A Post for Newcomers to Polytheism

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

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

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.

ConVocation 2016

Hey folks, I have been asked to do several presentations at this year’s ConVocation.   When I know which rooms I will be presenting in, I will update this blog post.  I am really, really excited for this year’s offerings that were picked.

For those who do not know, ConVocation is:

…a convention of the many mystical spiritual paths and faiths and the people that follow them who desire to teach each other and promote fellowship among all esoteric traditions.
Since 1995, this 4-day event has brought together over 100 classes and rituals presented by local instructors, internationally renowned guest speakers and authors. Along with workshops, ConVocation offers over 35 tables of merchandise in our Merchant Room, an Art Show and the largest indoor Drum Circle in the Midwest.
This year I will be putting on three workshops:

 

Acts of Devotion –  Thursday 8:30pm – 90 minutes

Description:In this workshop and discussion we will explore ways to honor our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. These ways can be small, such as daily prayer, offerings, everyday mindfulness, and keeping ourselves healthy and engaged in the world, to more intense ways such as learning crafts, writing books, engaging in activism, spiritual work, and making temples. Bring your own experiences to share.

Polytheism 101 –  Friday 4:00pm – 90 minutes

Description:This lecture/discussion will dig into the basics of what polytheism means, and how it is lived. We will be exploring how we can use literary and archaeological resources as springboards and foundations to polytheist traditions. We will also explore what the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are, how we relate to Them as polytheists, and how to engage Them with respect.

Encountering the Runes –  Sunday 12:00pm – 90 minutes

Description:The Runes are often looked at as simply a divination tool. This workshop is about approaching the Runes as spirits in and of themselves. The workshop explores what the lore can tell us about Them, to how to interact with Them, to appropriate offerings and communication, and will delve into deeper aspects of Runework from a spirit-based approach.

Orthopraxy Requires Orthodoxy

An idea that I see occurring again and again in Pagan dialogue, and increasingly in polytheist dialogue, is the idea of ‘orthopraxy not orthodoxy’.

Before I go too much further, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, orthopraxy is:

“Rightness of action (as distinct from or in addition to rightness of thought); right-doing, practical righteousness; correct practice.”

While the the Oxford English Dictionary defines orthodoxy as:

Authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice

My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought.  One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought.  Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning.  I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts.  In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought.  The reverse is also true.  Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship.  Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings.  In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire.  This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.

This is not to say that I want to impose my beliefs on the whole of polytheism, but that polytheism as a whole does actually hold orthodox beliefs from which orthopraxy arises even if those beliefs are incredibly loosely defined. In other words, orthodoxy’s details differ polytheist religion to polytheist religion, but two polytheisms in comparison will have orthodoxies which are similar in general, i.e. the Gods are real, the Gods are holy/sacred, the Gods are due offerings, etc.

Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. Polytheists who have adopted the ‘orthopraxic not orthodoxic’ line in the extreme give up the understanding that there are things which polytheists need to believe in order to be polytheist. I’m not even getting into religious specifics here. There’s no need; a Kemetic orthodoxic understanding of the Gods would be different, at the least in detail if not in many overarching senses, than my own as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen.

But why am I emphasizing orthodoxy here?  It would seem I am advocating a return to a cage, one I ostensibly flew out of when I left Catholicism.  Such an idea, though, leaves orthodoxy, as well as orthopraxy, and much of religious thought that flows from them, in the realm of monotheism.  I see no reason for this to be, especially when many polytheist religions have quite a lot to say about these things, and exploring these things, rather than being purely divisive, can actually bring our communities together from within.  I do not expect a Kemetic follower to hold, much less entertain my religion’s orthodoxy any more than I would hold theirs, excepting cases where I am interacting with and worshiping Gods from their religion.

This openness to orthodoxy, though, does not mean that I accept others’ orthodoxy wholesale or even in part anymore than they need to accept mine.  Disagreements over orthodoxy and orthopraxy are, to my mind, normal, and best navigated by dialogue both between people and, especially, between people and the Gods.  Heck, my disagreement over orthopraxy or orthodoxy within my religion has little to no input on a Kemetic’s, for instance.  It’s a different story if folks outside of our religions are saying to polytheists that we need to be orthopraxic, not orthodoxic, or vice versa.  It’s one thing if we adopt these stances ourselves, and it’s a whole other when this is put on us.  Granted, I’d rather not see polytheism swing the pendulum hard toward orthopraxy and away from orthodoxy, since I don’t see them as binaries.  Rather, I see them more as complementary sides of the same coin.

Adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now.  It does not mean that we’ll suddenly adopt a theocracy from which there is no escape.  It does not mean that pluralism will disappear, either.  Plenty of historical examples exist as testaments to that.  Most polytheist religions have the understanding that there are, in addition to being quite large Gods, cosmologically speaking, many of these Gods may be understood in a local way, that is, through a particular orthodoxy on the local level.  I remember reading an article by Sannion quite a while ago referencing different Dionysian temples with different understandings of Him, different requirements for ritual purity (some very exacting if memory serves) and offerings which were well-received for one but not the other.

A firmer adoption of orthodoxy and orthopraxy does not mean we fall into one-true-wayism.  We are  a whole collection of religions, religious movements and the like between the Pagan, polytheist, and interconnected communities.  I find such a thing, given the diversity of beliefs within the polytheist religions themselves, to be nearly impossible.  Polytheism’s main stance precludes there being only one way of doing things.  I imagine the same of most Pagan groups.

There are places where I do accept a stance that puts more weight toward orthopraxy.  For instance, when I attend a ritual for the first time, I do things in an orthopraxic way, as I probably don’t have the information or the headspace for doing things in an orthodoxic way.  When I went to the Backeion at Many Gods West, I was there worshiping and praising Dionysus, reciting the prayers and making my own when I felt the call to.  What I did not do was fully adopt the Greek, Hellenic, or Thracian mindsets in regards to Him.  How could I?  I had not studied them much, had not been intitiated into the Dionysian Mysteries, and this had been the first ritual in a very long time where I had been in His Presence.  There are just some rituals I will attend where I will be an outsider to the tradition or the religion.  So long as doing so would not breach hospitality or taboo(s) on mine or the host’s parts, it’s really up to the Gods, the Ancestors, the spirits, the tradition(s), and the celebrants/ritualists whether or not it is taboo for me to attend the rite.

It seems to me much of the issue people take with the words orthodoxy and orthopraxy is in two parts:  the first is an emotional reaction to the words themselves, and the second part is in the feeling that orthodoxy and orthopraxy impose themselves rather than are a natural outgrowth of religious understanding and expression.  Words sacred and holy, those have emotional weight to them, and where sacred or holy may have positive ones, at least for those coming out of monotheist religions, orthodoxy can have some heavy negative weight to it. Even in everyday speech, orthodoxy has acquired heavy baggage of being out of touch, wrong-headed, stubborn in the face of scientific evidence, or someone whose outlook refuses to change.

With many Pagans converting from or descendants of converts from monotheist or atheist homes, it’s no wonder some have taken a heavy stance against orthodoxy.  I hear the refrain “I left (insert church, group, etc.) here to get away from dogma” and “I left (name) so I could follow my own path” often enough that I think these ideas need addressing as well.

Regardless of where one goes, if one is part of a religion there are orthodoxies, or dogmas, that are part of it.  If there are no orthodoxies or dogmas, there is no religion.  If you left a monotheist religion to avoid orthodoxy, you may as well quit religion altogether.  Non-theist religions have orthodoxy and dogma in their own measures; it is one of the defining characteristics of religion.  Religion is the bone upon which the sinew-connections of religious communities are made, and the flesh of spirituality is given form by.

Even in following one’s own path, there are often unspoken orthodoxies and orthopraxies that play into how we frame and understand our place in things, and the experiences we go through.  If one starts as a Catholic, and begins exploring outside of Catholicism, as I did, Catholicism is the initial benchmark against which all things are weighed until the benchmark outgrows its usefulness or is actively cast aside.  This helps to shape what experiences we may integrate, discount, or accept outright.  The coloring of our lenses by our worldview(s) shapes how we come to explore a new path.  Even if we, somehow, started from a totally fresh slate and began spiritual exploration, the people we might look to for guidance, physically, online, and/or in a book, and their associated orthodoxies, orthopraxies, etc. would impact our own.

This brings us to a phrase that makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it: “I’m spiritual, but not religious”.

I get the intention of this, generally speaking, but as a phrase it is wrong.  As I wrote earlier, “Religion is the bone upon which the sinew-connections of religious communities are made, and the flesh of spirituality is given form by.”  Spirituality cannot be without religion of some kind, even if one doesn’t have a name for it or doesn’t care to put it into a given identity.  Orthodoxy gives shape to orthopraxy as religion gives shape to spirituality.  Spirituality requires religion.  Orthopraxy requires orthodoxy.

This is not a one-time thing, though.  Orthodoxy and orthopraxy exist in a continuous, reciprocal relationship.  They feed one another, grow together.  Without one the other falls apart.  The orthodoxy of a given polytheist religion feeds the orthopraxy of that religion.  The practices of polytheism reinforces the thought and worldview that go into why we do what we do in the first place.  It goes on, hand in hand between ourselves and the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  If the reciprocity, the Gebo of this is kept well, this reciprocity goes on, hand-in-hand between ourselves, the Holy Powers, and the future generations of animists, polytheists, and Pagans.  By passing this on in a healthy way we ensure our communities and their relationships with the Holy Powers flourish.

Here are sources I consulted in exploring this:

Terms In and Types of Ethical Theory

Ethics: An Online Textbook, Chapter 9: Kantian Theory

The Basics of Philosophy: Ethics

The Basics of Philosophy: Deontology

Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy: Aristotle’s Conception of the Right

Holiness and Sacredness are Rooted Words: A Reply to John Halstead’s I Hold These Things to be Sacred

For clarity and to keep things as orderly as I can, I will be responding line by line to John Halstead’s post on Patheos, I Hold These Things To Be Sacred: A Reply to Sarenth Odinsson.

Sarenth Odinsson says that, because I don’t believe in gods, nothing is sacred or holy to me. 

I intentionally avoided using names in my piece, Holiness is Rootedness, because I wasn’t talking specifically about one atheist Pagan or another. My entire point is in the first paragraph.

In order to have a sense of what is holy, one must have ideas and concepts related to holiness. In order for these ideas and concepts to be related to holiness, it must have roots in a religion, a theological framework, in which holiness as a concept is able to take root. If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness just as there is no profanity or things lacking in that consecration.

If you have no theological framework then there is no theology to explain what is or is not holy. If you have no theological framework to discern what holiness is, its qualities and characteristics, then you have no concept of holiness to draw upon. Atheism’s main characteristics are that there are no Gods, and most of the atheist lines in regards to religious thought and phenomena directly state that there is no such thing as a God, Goddess, Supreme Being, etc. Most, though certainly not all forms of atheism, reject religious cosmology. I find it odd that pointing this out is cause to offend someone who identifies as an atheist, though my article was certainly not aimed solely at Mr. Halstead.

You can say all you like that you believe that things are sacred or holy, but those words carry absolutely no theological or philosophical weight when you say them because you don’t actually believe in the Beings nor the cosmologies that imbue them with that weight to begin with.

So, you know that feeling theists get when atheists tell them their gods are imaginary? I think I’m feeling something similar. Something like, “How dare you!”

Here’s what Odinsson says:

If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness …”

An atheist framework is one in which there is no God or Goddess, and thus, no sacred. One may hold things reverently, that is, with deep respect, but without a religious framework that very concept that one may hold anything as holy has no basis. An atheist claiming to hold something as holy is a person claiming something to which one has no right …”

I was pointing out what I had thought was patently obvious. I find it odd that Halstead is having such an emotional response when he has flat-out stated he does not believe in Gods. It would follow that there is no existent concept of holiness, as there is no theology in which holiness may take any kind of root. Keep in mind when I write Holy Power or Holy Powers, I include the Ancestors and vaettir, or spirits, in this. I don’t think that animists lack a conception of the holy, as in order to be an animist there is some sort of cosmology present, and accordingly, a way to establish things like what is sacred/not sacred.

Atheism cannot be invested in this understanding as it has no basis for holiness and the sacred, as atheism denies both on their face by its very outlook. Atheism denies that Gods exist, and in so doing, denies the cosmology They are rooted within. The notion of holiness within an atheist context, therefore, cannot exist.”

Now, I’ve never really gotten along with Odinsson. (I think he was the same person who once threatened to punch me if he saw me at Pantheacon.) But I don’t think it should be only atheist Pagans or non-theistic Pagans who are upset by what he is saying here. Odinsson is saying if you don’t believe in the gods, then nothing is sacred or holy to you. Implied in this is the statement there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the gods.

Nothing sacred in the world but the gods?!

Wow! I would have a hard time imaging a less “pagan” statement than that.

I am not the person who threatened to punch Halstead if I saw him at Pantheacon. I’ve never been to Pantheacon, and given the extreme amount of travel I would have to do and time off I would have to take right before ConVocation here in Michigan, I have no interest in doing so.

Note here that Halstead actually does not refute my points here, or anywhere in this post. He quotes me, but misses the point entirely. There is no implication that there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the Gods. It is not surprising to me that he misses this point, as Halstead has no conception of holiness himself, and I imagine is probably not familiar with Northern Tradition or Heathen cosmologies. To be quick, the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are holy. The Gods and Elements Themselves are among our Ancestors. Many of the Gods directly made vaettir, i.e. Odin and His Brothers formed the Dvergar from maggots burrowing into the flesh of Ymir. Many Gods are part of the vaettir of this and other Worlds, and vice versa. For instance, landvaettir may be seen as being part of Jörð’s Body/Being, Jörð being one of several Earth Goddesses within Heathenry.  Some vaettir have ascended into being or have become seen as being Gods unto Themselves, and some Gods have descended into being or have been seen as being vaettir unto Themselves. There are methods within the Northern Tradition by which an area may be made to be sacred, or that sacredness may be inborn to a place, such as a grove, or a prepared ritual area, altar, and so on.

There is something deeply disturbing, I think, about a paganism which cannot find the holy or the sacred in the earth or in another person.

Certainly, but that is not my position here, nor was it. I view Jörð, the Earth Goddess, as a holy Being. Do I view all the Earth as sacred? No, as I do not find CAFOs sacred, nor do I find the floating garbage that chokes the oceans sacred. Those, I find profane. Wrong. Unholy.

Are all people sacred? No. All people are bound together in Wyrd, but that merely makes you part of reality, not an inherently sacred person. It doesn’t mean people are valueless either, but sacredness actually means something in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Namely, that a thing, Being, place, etc. is dedicated to, belongs to, is consecrated by, or is devoted to the Holy Powers. This is why an altar is a sacred thing, a grove where rituals are performed, or a single tree representing Yggdrasil itself is regarded as sacred. These things are devoted and dedicated to the Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors and/or vaettir) of the Northern Tradition and/or Heathenry. They are sacred.

As for myself, I hold these things to be sacred and holy: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships.

They are not just things that I hold “reverently” or with “deep respect”; they are holy and sacred.

He says he regards these things as sacred, but without any of these things being involved with, dedicated to, devoted to, or consecrated to Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir, what are these words worth? Without the necessary relationship inherent in a cosmology, in which one relates to all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships, and so on, saying something is sacred or holy are empty words. Claiming one holds something sacred or holy without any requisite theology to back these words up is intellectually sloppy or dishonest.

Holiness is rootedness,” says Odinsson. My religion is rooted. It is rooted in these things: Life, Matter, Relationship.

How can Halstead claim his religion is rooted when the soil of the Holy Powers is denied?

Indeed, how can Halstead claim to be religious whatsoever when he denies any of the requisite things for which religion itself functions: namely, to provide a framework for and means by which people may establish relationships with, interact with, revere, understand, and worship the Holy Powers? All these things Halstead claims his religion is rooted in has no meaning without an actual theology in which the sacred matters, and so long as the sacred is, in actuality, absent from his worldview and thus, any religion he would lay claim to, all these words are empty.

Coffee with the Ancestors and Gods

Something I have not done in a very long time is sat down to coffee with my Ancestors and Gods.  I did it tonight/this morning, after taking care of the offerings and laying out fresh ones otherwise, all water, except for the stick of incense I left at the altars for the Ancestors, for the Dead and for the Gods.

I had two stools that belonged to people who are family to me, gifted to me before they took off for California.  One stool holds a Native American head carved into an arm-sized log that I give offerings to as representative of some of the Native Ancestors in the ways I have been brought into.  A while back I had used the other stool as part of an Ancestor elevation working, but it has sat in a corner since.  Tonight, I brought up some coffee my wife had brewed earlier in the day.  At first, I was going to sit on the floor at the Ancestor altar.  I couldn’t see many of Them from down there, and besides, They wanted to see me too.  So I dusted off the old stool, and sat at the Ancestor altar, lighting the candles in Ask and Embla’s tree candle-holders.

At first it was just…quiet, meditative even, serving Them coffee then myself.  I usually drink my coffee with non-dairy sweetener like Coffee Mate or something like that, but it didn’t seem right in this context.  So, I sat and drank my black coffee, and talked with the Ancestors about the week I’d been having, thanking Them for Their support, that kind of thing.  Mostly it was quiet, just being in one another’s Presence.  When it was over, and I thanked Them for coffee with me, I blew out the candles, and later lit some incense.  I walked away from Their altar with a sense of peace and being cared for.

My experience with the Gods was similar, but even more silence, being quite brief with my end of talking, mostly thanking Them for Their Presence and blessings on my family, and helping me through the last week.  It was mostly quiet, and considering the Work I’ve been doing for Them of late, I was okay with that.  I left Their altar, after lighting incense for Them, with a sense of peace, but it…was deep.  More than a sense of peace, really.  A sense of rightness, even with all the challenges I and my family are facing right now.

I got the message to clean my cups out after each time with the Ancestors then Gods, and returned the cup to the altar, my cup’s holder facing me, and Theirs to Them.   It looks like both sets of Holy Powers want this to be a more regular thing, so here’s a cup to a new tradition I’ll be keeping.  Thanks for the inspiration from a while back, Jim.  It proved a powerful, simple connection, one that I really needed.

A Call for Submissions -An Anthology on the Hard and Fallow Times

Book Proposal

Type of Book: Anthology

Working Title Proposals: The Rough Road and the Fallow Field: Navigating the Hard Times

Going Through the Fallow Times

An anthology primarily of essays, personal experiences, meditations, theological writing, and other works exploring the fallow times in an animist and/or polytheist’s life, where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits may be distant, silent, or in times of transition requiring separation. This anthology will also explore how to move through these times, how those who have little to no regular or peak spiritual experiences work through the fallow times, and what practices can sustain an animist and/or polytheist through them.

Word Length: Word Length: 800 words minimum for essays. Long essays welcome and encouraged. Prayers, poetry, rituals, and other explorations of the subject will also be accepted.  Please submit with no specialized fonts, in .doc, .docx, or .rtf file format.

Contributors will not be paid for this contribution. This is a one-time publishing opportunity, so you retain all rights to your piece and can use it as you wish after publication.

Any contributors need to give their legal names and addresses in the email for a release form for their work. Any contributors who wish to use a community name or pen name will need to note it in the release form.

The deadline for submissions is at September 21st, 2016, at 11:59pm, Eastern Standard Time (GMT-4)
Interested parties may email Sarenth@gmail.com.

Simple Connections and Regular Devotional Work

There’s a simple, beautiful connection in lighting a candle, some incense, and saying prayers.  I’ve done it all my life.  I did it when I was a Catholic, praying for the Intercession of the Saints, Mary, and Jesus.  I do it when I light candles now, asking for my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to speak with me, to bless my family and I.  Just sitting and talking with Them for ten, fifteen minutes, and despite a crush of harsh things coming down in the last week, I feel a sense of connection.

It’s not that I think anything is going to get resolved tomorrow, or even by my next paycheck.  It’s walking forward knowing the Holy Powers are walking with me.  Knowing that I can face the problems in my life with allies before, behind, and alongside me.  It’s the feeling of connection I get when I smoke with the Holy Powers, sharing the pipe with each statue, and talking about the day, the week, what is on my mind, and thanking Them for being in my life, for the blessings They bring.  That connection doesn’t always bring peace.  Sometimes it brings anger, sometimes it brings weeping for the things They’ve gone through.  Sometimes the connection brings frustration, as yet another thing gets added to my plate, or something I thought was key to me is taken away.

I think at times I give the impression that my conversations with the Gods are completely staid, or totally ceremonial affairs.  However, a lot of my prayers go something like this:

  1. Hail or rote prayer.
    1. Whenever I light a Fire I always make a rote prayer that is made out of respect.
  2. Extemporaneous prayers, talk with the Holy Powers about the day, week, month, fears, thoughts, hopes, dreams, etc.
  3. Divination might be involved, especially if I’m asking questions I need confirmation on.
  4. Hail or rote prayer of thanks.

Offerings may be made before, after, or book-ending the prayers and dialogue.  But how do I hear the Gods?

Sometimes I have impressions of, or spiritually hear words.  Sometimes impressions of or spiritually get smells, an emotion, music, the feeling of a hand on my shoulder, or lips on my forehead.  Sometimes I get a combination of these.  Sometimes I get abject silence.  My conversations with the Holy Powers can go in a number of directions, and part of that is natural intuition on my part, and what They are able or willing to use on Theirs.  What also plays into this is what ritual tools I am using, and where I am.  Outside in the garden, I feel a kind of flowing connection with the Gods of our garden with the Earth beneath my feet, the Ancestors, and the landvaettir as we pray to Them, whether planting, plucking, harvesting, or otherwise working with Them.  Inside in the dark at the altars with the candles lit, the energy tends to be much more focused, intense, and personal.  Again, it depends on how the Holy Powers respond.  There have been times in the garden, particularly when I take out the compost and hail Hela and Niðogg, when the connection was focused, intense, and personal, equally as much as inside.  That reminds me: I need to get some devotional items for Them inside.

What I find powerful with regular devotional work is that such conversations, dialogue, impressions, and so on, can become part of, to borrow a phrase from John Beckett, ‘our ordinary times’.  I say ‘can’, because not everyone has such connections, nor are they required to be a polytheist.  That said, that awe, that connection, that intuition can be cultivated by devotional work.  It can be, and is invited each time we kneel in respect, prostrate in honor, give thanks, gift our offerings, open our mouths to pray, and share our lives with Them.  We invite that connection to suffuse our lives each time we make space for Them.  Each time that our religions twine with the whole of our lives, becoming lived rather than just identifiers.  Each time we put our religions forth in our lives as matters of consequence, and not merely matters of belief.

The simplest connections have made for some of the most powerful interactions with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I have had.  The simple little connections are what have sustained me in the hardest times, and keep me righted in the easier ones.  Regular devotional work does require discipline, but it does not require a lot of ‘stuff’, especially if that would get in the way between us and the Holy Powers.  Heck, even the rituals I put on with the church I serve require relatively little tools.  What matters is that the connections between us are made, Gebo is made, and respect is kept.

So even in the hard times, keep up the devotional work.  Especially then.  Having that ground of discipline and connection has gotten me through, and keeps getting me through the challenges I face in life.  As the polytheist religions continue to grow and thrive, putting down these roots will build up each member in strength and resilience, and do the same for their respective communities.

Planting Seeds

In thinking on the last post and the centers Nicholas Haney brought up in God-centric?, is that one of the centers that tends to get left by the wayside in the larger polytheist and Pagan blogs is family, and in specific how we raise our kids in our religions.  It is something that has been on mind for a while.  There’s a host of questions I will tackle here that I hope will generate deeper dialogue in the Pagan and polytheist blogs and communities.  I believe these are really important questions, tied not just to the center of family, but to the health and well-being of all the centers.  Without children, all we have are new converts to sustain the traditions and religions.  In my view, that is a lot of people coming to understand a whole new way of being, whereas kids raised polytheist do not have that learning curve, or the need to decolonize, or remove as much of the dominant culture’s mindset.

Before I get to the questions, however, I think it is important to tackle some of the reasons that I have heard, in person and online, for why people do not raise their children in our religious traditions.  Chief among them is some variation of “I don’t want to force my kid to follow my religion” or “I don’t want to indoctrinate my child.”  I will be honest, these reasons make me want to pull out my hair.  The definition of indoctrination is:

to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs

Raising our children in our religion(s) is simply not indoctrination.  Teaching them about our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, is not indoctrination.  Unless you are actively denying your child the ability to question concepts and people in the religion, not allowing them to explore the religion, or are actively denying your child’s ability to consider other points of view, you are not indoctrinating your child.  You are, rather, raising your child in the religion.  There is a gulf of difference between teaching a child “This is what the sagas say about Thor and these are my experiences with Him,” or “This is how we worship together as a family,” and “This is the only way to worship Thor” or “Only our way is the true way to worship Thor.”  Now, that is not to say that a given family will not have traditions, taboos specific to them, or certain ways they worship, but to entirely cut a child off from alternative views, and stunts the religious growth of a child.  My taboos are just that: mine.  We do not have taboos on offerings as a family.  What we do have are basic expectations of respect in religious space, how offerings that have been expended are disposed of, regular times for prayer, and guidelines and rules on handling altars, statues of our Gods, and various tools that may be on the altars.  For instance, on our Gods’ altar our son can dispose of the liquid (usually water, but sometimes beer or mead) offerings we make to Them.  He does not touch the offerings to Gods he does not have an active relationship with. Sylverleaf makes regular offerings to Frigga on this altar that our son is not to touch, as that is between her and Frigga.  He is not allowed to touch the swords or the hammer  on the altar without permission and an adult present.

How do we bring children into our religions?  Is it from birth?  If not from birth, when do they begin to learn, and what can they learn at what age?  How do we help our children understand religious phenomena?  If one has a very active religious life, how does one relate to a child that simply does not?  Vice versa?

The answers I have to these questions are lived by our son.  We brought our son into our religion by doing a baby blessing as soon as he was born, asking the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits to watch over him.  He was there as we prayed at our altar when we first brought him home, and has been raised with us praying and making offerings ever since.  Had we waited we would probably have started teaching him about our religion around age 3-5.  He has been raised with the prayers we make before he goes to school and before he goes to bed, and at each and every meal.  He is living polytheism.  He has been raised with a Dad who takes time out to explain religious concepts on his level, and who is not shy about being very blunt that “the Runes ask for blood in Gebo, and this is something you are not ready for yet, if you ever do pick Them up.”  He knows that if and when he does, it will be his choice and he will be able to make it on his own.

I firmly believe in raising children in our religions.  Without our children learning our religion, and co-religionists teaching their religion, there is no way for the religions to continue.  Teaching kids only a little bit about the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and not making daily prayers, devotion, etc. is giving a little soil to the seed and expecting a tree to grow to its full height.  Not teaching one’s children at all about the Gods is denying soil to a tree entirely.  Without a firm grounding in religion, the soil is loose and is blown away in the wind, or swept aside in the rain.  If we desire good religious communities that will last beyond us, we need to raise the children in our communities.  Indeed, we must do far better by them than has been done by us.

So how do I relate to our son when I have a very active religious life?  Some of the explanations we work with him on are helped along because we have taught our son how to interpret the Holy Powers’ messages, whether he has a reading done, asks Them to work with him through his intuition, or look for omens.  A good chunk of this work has been to encourage him to trust his intuition, to admit when his signal clarity is not where it needs to be, and to ask for help when he needs it.  He is encouraged to admit when he does not know.  We regularly talk on our religion, on the religious work I do, how it feels, and how it affects me.  I bring my son along when I do certain religious work, such as tending the graveyards I have been called to do, teaching him how to respectfully make offerings at the gate, to ask permission from the Dead before tending Their graves, and why we leave offerings of tobacco, or why I blow smoke on graves when I smoke a pipe as we clean.

The biggest link between all the religious work I do, and explaining it to our son, and in some cases involving our son, is the concept of Gebo: gift-for-a-gift.  Reciprocity.  That word opens up the larger world of animism and polytheism because it places us not at the center, but in relationships with all things, all Beings.  It is why we leave or make offerings to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, landvaettir, housevaettir, and so on.  It is that recognition and/or fulfillment of reciprocity.  It is sometimes asking for help, which may be a form of reciprocity in and of itself.  Bringing our son to rituals, performing them with him, helping him develop as a polytheist, in and of itself is a form of reciprocity with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, as it ensures that the religion, and the Gebo engendered between the Holy Powers and ourselves, and our communities does not die with us.  It allows us to pass on the maegen and hamingja of these relationships between our communities, and the generations that follow on with, and after us.

Helping our children develop their own understanding of the Gods, their intuition, and communication with Them is, to us, part and parcel of raising a child in a polytheist home.  It is the hope that when they raise their own family they will have a well-developed understanding of how to understand the Gods even if they never engage in ecstatic spiritual techniques or do trance work.  Sylverleaf, for instance, does not do much in the way of ecstatic work at all.  It is simply not a part of her religious life.  A simple divination technique she uses when she asks Frigga questions is to hold two of Her sacred keys in her hands, and the hand which is heavier is the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  If there are more complex questions she may ask me to read the Runes.  If she needs to get answers from her Ancestors, she may work with an oracle deck dedicated to Them.  Having two very different parents in this regard gives our son more models of polytheist life to understand, recognize, and live himself.  Raising our children as polytheists, then, is more than simply teaching and explaining.  It is modeling good Gebo, and the ways we do things by actively living in relationship with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  We are living examples to our children.

What age should we bring our children into animism or polytheism?  It is my belief that it is never too early nor too late to begin a lived animist/polytheist life.  Regardless of our age or the age of our children, sharing our religion is an important bond that we share between our communities, our families, and our generations.  It is the lattice-work that makes a strong bridge between the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another.

In speaking with Sylverleaf on this, she has said it has been far harder for her to keep with regular prayers and offerings in contrast to me because she was raised in a largely non-religious household.  Lacking a background in any religion made it that much harder for her when she did find the Gods and became a Pagan, as she had no models to follow except those in books, and no community to speak of for quite a long time.  Living a religion does have a learning curve, and she hit this hard because until we met she did not have regular time for prayer, any rote prayers to draw upon, or regular times for making offerings.  In talking this over coffee and pancakes, it hit me that she was denied a lot of things that I took for granted in my religious studies as a child.  For one, pondering the nature of God was probably something very hard to tackle in a home that either did not think much on God or thought the subject of God was a non-starter where conversation was concerned.  I was able to talk with priests who were more than happy to answer whatever questions I threw at them, digging into the meat of theology with me and explaining as best they could their understanding of Scripture, the nature of God, and where we fit into the Catholic cosmology.  That grounding is absent when religion is not lived.  The hunger of curiosity cannot be sated when the entire subject of religion is off the table.  It also cannot be sated when the religious community one belongs to has a piss-poor grounding in its own theology, as she discovered her youth ministers had, during the short time she attended a church.  This is why our children need not only parents grounded in good relationships with their Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, but communities, and their leaders, priests, spiritual specialists, etc. need this too.  We cannot support the centers of our communities without them all doing the necessary work of living the religion.