Having read Galina Krasskova’s recent piece at Polytheist.com, I have to say, when people like her or myself say “The Gods come first” that does not mean that family disappears as a priority.
As head of my little Heathen household, what it means when I say “The Gods come first” is that They are the first consideration when decisions are made, when efforts are undertaken, and around whom the placement of our lives is made. Do we ask the Gods every time we do something small, like “Oh Odin, what shall I eat today?” No. What it means is that when we do sit down to eat, we pray to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, the beings we are consuming (both animal and plant) and on behalf of all of those who brought the food to us. It means that we recognize our hamingja as a family is tied into right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and how we treat Them, as much as how we treat one another. The idea that Gebo extends not only to the Gods, but to one another is one that suffuses our lives.
But why make the Gods the top priority above all, even family? Because if the Gods are indeed the Gods, then They affect the forces of the world. In ancient times Thor and Freyr were prayed to for good rains or Njord for good fishing. Given many of the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were farmers and fishers, the idea that the Gods with whom these people were interacting with every single day were not at the forefront of their lives does not make sense to me at all. If the Gods are the forces that help bring the rains so the crops would grow or the fish that keep your people fed, the Gods as the center of one’s life is not just a feel-good notion. It is survival.
My family and I pray to Thor for good rain and to Freyr for the good growth of our garden, among many prayers we make to Them. While we do not depend on the food in our gardens for survival, we are not cut off from the natural cycles of the Earth even if these relationships are no longer immediately evident as they would have been to our ancient Ancestors. We do not husband, feed, slaughter, or butcher cattle on our land, but my wife and I make the effort for our son to understand where his meat comes from. He has grown food in the garden, and we have farmland all around us. Even if the cycles of life that sustain us are further from us, we cannot be separated from them. If we are not separate from the cycles of life, and if we believe the Gods to be real, and not some vague notion we pay lip service to, then we are not separate from the cycles of life They affect, or help to keep moving.
When someone puts the Gods first, does that mean the needs of one’s family are ignored? That the ties that bound a community are ignored? Absolutely not. What it means is that my family recognizes the Gods at the center of our lives. It is not an either/or thing, here. I do not love the Gods and ignore my family. In loving and serving my Gods, I love and serve my family as well. In separating one from the other is where error comes from. If the Gods are in (or are) the Air, the Water, the Fire, the Ice, etc., then it is impossible to escape Them and foolish, if not hubris, to ignore Them. Far better to partner with Them in good Gebo than to pretend we are somehow separate from Them.
When people hear the words “The Gods are first” I would imagine the notion may strike people in the same manner as when they hear reports of people beating the devil out of their kids, or giving all their money to a church. In other words, devotion of this kind is conflated with monotheist extremism, abuse, and victimization from predatory religious apparatus. Yet that ignores the monotheists who are well adjusted, utterly normal modern people who put their God first, and the helpful, vibrant communities that help them to do so. It ignores the polytheists who are well adjusted, who put their Gods first, and the helpful, vibrant communities that help them to do so. It conflates both of these groups of people: devout, pious monotheists and devout, pious polytheists with people who are dangerous and deadly, exploitative and exploited. It also, in the bargain, casts those suffering from mental illness or exploitation as dangers and things to avoid in and of themselves, which is heinous as as it casts people needing help and victims of abuse as the ‘other’ to be avoided at all costs, and places them as the black to the white in binary religious discourse. It places the idea that the Gods coming first into these extreme situations while divorcing both of these painful scenarios from their humanity and the humans involved in them.
The Gods coming first means that the priorities of one’s life are built on the Gods. That is, not only are the Gods of one’s religion at the center of one’s life, in addition the values of and the requirements of one’s religion are at the fore and the guiding force of one’s life. This is why divination can be so powerful a guiding force in polytheist religions. It is one of the means by which we can understand, personally as well as communally, the desires, will, and sometimes the directions of the Gods. It is one among many tools for understanding Them and the messages They have for us. It helps us move forward when change comes to our lives personally and/or communally. Divination no more takes choice from our hands than worshiping the Gods takes will from us. They are still there, but placed into a living context between ourselves and the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Given these are living relationships, that means that all of our choices, our exercise of choice and the use of will have consequences in our lives and in the relationships we share with the Gods Themselves. So sure, we can ignore divination, the will of the Gods, all of of it. Those are choices to polytheists, even ones like me with a collar to a God on. Poor ones, in my view, but choices nonetheless.
Placing the Gods first means, though, that we accept the Gods as the center of our lives, as the forces with which we ally to bring good to our lives and the lives of those we touch. As my family understands and lives this, it means that family is second to the Gods because without a good relationship with the Gods, we do not have good relationships within our family. Practically speaking this means that every Thursday my son and I turn off the video games or put up the books half and hour or so early, before bedtime, to do cleansing work, and pray to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir when we could be doing other things. It is why we take time in the morning to pray to Sunna and Daeg, thanking Them for a new day and a fresh start. It is why we pray to Mani and Nött at night for the he light of the Moon and the blanket of darkness. It is why we pray at every meal in thanks to all our Gods, to the Ancestors, the vaettir, and all those who made our meal possible. It means that we take time out and give that time for devotion as a gift to the Gods for all They do for us. It means we look at offerings we pay money for not as waste, but as gifts given to Those who share, bless, and walk with us in our lives. It means that when we go out to a park that we make offerings at trees as thanks for walking on Their land and in Their home. It means we make offerings not only to the landvaettir on the land we live on, but the vaettr of the house itself. It means that when we pass graveyards we salute and hail the Dead and Warrior Dead. It means that our Ancestors are never gone, but walk with us in this life. That when we work with people, we understand the work to not just be work, but Gebo and the building up of maegen and hamingja between us. It means that the religion we live carries weight in our lives, and ripples out into how we relate to one another, and to all things.
In placing the Gods first, we can relate to all things in sacred manner. In placing the Gods first in good Gebo, we can then relate to all things in good Gebo. In placing the Gods first, we orient our lives around those Beings and the things They teach which matter most.