burden of the journey.

I do not believe we would struggle as much in terms of basic dialogue, understanding, walking these paths, or learning about and from our Holy Powers if our lineages were still intact.  What is facing many animist and polytheist religions now is how to navigate these lines of separation.

I see these as issues that directly relate to most polytheisms having broken lineages, and being actively addressed now:

  • A basic lack of familiarity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of a given tradition. Not everyone needs to know every God or Goddess, but there are more than a few Gods who often get short shrift when, because of cosmological function, community function, or relationship with everyday life, They ought to be better known. For instance, Gerda.
  • A basic lack of familiarity, understanding of, and engagement with religious protocol. Things like the implications of the guest/host relationship factor really big into polytheist religion, and it ought to have more of an impact on how we frame our relationships given how these ideas influenced and continue to influence, when they are known, the lives of those who engage in reciprocity and guest/host relations in a way that is respectful to both and upholding of reciprocity between them.
  • A basic lack of familiarity with ritual purity. These don’t have to be elaborate. These can be simple things, like washing the hands and face before offerings, or taking a shower before holy day celebrations.
  • A basic lack of piety. The very bedrock of how we engage with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir need not be all bowed heads and uttering long prayers, though for some that may be the expectation and it is on the worshiper to fulfill it. A basic lack of piety means that even reverence at a shrine is not tended to. Things like the offering cups are cleaned on a regular basis, or you don’t just offer when you want something; you maintain a good relationship with a God, Ancestors, or vaettir. It would be like inviting Grandma over, not having cleaned or even prepared a meal for her after not seeing for a year to hit her up for cash.
  • A basic lack of understanding core principles of a polytheist path, such as the aforementioned reciprocity, guest rights/host rights, where one’s place is cosmologically and in relationship with the Holy Powers.

There’s so much more, but on a baseline we would have these things taught to us and modeled for us as a matter of course as part of being in polytheist societies.

Since our Ancestors did not stay the course, whether by sword, torture, starvation, and/or their choice of conversion, we can only speculate so far as to what they would have done.

Reconstructing and reviving the animist/polytheist religions requires us to do what we can as we can to revive, reconstruct, and/or revitalize the religions and cultures we are engaged in with the help and/or direction of the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. Where there are unbridgeable gaps in knowledge, we ask Them to help us fill in the holes, to create a whole, healthy religion and spiritual understanding in which They are tightly wound.  There are several factors worth thinking on in how we reconstruct, revitalize, and/or renew these religions.  A good overview of this, written by Caer, and exploring the ideas of antiquity and modernity in the context of these conversations can be found here.  One of the major factors being considered by a lot of folks is on modernity, and whether it is a help or hindrance to this.  I am firmly of the view that modernity is a deep hindrance to understanding and embracing a polytheist worldview.

Looking at life and the world now, there is little room for my Gods. Where would I look for my Gods in modernity when so much of it is built on the bones of sacred places and their worshipers? Where would I look for my Ancestors ways’ in this world when the holy sites of the old countries these cultures hailed from (now often tourist attractions/traps) have to be fought for just so they aren’t paved over or removed? Where would I look in modernity for the vaettir when companies gleefully bulldoze 10,000 acres of old growth forest just for 100 years of unfettered limestone mining?

Modernity demands my silence in one hand and pretty looking shackles in the other. It promises to spare me from direct shackles that others bear on my behalf so that my computer can be built, the electricity runs, the Internet and all the various apparatus that keeps it afloat keep on running. It’s colonialism by other means, with all the ‘externalities’ bought and paid for with the blood, sweat, tears, misery, and lives of other people. Part of my work in service to the Gods is to sever that cycle when and wherever I can. Modernity is a poor substitute for a religious teacher.

Polytheist religion informed by ancient cultures which were based in Europe is not synonymous with modernity’s Eurocentrism. Rather than encourage such a mindset, if we were to pay close attention to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and live in better concert with Them, it would be quite a revolutionary act. It would discard the largely Eurocentric-based and upheld myth of evolution which placed Christianity, then later atheism or agnosticism at the top of the proverbial heap. It would discard the notion that animist, polytheist, and similar religions were backward, misguided, or that what was found within these religions was something better relegated to a bygone period.

Animist and polytheist religions generally embrace living with and within a world we inhabit with our Holy Powers, where their considerations are taken into account. To my mind this is part of piety and reciprocity. It is a powerful, subversive, and revolutionary thing to regard a stream, lake, piece of land, one’s home, or wherever one goes to be full of spirits, and potentially a home to the Gods and/or Ancestors in addition to the vaettir who call that place home, or ARE that place. It is no small thing to consider that the rights of such a place to be free from damage is part of the rights of the land itself as the land itself is a vaettr (spirit) and/or collection of vaettir (spirits), or it may Itself be a God or many Gods.  It also demands that our religions live in the now, and not be ossified in the past, bound only to what the lore, or what archaeology can tell us.  Most reconstructionists will tell you this is generally what happens in reconstruction anyhow.  It’s a methodology for how to take in and work with information, rather than a religious model itself.

I had to tackle this head-on when I became a priest of Anubis.  There was no temple structure.  I was learning from someone outside Kemetic orders, traditions, etc., and all I had to go on was what they taught, and my ongoing spiritual work and communication with Anpu when they left my life.  There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel that goes on in modern Pagan, animist and polytheist religions, at least in America, because infrastructure is so lacking, very often all we have are books to look to.  If you are lucky enough to have a local community, you may have one or two folks somewhere in your wheelhouse who want to do ritual with you.  If not, it’s a loner’s game.

What I do not mean to say is that infrastructure, hierarchy, etc. is the only way for polytheists to do things moving forward.  Some folks simply don’t work well within such things, and that is fine.  For others, belonging to a hierarchy is actually at odds with their path for religious reasons, such as a taboo, what role(s) they may serve within a community, etc.

For a lot of folks, though, there’s a deep desire to have functioning communities.  Some people would like these with temples, structures, community events, festivals and celebrations, and so on.  This requires some kind of hierarchy to organize and to keep going. At the very least if one is part of a polytheist religion where the heart of the culture stops and starts in the home, a hearth culture, someone needs to teach the other family members the religion, and/or help keep devotional work, offerings, and so on, on a regular basis.  At the other end of the spectrum, a full-on temple could require things like dedicated temple staff who are the only ones to care for the icons of the Gods within an inner sanctum, with some staff dedicated either on a full-time, part time and/or volunteer basis to do maintenance and care for the temple.  While more hearth culture forms of animism and polytheism may not require much in the way of financial support, more complex and elaborate forms like the temple complex example above, absolutely do.

Each animist and polytheist in each animist and polytheist religion will be affected by these choices, and it will affect how future generations receive and understand their religion and culture.  In repairing our broken lines, we have to ask ourselves which lines we are able to repair now, which ways we accept may not be reparable, and what new lines we will make with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  How these broken lines are worked with, repaired, or made new will determine what religions future generations inherit, contribute to, and pass on, or whether future generations receive a grounding in the religions to begin with.

Thoughts On Clergy, Laity, Hierarchies and Roles in Polytheist Religions

January 6, 2016 12 comments

This is a reflection on a post written by Keen, titled On Pagan Clergy, Layfolk, and the Struggle for Selfhood.  Some of what I have written here will be pulled from comments going back and forth with Keen on the article, and some will be from my thoughts since then.

 

As I was reading this post I found myself struggling a bit. I get why Keen is writing what they are, and agree that clergy need to be part of the solution, especially because in the hierarchy of things, we’re placed higher on the queue than others are for the reasons they mention in the post.

Part of what I do in my own group is consistently remind folks they all have things to contribute, things worthy of hearing, and that the measure of what makes a prayer or offering good is whether the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir like and accept it. I also make a point of emphasizing that I do not and cannot know everything. I actually really like it when I can hand part of a lesson or ritual over to someone else. It takes me out of the facilitation role, even if for a few minutes, and into the experiential one. It doesn’t mean hierarchy disappear, per se, but it does mean that everyone knows they’ve got stake in this group.

The problems seen as within hierarchy stems more from that our society has deeply dysfunctional relationships with hierarchy than that hierarchy itself is a source of problems.  Many of the ways that hierarchy functions,  such as the reciprocity between folks in a hierarchy, the complimenting of responsibilities that should help build up folks within a hierarchy, etc., are completely out of whack in our country.  Would-be Congressional representatives ignore the needs and desires of their constituents to the point where it blase now to say that legalized corruption has a death grip on our political processes.  The societal contract between States and workers is so shredded that it is an expectation in some cases that the pensions promised will be ‘negotiated’ or legislated out of existence so the younger folks can have a hope at a job just a bit above what would keep them out of poverty.  Bosses of all kinds hold the fact that employees need to make a living (read: provide for basic needs like food and shelter) above their head, exploiting their labor for personal and company gains in some of the worst ways.  Officers wield immense power over whether a person lives or dies, and the justice system actively works to shield those who, were they in a different walk of life or profession, from facing responsibility for their abuses of power.  These, though, are societal problems and not issues of hierarchy itself.  Hierarchy and roles are not abuses of hierarchy and roles.

Roles are important, and I think part of the issue that has emerged quite a bit is that there are a lot of roles lacking in modern polytheist religion. There are folks, like myself, who the Gods snap up and say “come do this thing!” and we go and spend time and a lot of hard knocks learning how to do it, whether it is priest work, spirit work, becoming a priest, becoming a shaman, starting a group, or what-have-you. Then there are folks who don’t get snapped up, and the communities around them have little to nothing for them to do, whether that is the communities around them form before they’ve gotten these lessons, or there are just not enough interested folks in this or that direction to form one, a million reasons.

A given person may have no desire or ability to lead, so while they might have a great knowledge base, they have no personal reason to put their name out there. Another might have been badly burned and is still in recovery from the last time they put themselves out there. Another may simply not know where to start.

In some cases, there is active backlash against establishing or established hierarchy, which can be an impediment to community building. I dig established hierarchies and find it important to know where I am in a pecking order, even if there is no pecking order, so at least I know if I am among a group of peers or there is someone I should be looking up to for cohesion. Part of why I was able to get so much done alongside my fellows when I worked for a nonprofit for 3 years was because each of us knew our role and responsibility and had established protocol for working together. How things were decided on, such as program design and budgeting, was a matter of everyone knowing Robert’s Rules of Order. This allowed us to know how to propose ideas, how to deny them, how to debate the merits of a given proposal, and how to present to one another in a way that communicated clearly and effectively.

This point
“it is no wonder that the layperson’s reaction to this anxiety, this threat against their sense of selfhood and their relationship with the Gods and spirits, is to try to become clergy themselves”

and their last point:

“keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.”

are other points where I was finding some struggle.

In the ancient polytheist cultures I have studied, there were roles for folks that made sense according to the religion, culture, and societal mores of the time. Part of the issues I think we are seeing are for the reasons I noted above, and because most modern Pagan religions and polytheist religions do not have them yet, or have actively dispensed with hierarchies. Rather than being a completely useful device for getting people engaged in a religion, I see that this flattens the field so that people feel like they need to be everything at once. However, there was a reason one consulted an oracle and not, say, the local baker. Their skills were not honed in the area of oracular work, divination, etc. even if they may have had the knack for it, especially to the degree of a full-time (or even part-time) diviner. That did not mean the baker was not necessary. Far from it. It meant the skillset of the baker was different from that of the diviner. I’m also not saying the baker could not be the diviner, like somehow laborious jobs might make a person less fit for divination, I’m just using it for example’s sake.

My issue is that it seems there’s quite a lot of pressure put on clergy, spiritual specialists, etc., to take this weight off of other people. As I am someone who doesn’t see hierarchy as an impediment, but a potential boon, part of how I view this is that the religious leaders, specialists, etc., regardless of the size of those they are leading, should be empowering folks to live full, active religious lives, just as they should be living full, active religious lives. The particulars of that life will differ according to responsibilities to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, the same with regard to one’s duties to community, family, other obligations, etc. I think this weight need to be removed both by the leadership and by the laity.

I also recognize that there are certain places in which, as a spiritual specialist with a highly active religious life, I simply will not be able to have folks able to empathize as well with me. My wife, Sylverleaf, is one such person. She is not a spiritual specialist, is not a leader, and is very closed from a spiritual input standpoint. She’s just as polytheist as I am, just as good as I am, and is very comfortable being laity. Sometimes I have to take a good deal more time to explain why I feel I need to do this or that, i.e. I need to do something because I have gotten ‘flash traffic’ from a God or Goddess I serve, or an Ancestor or vaettir wants something, and will help me with this or that in exchange. She may not understand how I am getting the information, but she is supportive both in the sense that she helps me do what needs to get done, and that she also will ask direct questions that may help me reevaluate or think deeper on a given request. On a few occasions, her help has had me go back to the negotiating board.

Likewise, I do not empathize as well with folks who do not have very active religious lives because I have seldom had one. When Sylverleaf gets ‘flash traffic’, though, it’s rather unmistakable, so with her there’s often not a large sussing out period, certainly not as much as with me. Part of what I do for her is help to keep a regular offering schedule and help set aside time for prayers. I grew up Catholic, so regular prayers and ritual times are something I am used to, whereas she grew up in a mostly atheist household, and it is harder for her to remember to do things regularly.

So, I think that laity and spiritual specialists and leaders can be helpmeets for each other, but it takes negotiating these relationships to a better degree than has been done. I certainly don’t hope to have all the answers, but I hope I am adding something useful to the dialogue around these things.

They asked me to elaborate on these points:

“I know that there is always talk of what kinds of relationship “styles” are possible to have with a Power, but rarely does that translate into a wider discussion of community relationships, with the Gods and spirits being considered part of the community ecosystem, you might say.

Might you have thoughts about that?”

Roles, in my experience, are trickier in online space. I mean, the thing with physical groups in proximity is that yeah, you can walk a way, but there is more on the line. These are people you share physical space with, folks you might have eaten with, and you might have had guest rights with them in their home. It’s more vulnerable, or a ‘closer’ kind of vulnerable in my view, and so, it is also has the possibility of being more intimate.

Relationship styles with the Holy Powers can have community-wide impact, but then again, we’re back to what constitutes a community. My relationship with Odin is easy to ignore online, relatively speaking, since all it takes is clicking that little ‘x’ in the top right of the screen if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, thinks it is loony, etc. and doesn’t want to bother writing a rebuttal to what I have said. Beliefs, information, all of it is easier to ignore or amplify online because of the way a lot of social media works, and increasingly (especially automatic or database-created) Search Engine Optimization that can allow for more of an echo chamber.  Whether your community is mostly/entirely online, or mostly/entirely based in a physical community changes the dynamics of how the relationships can unfold, where one may hold the primacy of one’s own experience, how validation can help shape one’s religious experiences and understanding, and a number of other factors I could spend several posts going into.

Religious communities help to establish boundaries around our understanding of, and relationships with the Holy Powers.  The looser these ties are the easier it can be to dispense with ill advice, but the same is true with good advice that may be uncomfortable or hard to take.  The ties we retain online are different than those we hold in physical spaces, and I am not one to say online relationships are wrong or fake.

I maintain a good number of my relationships, including with a good number of my fellow polytheists, online.  Talking with one of these friends on Facebook is all well and good, but meeting them at Many Gods West, sitting down to dinner with them, and enjoying their physical company, and dialogue, is quite a different thing.  Even meeting with some of these folks on Skype is still not the same as meeting in physical space.  Having done ritual online in different programs such as Second Life, and through the medium of Skype, there are different dynamics going on, and there is a sense of ‘being there’ but also not ‘being there’ that is utterly different from worshiping with folks in physical space.

Community relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir can be greatly affected if someone is in a powerful personal relationship with a/the Holy Powers. Close, powerful community relationships can also greatly affect our relationships with the Holy Powers as well.  My entire life is engaged in the worldview of a polytheist, and my powerful personal relationship with Odin, the taboos He and various Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir have put on me, echo in ways big and small throughout my relationships. Folks who are close to me know about my food taboos, for instance, and so meals may be in part shaped by (or my bringing food) my taboos. In this regard it is not very different in terms of impact from my diabetes: folks who know I have it will try to have food I can eat even if the main course is carb intensive. They’ll let me know what’s on the menu ahead of time so I know to adjust my diet or if I need to get something else, I can.

What I just described is guest/host Gebo relations, reciprocity, gift-for-a-gift between guest and host. These factor pretty heavily into the various animist and polytheist religions and traditions, so while it may seem simple on the outside, these considerations get heavier in terms of spiritual weight and moral impact when one is an animist/polytheist than such things would be for someone who does not have such spiritual conditions around guest rights, host rights, and reciprocity between guest and host.

This has deeper impacts in terms of who I will and will not interact with. For instance, if I know that a group will be present that is actively hostile towards Loki, unless I am directly ordered to by Odin, I will not attend.

When it is brought up for serious discussion, as opposed to just being berated or sneered at, the subject of what function a godspouse would serve comes up. I would say that godspouses can, and actually do serve community functions, but how that comes about is entirely a result of how they and the Holy Power(s) negotiate the relationship, what form(s) it takes, if it has any impact on their community/communities, and so on. Basically, I am trying really hard not to gainsay the Gods here. Because I could say something general like “Godspouses are here to connect in a powerful, vulnerable, intimate way, and through this, bring to light different aspects of their God/dess and offer an understanding of their God/dess to others through that connection.”

I could also say that godspouses are a manifestation of a relationship with someone we humans can relate to here in Midgard, and through the godspouse we could come to a deeper rapport with a given Holy Power. I think that each godspouse may or may not have a mission or purpose of this kind to fulfill. It needn’t even be that kind of mission or purpose. A given Holy Power may simply desire companionship from a human for the duration of their life. It may be that a Holy Power wishes to manifest its Presence through this companionship and make Themselves known through this relationship. This person may simply be special to Them and has assented to a lifelong relationship.  It may be an expectation a culture places on certain cultus-holders or it may be a way of beginning a new cultus entirely.

In my view, though, very few powerful spiritual relationships are only about a simple connection, though I do not deny they could be. After all, I’m not a godspouse, and I wouldn’t speak on behalf of them when I’ve neither the experience nor the calling to be one. I can only speculate from the outside.

When it comes to folks like myself, called to spiritual specialist positions, leadership, and the like, the religious stances I take and the spiritual relationships I have, the alliances I forge, all of them interplay with one another. Hamingja, the interconnected luck of a community, means that I not only need to be very careful in fulfilling my obligations, but also to be mindful that any alliances, relationships, and so on that I start can affect the luck of those within my innangard (those within my gard, or inner circle), for good or ill. The relationship dynamics of those who are in one’s innangard, then, take on powerful new meanings. So if I screw up on a taboo, like the guest/host dynamic above, for instance, that can have repercussions for others in my innangard, and even those not as close, like some of my blood family who don’t share space with me and I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

When folks really tease out the implications of the world being full of Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, how we treat the Holy Powers and where we are in the hierarchy in relationship with and to Them become very important pretty quick. If I am living next to a stream that feeds my crops it is in my best interests to have a good relationship with the God/vaettr (depending on how It identifies and your relationship with/to It) of that stream. In my view, I am a guest on the land I live on. Many of the landvaettir and the Gods of this land were here long before I was, and will be long after I am dead. Certainly the old landvaettir can hold more sway than the younger by dint of experience, power, spheres of influence, etc. The oak growing on our property has a permanence here should it live well that I will not, and even when it dies, it is not ‘separate’ from the land, so much as the individual tree has died and its individuality may remain or fade, much like myself in relationship to the communities around me, when I die. Perhaps, like the tree, my persona will live on, be communicable in some fashion. Maybe certain soul parts like the liche will stick around with some or all of my persona intact to receive offerings, dispense advice, or chit-chat. Maybe I will become part of the landvaettir after awhile where I am buried, or immediately on being placed in a mound. Same with a blade of grass. I think this is not something I can fully answer, because each life and death is its own unfolding in wyrd, and how those strands interweave is part of the pattern, and I can only see so much.  Also, I’m not Hela, Odin, or any other God or Goddess who holds/hosts an afterlife.

It is a humbling feeling to understand the grass, the dirt, all the crawling things beneath your feet has as much if not more right to be there than you. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re automatically subservient to Them any more than They to us, but it is a recognition of where we are in the web of things, and where we stand in terms of our circles of influence, and power to affect change and wyrd. So, to me, hierarchy takes on a kind of immediacy in understanding where we are in the scheme of things, who holds what power over/to do/to act when and where, and what spheres of influence we carry or are affected by. In some ways I am quite powerful in comparison to the stream; I can divert its flow, utterly destroy it with a machine, or mold its banks so they irrigate the way I see fit. If I angered the stream God/vaettr/vaettir by changing it in a way it did not want, it could respond by not giving up the water I need to water my crops, flood my crops, or drown me if I went to swim in it. Questions of consent and partnership are part of the equation here if the world around us has moral and spiritual weight not just for them, but for us as well. Making sure we get our due is also important, but I tend to emphasize the Holy Powers getting Theirs since our society does a hell of a lot of taking without much, if any, giving back.

This worldview and the resulting understanding, idea, morals, and so on trickle out, from the concept of Gebo, hamginja, innangard, utgard (those outside one’s personal circle; outside the gard or wall), one’s place in the hierarchies of Beings and where one is in relationship to the Holy Powers.

Being an animist and/or polytheist comes with taking on a powerful worldview, or set of worldviews, and all that results from it. This worldview shapes and affects ones’ relationships with the land one lives on, the company one keeps, and the way one conducts their life.  It can affect what one eats, one’s calling in life, and what paths can open up in a given person’s lifetime.  Equally so, it can determine what paths close, what ways are best to avoid, and provide direction when one is confused on where to go.  The worldview of animist or polytheist religion(s) hold within it an understanding of hierarchy, where one is in relationship to all Beings.  An animist/polytheist worldview affects how one understand the Holy Powers, how one forms relationships with Them and maintains them, and where they may find expression in one’s life.  These things unfold, helping us to weave our wyrd with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and is woven throughout our lives, relationships, and communities when they are not only thought on and considered, but actively lived.

 

 

 

A Prayer for the New Year

December 31, 2015 1 comment

May the Gods, Disir, Väter, Ancestors, and vaettir bless you in the New Year.  May good Gebo be kept with Them and between one another.

May the hamingja of all our ties be strong.

May the maegen within us, and between us, grow.

May the New Year bring restoration to the ways we need to take up.

May the New Year bring new resolve for the things we must do.

May the New Year bring success for the work we put our hands to.

Hail to the Gods, Disir, Väter, Ancestors, and vaettir.

Ves ðu heil!

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