Home > Altars/Shrines, Ancestors, Prayer, Religion, Spirits, Spiritual Experience, Spirituality > Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 1

Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 1

After reading this post by Anomalous Thracian, and this by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus some wheels in my head got to spinning.

These two quotes in particular stand out to me here from Anomalous Thracian:

I encourage folks — especially those who like to have clearly defined use of terms and ideas of what certain things mean — to suspend those for the sake of this discussion, and allow a certain level of elasticity to come into things so that we can navigate to the core of what is being discussed. It isn’t exactly about how one defines atheism or piety, but rather about some basic and intrinsic expressions of respect and acknowledgement-of-the-personhood-of-the-divine.

and here:

 I think that polytheism itself, as a collective movement (which is ever held in measurable space by its slowest parts or its most aggressive instincts or its most passive concessions), would and should and could be greatly bettered if more people engaged in a learned discourse around the practical implications of animism, which is in some ways far simpler than –theism (as it does not require a specific definition of deity) and in other ways far more complex (as it steps outside the realm of little theories and big theories and into the space of lived fact and acknowledged reality).

These quotes from PSVL got me thinking as well:

But, ritual to the gods and other divine beings is an entirely different matter. And, in my mind, it all comes down to the ethic of hospitality.

Continuing here:

If we are polytheists who acknowledge (note, not “believe in”!) the reality and existence of our gods, then “belief” becomes irrelevant (outside of a few possible definitions of the term that, again, I’m not seeing used widely), and whether or not someone else likewise acknowledges the reality of the gods we have come to know and experience and interact with, nonetheless we do, and thus the gods are as real to us as the air we breathe, the sunlight we bathe in, the waters we drink and offer, and the joys and sorrows that we encounter in our dances with the gods (as well as those we dance with others) in this world.

This hit it home for me:

I would, therefore, exhort all polytheists who are reading this to seriously consider shifting their usages in this regard. “Belief in” anything does nothing, and lack of belief in anything likewise does nothing: believing in something that doesn’t exist will not make it exist, and not believing in something that does exist will not make it cease to exist. Polytheists stand and triumph only on the foundation that their gods do exist, and that is a foundation that we don’t “believe in,” it’s a foundation that we know, in the most basic and primal and powerful Greek gnosissense of the word.

This last quote in particular made me sit back and think, really think.  It seems I have been using the terms ‘belief in’, ‘believe in’ and such, when what I mean is acknowledge and know.  I have a living, working knowledge that my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are real from my understanding and experience.  I do not need to believe in Them, as such, except in times of crippling doubt.  Belief, then, becomes not really some state of mind, but a choice.  The choice to acknowledge the Gods are real and to treat them in that manner, with respect, or without that respect.  I made a point of this in my post on Piety and Being Poor:

Devotion is not just important; devotion is VITAL. It is how a living, breathing religion continues. Acts of devotion keep that bridge between us and the Gods alive in our everyday life, whether it is a glass of water and a prayer, prayers made on prayer beads, food made in their honor, a pinch of mugwort or a small glass of mead offered at a tree, or an act of kindness for a human being.  Offerings, in and of themselves, are vital, and have always been vital regardless of which tradition one comes out of.

I went into why this is so important at the end, namely:

I put the Gods first because that is where They go in my life. The Gods are first; it is from Them that all good things in my life have come.

If what we are discussing is “the basic and intrinsic expressions of respect and acknowledgment-of-the-personhood-of-the-divine”, then we need to understand what the implications are when one recognizes that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits have personhood, and how respect plays into that understanding.

If a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit has personhood, that is, if a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit is a Being unto Themselves and not a means to an end, mental projection, thoughtform, etc. then a host of implications immediately come up.  If we acknowledge that They are real, then They have or may have expectations, understanding, views, opinions, and so on.  There is a relationship to be had, with understandings on both sides of that relationship, and ways of conduct that are expected.

To my mind polytheism cannot be without animism involved. I can think of no polytheist culture in which smaller spirits, local Gods, etc. did not play a part, and were not actively acknowledged. Forces and Powers on, in, around, about, and beyond the Earth are given names to call to, and/or ways in which They can be known, and ways They may be propitiated. Some are called Gods, others may be called powerful spirits, and yet others might Themselves be Ancestors whether of blood, lineage, adoption, etc. This, of course, depends on one’s tradition(s) and personal interactions.  Yet still, in acknowledging the personhood of Gods then it stands that the personhood of Beings beyond the Gods are worthy of acknowledgment.

Acknowledgment inspires action because belief is bound up in acknowledgment.  In acknowledging Gods, Ancestors, and spirits as Beings with personhood, it is an active belief in, and knowledge of the Gods, rather than simply believing the Gods exist.  Belief is utterly simple; it is ‘something one has accepted as true’ (OED).  Acknowledgment is an action and requires action in connection with the act of acknowledgement.

I can believe in the Gods as Beings unto Themselves and give no offerings at all.  Belief in the Gods as Beings does not require offerings, it merely says “I believe the Gods are Beings unto Themselves.”.  In acknowledging the Gods as Beings unto Themselves, I must then treat Them as such, with respect.  The giving of offerings comes about due to this understanding, and my place in the relationship with Them.

I can believe it is wrong to give the Gods rotten food and do it anyway.  I can acknowledge offering rotten food is wrong because it is inhospitable and reprehensible, and not offer it because that is the right thing to do.  Belief on its own requires no action except to believe.  People abrogate their beliefs each and every day; holding beliefs does not require acting on them.  Acknowledging one’s beliefs requires action when a violation of them may, or have occurred.

If I acknowledge my Gods as real persons then to offer rotten food is disrespectful in the extreme, and unbecoming of a host.  So, I do not put rotten food on my altar.

How did I become a host?  By inviting Them into my home with the altar in the first place, asking Them to take up residence on the altar in my home.

How did I know They wanted to be invited?  I prayed, I divined, I intuited, I listened.  I gave space for my understanding to grow.  I asked questions of people who worshiped these Gods before I did.  In some cases I had the spiritual equivalent of  a whisper in response, and in others the equivalent of a two by four to the back of the head.  Some, such as Anpu, invited me worship Them, and others, such as Odin, grabbed me up and said ‘Come this way’.  In some cases I had the spiritual equivalent of dead silence and had to rely on others to help me along and muddle through.

The particulars of codes of conduct differ God to God.  For instance I may feed Anpu’s statue directly, or drink an offering made specifically to Him, dependent on what it is, His inclination at the time, and etiquette understood before and during the offering being made.  For Odin I will generally offer to Him and pour out the offering when He is satisfied.  It is rarer for me to eat with Him, though I sometimes feel His Presence at the Ancestor shrine when I eat with the Ancestors.  In the case of a blood offering, such an offering will mean different things dependent on the God, the understanding we have, etiquette expected, and a host of other things.  This is why I make blood offerings to Odin and the Runes only, and not to every single God.  Some Gods do not want my blood and with some Gods an offering of blood would promise things I would not want to promise.

I and Sylverleaf gathered things that we felt, understood, acknowledged, were told, etc. that the Gods wanted or would accept as vessels, offering bowls, and the like, and set up the altar.  We adopted codes of conduct that were agreed upon or acknowledged without having to be said between us as conduct becoming of a host.  There are general codes of conduct we keep with all the Gods present in our lives.  A general offering to the Gods, often kept on the altar in the glass chalice, are usually poured out onto the local oak tree.  This is accepted by all the Gods present on the altar as a good, respectful way of dispensing with offerings.

In acknowledging the Gods as real, we acknowledge our relationships as real.  In acknowledging our relationships as real, we acknowledge that our actions have real effects in those relationships.  In acknowledging our actions have real effects we must then acknowledge that the giving of physical offerings has meaning, both in terms of our relationship with the Gods we offer to, and in the offering itself.  If this is accepted, then a physical offering will mean something real in a way that is different than a non-tangible offering.  A physical offering will mean something different rather than an offering made purely in sentiment, that is, made with feeling or emotion (OED).  Likewise, a physical offering made away from the altar will mean something different.

This is not to say that non-physical offerings can offer nothing to the Gods; as I wrote above, I went through a process of figuring out what are and are not good offerings.  Some good offerings we give which are not immediately physical at the altar to the Earthvaettir are made when we walk around our local park and pick up trash.  Doing this does not, however, impart the same effect, meaning, or effect in the relationship with the Earthvaettir as the giving of good clean water, incense or recels, and so on.  Giving an offering of bread, water, or the like does not impart the same meaning or sacrifice on my part as writing and saying a poem, or singing a song does.  It does not, however, automatically denigrate an offering of song, breath, or the like to say that water, for instance, may be expected as regular offerings.  A song or poem may be sung or spoken for a special occasion.

In each of these cases where the offerings are not immediately physical ones at the Earthvaettir’s altar, these offerings carry different meaning and weight in the relationship than the regular water and/or food offerings we give.  They simply cannot be replaced any more than food that I eat can be replaced by song.  If I am feeding guests, I am feeding guests, and if I am singing for Them I am singing for Them.  A loaf of bread is not a bar of notes.  To pretend otherwise is insulting to the guest, and intentionally stupid on my part as the host.  I could no more feed my Gods an offering of notes than sing to my son to fill his stomach.  Even in the case of the Egyptian Gods and some of the offeratory formula, there are at the least carvings of bread.  It was not as though the notion of food was wholly lost even if the offerings themselves were not strictly physical.

Perhaps this is an extremely literal way of interpreting one’s offeratory relationship with the Gods, yet it seems to me if all we are going to do is carve offerings rather than give them the physical offerings they represent what is the point?  If symbols are all we have to offer to those we acknowledge to be real, what can we expect in return?  What can we expect from a relationship where all that connects is a gift of symbols and an expectation to have some interaction?  This does not work (well or healthily) in any other sphere in regards to relationships, yet, it seems, this is expected here.  This line of thinking applies equally well to non-physical or non-immediate offerings, such as song or picking up garbage at a park.  If that is the Gebo expected from the Earthvaettir and I try offering bread as a substitute for those actions then I am not fulfilling my end of things.

I have had instances where physical offerings were refused because they were easier for me to give than the non-physical offerings the God, Ancestor, or spirit wanted.  Learning to make fire, for instance, was an offering to Skaði and my head Disir.  Giving water is far, far easier than trying to learn how to make a Sacred Fire using flint and steel.  It would have been entirely insulting and inappropriate for me to try to do so.  So, giving myself a good couple of whacks on my hand and some hours of effort I have been able to make Sacred Fire for the first time in my life using old methods.  No offering could have taken its place, its meaning, its impact.

I will continue these thoughts on Ethics and Animism in Polytheism in Part 2.

Update: Part 2 is here.

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  1. January 3, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Reblogged this on The Cave of Night and commented:
    Because Gods are “people” too. Well spoken.

  2. January 3, 2014 at 2:51 am

    Thank you for expounding upon your own practices in this regard…it surprises how much some of the arguments on my post that you linked to are failing to recognize that it is about conduct and practice, and specifically my own in the past and the future and what it means and what consequences it has for me and my relationships with my deities. But anyway, that’s another can of worms entirely…

    Excellent work meanwhile, though!

    • January 3, 2014 at 3:08 am

      Thank you; you are kind, and most welcome. Many thanks to you and Anomalous Thracian for the inspiration to write!

      I think that in public spaces like conventions trying to police peoples’ thoughts at the door are simply impossible, and as has been pointed out a number of times here and elsewhere, is not only impractical, but their actions and deeds and words are more what is being spoken and written about.

      In my own everyday experiences I engage with my Catholic family in co-ritual almost every single day. When we pray at mealtimes together they generally let us go first and then pray after us. They are (generally) silent with folded hands and are respectful even if they’re in the middle of grabbing things for dinner while we pray. We afford them the same courtesy. This, to me, is Respect 099.

      I don’t worship Yahweh, Christ, or the Holy Spirit, but we share the house with Them. The least we can do is afford Them the same respect that we would ask for Odin, Frigga, or Loki.

  3. James "TwoSnakes" Stovall
    January 3, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Reblogged this on James "TwoSnakes" Stovall.

  1. October 9, 2014 at 1:14 am
  2. February 17, 2015 at 8:01 pm

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