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On Ritual Praxis -What and Why?

March 3, 2018 1 comment

In tackling the subject of ritual praxis I think it is most useful to tackle head-on what ritual and ritual praxis is, why we have ritual praxis, and then, how and why we develop it.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of a ritual is:

1. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.

and praxis:

1. Practice, as distinguished from theory.
2. Accepted practice or custom.

The purpose of ritual praxis is that it is an established body of beliefs and actions rooted in serving a specific end. In devotional work this is fostering right relationship with the Holy Powers, that is, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. In magic, ritual praxis is established so that enactment of the ritual ends in the aims of the magic being attained. Generally, we will be talking about the former: devotional ritual praxis. If devotional ritual praxis is how we establish and reestablish right relationship with the Holy Powers it makes sense not to have to consistently reinvent the proverbial wheel with each new polytheist.

A refrain I heard a lot when I became a Heathen was that Heathenry is “the religion with homework”. What this ends up meaning is that folks will often throw a book list at people and say “Go read and then when you’re ready to talk I’ll be here.” This approach may be keeping out a lot of folks who could be good community members if the barrier to entry was not there.

Do not mistake me, I actually employ a variation on this approach. However, the diference is that I give people interested in the Northern Tradition, especially those interested in joining Mimirsrbrunnr Kindred a book list with a mix of academic and spiritual work-oriented books rather than merely academic texts. The reason for this is to establish that the person is willing to put in work, is willing to adopt and adapt to a Heathen mindset, and to show that they are willing to put time and effort into the Kindred. In other words, show they are worthy of our time.

This is not where I have seen folks direct the “religion with homework” idea. Often, the would-be Heathen is given an exhaustive scholarly book list with little-to-no instruction on how to be a Heathen. The question is not how useful these resources are to a Heathen, but whether or not their use is to the right end. The ‘right end’ in this case being the teaching of, and eventual integration of a Heathen worldview into a Heathen newcomer’s life. It is worth reflecting on what sources we recommend to those showing interest in Heathenry. It is worth reflecting how useful our sources are to the stark newcomer so that we are not merely flinging books at people or building in an assumption that books are the best and/or only way to learn how to be a good Heathen.

I put far more emphasis in my instructions on working through the reading materials, on the doing aspect of the materials, than I do on the academics. The reason is twofold. First, I need to see that the person is actually willing to join the religion not only in mind but also in heart and conduct. Second, I know that some of the material can be damned challenging if not near-impossible to navigate. I found Culture of the Teutons to be a very useful book, one of the best exploring luck, honor, hamingja, outlawry and the like in ancient Heathen cultures. I do not assign this book in the reading list. I had a hard time working through it, and while useful, many of the concepts within it can be effectively condensed into a talk, lecture, or workshop.

The difference between doing the homework vs consistently engaging in what amounts to amateur debates is part of what I see holds Heathenry back. We have experts within our communities both academic and religious. Rather than have each and every Heathen engage in what amounts to lifetime research projects, I would rather see Heathens and polytheists in general develop materials for children and adults who are becoming polytheists. In ancient times intensive studies would have been for ritual specialists alone. Ritual praxis, meanwhile, was on everyone. Everyone knew their roles, and there was little question as to who did what because traditions, including beliefs and ritual praxis among them, had been passed down the generations. If we are to be lived religions, then this approach is the one to aim for. My long-term hope is that the approach I take to prospective members of the Kindred becomes obsolete primarily through oral teaching and intergenerational transmission of the worldview, Kindred traditions, including the Kindred’s Heathen religion and culture.

Where to Start?

The start of right ritual praxis, aka orthopraxy, is in right belief, aka orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy form the ground from which polytheism grows and matures. The two concepts are not in opposition, but rather, affect and inform one another. Some very basic orthodox beliefs in regards to polytheist orthopraxy are:

  • That the Holy Powers deserve to be worshiped and honored.
  • That ritual is a good way to worship and honor the Holy Powers.
  • That well-done ritual foments right relationship with the Holy Powers.
  • That there are ways of doing ritual correctly and incorrectly.

Basic orthodox beliefs of polytheism includes the baseline of polytheism itself: the belief in and worship of many Gods, and that of animism: that all of Creation is, or potentially is, ensouled. Other beliefs would includes the foundational Sacred Stories of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir as we have them and/or are taught them. The Sacred Stories we pass on help to inform the content of our worldview and from this, our rituals.

Right belief is vitally important. Without it ritual is rendered without meaning. Likewise, right action is important. Without it, right belief is rendered without root in the world.

This does not mean that one’s belief in the Holy Powers must forever be ironclad. One’s belief in the Holy Powers may not be very strong or well defined. What needs to be strong is the belief that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits), the Holy Powers, are real and deserving of good rites. In regards to offerings, the belief that the Holy Powers are real and worthy of offerings is all one truly needs to begin, or begin again, to have a strong connection with the Holy Powers. It is why I recommend making offerings and developing devotional relationships to absolute beginners fresh to polytheism. It is not that the academic background knowledge of the Holy Powers are unimportant, but a matter of prioritizing the development of relationship with the Holy Powers over the development of the person’s collection of books and book-knowledge. Ideally, I would have the two develop hand-in-hand.

Developing Rituals

So if we understand that right ritual praxis is conducted from right belief, then, how do we develop rituals? Baked into polytheism’s cake is the assumption that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are real and that They are active agents in relationship with one another, the world, and with us. How do They respond to us? Through divination such as sortilege and the reading of Runes, and through spontaneous forms of communication, such as omens or direct communion.

If we accept that the ways the Gods can communicate with us are many and active then it stands that some of the ways They may choose for us to develop rites will differ greatly from one another. With that said, what I lay out here are guidelines for the development of ritual.

Step 1: Determine the basic purpose of the ritual.
What is the basic purpose of a given ritual? Is it celebratory, offeratory, or a magical operation? Is it a very formal prayer, or one given to a Holy Power extemporaneously?

Step 2: Determine what the ritual is about.
What are the specific purposes of the ritual? Is it a celebration of a cyclical harvest festival? Is it a weekly offering to one’s household Gods? Is it a magical operation involving the Runes to a certain end, such as healing of a broken limb or protection on a long journey?

Step 3: Determine if there are special considerations for the ritual.
Are there taboos to be adhered to, special needs for spiritual specialists and/or laity, or specific requirements for the ritual to be done well? Are there to be certain offerings made, or a sacrifice to be held?

Step 4: Determine the set up of the ritual’s space, including boundaries, altar(s), and so on.
How is the space to be set up? Are there certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir who need to be present? If so, how? Is the ritual area completely inviolate during the ritual itself, or are people able to come and go as needed? If there are special methods for a person coming into/out of the ritual space, what if any means are there to mark the space and tools/instruments/people to make this so?

Step 5: Determine the order of ritual and the roles of spiritual specialists, celebrants and/or operators.
What kind(s) of purifications are to be done? How are the celebrant(s)/operator(s) to be prepared for the rite? How is the ritual to be blocked, if it involves certain prescribed ritual steps or dramatic enactors? How is the space to be held, i.e. festive, solemn, silence?

Be a Good Host, Be a Good Guest

If a rite is to be more contemplative, such as a meditation space, the ritual space may be more permissive in celebrants coming into and out of space. It may need more seating space, and different kinds of seating arrangements for folks with different mobilities, and potential body restrictions. If the rite is to be festive and wild, then the considerations of places that will be accepting of louder noise, places for celebrants to catch their breath, the provisioning of food and/or water will need to be considered. It may be that some celebrants or operators wish to be part of a rite, and have need of special consideration.

Not all celebrants/operators may be able to handle hours of dancing, but may still wish to participate in a wild, festive rite. Consider this in setting up the ritual that folks with mobility issues may need areas designated for them to be safe such as space for a seat and/or mobility aid, walkways, and so on. Consider that some folks have dietary requirements or restrictions, such as needing to eat at certain times or not eat certain foods, so be sure that everything food and drink wise that you have a list of ingredients for these things on hand so all your participants may be informed and safe. Most of these seem to be common sense, yet simple set up for seating in an especially long rite can be overlooked in the early planning stages and later bring great distraction to an otherwise well-planned ritual.

Clearly laying out the expectations for the spiritual specialist(s), celebrant(s)/operator(s), and/or guests is a must. It may not prevent a disruption in ritual, yet it can help mitigate issues as they come up in a ritual. Letting people know who to turn to if they forget a step, or how to say certain ritual phrases will make the ritualists jobs’ easier and make the rite flow smoother. That said, if people become disruptive or antagonistic to the rite, it is far better to eject a person than it is to try to keep soldiering on. Ignoring a disruptive or rude person may be directly insulting to the Holy Powers, or lessen the usefulness of the working at hand. At the end of the day, for the people involved being a good host to and a good guest is key to ritual going well.

The Small Details of Ritual

If a ritual is a a ceremonial act done in a prescribed order, then it follows that as many great details to figure out, there are small details to consider a ritual ought to go. Should cleansing be done with the right or left hand? Should one enter into ritual space on a certain foot? Should an idol be approached only by an initiated priest? Are there exceptions to these rules, where an idol which is usually only approached by a priest is shown to the laity?

Notice I said these details may be small -not unimportant. Especially as polytheists develop their own traditions of worship with Holy Powers the disposition of small details may become more important to the completion of a good ritual. There may be good reasons related to cosmology for offerings to be laid down a certain way. For instance, in offering to Gods of Muspelheim one may be directed to lay them down in a southerly direction, as in lore it is said that is where Muspelheim may be located. For Gods of the Underworld, or for those spirits who are located beneath the Earth, such as the Dvergar, placing offerings for Them in an elevated place may be insulting, so you place offerings on or in the ground for Them. Rivers may be seen as running throughout the Nine Worlds, and so, disposing of offerings into running water may be seen as near-universal for the disposal of offerings, or only for certain Holy Powers, depending on one’s view and relationships with the Holy Powers. Since all the Nine Worlds hang on or are within Yggdrasil, making offerings at a special tree serving as Yggdrasil’s proxy may be a good place for offering to any of the Holy Powers.

The consideration of the small things may be the entire point of a given ritual or magical operation. If the small things are unattended to, the rite may be spoiled or the operation fouled. Something as seemingly small as not setting down an offering in an exact order, or circumambulating with a censer or blessed water may seem minor to us. If our point is to worship and honor the Holy Powers, then even our small things need to be oriented towards this.

It is worth remembering that in many of our rites we are reenacting cosmological principles in even the small gestures we make. Going sunwise, then, is not just something we do in many of our Heathen rights because it is something we brought in from Wicca. The Sun, through Sunna’s chariot, brings the blessings of warmth, growth, and life through Her cycles. By not following Her rhythm in a ritual, say, to bless a garden, we may be bringing in other cosmological influences that are not in accordance with the rite. In this instance, by passing our hand over the garden against the sun or counterclockwise, we may be asking for Mani and the Moon’s blessing or Nott’s influence in darkness to vegetables that need a great deal of sunlight. The symbolism we employ, whether or not we realize it, is alive with meaning and import to each ritual, even, and sometimes especially in these small gestures.

The Roles of Divination

Divination and other forms of spiritual communication are a good part of how the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy is kept in polytheist religions. It provides direct communion and feedback with and from the Holy Powers. The methods of divination available to a diviner are likewise hooked unto orthodoxy and orthopraxy. On a basic level, the orthodoxy of divination, and divine communication in general, is that the Holy Powers are real, and can and do commune with us. The basic orthopraxy, then, is that in the act of divination we are open to change as well as reaffirmation of what has come before, both in terms of our orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Divination serves a number of functions in the creation and execution of ritual. Among the uses for the creation of ritual itself are:

  • The creation of a ritual calendar/cycle.
  • For whom a given rite may be dedicated.
  • The timing of a ritual/series of rites.
  • Determining the proper order of a rite.
  • Determining the sacrifice(s) for a rite.
  • Who should be doing what before, during, and after the rite.

Among the reasons one may wish to divine during a ritual are:

  • That the set up for a ritual is good and acceptable to the Holy Powers, that things are in order for the rite to begin.
  • Checking in when an incident or accident occurs during the rite, such as someone being burnt during the rite to see that it is merely an error/accident and not a response by the Holy Powers to the occurence.
  • That the offering laid down are accepted.
  • That any messages the Holy Powers have for those gathered are received.

Divination itself is beyond the scope of this post. Like ritual craft, divination is a craft unto itself. Like ritual craft, divination requires you to do it to learn how to do it better.

Bringing the Rites Home

Generally speaking, a good chunk of ancient polytheist religion was lived in the home every day. It makes sense that the majority of polytheists today are in a similar boat. While folks may read everything above and think of it in terms of larger group ritual, such as a Kindred or similar group getting together, it matters just as much, if not more so, to the people in their homes. After all, if the majority of polytheist religion is practiced in the home, thinking about why and how we approach ritual has immediate impact on how we relate to our home cultus.

So why do rituals in our home? It’s where we live when we’re not working or running errands. It’s where our roots are set. Our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then, should be where the roots of our lives are set. Many of us live in places where going outside to do ritual is impractical, lack an outdoor space which would be undisturbed and kept sacred to the Holy Powers, and/or lack a temple space outside the home. By necessity then, the home is where most modern polytheists do ritual.

For my family the rituals we do as a family the most often are prayers to our Gods each day, each meal, and each night. We have rote prayers we have memorized for these, both because when we started to do them it was far easier to teach than how to do extemporaneous prayers. Doing things this way provided a set of common prayers for how to address our Holy Powers, a common well that we draw from in all our home rites. We do weekly offering rites which incorporate prayers, gestures, and the giving of physical offerings, usually water, food, and/or alcohol. We may celebrate the seasons and holy days doing much the same.

The beautiful thing about polytheism is that no one’s home cultus has to look like another’s. The how of how we do ritual in our home’s is individual. While my Kindred and I share similarities in home cultus, it is unique to each of our families. For instance, our altar setups are different. We use resin statues from Paul Borda of Dryad Design for many of our Gods, whereas another family uses statues from Unicorn Studio. Many of our offering vessels are clay, wood, or glass from garage sales and thrift shops. Our representation of Gerda is a corn dolly that came from a thrift shop with a wooden rake in her hand.

We also place different emphasis on different Gods depending on the household. In our home Odin and Frigga are the head Gods we worship and offer to, and then we offer to the others. Thor and Freyr may be the first Gods in other Kindredmates’ homes. Even between members of our family we have different emphasis on different Gods, even though we collectively worship the same Gods. Our son, for instance, has an altar to Thor and the housevaettir in his room that he takes care of on his own, while I emphasize Odin in my own practice and time where we do not worship as a family.

What unites us as a family and a Kindred is a shared worldview where the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are to be honored and worshiped, and shared ritual structures. What each of our Kindredmates does in our own home will have variations from each other depending on some combination of our relationships with the Holy Powers, what we have to carry out our rites with, and what we are able to do.

The Unfolding is Ongoing

As Heathenry and the Northern Tradition Pagan religions are lived through, rather than merely being set down in a book or series of books, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are continuously unfolding. Sometimes certain orthodoxy are held throughout one’s life and continue on through the generations, such as the Holy Powers being real and worthy of worship. Likewise, orthopraxy such as the giving of offerings for the Holy Powers are held right along with them. Some orthodoxy, such as the belief it is wrong to offer certain things may come to fall away with orthopraxy of divination to determine what are good and right offerings.

In the polytheist understanding of orthodoxy and expression of orthopraxy is that we are in living relationships with our Holy Powers. There is reciprocity consistently between ourselves and Them, lived in every thought we give to why and how we do what we do, and in the doing of the thing itself. There is reciprocity in the asking of “what should we do and how?” and following up on those questions. Why we do this is to live in good relationship with our Holy Powers. How do we do this? Eventually, all comes down to our relationships with the Holy Powers and Their impact on and in the lives of our communities, our families, and ourselves. As our relationships unfold with the Holy Powers, so too will our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and along with these, our worldview and ritual praxis unfold.

We will explore how one can start to worshiping the Holy Powers in the next post.

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A New Series of Posts on Ritual Praxis

February 10, 2018 5 comments

I was inspired by a conversation with two Heathens I speak with to begin writing on ritual praxis. For me, this project will take place along similar lines as Lārhūs Fyrnsida, especially in regards to their Ritual Format page. Before we get into types of ritual praxis, it is my firm belief that explaining why we develop a ritual praxis is more important, so that will be the first post in the series. Then, we can dig into how we develop a ritual praxis.

The reason I decided to write a series of posts on ritual praxis is because I have seen a lack of understanding about what ritual praxis is and why it is important in my local Pagan and polytheist communities, especially from a general Heathen perspective. My aim is to provide context for our home and communal rites, giving people a place to reference or jump off of in developing their own.

A few things to note:

  1. While I do not take a single ancient Heathen perspective my references are primarily Norse and Icelandic with bits of German and Anglo-Saxon. My use of language and the specific words I use reflects this view. I see nothing wrong with being eclectic. I respect that, for a great many people they find more use in sticking to one culture as their worldview. For me and mine, our worldview is primarily based primarily in Norse and Icelandic culture with appreciation for crosscurrents between other ancient Heathen religions as we find them.
  2. This will be a series of posts describing why then how Heathens without a particular cultural focus should and can build a ritual praxis. It will focus first on hearth cultus, religious life and rituals centered in the home. We can move out from there.
  3. This series of posts is meant to spur people to not merely think about their religion and religious activities, duties, and so on, but actively to do them. What this means is that if you are doing rituals and you are doing divination to check on things like “Is this ritual correct for us? Are the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir happy with this?” I fully expect you to act in accordance with your own results.
  4. The power and beauty of tribal Heathenry is that presumably the reader and I are not in the same tribe, and just because we may approach the very same Gods does not mean They will have the same responses to our offerings, rituals, and so on. I fully expect folks may get completely different responses from the Holy Powers, and the needs of a given community may differ such that ritual format, protocols, taboos, offerings, etc. may need to change. In other words, none of what I am writing should be taken to be set in stone. These posts are guidelines, not instructions.
  5. Down the road I may move these posts and future posts down the line into a format similar to the Lārhūs Fyrnsida because of ease of access and solid structure.

Night Prayers

May 15, 2017 1 comment

I place my hands on the glass table

I cleanse with breath, deep in and out

I am ready

We call to the Gods of our home

We call to the Ancestors of our home

We call to the vaettir of our home

Linked together, landvaettir chaining together road and wire

Linked together, landvaettir chaining together soil and root

Linked together through vaettir of arcing power, signal, and voice

We stand together though separate

In praise of our Holy Powers

On Purification and Cleansing

July 8, 2016 1 comment

I took a week off of social media, and I included my blog here at WordPress for that time.

It was a good time, coming right off the heels of Sacred Firetending at Michigan Paganfest.
It really made me think, though, about a lot of things.  Not the least of which is the time I waste on social media.  Now, a lot of my writing here?  That tends to be time well-spent because I am sussing things out, writing devotional poetry and other works, or otherwise devoting time to my Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.

My time away made me realize just how fucked up social media is, when you get down to brass tacks.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I do a lot of networking on it that is not only useful, but downright necessary to interact with the folks in my Kindred as well as the larger Pagan community.  However, what I am really coming to grips with is how damned sick, lacking a better term, social media is.  When something takes off, it takes off like a virus.  After all, a post, a picture, a video gaining mass popularity is called ‘going viral’ for a reason.  If it is incorrect information, it spreads the wrong information and it infects all those who take it in as fact.

This is where inoculation or sanitation and treatment come in, or, in terms polytheists would be more familiar with, purification and cleansing.  We purify a space so that it is cleansed of vaettir (spirits), and likewise, any magic or spiritual force that would seek to do us harm or disrupt the ritual, ceremony, etc. we are about to perform.  We purify a space, such as a vé (sacred place; it might have an altar or be a natural thing, such as a boulder or tree, etc.), hörgr (a stone vé, sometimes stacked, or an altar of stone).  We cleanse ourselves and any objects we would seek to bring into this space so we are in a state that is clean for the same reason as purification.  If you are facilitating a ritual, it is likely you have cleansed yourself and any things that you are bringing into the area, then purified the space.

These procedures are recognizable to anyone who works in healthcare: your inoculation makes you resistant to diseases that can harm your patients and yourself, your hand-washing prevents you from spreading disease, and your personal hygiene prevents you from becoming sick.  If you refuse to do these things you are not doing your due diligence to those in your care.  That is not to say that sickness is completely unavoidable.  It is not, just as impurity in sacred space does happen.  It is also not to say that sickness is morally wrong; it is not.  It simply is.  However, it is our obligation, whether healthcare or in religious matters, for us to do our due diligence so that those in our care are as healthy as can be.  A ritual leader who refuses to do purification and cleansing work is analogous to a doctor who refuses to be sanitary.

Of course, there are folks out there who will say I am being dramatic about this.

If we take our religions, and our roles within them seriously, then this kind of preparation to erect or inhabit a sacred space should be normal.  There may be exceptions to this rule, i.e. polytheist religious paths I have not come across that do not carry out purification rites in general or for specific workings because it would be detrimental to the rite, working, etc.  I am not speaking to these.  The polytheist religions I have been in or had contact with carry similar enough ritual protocols for these to be general, such as cleaning yourself physically and spiritually before a ritual, or if you do not have time for a shower, at least doing some kind of cleansing work, whether a simple ritual of washing the hands, sprinkling water on one’s head, passing fire about the place and one’s body, and so on.

If I am to carry out a ritual, it is my Gebo to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir that I am a living example to those in the ritual.  I need to be clean in body, mind, and spirit.  I need to show good protocol for engaging with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  As much as the ritual actions are my role in the ritual, so too is my living example.  If someone is coming to me for divination I need to be clean and the sacred space it takes place needs to be clean.  My obligation to the shamans, diviners, Rune-workers, Runemeisters, the Runevaettir, and Odin Himself is to do the work and do it well, whether that work is the preparation before the reading, the reading itself, or any work that occurs coming from the reading.  To do this, I need to have good signal, and to have good signal I and the space need to be clean for the reading.  Whatever my role, I owe this Gebo,this obligation of doing the prequisite work well to those who came before me in these roles, to my Elders, Disir, Väter, Ancestors, and so on.  I also owe this Gebo to the Gods, Ancestors and vaettir to do this work well, not just for the work present in the moment, but to provide an ongoing living example of the work in action.  

In order to do well, to be excellent, the foundation must be cared for.  The foundation of good religious work is to do the prerequisite work well.  This includes the education one needs in order to be an informed participant in the religion, and the carrying out of one’s role in the religion that arises from that knowledge.  It is not some out-of-reach perfection I am talking about here either, nor am I talking merely about the role ritual leaders hold in being ritual pure or helping to make purified religious space.  The foundations of religious work are carried by everyone in that religion.  Purification and cleansing are part of those foundations so we enter into sacred space clean and well, so that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are prayed to, offered to, experienced, and understood well.  Purification and cleansing help us to keep these things clean so that what we do and pass on is healthy for our religions, our communities, our tribes, our Kindreds, our families, and ourselves.

A Post for Newcomers to Polytheism

May 8, 2016 4 comments

There’s a great deal of needed dialogue going on in various polytheist, animist, Pagan, and associated communities right now.  I have been part of this, on and off, and while I do deeply feel these things are necessary, I also think that reaching out to the folks coming into this fresh, or those looking at coming back to the polytheist, animist, and Pagan communities are needed as well.  I have not seen a post like this make the go-arounds in a long while, at least on WordPress, so this post is made with these folks in mind.

What is polytheism?

Polytheism is defined by OxfordDictionaries.com as “The belief in or worship of more than one god”.  That is it, in a nutshell.  Most polytheists I know, and those I count among my co-religionists define polytheism in this manner.  This is because polytheism, as a word, describes a worldview and theological understanding, rather than a religion in and of itself.  A polytheist religion would be Northern Tradition Paganism, or any one of a number of Heathen religions.  Polytheists are those, then, that believe in or worship more than one God.

The polytheist religions I know of, especially those I am part of, hold that the world itself, as well as most things, are ensouled in some fashion, and/or are in part imbued with the numinous.  In this, most polytheists are, in some fashion, animists.  Animism is “The attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena” and/or “The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe“.  Like polytheism, animism is a theological position and worldview.

Polytheism as a word says nothing about the Gods one worships, what kinds of practices are accepted practice within a polytheist community, nor how one is expected to conduct oneself in or out of that community.  All these things are determined by religious communities that are polytheist.

What makes up a polytheist worldview?

Cosmology and relationships.  This may seem fairly simple, but when you take a look at the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, it’s far from it.

In these religions the cosmology, “An account or theory of the origin of the universe“, informs a deep amount of how the religion is structured and the place of the people within it.  The creation story alone is a wealth of information, namely on who created what, and where things came from.  Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar are described as discrete categories of Beings in the creation story, and form different tribes that intermarry on occasion, and war on others.  So too, Alfar (Elves) and Dvergar (Dwarves) are discrete categories of Beings.  The Dead are as well.  Even within our own Ancestors, the categories of Disir and Alfar/Väter (I use Väter, the German word for “Fathers” to differentiate between the Elves and powerful male Ancestors) differentiate the powerful female and male Ancestors from the rest of our Ancestors.  One of the lessons one gains from reading or hearing the creation story is that there are discrete categories of Beings, and They exist in hierarchy to one another and between each other.

In reading or listening to the creation story and others from these religions, it is understood that relationships form between the Aesir, Vanir, Jotnar, Alfar, Dvergar, and ourselves cooperatively as well as hierarchically.  The Aesir and Vanir war before peace and cooperation ensues, and an exchange of hostages occurs.  Likewise, there are tribes of Jotnar who make continuous war on the Aesir, those who do not, and Jotnar who join the Aesir by assertion of rights as with Skaði, or with Vanic Gods by marriage, as with Gerða and Freyr.  There are Jotnar who do not war on the Aesir, but keep to Themselves just as not all the Aesir war with Jotnar.  In other words, there are a great many kinds of relationships that exist between these various Beings.

If we take these stories as examples, there are a great many relationships we can maintain with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits).  Part of how this is done is by understanding our place within the cosmology.

Our understanding of where we are in the Worlds means a great deal to the religions we are part of.  It places us in how we relate to all things.  Jörð, and Nerthus, for instance, place us into direct relationship with the Earth beneath our feet as a/many Goddess(es).

What makes this even more interesting, in my view, is that because I am a polytheist, I accept a great many more Gods of the Earth than just one, including not only female Gods like Jörð, but male Gods such as the Egyptian God Geb, and others of differing/no genders, sexes, etc.  This does not create competition for this role of being a God/Goddess of the Earth, but more that They are in the same wheelhouse.  It need not be an either/or idea.

Rather, I look at it as an “and/and” notion that there are many Gods of the Earth Itself.  Sometimes I understand Jörð as the Earth Itself, and other times She is a local Earth Goddess.  Cosmology places us, and relationships form from this understanding of where we are and how we relate to the Worlds around us.  The particulars of how these relationships are shaped, what ways they develop or fade, and how things shake out otherwise depend on the religion(s) one is part of and how the relationships themselves go.

Polytheism is a foundation upon which the worldviews polytheist religions rest and build from.  Alone, it only asserts that a person holds belief in or worships Gods.  Everything else, from the relationships one forms with what Gods, clear on down to what kind of things are taboo, derive from the polytheist religion one is part of and are communal and individual.  In the end, the leaders one follows, or lacks, entirely depends on whether or not a person joins a community in the first place.  This acceptance or denial of joining a community will, in turn, impact the relationships that one maintains with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits of one’s religion.  This does not make these choices one makes right or wrong.  It makes them choices that carry consequences.  If one rejects belonging to a community it impacts one’s relationships with the Gods just as belonging to one would, though in different ways.  My relationships have definitely changed with the Gods I worshiped before and after I helped establish my local Northern Tradition/Heathen Kindred. Many vaettir I had worked only a little before became quite vocal in my life.  It takes all kinds to make a Kindred.

Polytheism really does take all kinds.  There are polytheists who never will be part of a community, and others for whom their community is intimately bound up in their life.  There are polytheists who have never had a powerful spiritual experience and never will, and others for whom there’s a quality of ‘They never shut up’ to their lives.  There are polytheists who are stay at home parents, and others who have absolutely no aspirations to be parents.  There are those who work in low-wage jobs as well as high.  There are polytheists on every part of the political spectrum.  In the end, the meaningful question in regards to polytheism is, “Do you worship or believe in the Gods?”

First Steps

So now that you have a rough idea of how polytheism works, what about first steps into being a polytheist?  When I began teaching the Northern Tradition Study Group in my area this is how we started out.

  1. Determine the religion you will be focusing on.

    This step is probably the most important.  When we organized the NT Study Group it was because there was enough people who had expressed interest in such a group.  Otherwise, folks were already developing relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of the Northern Tradition and Heathen religions alongside other religious and spiritual interests.  Bringing the group together under a single religious focus in Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheism brought a lot of advantages with it.  Having a single religious focus provides a shared lexicon and a deep amount of focus.  Having a single religious focus helps develop an understanding of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of the religion one is working with, and develops the relationships within the framework of that religion.  It also helps develop context for exploring and understanding spiritual relationships outside of this religion, giving a solid ground for the newcomer to put their weight down on.

    I would recommend that anyone new to polytheism or animism pick a single religious path to focus on for at least a year.  Even if you find that religion is not the one you end up staying with after that period of time it can provide good contexts and understanding for where you want to go or are meant to go from there.

  2.  Gather resources and do your research.

    This means tapping resources both written and from people, especially if you have folks in your area actively involved in the religion you want to join.  One of the sources I recommend at this stage is Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher.  The idea here is to develop spiritual hygiene and protection techniques so good habits are made early.  It also helps to separate out genuine religious and/or mystic experiences from sock puppets by doing the internal work early in the journey by developing methods of discernment early.  The early research may be a source of deep exploration, or a reference point.  It will depend on one’s personal journey with the Holy Powers, but at the least it gives everyone, especially if you’re doing this with a group, some mutual starting points to look at and refer back to.

    This is the step in the formation of the group where I provided a list of books for folks to look at, with explanations for why.  It is also the step where I recommend people talk to others in the community, even those who religious exploration will be solitary, because if you get a question you do not have the answer to you will be able to talk with others on it.  This may also be a good time to figure out some good diviners in your communities to talk with when the need arises.

  3. Determine your initial focus.

    I put it this way because for some people the ‘in’ to polytheism is through the Gods, others the Ancestors, and others the vaettir.  Determining Who you will be focusing on and developing your initial relationships with will help determine how your religious focus fleshes out in the following sections, what resources you will find of use, and in what ways you can best develop your religious work.  Things may not stay this way, but it will help provide some of that foundation I mentioned in part 1 above.

  4. Do regular religious work and ritual.

    When we started I recommended folks take 5-10 minutes a day of dedicated time and go from there.  Some folks’ lives are incredibly busy and setting aside even this amount of time can be hard, whereas for others setting aside this regular time is a source of orientation in their lives.  This is the heart and soul of any religious tradition.  Regular devotional work, even if it is a few moments of prayers with an offering of water, is powerful work, and builds on itself over time.

    I personally recommend anyone interested in polytheism and/or animism develop a spiritual practice with their Ancestors.  If the last generation or two has problems for you, I would recommend connecting with Ancestors further back, and talking to an Ancestor worker and/or diviner as you need guidance.

  5. Refine your resources, practices, focus, and so on as needed.

    I am not the same person I was when I became a Pagan in 2004.  In that time my religious focus has changed quite heavily, as has my roles in my communities.  Each person’s refinement might be different.  When I first began researching the Egyptian Gods I started out researching the culture and the Gods in general.  As my relationship with Anpu grew, I did a lot more research specifically into cities, festivals, and cultus around Him.  While I was doing this, I was developing my relationship with Anpu, doing regular offerings and rituals on a regular basis.  As things went on, I would do divination, or in some ways get direct messages such as through direct contact, omens, and other forms of communication between us.  I would then update my religious practices and views as these came up and were accepted.  This helped sustain me in the religion for the three years I was strictly a Kemetic polytheist.  I went through a similar process with Odin when I became a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, and it has sustained me, and those I have taught, ever since.

Relationship and Reciprocity

At the end of the day polytheism and animism are both based in relationships, and these relationships are based in reciprocity.  What we do in reciprocity changes on our circumstances and the needs and desires of those we share in our relationships with.  These relationships do come with baseline right belief, or orthodoxy. As far as polytheism itself goes that means you believe in or worship the Gods, whereas individual ptolytheist religions have their own orthodoxies that develop off from this understanding.  The understanding of right action of polytheism itself, the orthopraxy, requires baseline respect for Them and the reciprocity that sustains that relationship.  As with orthodoxy, polytheist religions will have their orthopraxy, and these will be dependent on so many contexts I could easily make hosts of posts about them.

The way in which a single person’s life could change for these relationships and be changed by them are incredibly diverse.  It is my hope that as more people become or are raised polytheist that the need for these sorts of general polytheist guideline posts becomes less relevant.  I hope to see all the polytheist religions respond to the needs of their individual communities and develop well.  It is my prayer that, so long as these posts are needed, that this one and others like it help those who find it.  May the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bless the work before us.

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.

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.

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