On Polytheism, Rhetoric, and Politics
Politics and polytheism is not a conflation. Rather, the one’s involvement with the other is an outgrowth of being human. Politics is defined by the OxfordDictionaries.com as “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power”. What we are seeing stretch out across the blogs, Facebook, and in personal interactions is not a bad thing, in my view. It is absolutely necessary. Polytheist communities need to figure out our politics, the rhetoric we employ, the authorities we trust and empower, and what hierarchies we are engaged in and will be choosing to build up.
Rhetoric is “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”. It is how we speak, how we help our ideas to become known, and to become accepted. As with politics, to do this well takes training, whether self-study or through mentors, teachers, and the like. Rhetoric forms the foundation of how our religions informs us through the worldview it espouses and the place in which it sets us. Politics is part of the rhetoric, rather than being able to separated from it. When we talk of religious communities, there is rhetoric in that phrase alone, as much as what comes out of the community and its members.
The difference between those who are members of a religion and those who help to shape the core rhetoric is not a moral idea, but one of spheres of influence. In other words, hierarchy. You do not need to be named as a leader to be a leading voice that drives the rhetoric of a movement, any more than being the head of a religion actually means that you will drive the rhetoric of that religion. This comes down to authority.
Authority is defined as “The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience“ and “The power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something”, and with regards to people, is “A person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert”. Hierarchy is defined as “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority” and “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”
You may actively oppose the entire notion of leaders and still be a leader. You may actively try to cultivate leadership and never be reckoned a leader. Authority, then, is something given to a leader whether that leader is a willing one or not. Authority is not always gained by consent. In some cases authority invested in certain people is a given, such as an employee’s relationship with their supervisor in being employed by a major corporation, or being a Catholic and holding the Roman Catholic Church as the spiritual authority of the religion. Authority in academia is invested in those who have positions within the field that are respected by those who have put the time and experience into the field and treat one another as peers. In other cases, authority is taken up by a despot and enforced through the use of power. Sometimes authority is seized upon by a person giving or being viewed as giving voice, such as in populist politics, to the energies, emotions, and feel of a given group of people. Sometimes authority is relegated to an ‘us’ rather than a singular person, such as in consensus-building endeavors. However it is made, relegated, maintained, taken or given, authority plays a part in communities.
In polytheism we have many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Whether or not these Beings have authority over us as humans depends on your religion, its worldview, cosmology, these Beings and Their relationships to the religion itself, that religion’s worldview, Their placement(s)/function(s)/etc. within the cosmology, Their relationships with one another, the understanding of relationship between ourselves and the Holy Powers, and finally, potentially, your personal relationship with Them.
What is unmistakable in polytheism is that there is hierarchy and authority as part of these religions. Hierarchy is part of polytheism because of the basis of discernment that polytheism as a word describes: “The belief in or worship of more than one god“. If you are worshipping a God, then you are not the God being worshipped. You are not the Gods, then. On a baseline there must be a hierarchy within polytheism as there are Gods and not-Gods, those who are believed in or worshipped and those who are believing and worshipping. To deny this is to deny the basic understanding, definition, and relationships that polytheism requires for a polytheist to be a polytheist. It may not be a hard or inflexible hierarchy in every instance of it, but hierarchy is there nonetheless.
There is authority in polytheism because the cosmology is ordered in a certain fashion by and/or from many Power(s), and/or Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. For instance, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, Wyrd is the authority which governs the existence of all things so that the Gods Themselves are bound up in it. Odin is the authority which created Midgard in the first place in the Creation Story of the Northern Tradition. He did it by exercising authority and power, and destroying the hierarchy that came before Him, that of His Grandfather Ymir’s reign. He replaced the hierarchy of Ymir with His own. He was given authority over the Aesir as chief by the Aesir who followed Him with this act into the formation of Asgard. In this, He was also bound by the rules of the Aesir as chief, and was bound to the authority of the rules of Their tribe which bound Them together as Aesir.
The basic rhetoric of the Northern Tradition is that hierarchy and authority are found in many places, and in, of, or by relationship. The different Worlds are held in authority by certain Gods: Surt in Muspelheim, Freyr in Alfheim, and Hela in Helheim, for instance. Hierarchy is not merely how how a society orders itself. There is actually hierarchy in nature, but it is not the first definition that this is found in, but the second. That is, “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”. What is important to a rabbit is different than what is important to a wolf. Who is important to that rabbit or wolf is likewise relative. Threat vs. non-threat, food vs. not-food, pack/burrow vs. outside the pack/burrow. Animals use discernment, and with discernment hierarchies are created. The complexity of these classifications and their import into deeper topics aside, separating ourselves off from animals in this understanding is actually a big part of the problem I have with many of these criticisms because they are anthropocentric.
Hierarchy within polytheism does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or individual spirits are less important than the Gods, but that each Being’s importance is relative. Relative to what? The cosmology, one another, the World(s) They inhabit/interact with, and with/to us. In other words, that second definition I just pointed out above.
Hierarchy within polytheism in relation to a given God’s society, such as the Aesir, is bound up with the first definition: “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority”. Odin is the chieftain of the Aesir, as is Frigga. More to the point, She keeps the keys to Asgard, and can deny Him entry, and has. There are rules dictating the conduct of a chieftain and there are consequences to breaking those rules, and Odin paid that price. There’s also the authority one wields and hierarchy of power considerations when one is within a God or Goddess’ place, such as Freya’s field Folkvanger or Frigga’s hall Fensalir.
This understanding in the Northern Tradition applies with regard to ourselves in our homes. In my home visitors and I are in relation as guest and host which brings with it certain obligations as guest and as host. Otherwise, we relate as cohabitants. In either case, a guest and host both have rights, as do cohabitants, and there are rules of conduct we obey in these roles. What hierarchy I enforce or is enforced as a host with what authority, when and how, is determined by if you are a new guest that does/does not understand these rules, or if you are part of the religion and understand these things well. I might be more forgiving of someone new to my home who violates a small guest obligation whereas I may cleave deeper to tradition with people who are part of the Northern Tradition and have (or should have) this understanding. Each Northern Tradition house may have different hierarchies and rules for their home. When entering someone’s home for the first time I will usually ask for a rundown of any obligations that are placed upon me as a guest, rules of the house, and other things I am obligated to ask by being a member of the Northern Tradition. If a rule of the house would violate an oath or a taboo and the host is unwilling or especially unable to accommodate me, I leave. This is respectful of the host as the host, and myself as the guest, and it respects the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I hold that oath or taboo with.
Several writers, both of blogs and comments, have noted that the current atmosphere in polytheist discourse is fostering hard-lining. I am in agreement with Dver on Rhyd’s post here, that it mostly has to do with having to contrast ourselves in regards to other religious paths, and atheists. The us vs them atmosphere is one in which clear dividing lines were laid down, and as differences between folks on different parts of the political spectrum started putting down deeper lines, these too became more hard-line as the two sides have begun defining themselves not as themselves, but in opposition to one another. Again, I see these things as natural outgrowths rather than things to be avoided. I would like them to be minded and acknowledged where and when we can.
How our personal politics plays into our religious expression is a highly personal thing even if we can say a few things across the board as polytheists. It is also highly personal in relationship with our Gods. Relating this to some of the current discussions that have gone around the polytheists and their communityies lately, I find that casting aspersion on those who offer bullets to the Morrigan is as unconscionable as casting aspersion on those who offer their bodies on the front lines of protest as an offering.
Where I see things are getting lost is when polytheists on one side say ‘But protesting is not offering water or bread and these distinctions are important’ and the other says ‘How can you say that my offering is not worthy?’ when the critique (however well or poorly it was made or received) was meant to include protests as a form of offering, but not at the exclusion of offerings of food and water. Another aspect of this is that some of us simply do not have the time or cannot afford, at the expense of other obligations, to show up for a protest. We cannot offer that pound of flesh because our families would suffer. That does not make my offering of work to feed my family and buy a bottle of mead bought with that work less than one who spent those same eight hours protesting. They are different and mean different things to our Holy Powers. Further, they’re what we are capable of giving.
On the other side of this, especially in regards to the bullets-as-offerings, I find that folks are rather missing the point of offering bullets to Gods of war.
Let me take this from my own experience: I wanted to learn how to hunt, and appealed to Skaði for help in this. Over the years I picked up a good traditional longbow with a hefty draw weight for relatively cheap from a friend who taught me how to use it. A dear friend of mine (who I consider family) offered to teach me how to hunt. I paid good money for the bow and arrows from my friend, and picked up other supplies down the road when my family-friend was getting ready to take me hunting. I bought bales of hay to shoot at. I prayed to the landvaettir when setting up the targets for their permission, and when I felt I received it, set them up. I prayed to the landvaettir every time I started practice, and prayed to the spirit of the bow and the arrows, and to Skaði Herself. Every shot I made I offered to Skaði. Every frustrating miss, every on-target hit. I have developed to the point where I have been able to hit the hay bale with every shot at the maximum range where I could expect to hit a deer with a traditional longbow. These offerings are offerings of strain, anger, and skill. Had I been able to get a deer, She and the landvaettir would have been getting offerings from the body of the deer. The deer itself would have gotten offerings as well, and had it given permission or made its desire for this know, I would have crafted its bones and/or antlers into ritual objects, and/or given it a home in my house and made it regular offerings.
The dedication to learning how to shoot my bow, and the skill that I gained by training with the bow is not unlike those who train with the gun. If my bow was the best way of defending myself or my family I would use it to kill a human being. One person may be practicing with a gun to go to war, another to hunt, and another for self-defense. I see these as in keeping with Skaði. From what little I know of The Morrigan, this is in keeping with Her nature as a Goddess of sovereignty and war. So too, I understand my offerings of arrows to Skaði are similar if not the same as another person offering The Morrigan bullets.
The difference is the geopolitical backdrop right now. Arrows have been used for war, and are drenched in the blood of untold billions of lives. The only reason they are not under the same microscope right now as bullets in regards to offerings is they’re not used by the US and other militaries. Machetes are a a symbol of the Orisha Ogún, are tools for construction, navigation, harvesting, and are weapons of war and massacre in their own measure, and yet they receive none of the ire from the left reserved for bullets despite this. This is why folks on the opposite side of this issue will levy charges of racism at those (predominantly) on the left in regards to this issue, among other ones in regards to slaughter and sacrifice. It seems as though the religions of the African Diaspora, African Traditional Religions, Hinduism, and others with weapons like these as symbols and/or as part of offerings are currently being used in massacres and genocide are given a ‘pass’ for ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’.
What else are we to understand when those on the left say that ritual sacrifice is primitive, brutish, less evolved and the like, only levying this charge at polytheists but not, generally, at Santeros, Hindus, or at Jews or Muslims for their own ritual slaughters? Even when consistently charged across the board, the charges of ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’ are still steeped in colonialism and capitalist ideology of what is a ‘right’ relationship with the animals we eat: that of consumers rather than in relationship with them, even, or especially, when they are part of our meals. This insertion of the consumer as the ‘right’ or ‘most right’ relationship with our food is a denial of a reciprocal relationship with our food. This assertion is unacceptable to all the polytheist religions that I know of, whether one is vegetarian or not, because this actively denies our lives are utterly dependent on other lives, and also denies much, if not all of the dignity of the lives that are taken so we may live. It denies that our interdependence on their lives relegating the Beings we eat as ‘the consumed’ alone, and in so doing, denies recognition of their full Being, and reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir which have given Their lives so we are able to live.
These ideas of relationships, reciprocity, and obligations are a fairly central in polytheism and animism, whether or not one’s thoughts on the matter are in regard to priests, priesthood, shamans, and other spiritual specialists from polytheist religions. A friend of Rhyd Wildermuth said “if your relationship to a god is one where you ‘must’ do something for them or else, or you must do so because a priest told you that is what you must do, you are confusing a god with the government, Capitalism, or your parents”.
This understanding of ‘must’, of obligation and duty, is rather central to how polytheism operates. Gebo, *ghosti, and other understandings of reciprocity fall under this understanding of ‘must’ in terms of how oneself, guests, strangers, and others are treated, what the obligations between kin are within the religion(s), and so on. Obligation and duty are part of the basic skeleton of religious language, and it is through this understanding of the meaning of obligation and duty within our lives that we come to understand how to relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in the first place, which ones we would be best suited or called to in forging relationships, and which we should or must avoid. Does that mean that we can refuse to participate in these obligations and duties, ignore taboos, and so on? Certainly, but there are consequences for failing to live up to our part of a given relationship.
Priests serve a duty to the communities they serve, even if initially the only communities they serve are those of the Holy Powers. In terms of human/Holy Power interactions, priests often serve a hierarchical role in polytheist religions because they are people who have dedicated time, energy, skill, and other aspects of their life, if not the whole of it, in service to the Gods. Not everyone has the inclination, desire, aptitude, or ability to do so. It is not that priests are inherently better than non-priests or that they are to be the sole source of authority on the Gods, but that they, ideally, have proven themselves trustworthy to their community, and are reckoned by other means, such as training, initiation, public recognition, and so on. So yes, they are spiritual authorities, but they are one among many.
Those of us who cross over between spiritual specialist categories, as I do, having been called to service in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry as both a priest and a shaman, try to make it fairly clear where one role begins and the other ends. Is there bleedover? Sure, but I need to be able to point to something and say ‘this is priest work’ and ‘this is shaman work’, and ‘this is where they can mix’. This means that discernment and determining what situation I should be wearing which hat, or if I am a good fit at all for the situation at hand, is quite important. Again, this relates back to the person/people trusting me as an authority in the religion, that I carry that authority with integrity, and acting within the hierarchy I am part of in how things should be carried out as a priest, a shaman, and when it is/is not appropriate to mix the two, when it is not appropriate for me to be involved, and/or pass it on to someone else.
Understanding the roles of authority, hierarchy, rhetoric, and the clear understanding of our relationships with one another are, in my view, only part of spiritually mature religious groups. Outwardly recognizing and affirming how we interact with one another and in what ways is part of how we respect each other and the spaces we are in. This is a key piece to developing better, consistently constructive dialogue and bridge-building. Respecting one another means I do not come into another’s space, say their ways are wrong and insist they should reform their religion to formalize or eliminate their lineages, hierarchy, and sacrifice. It’s not my place because it isn’t my community. Disagreement on powerful things such as authority, hierarchy, beliefs, and so on are one thing, but insistence on everyone towing the same line is quite another. Likewise, it is rude for folks who disagree with formal sources of authority, hierarchy and/or sacrifice (including not only sacrifice of animals, but also food, liquids, of the self, service, and so on) to come into polytheist spaces where these are expectations, obligations, and ways of relating to the Holy Powers that are part of respect and worship in the religions that observe them. If you are not called to gather in community or to honor the Holy Powers in this way, far be it from me or anyone else to gainsay Them, but at least do me the respect that the selfsame Gods we may worship may call me to things you may not wish to do.
As I have said several times here on this show, the problem with painting with too broad a brush is it misses the nuances, colors, and textures of other brushes. I may say things about polytheism on a broad basis, and folks are fully within their rights to disagree with me, even vehemently. Gods know there are things I have in my own right, sacrifice and offerings being among the topics I have butted heads with others on. There are a lot of polytheist religions, formal and informal, organized and individual. Even within the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, we certainly don’t agree on everything. As a tribalist Northern Tradition polytheist and Heathen, what my concern comes down to at the end of the day is those who share my personal community, my Kindred or tribe, and the places where we intersect with others. It isn’t that the larger polytheist communities aren’t of concern to me, (otherwise why write or comment on this at all?) but that by putting my words out there would, I hope, be part of constructive dialogue around these things. I would also hope that all these words would be taken in the context that I cannot, and will not speak for all polytheists. I do want my voice listened to, and to be part of the Polytheist Movement and general polytheist dialogue, but I recognize my voice is one among a great many.
We do not need to agree on much, save being hospitable in one another’s spaces, acting with respect as both guest and host, and when disagreements arise, and Gods’ know they will, doing our best not to assume the worst of one another.