Thoughts On ‘A New Economy’ and The Road Ahead

This was a post I started writing August 5th of 2019. I found it among my drafts and decided to finish it.

I have just started watching a documentary on Netflix called A New Economy and so far the basic notion that we need to make our economies more oriented towards what is healthy and good for humanity and the environment is one I heartily agree with. John Fullerton put our need to get back to human-scale levels of interaction, and the challenge facing us quite well: “We’re in transition and what’s remarkable to me is thast people feel that in their bones. We need to figure out how to align the human economy with the principles and patterns that tend to operate in all living systems. That’s the essence of it. And so the challenge is to kind of switch out the engines while we’re keeping the plane in the air.”

Richard Sennet, the author of Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation said “You can look at cooperation as an ethical, good-hearted thing. Or you can look at it as something people need to do to take your work seriously, to take other people seriously, to organize politically. This isn’t touchy-feely stuff. This is about actually getting the world to work.” The point was made that these cooperative efforts go beyond 20th century capitalism and socialism. I find it interesting that both were included, and it is something that heartens me quite a bit.

No economic models that rely on cheap and easy to exploit energy are going to make it long-term. Burning fossil fuels has put our environment into multiple crisis points. Our ways of doing things the last 200 or so years has led to the world as it is now. No amount of trying to engage with either economic model is going to be useful when the very means by which both capitalism and socialism have operated in are swiftly vanishing, and by trying to engage in them would continue to perpetuate the very harm we need to address. Not every endeavor people will embark on to face the future will work, but that is not the point. Rather, it is that our various approaches are needed because continuing to clutch to capitalism and socialism as the only models worth pursuing cuts all of us off of creative, dynamic, and needed approaches on far more local and sustainable levels.

This all being said, I’m not fully convinced that co-ops are the way to go as many of the subjects in A New Economy seem to. I think that different approaches will be useful to different communities, enterprises, companies, industries, and businesses. Where I will agree with the ideas of co-ops is that everyone needs to have skin in the game. Among the large failings that capitalism has, is that in order to allow for is the intimacy of connection and interdependency that growing your own food, brewing, etc all required to do well while also locking down relationships, information, and technology useful to all those things behind paywalls, patents, and proprietary services. Sensorica, a cooperative open source manufacturing network provides prototyping services with equipment that would normally cost tens of thousands for people to access. Just to access, not even to produce anything. They can do this for 20% of the cost, providing accesss not only to would-be entrepeneurs and inventors, but also to universities who would otherwise be denied this access. This kind of open-source work allowed Linux to become one of the top operating systems, allowing access to PC technology without having to engage with overpriced bloatware like Windows or Mac OS. Worker owned co-ops, collective works, and open source information provide means for many to not only reach for dreams, but to achieve them.

Another idea floated in the movie is the idea of regenerative economics, the idea that capital assets, namely land, water, air, etc and the things which are derived from goods within those are tied to economics. The problem I have with this is that it is enclosure by another name. It is capitalism’s maw closing around the last things it should ever have access to. No, I do not think that we should be tying this into our system of economics, especially when we trade futures and such on the NYSE, directly affecting the price of natural resources. The exploitation of the world’s natural resources and the history of imperialism around them should show us readily that this is not worth pursuing. It is in capitalism’s nature to turn things into revenue streams, and this is one area where its worst excesses should be kept at bay.

The central idea of the documentary, though, is one I find both heartening, especially now in 2021. We can collectively build our way to a better future through mutual aid, empowerment, work, and heart. By keeping our ideas open, allowing for the free flow of ideas, we can empower each other to experiment, design, and build on our ideas and dreams. As humans, part of this world, we can engage with beauty, heart, and intelligence together and make our lives better collectively. One size of approach certainly won’t fit all, nor will it be the answer to the myriad problems we face. However, I think it is one of the paths that puts us on better track to make good traction with the predicaments we face.

Authenticity in Heathen Religions

When we ask the question “Is this authentic?” of a view, practice, idea, or experience when it comes to Heathenry that question is fairly loaded. “Authentic to who?” is a useful retort to move this into a more useful direction. After all, Anglo-Saxons have a different worldview, or are at least pulling their worldview from different historical sources than Norse Heathens. Authentic has a few working definitions which are worth digging into before we can even make a useful statement on whether or not something is ‘authentic’.

From Lexico.com: “Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”, “Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.”, “(in existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.” Of these I think the first and second definition are most useful to our interests. If something is authentic in Heathenry it is “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine” and/or “made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original”. 

There is a trap in accepting these definitions at face value that many Heathens and polytheists in general fall into: that of our sources of lore dictating our religious paths to us without serious consideration from where those sources originate. If we look to most of the surviving written material it comes to us at least through one if not many Christian or Christian-influenced sources. Our sources of lore were never meant as religious instructions manuals, were never intended to make sure that the Heathen Gods’ names let alone worship survived, and are often quite spotty in terms of what information it does tell us reliably. We know very little for certain. So, with the maps so many use to reconstruct and revive Heathenry already admitted as being quite tattered and weather-beaten, how can we be sure our practice are “of undisputed origin and not a copy”?  Well, we know they are not a copy because we exist so far out of time and, at least where American Heathens are concerned, away from the home countries these cultures were rooted that we can be sure that modern Heathenry is a product of its Gods, Ancestors, vaettir (spirits), its time, and its people. In this, modern Heathenry is a genuine group of religious traditions.

Heathenry can also take the desire for things to be “Made or done in the traditional or original way” to an extreme. There is a lot wheel-spinning going around in a lot of circles as to whether a given practice is genuine to ancient Scandinavian Heathenry. Look folks, unless we are fluently speaking the ancient language and engaging in a culture exactly as they did, the likelihood we are going to be doing anything deeply close to what the Ancestors did is pretty slim. This is not to say that we cannot learn and experience a lot from living as close to the way the Ancestors did, nor is this to say folks who skew closer to historical reenactment and clothing, for example, are wrong. I happen to find older clothing like a traditional tunic and linen pants with wraps a great deal more comfortable, breathable, and gentle than modern clothing like jeans. I am a Universalist Tribalist Heathen, meaning that I believe anyone regardless of background can become a Heathen, but that most of my concerns are with those in my own circles of relationships. 

Many traditional offerings, such as offering the first fruits of a harvest or the sacrifice of an animal, in the way they were made by the Heathen ways we are reviving, are inaccessible to the average Heathen. Even for whom a traditional offering is available, the cost to make the offering may be prohibitively expensive or hard enough to find time in between all the life we’re supposed to lead during our waking ours that a different offering needs to be made. This is not an excuse for those who have the means and ability to make such offerings not to make them, but an acknowledgment that most of the population in the US lives in cities on very little money in very little land, and in very cramped conditions that leave us with very little time available to us to live our lives, let alone give the cultus to our Holy Powers that we may want to.  

What I think is most important in modern American Heathenry lies in the full second definition of ‘authentic’: “Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.” There are some things we can be relatively certain that we can reconstruct faithfully, and much of this has to do with material culture. From there we may infer or gain insight to how things may have worked in this practice or cultus, and then apply them to our own. 

We know that flint and steel, and before them various kinds of friction fires, were the primary tools used for making fire for a good chunk of human history. What does our knowledge of fire tell us of the centrality of fire, firemaking, and the cultus that could have existed around hearth cultus? Is fire made from flint and steel better inherently? I would argue, inherently, no. There is a difference of relationship. Convenience often breeds alienation from relationship with the Beings involved. Easy access to fire has made fire so easy to access that it takes real work to feel that one is in living relationship with Fire. Engaging with Fire through flint and steel one opens up to the Ancestors’ ways in a way our ancient Ancestors would readily recognize. This can also take place with what I sometimes dryly refer to as a Sacred Bic, and in no small part because a Bic lighter is flint and steel made small and convenient with the added benefit of accelerant. Most of our Ancestors would have likely deeply appreciated something we take for granted in the form of a lighter. Taking on the Ancestor’s mindset and truly appreciating the seemingly mundane and yet, revolutionary forms we have worked with the Elements themselves breeds an appreciation for Them and the wonders we have. From this baseline of respect for how the Elements manifest in our lives today we can take this understanding, gained from the Ancestors and our own sense of wonder, and carry it into other relationships no matter how seemingly small.

We can see where this has also completely disrupted what has been the physical arrangement of space for time out of mind. Rather than a central hearthfire which would have heated a room or whole lodgings, we now have ductwork that carries heat. The hearth has been replaced by two separate rooms: the kitchen and the living room. The place that would have been the space for meals, prayers, offerings, and so much living has now been split stripped of much of its sacred significance in the modern American home. Two major factors that need to be confronted in Heathenry exist for most Americans in general: the distance of ourselves from the everyday sacred, and how institutional and cultural forces reinforce the rift we are seeking to heal.

Whether something like a Bic existed in ancient Germanic cultures is rather besides the point. I am not living there. I am living here. The map of history is not the territory I walk with my Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and communities. However, that is not to discard the map. Authenticity in Heathenry comes from the tension of taking understanding and inspiration from the past and then applying these things in a sensible way to our lived experiences and the requirements of where we are and how we are to live in modern society. Sometimes the tension here is too great, and we must make choices on what we will do when we our worldview would have us sacrifice a modern convenience or address an imbalance with the overculture. 

Many Heathens, inspired by their devotion to Gods such as Jörð, Freyr, Gerða, Freyja, and so on, make choices in how they conduct themselves and what they purchase to live in an Earth-honoring way. A given Heathen might take the more expensive option of purchasing groceries and support a CSA, or they may plant a garden, help out on a local farm, etc. A Heathen with less time or money may only be able to grow a single plant in their apartment. Each person is a Heathen seeking to live their worldview authentically. Authenticity is not found in making the most expensive offering or living exactly like an ancient Scandinavian. What is authentic is each Heathen is living their worldview and in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and those in their human communities.

These are relatively small and easily navigated issues at this level. Authenticity reaches a new complexity when it comes to spiritual specialists. In part, because American is predominantly WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) there is an entire background of expectations a lot of folks are inculcated with in regard to spiritual specialists. Protestants in this country generally do not have priests, per se. They tend to be incredibly independent, and while most if not all engage in formal hierarchies of pastor and flock for the purposes of organization, each person is expected to engage in ongoing exegesis to some degree alongside devotional work like prayer and observation of holidays. There is not, generally speaking, a relationship between a pastor and their church like there is between a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox priest. These latter spiritual specialists meet the requirement of their Order and go through initiation to engage in their Office. Sometimes Protestant pastors go through some kind of initiatory process, eg the laying on of hands to confer the blessing of the Holy Spirit, but it seems some do not even go through this. What is expected of all of these Christian spiritual specialists is for them to engage with the public, provide spiritual counseling, and be available for religious community events.

Spiritual specialists in Heathenry find themselves in an awkward position. Given so many people coming into Heathenry are converts, many still carry the expectation that the priest will fulfill similar roles in their new religion. The map provided by lore and archaeology is that, unlike pastors, RCC and EO priests, Heathen priests generally served a God, Goddess, group of Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir first. A priest served in a community role primarily through making prayers, offerings, and/or tending a sacred place or animal(s). Among other services they may have made on behalf of the community was to make sacrifices, and/or divine. 

It is incredibly hard to break modern Heathenry of the biases of the overculture when it comes to priests. The societal expectation is one facet, but the other is that our government and institutions that interact with spiritual specialists treat them all as same. This flattening of roles erases specialized initiations and training that exists for our spiritual specialists. It removes expectations of specialties or individual aptitude towards one kind or group of spiritual specialties by reinforcing the dominant paradigm of “all spiritual specialists must act as clergy” as normal. This is contrary to a healthy understanding, appreciation, and furthering of Heathen spiritual specialties. A seiðkona is not a spákona though a Völva may engage in both seiðr and spá. Likewise, a seiðkona is not necessarily a Völva. A Völva may or may not be a gyðja. A given person may engage in seiðr and spá but may not themselves be a seið worker because they do not have the initiation(s), training, or the community role of a seiðkona, spákona, or Völva. If we are to have authenticity in our Heathen practices, and if they are to be carried forward with both meaning and use, we need to have standards under which that authenticity operates.

Where a lot of Heathen religions find struggle with spiritual specialists is that we no longer have long lines of spiritual specialists to carry on the work, though there are new lines developing now. A lot of spiritual specialists, myself included, wear a number of hats in order to fulfill the requests of our Ginnreginn (Mighty/Holy Powers) and needs of our communities.  Authenticity is something we ourselves can struggle with because of the demands of our work alongside all the other issues that the Heathen communities have. Something simple, with deep implications for how we conduct ourselves, is “How do we engage in authentic spiritual work when the sources are sparse and hostile to the practice?” We ask the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir for help, and reach out to those of other spiritual paths. 

My own Ancestor practice has been impacted by African Traditional Religions in how I laid out my first Ancestor altar: a white cloth with a white candle and a glass of water that was changed out every day. My Ancestor altar has changed significantly since then, but the core of it is founded on the idea of simplicity, of starting small and if the Ancestors want, the vé will grow. I took inspiration from how to start the practice but the way I address the Ancestors, the prayers, and the offerings are particular to Heathenry.  Note: I took inspiration from ATRs’ Ancestor altars. I am not practicing an ATR, and I am not claiming to be nor am I taking anything from within those religions. However, I would be remiss not to recognize where that inspiration came from or why I advise others to start like I did. 

In asking our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir for guidance on how They want us to define and carry out our roles as spiritual specialists, we place our authenticity in the relationships we engage in with Them. Here we fulfill both definitions of authentic in that our interactions are “Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”, and that they are “Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.” We have to accept and embrace that modern seiðr and spá may not be historically accurate, but they are authentic because the aims and the ways we revive them are as authentic to history as we can make them.

We cannot say for certain whether the ancient Germanic peoples read the Runes or read Them as we do now. Acknowledging this and embracing that Rune reading as we do them may be modern means that we are not misrepresenting ourselves and are centered in relationship with our Holy Powers and with our communities in honesty and respect. As with modern seiðr and spá, we are reviving divination within a Heathen context that is true to our understanding, and especially with respect to our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and then the needs of our communities. These are Heathen spiritual practices being revived within a Heathen spiritual framework with the best information that we have to hand. The experiences of what Elders we have, what spiritual specialists we have, and the guidance of our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are the foremost guides we have from here.

Taking things out of the realm of spiritual specialists and back into general Heathenry, aesthetic is part of authenticity as well. Aesthetic is, per Lexico.com, “Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty” and “A set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.”. How do we determine what is a Heathen aesthetic? 

It may be easier to decide on what a Heathen aesthetic is not and then explore what it is. This can be something fairly straightforward in that Nike shoes are not Heathen. A Heathen may wear them, but that does not make them Heathen. What then, of the aesthetic put forward in the TV series Vikings, or through neo-folk Heathen or Heathen-adjacent bands such as Wardruna, Gealdyr, and Heilung? What of the metal scene, such as Tyr or Amon Amarth? What of historically reenacted clothing, style, speech, and so on? I would say that a Heathen aesthetic is one that is couched in connecting a given community or person with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, or is engaged with in service to Them. Without digging into a particular Heathen aesthetic as being the Heathen aesthetic, I would rather see that, whatever our standards of what is beautiful, it serves to connect us and deepen our relationships with the Holy Powers.

I can tell you what my aesthetic is: It skews to the historical reenactment, and that of Wardruna, Heilung, and similar styles of historically-inspired Scandinavian and German neofolk. I find a powerful connection stepping into linen and wool clothing as much as into hide and leather. All of these serve to bring forward connection with animals, plants, and our ancient Heathen Ancestors. There is power and beauty in wearing what our Ancestors wore, or wearing something as close as we can get, to appreciate what Their skin may have felt like walking around each day. Having watched more than a few YouTube and documentary videos on how much work it takes to make flax into linen to begin with, to take up a beautifully crafted tunic and put it on, helped me to physically realize why most homes only had a one or two pieces of linen clothes or bedsheets, and any more meant you were quite wealthy. It embodied for me, quite literally, why inheriting linen was so powerful and important. My wife works with wool in spinning, is beginning loom work, and has crocheted longer than I have known her. She has shown me how much work goes into making a crocheted blanket or hat. I know from experience how much work it takes to skin and butcher an animal. Tanning is next on my list of crafts to pursue. Having done my research and looked at how much effort some of these hides are going to be to tan, it is little wonder why wearing animal skins and their trade was so important to the ancient Ancestors.

An appreciation and furthering of beauty can bring us closer to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. In developing Heathen aesthetics we develop new bridges that can reach out between us and Them, and through this, we can develop distinct identity as we develop aesthetics for our own communities. It may be that modern common dress is simply easier for us to blend in, but let us not forget that modern sensibilities around fashion, beauty, and the body itself are by and large designed for and by a modern WASP or WASP-oriented sensibility. It is also not anti-Heathen to like modern Western dress, but I think that A Handmade Life makes an excellent point on this:

“We are constantly manipulated by design. Industrial production has been a boon in providing many needed things at a lower cost, but unless we are alert we’ll let the machine start teaching us design. For instance, machines can be used to create any form of chair we like, but commercial interests can make more chairs (and more money) if the simplest design for the machines is chosen for production. So we end up surrounded by furniture designed to fit the needs of machines.” (Coperthwaite, 11).

Today, our articles of clothes are distinct not in terms of the overarching design, but in the particular logos or art that graces whatever the t-shirt form is. It is hard to have a cultural identity put forward in terms of clothing when all the basic forms your clothes take is whatever is most convenient for an industrial clothing manufacturer. We live in a time of great abundance, and rather than simply say we should give up our t-shirts and shorts, perhaps another look is due to what we wear, and how it may reinforce our Heathen identity. If we expand Heathen aesthetics from the worn or decorative to the entirety of how our lives are lived in beauty, then we may develop truly rich cultural roots that future generations will benefit from. 

In expanding this idea of Heathen aesthetic, the Heathen appreciation of beauty, into how we form and maintain relationships, this understanding has ripple effects anywhere we may care to inquire. If one of the central pillars of Heathen identity is reciprocity, or as I put it, gipt fá gipt (gift for a gift), or Gebo with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and each other, then the aesthetics that develop from this understanding ripple out into every facet of our life. If the central ideals of Heathen religion are Gebo with the Ginnreginn and one another, then the entire notion of how we make things changes. If our standard of beauty shifts from ‘this is useful’ to ‘this is useful and was made in accordance with Gebo’ it shifts our entire mindset and understanding. 

A t-shirt may still be artistically beautiful in what it conveys, but a t-shirt made sustainably with homemade materials takes on a unique and powerful beauty that, to my mind, overshadows that of the factory produced designs made without regard to the environment or sustainability. It becomes more beautiful and more in line with Heathen standards of beauty the more it comports with reciprocity with the Holy Powers. It can be a simple solid-colored shirt spun from linen, or a shirt that was left undyed, made from cloth that was spun in the home. A Heathen aesthetic of belts can be a simple leather belt made from hide tanned at home and riveted using one’s own tools. It could equally be a well-tooled and dyed piece, both becoming deeper should the leather be ethically source from well-cared for animals.

Rather than the looks and feel of the material itself being the primary standard, though important, I would put forward that the primary standard of Heathen aesthetic is the relationships it encourages and develops in the creation and use of the thing. The use of Runes and the naming of things is another aspect of this aesthetic. In naming our weapons, our cars, our computers, really any thing we can think of, they transfer out of the realm of mere mundane thing into the realm of Being. They had Their Being from well before we were given Their name or named Them, each thing potentially being/housing a vaettr, a spirit. Here, in acknowledging it and having a name we can relate to it with, we have an added dimension in our relationship with it. We have been given an avenue we can relate to each other with. The car becomes more than just another car, it becomes a car I relate to and I am in relationship with. I am not merely maintaining a thing by putting fuel into its tank, taking it for repairs, I am caring for a car-spirit, engaging in reciprocity with it by honoring and caring for its lyke, its body. 

In developing an authentic Heathen aesthetic based on reciprocity being the primary trait, we will likely find American Heathen communities digging into very different ways of doing things to meet that than those of, say, Norway or Iceland. This is where local cultus will intersect even greater than it does now. I would not be surprised if State or within-State aesthetics developed as well, given enough time. Michigan’s climate, weather patterns, and needs are not like Georgia’s, and Georgia’s is not Alaska’s. I would be surprised if we found a single Heathen aesthetic in the future just as I would if our local cultus would be the same. We might still be offering sweet fruits to Freya, reflecting current share gnosis that she likes strawberries, but what kinds of deeply sweet fruits we can regionally grow to honor Her may change depending on where we live and the growing seasons. If I honor local vaettir by eating what is only grown in season then my entire world of food changes, and so too do the offerings I make.

An authentic Heathen life is lived within a Heathen worldview and culture that contains our orthodoxies, orthopraxies, religious ideas, values, aesthetics, and experiences. These are all lived and expressed. Rather than an authentic Heathen worldview being a static thing, it, as with all of our relationships with the Holy Powers and one another, they must be lived. Heathen worldviews and cultures are themselves living things. They remain solid and unchanging in many areas, such as the polytheist and animist foundation on which the worldviews rise from. They change first and primarily with our interactions with the Holy Powers through gnosis and divination. Then, they may change with one another, with the crossroads of the sciences and our communities, and between generations of our communities as specific needs and relationships unfold.

Relationships with Spirits -Part 2

This post was started a long time ago, and I am relieved to have finished it as well as I can. Part 1 is here.

Before we begin to address the question of how to begin a relationship with a vaettr, we need to address why we are forming relationships with vaettir at all. This really cuts to where we find ourselves in cosmology and how we relate to the different kinds of vaettir. Our worldview is vaettir-filled, where we as humans are not central to our cosmology and we live in co-existing and co-creating relationships with vaettir in Urðr/Wyrd. The default stance I take with Heathens and Northern Tradition Pagans in regards to vaettir is that of devotion -we form relationships that are devotional because we worship the vaettir and wish to cultivate right relationship with Them.

Stating the standard for our relationships is that of devotion gives proper place to our relationship to the majority of vaettir we exist in relationship with. We rely on various vaettir for our existence, such as the Ancestors without whom we would not be here in the first place, the vindrvaettir who form the air we breathe, the vatnvaettir that make up the water necessary for our lives, the eldrvaettir that makes so much of the modern world possible with Their fire that flows through our buildings, or the jordvaettir beneath our feet and that make up our homes, just to name a few. We can have a variety of kinds of relationships with vaettir. With devotion as the baseline we underscore our general relationship to the vaettir and can contrast it with the different kinds of relationships that can grow out of or beyond that baseline.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Ancestors

The easiest way to build a relationship with a vaettr (singular of vaettir, spirits) is to give space for that vaettr. Physical, real space on an altar or other kind of vé, a sacred place. As mentioned in the last post, the least you need is a surface with a cloth, a candle, matches or a lighter, and a cup for offerings. Water, sacred herbs, and food are our most common offerings to all of our vaettir. As you develop relationships with various vaettir They may make certain requirements for offerings known to you. The physical space and the giving of physical offerings given to the vaettr is necessary; it invites the spirit into your life in an utterly physical way, grounding the relationship in one’s life as well as in one’s space.

Before any other vaettir I recommend people start building relationships with their Ancestors, especially the Disir, Väter, Ergi, and Ancestors one knew before They died. This is because our Ancestors, especially the powerful ones, have our best interests at heart. The reason I recommend building relationships with those Ancestors we had relationships with in life is because it aids discernment, and can help smooth the process of reaching out to the rest of one’s Ancestors. I tip my hat to my Brother Jim for this. For those who have had troubled relationships with their recently dead Ancestors, I recommend going back further. If your mother or father were abusive, go back farther in your family line until you are away from the poison of that abuse. If you do not know the names of your Ancestors, do the geneaology research you can, and in the meantime ask the Disir, Väter, and Ergi to help you meet your good and healthy Ancestors.

When you are ready follow the Simplest Altar and Simple Invitation Rite of the last post. Remember that a gipt fá gipt/Gebo relationship is one that honors both participants, and it may take a while for the relationship to get beyond introductions. There is no timeframe you need to have for settling into a comfortable relationship with your Ancestors. It will take its own time. Setting the space and maintaining the right mindset and giving time for the relationship is vastly more important than courting powerful visions or experiences. If you want feedback from the Ancestors and do not get it in direct experiences get some kind of divination system, learn how to use it, and dedicate it to communication with Them. This divination system might only be useful for communication with the Ancestors, or it may be useful to communication with any vaettir. This is something that you will need to learn by experience. Directly asking the vaettir in question if They want a dedicated divination system does not hurt. Even if you do get direct experiencess with the Ancestors I would still heavily recommend learning at least one if not many divination systems.

If you are fully new to Heathenry or the Northern Tradition I would recommend spending anywhere from half to a full year doing regular Ancestor worship before starting any new relationships with other vaettir. Dedicating fifteen minutes a day after cleansing and other preparation to simple prayers and offerings each day, at least three to four times a week will build a solid foundation of devotion and understanding. There will be times when life intrudes; in that case, dedicate time the next day to your devotion. Explain to the Ancestors why you missed, not to beat yourself up or denigrate yourself, but because your Ancestors deserve the respect of an explanation.

Adding new items to the vé does not have to be big or elaborate. The most common additions to my family’s altars come from thrift stores and antique shops. Often our additions, especially with the Ancestor vé, are vessels that hold offerings and serve as representative of certain Ancestors. Whatever you add needs to be connective between you and the vaettir, and respectfully maintained. As time goes on you might find yourself accumulating items representing various Ancestors, but this is only a requirement insofar as the Ancestors make that requirement of you. There is something to be said for simple vé as well as busy ones. What matters is that the ve is a place of connection with your Ancestors.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Landvaettir

As with the Ancestors it is about giving space to Them so you have a common meeting place. In our home we have two different areas for different kinds of landvaettir. The housevsaettir have Their own space while the landvaettir have Their own on a different altar entirely. A really simple way of making a space for landvaettir is to ask the landvaettir for a piece of Them to bring into your ve. The rock we have on our jörðvaettir vé is a stone we uncovered while preparing our garden. Our housevaettir have a wooden bird feeder in the shape of a house. Our outdoor vé is a sacred grove with a single tree representing Yggdrasil and the landvaettir. Another option is to make a hörgr, a vé made of a pile of stones. You can make the vé for landvaettir indoors or outdoors, though given my experiences I would recommend both. It is far better to pay regular attention and cultus to the landvaettir who have a space on an indoor shrine or altar than to only occasionally visit Their shrine outside.

The Ancestors generally have our best interests in mind and will guide, follow, and walk with us in life. We literally live on and alongside the landvaettir. Having a good relationship with the landvaettir may start simple, but I can assure you that over time it will not stay that way. Having a good relationship with the landvaettir requires us to treat our homes, whatever your living situation, as places that are inhabited by Beings besides us. Thoses Beings have interests that may or may not align with our own. Living well with the landvaettir will probably push you to take a hard look at how you live, encouraging land-healing things like composting scraps, and altering your spending habits so you produce less garbage. Anyone can improve their relationship with the landvaettir by being more mindful of what we consume, how we treat the land we live on, and by growing what we can where we can, dedicating all these things as offerings to Them.

When beginning a relationship with the landvaettir perhaps the best questions you can ask yourself are related to how you live on the land. How can I honor the land I live on? How can I live as low-impact as possible on the land? What native plant species can I encourage where I live? If I cannot grow or raise my own food who can I patronize that can? Ask the landvaettir directly what they want, and go from there.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Fylgja, Kinfylgja, and Vörðr

In the Ancestor section of this post I recommended learning at least one if not many divination styles. Vaettir like fylgja, kinfylgja, and vörðr are why. As with other vaettir giving Them space in your vé is important. Unlike the Ancestors and landvaettir where you can have clear ideas of who They are, figuring out the identity of one’s fylgja, kinfylgja, and vörðr will likely require divination.

With fylgja, kinfylgja, and vörðr one of the best questions you can ask is: Why are you seeking Them out? Really dig into this, especially since a given vaettr will likely want to know why you sought Them out.

Do you just want to know who They are? Do you want a better working relationship with Them? Do you want to make new connections with a fylgja as a tutelary spirit in a field of magic or hobby you are interested in? Do you want to connect with kinfylgja your Ancestors still have connections with but only you are willing to put in the work for the relationship? Do you want to know your vörðr so you can better work with your guardian? Are you looking to develop power, skill, talent, or a bond that will help you out when you need it? There are a lot of reasons to seek out relationships with vaettir, and the more clear and honest you can be the cleaner you will be in looking for the relationship, and if reciprocated, engage in the relationship.

If you have an idea from divination what kind of vaettr the fylgja, kinfylgja, or vörðr is you can tailor your initial offerings and method of contact to Them.

It may require, either instead of or after divination, some kind of spiritwork. One example of this is utiseta, Old Norse meaning sitting out. One goes somewhere, such as one’s vé or on in a natural spot such as a clearing or grove of trees in a forest, then sits or lies down and enters into trance. Historically utiseta was connected with going somewhere to stir spirits up, do magic, or spirit work. Utisetsa itself, combined with a calling prayer, song, or something similar, may be enough for a vaettr to come to a person. If not, the more dangerous option may be open, known as hamfara, or one’s hame-shape faring forth, or engaging in spiritual journey work. This hamfara may be a requirement to meet certain vaettir, including certain fylgja or kinfylgja in a designated place. Perhaps it asks you to visit it in its home, perhaps on neutral ground. This kind of spiritwork in detail is beyond this post, but I would be remiss to not include it as a method some folks may need to engage in order to find or encounter a given vaettr.

This is not something I recommend for most people -at any skill level. If you can get the work done here in Midgarðr and don’t have to leave your body then you are far safer doing so. While not everything will be out to get you should you fare forth, there is enough danger to your hamr that I recommend folks do a good amount spiritwork before even going to a place friendly to them. I do not see vörðr as likely needing hamfara, but They, or more likely you, will need utisetsa to see them or communicate until the relationship is more solid.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Alfar

This section is going to be limited purely because I do not work with the Alfar all that much. As with any vaettir knowing why you want to establish a relationship with Them and giving Them a space in your life is key to starting a good relationship. Where the lore is concerned Alfar are often split into two or three separate groups: Ljossalfar, Dökkalfar, and Svartalfar which are light elves, dark elves, and black elves respectively. As I mentioned in the previous post, there is a great deal of confusion over identity and who each kind of Being is.

Wherever I can I try to relate to vaettir by Their own names, understanding Them as separate Beings. So, in my understanding of Them, the Ljossalfar, Dökkalfar, and Svartalfar are all different kinds of Alfar, each with Their own culture. It seems to me on first glance the Dökkalfar and Svartalfar are separate groups, so I will err on the side of caution here. What kinds of approach work for different kind of Alfar will depend on that culture, and on the individual vaettr.

Most of my interactions with Alfar in general have been with regards to visiting Freyr. When I have encountered Ljossalfar I was doing spiritual journeying in Ljossalfheim. This is not true of the Svartalfar, some of whom I have seen in Svartalfheim. However, most of the interactions I have had with Beings in and from Svartalfheim have been with Dvergar, dwarves. So, are the Dvergar Svartalfar? I am just not the spirit worker to ask on this. So, my recommendation is to read as much as you can of the lore and firsthand accounts of modern folks who have journeyed and have good relationships with these vaettir. Much of my advice for developing relationships with the Alfar in general is going to follow similar lines: do your research, learn what traditional offerings there are in the lore and make the ones you can to the Alfar you wish to develop a relationship with.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Dvergar

The Dvergar or Duergar are generally known as Dwarves. They are said to be or share Svartalfheim with the Svartalfar. In my experience this is a shared world between these two peoples. Shared unevenly, but shared nonetheless.

They are renowned for being cantankerous and the best crafters in the Nine Worlds. Understanding this is why being really clear on why you want to develop a relationship with a given vaettr or group of vaettir is so important. Gipt fá gipt (gift for a gift, aka reciprocity) matters, and the Dvergar in my experience hold it in the deepest regard. That is not to say that developing a relationship with the Dvergar to ask for help in a given craft is a bad idea; far from it. Rather, do not approach Them only as a friend and then begin asking for Them to share secrets of the trade with you. If you want to learn from Them on how to do a given craft better then do it, but do not do it hidden under the guise of friendship. Sure, a friendly relationship could grow from such an interaction, but far better you are clear in your motives both for your own sake and the sake of the relationship.

In my experience the Dvergar enjoy well brewed items, including beers, mead, and liquors. This is especially true if you brewed it yourself or worked with a brewer to make the offering. From my rather limited interaction with this group of vaettir, meats and breads are also appreciated, the less processing done and the more care taken in cooking/baking it the better.

All of this said, my relationship with Andvari has been very different from my other devotional relationships. Mostly, it has consisted of being as clear as I can in what is mine. Apply the idea as broad and as thin as you can of being exceptionally clear on what is mine. This is an ongoing work that I do both for Him and I. Another quite powerful part of my relationship with Andvari has been developing a far better and healthier relationship with money and working at chipping down my debts. You could well ask why, and part of it is because that is what Andvari is really good at, where at least part of His focus lies. The sorting out of my debt is, in a way, sorting out what is mine and bringing back into my hands all that is mine so I can put it to my use. This is not all that different from a crafter making sure they have all their tools at hand and cared for. Money, having its own group of vaettir as well as being the means by which we trade our claim on labor for goods, services, and the repayment of debt, can bring power when we are in good alignment with it.

You may find that the Dvergar you interact with want the same kinds of offerings as other Holy Powers, but given my experiences I would not be surprised to find that They have very specific wants from you should They accept your cultus. Gifts of your hands, made to the best of your ability, may be accepted. Another may be ongoing dedicated work, such as learning a craft, which can vary as far as blacksmithing to knitting, brewing to soapmaking. Whatever the offering, it should be made with and in the spirit of excellence even should you be far from being master at whatever it is.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Jötnar

Jötnar are perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood group of Gods and vaettir in Heathen religion and the wider Pagan communities. Since this post is about vaettir I will dig into the Jötnar as vaettir rather than going over the various Jötnar Gods.

The notion that Jötnar are uniquely dangerous is rather undeserved in my view. All vaettir are potentially dangerous. Anyone who thinks deer are little more than placid creatures should watch videos of hunters who have had to tangle hand-to-hoof with one. It tends to end poorly for the hunter. It should be remembered no small amount of the Aesir that so many seem to think are less dangerous are actually ferocious and equally, if not more dangerous than many Jötnar. Many are Jötun or have Jötun ancestry Themselves even if the allegiance They hold is to the Aesir. All of the Gods are capable of being ferocious in battle, and anyone who tries to, say, pin the Vanir as uniquely being Gods of peace or specifically pacificity should be reminded that though Freyr gave up His sword for love, He still took up the antler as His weapon and fought Surt with it at Ragnarök. The Aesir and Vanir fought one another to a standstill which was only broken when hostages were exchanged.

So what are Jötnar? Put simply They are vaettir who are tied quite close to primal forces and natural phenomena, though They may or may not be the personification of that primal force and/or natural phenomena. They are often looked at and understood as wilder than Aesir and Vanir, with these two tribes of Gods often looked upon as the ‘civilized’ Gods. My experience with Jötnar is that They do tend to be more outwardly wild than the Aesir or Vanir, but that the claims that the Jötnar are uncivilized is dead wrong. They have cultures, distinct to the regions They live in and/or roam. This ties into the idea of regional cultus, the idea that our location, environment, place in time, and culture’s response to these factors impacts our spiritual relationships, making them unique to an area. Regional cultus has existed because we came to understand our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and our relationships with Them in context of where we live and how our culture’s traditions reacted to and reinforced those relationships. This understanding, to my mind, is a two way street: we relate to our Holy Powers in context of where we live and how, and They in turn relate to us through those ways. So some ways in which we relate to Jötnar may not translate 1:1 with our sources of lore. For instance: Michigan has a lack of mountains (except the Porcupine Mountains, for instance, in the Upper Peninsula) so that I have very little interaction with vaettir in general tied to mountains unless I journey to a place with mountains spiritually or physically.

Beginning a relationship with a landvaettr seems to make sense to people intuitively in an animist/polytheist way. After all, we live on the Earth, the Earth is a Goddess and is also full of spirits of that Earth. Why wouldn’t we want to have a good relationship with the land we live on? When it comes to Jötnar folks seem to forget this mindset, also forgetting that the Goddess whose name is Earth, Jörð, is Jötun. I do find that some Jötnar ride the line or are landvaettir Themselves. Others are Beings who take up space within the context of being aligned with a place, eg Jötnar aligned with bodies of water such as Undines tend to be there. They tend to be of or take up the wildest aspects of these places.

So why do we develop relationships with the Jötnar? They are part of the primal forces that make up our world, and They are found throughout most of the Worlds. We can encounter Jötnar most anywhere we do landvaettir. Additionally, we may find Them in the primal aspects of this world, among them storms, ice, snow, winds, forests, swamps, and animals. Some, given They live in Jötunheim, Niflheim, Múpelheim, and so on, may require a spiritual journey to meet with Them. My previous warnings on journeying apply here even more so considering how much more powerful the Jötnar generally are than us, how extreme these environments are to us, and that in journeying to these places we are entering their realms. If you can meet with Them here that is probably for the best. That being said, Jötnar are renowned in many arts, from medicinal to martial, magic, shapeshifting, and more. Seeking Them out for devotion is slowly becoming more accepted, but whether a thing is accepted or not, devotion to these Beings is a beautiful and powerful thing. They are among our Holy Powers. Seeking Them out for devotion, partnership, or help in an endeavor is a powerful working in and of itself. How much more so when you worship and/or ally with the primal Beings we share this and other Worlds with.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -The Dead

Of any of the various vaettir one could work with the Dead are one I advise folks have a lot of caution before working with Them. It may seem counterintuitive, given how much emphasis I have put in this post and in my blog in general on working with our Ancestors. After all, They are Dead. The Ancestors are, at least in part among the Dead, but not all are the Dead, and for those that are, we hold unique relationships with Them. We do not have this connection with the general Dead. The Dead draw Their ranks from among every Being in every World. Some may retain grudges into whatever Their afterlife is, whereas some change entirely.

So what are the Dead? They are spirits of those who once lived. They come from every World. Some are human; most are not. It is not worth bothering most of the Dead. Most Dead who can be contacted know about as much, sometimes more and sometimes less, than those when They are alive. Likewise for the Dead’s ability to act in the Worlds. Contacting the Dead besides those methods approved by a God or Goddess of the Dead tends to be fairly dangerous. Not only are you risking wrangling with a potentially angry and dangerous vaettr, you may also be risking pissing off a God or Goddess of the Dead. So why develop a relationship with the Dead at all?

We all have Dead people, not just Ancestors, as part of our foundation. The Dead share this world with us. When we get right down to brass tacks, we literally stand on the Dead as the decomposed bodies on the soil of the Earth. Our homes are built on Them, our civilizations’ foundations, metaphorically and literally, rest on Them. We are in relationship with the Dead whatever our religion. Some of these Dead are part of the landvaettir, and others remain distinct. We might reach out to the Dead to form better relationships with the places we live. I live on land that the Patawatome, Ojibwe, Wyandot, Iriquois, and others may have lived on. To be in good relationship with the landvaettir I need to be good to the Dead that are part of Them, that live with or within the landvaettir.

We might reach out to different kinds of Dead as a devotional act. In my own case I give cultus to the Warrior and Military Dead, most of whom I am completely unrelated to. I honor the Dead as a priest of Anpu that come across my altar to the Dead as a kind of spiritual waystation. I maintain it per Anpu’s direction by providing a good place to rest for those Dead who need it, and for others who are ready to move on. This physical space is an offering in and of itself, giving the Dead the use of the waystation to go to where it is They need to. Others worship factions of the Dead because they relate to certain professions, callings, and the like. Whatever one’s reason for forging relationships with the Dead, one should have good relationships with one’s own Ancestors first, and clear ideas of boundaries around one’s relationship with any Dead one would like to make.

The safest way that I know how to build a relationship with the Dead is to first ask permission from Hela if the Dead are in Hel/Helheimr, or the God of whatever Dead you are trying to contact. If you are trying to contact one of the Dead who has drowned then Rán would be the Goddess to direct prayers to. If someone died in combat, then Freyja or Óðinn. I find it a cool and interesting part of Norse/Icelandic Heathenry that there are a number of places for the Dead to go, though the majority will go to Hel/Helheimr. If you secure the permission of the God of a particular group of Dead to contact Them, then, as with other vaettir make a space for Them on/in a vé, make offerings, and do your due dilligence to be sure that contact is made, the offerings are accepted, and the relationship has begun. I highly recommend the Dead have an entirely separate vé from your Gods, Ancestors, and other vaettir. Keeping clear and healthy boundaries is to your benefit and respectful to the Gods, Ancestors, and other vaettir you hold relationships with.

Beginning to Build a Relationship with Vaettir -Elemental

Elemental vaettir are what it says on the tin. Now, an obvious question here is “Are landvaettir elemental vaettir?” and my answer is “Yes.” The way that I figure it, is that all landvaettir are jörðvaettir but not all jörðvaettr are landvaettir. Sometimes a vaettr of the Earth, a jörðvaettr, is not part of or attached to a specific piece of land, but it may be an individual rock, bit of soil, a tree, and so on. So what are the elemental vaettir within Heathenry? They are beings of or related to the elements of Fire and Ice first, followed by Water, Earth, and Air. Fire and Ice, in the Worlds of Múspellheimr and Niflheimr, were the first two Worlds to emerge from the Ginnungagap (often referred to as “the yawning void”, but another interpretation can be the “power-filled space”) and from the meeting of Fire and Ice the Water flowed, Earth was uncovered in Niflheim, and the first stirrings of Air were made, the first breaths taken.

I understand that all elemental vaettir are related to and interconnected with each other. Looking at this from the perspective of Fire is helpful. Each eldrvaettr, fire spirit, relates back to the First Fire that burns in Múspellsheimr. Is that First Fire Surtr? I happen to believe so, but whether Surtr is the First Fire or the First Being that comes from the unfolding burning of that First Fire is rather immaterial. He is the the First God. That Fire that became or is Surtr is the Eldest Ancestor, the First Being that burns still from whom all Fire descends. Each fire, no matter how great or small is related back to that Eldest Ancestor, that First Fire. Each fire, whether an eldrvaettr, a jötnar, or a God associated with or possessing qualities of Fire relates in some way to that First Fire. Each fire, whether a small candle, a firecracker, a wildfire, a volcano, relates back to that Fire.

So how do we develop a relationship with elemental vaettir? We honor Them, we make prayers and offerings to Them just as we do other vaettir. We make prayers and are respectful to the powerful Beings connected to Them or from whom They descend. We understand each Being, no matter how small or great, is or is connected with a vaettr, and treat it well accordingly. We understand that the world is full of and is a vaettr.

Like with other vaettir we make space for it on a vé, and this can be very simple to start with: a simple white cloth on a surface with a representation of ice, or something that can hold actual ice or snow when able. For fire, a candle either a burning candle or LED if you are in a space where burning is not permitted. For water a small bowl or cup filled regularly. For earth a patch of dirt or rock from where you live; do not forget to ask permission and if you get it to make offerings to the landvaettir you take this from. For air an incense burner with incense, a pinwheel, or a bell. Really, what you can make a connection with here is going to matter far more than some examples I can give you. The point is that, whatever vé you set up for whichever vaettir, it should be something you can connect with.

Among the reasons we reach out to elemental vaettir as a devotional act to understand Them better, to have better relationships with Them. In understanding and working with Them better we understand and work with the basic elemental forces that make up the Worlds, that we live alongside, that we depend upon and are part of our everyday existence. We can develop deeper and better relationship with the Beings Whose bodies our modern world is built upon, and in so doing, come into better alignment with where They would have us be, and so, find ourselves embracing better ways of living in this World.

We Are Not the Center

Since we are not the center of our cosmology or the relationships we form within that cosmology, we must recognize that we are not the only ones capable of proposing or forming relationships. Any of the vaettir can reach out to us for a relationship for Their own reasons, reasons which They may or may not share with us. Being most of us are free agents in regards to the relationships we forge with the vaettir, we may accept or deny these connections, and then live with whatever consequences may come from that. Note: I assigned no value to this for a reason. We may have legitimate reasons for not wanting to develop a relationship with a given vaettr or group of vaettir. Your reasons for developing a relationship with a vaettr or a group of vaettir are just that.

There are a variety of factors beyond our basic worldview that can factor into our relationships with vaettir. Among them are the Gods we worship, and what role(s) we take on within our religious communities. Some find that worshiping the Æsir keeps them from worshiping Jötnar altogether, though this has not been my own experience. Some find that worshiping the Dvergar may be a factor in whether or not they can worship the Ljossalfar. Some do not. This is also why we have a broad range of spiritual specialists in Heathenry and the Northern Tradition Pagan religions. We cannot be all things to all the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. If you came to me as a spirit worker and asked for help with the Ljossalfar I would be pointing you in another direction because I do not hold relationships with Them. I coud maybe do some divination for you, maybe something in the realm of yes/no, but anything digging in too deep with how to develop good relationships with Them or what to do when one comes knocking on your door? If you want to positively respond to that I generally do not have much for you. It does not make me a bad spirit worker or that the Ljossalfar bad Themselves, I just do not have a good relationship with Them.

A spirit-worker will likely have different kinds of relationships with different kinds of vaettir from the average non-specialist. After all, a non-specialist can have very deep relationships but carry no baggage from being sworn to a group of vaettir into a given relationship. The non-specialist here then has, potentially, quite an advantage over the specialist since many of us are grabbed up by or have otherwise come into the service of a group of Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. We may not have the option of engaging with a group of vaettir that a non-specialist could. Being a spirit worker does not make us inherently better than a non-specialist, it just means we are geared or driven towards certain kinds of spirit work. It’s a job title like diviner or healer; some spirit workers get more than one job wrapped up in their job as a spirit worker, and some do not.

What matters, in the end, is that each person is willing and able to develop good relationships with the vaettir that they come to or vice versa. Really, this gets down to the core of being Heathen or Northern Tradition Pagan. Whatever you do, whatever your role, whether Heathen, Northern Tradition, or just adjacent to these communities, you should be coming to the vaettir to develop a good relationship with Them. May these relationships be well-made and well-maintained.

Good luck and ves þu heil!

Moving Beyond the Wound-Chasm

I recently listened to Episode 28 of Everyday Animism, Animism and the Broken Path. The hosts raised some good points, among them being the understanding that decolonization of and embracing authenticity within our religious lives is an ongoing process. They hit the idea of the breaking of our Ancestors’ ties with their Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir quite a bit.

Heathenry has faced and is continuing to face the same challenges as those they were speaking to as animists. As Heathenry came up from the 70s, there has been quite an effort expended to come up with our own words, our own understanding of ourselves. Reviving religions and eventually cultures takes work and time. As academic fields came up with new information we adjusted our understanding of where we stood and where we are going. As new understandings of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir came forward many changed with them. Heathenry, like a lot of polytheist religions, does a lot of looking back.

Where I would like to see conversations like these move is beyond where our Ancestors’ wound-chasm lies, that place where our Ancestors destroyed or whose connection was destroyed to their culture and absorbed into Christian and Muslim cultures. We are not living there. It is important to look at it, to acknowledge it, and to work to heal it, but our point of view cannot live there. Likewise, I feel we need to shift the conversation away from cultural appropriation and into embracing our own cultures. Beyond surface-level idiocy, see the Coachella models wearing headdresses or the same at Burning Man, my understanding is that a lot of appropriation is a grasping for something. That grasping might be words to describe a thing, like when folks grasp onto the word smudging (which is a ritual in and of itself, not just waving around smoke to get rid of evil spirits) when we have reykr (Old Norse for smoke) or recan (Anglo-Saxon for cleansing something with smoke) as words for smoke cleansing. That grasping might be for ancestral spirits, where folks might grasp for totem (which is a corruption of the Ojibwe word doodem, itself being a noun needing a prefix) I would point them to kinfylgja (Old Norse for kin follower/helper spirits). Wherever we are grasping we should look to our religions, our cultures first.

This means that we need to embrace our own understanding of our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and ourselves over that of outsiders to our religions. Academics and others external to our religious and cultural communities are fine and should be looked to so long as their studies, commentary, etc are useful to us. Rather than this being an anti-academic or anti-science approach, this is an approach that weighs the usefulness and relevancy of outsider views on us, our religions, and cultures. Dr. Jackson Crawford and Dr. Caroline Larrington are excellent academic sources on Old Norse texts. What neither are is Heathen. Their expertise is not in religious instruction, nor would I want to put them in such a position. Likewise, the texts they have translated, the books they have written, and lectures they produce are not meant to be religious instruction.

Part of decolonizing ourselves and our communities is to radically embrace our own living religious worldviews. Decolonizing cannot be accomplished without this. Indeed, part of the point of it is to stop drinking the poison and to drink good clean water. We do this by understanding and especially living within our worldview. For Heathens this is living in good Gebo, reciprocity, with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, communities, and within ourselves. We are going to develop neologisms and work with words and concepts in new forms. My own use of the word Mikilvaettir and use of Ergi to describe and honor our Powerful Queer Ancestors is evidence of this. I understand that writing here on my blog, resources such as The Longship, and the work of countless individuals and communities developing their own relationships, vocabulary and worldviews all are part of this work. Whether we live quiet lives doing devotion or busy ones full of spirit work, or whether we lie somewhere in between, by worshiping Them and fuIfilling our part of Urðr we do the work of rejecting poison and drinking good water.

Reflecting on Doki Doki Literature Club, Servitors, Egregores, and Vaettir

My thoughts today are in great part being spurred on by the visual novel game Doki Doki Literature Club. If you have not played it, I heavily recommend doing so unless you are easily disturbed. It has content warnings in the startup of the game for a reason. A fair warning: from here on in I will probably be discussing spoilers. I heavily recommend you play the game before reading this post, since the guts of it came after watching Let’s Plays of this game.

Note: I began writing this months ago and it has sat in my Drafts folder for awhile, mostly finished. I finally got around to putting some finishing touches on it, and I may come back to this idea sometime later.

Continue reading

Thinking on Polytheism and Media

I thought this would be a fun topic to explore as I’m working on finishing up the On Ritual Praxis series of posts.

So much of my thinking on media has been shaped by a key number of factors, including my own perspective as a polytheist, my consumption of and conversations around media with family and close friends throughout much of my life, the books Narrative Medicine and Coyote Medicine by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and looking at various video bloggers such as Bob Chipman aka Moviebob or Lindsay Ellis on the role of media in modern life. I use the previous two video bloggers as jumping off points for a lot of thoughts on the very topic of this post because they give nuanced and comprehensive looks at the material they review, and both acknowledge biases they carry up front.

Media is a shared source of culture. It is the music, podcasts, and audio novels we listen to, the news, movies and shows we watch, the books, magazines, and papers we read, and so on. Rather than attach polytheism to an aesthetic, style, genre, etc, polytheist religions and their adherents embrace many Gods, and right along with this embraces many forms of media, and its attendant aesthetics and styles as well. Each kind of media we have the ability to engage with has the capacity to connect us, to enforce or renew our connections, to deepen our relationship with our polytheist religions, Holy Powers, and one another. It’s other edge is that it can do the opposite.

Right now my ears are filled with Flykt’s Forndom as I write on this phone. Much of my playlist is filled with works of similar music, including Wardruna, Heilung, Hagalaz’ Runedance, and Paleowolf. I lean to furs and leathers in my winter dress and t-shirts and shorts in the summer, usually with some kind of geek/nerd or religiously meanginful iconography on the shirts. Folk music and polytheist-oriented podcasts or Great Courses audibooks fill my ears most often. Among the shows I watch are the Marvel Netflix series, anime such as Princess Mononoke and Wolf’s Rain being among my favorites, and documentaries about history, religion, technology, and science. My wife recently turned me onto the English Heritage channel and the BBC series Tudor Monastery Farm on Youtube. I play video games as diverse as The Walking Dead, Civilization, Final Fantasy, and Battlefield. I am a long-time tabletop RPG player, DM, and storyteller.

Despite my various forms of engaging with modern media, as a polytheist I often find myself frustrated. Media’s modern incarnations are so often geared towards the marketing of lowest common denominator material that its overall contribution to the positive development of society has been, and will likely continue to be debated for a long time. Set that aside, and most of the media made is not made for polytheists and much of the media makes that quite clear up front. Modern media is part of culture, and any part of media has a hard time breaking away from the mindset in which it is based. Modern American media, as modern American culture, is so mired in a Protestant Christian mindset, arguably the most toxic elements of Calvinism and Puritanism being its largest holdovers, that it seeps into many space in which there are actual diversities of work taking place.

The last video game I remember playing in which a polytheist religion figured prominently in the plot was in Mass Effect 2, where one of the squad characters worships many Gods as a matter of course and his gods and relationship with them explored in a generally respectful manner. In many of the books that I read polytheism is simply part of the landscape, such as the Jim Butcher Dresden Files books, or American Gods. These two both come with their own caveats. In a funny twist Harry Dresden has interactions with many Gods, but in this he draws a distinction between his interactions with Them and with his friend, Michael Carpenter’s faith as a Catholic, in that Harry does not need to believe in these Gods. They just exist, and his jury is out on Carpenter’s Catholic God. Despite being surrounded by Gods, and in some cases having contractual relationships with different Gods and spirits, Dresden never commits to worshiping any. This is not a problem in and of itself, but Dresden never comments on any but a Native American medicine man/wizard character working with spirits in a relationship rather than transactional way. No one in the Dresden universe has ever to actually have been shown to worship Gods, despite how much They show up and have pull in many of the plotlines he is involved in.

American Gods subordinates the existence of Gods to living through Their worshipers. The central conceit of the story is that Gods are real and live, but their ability to live and affect reality is enabled through the minds of their worshipers, the memories their descendents carry, and through the offerings that the few who believe in Them give. Where Dresden is an agnostic, Shadow is wandering into a world full of Gods, both ancient and modern, blind. As an audience surrogate to start with, he is not bad. Gaiman could have done far, far worse. Shadow struggles with doubt and disbelief in ways familiar to many of us who worship Gods, and his path in the book is similar enough to how I began working with the Old Man that the first time I picked up the book my jaw dropped at some of the parallels.

As a polytheist my view is that both works suffer from positioning the Gods as real, but their worshipers as unreal or utterly absent. As neither Butcher or Gaiman seem to engage the Gods and Their worshipers as being real in their respective works the polytheist view is utterly lost to agnostic points of view embodied in Dresden and Shadow respectively. Are the Gods real in these works of fiction? The simple answer is “Yes”, and the more complicated answer is “Real in what sense?” Butcher’s Dresden universe seems to treat the Gods as real Beings with Their own motivations, some at loggerheads with each other and others in cooperation. His view of the Fae is that They have control and power over/with the forces of nature, and His view of Odin is that the Einherjar are real, and the Wild Hunt actually features in one of his books in a really cool way. The Gods do not lack agency, power, or ability to influence the world in his books. However, Butcher’s development of monotheist characters like Murphy or the Carpenter family without any development at any time of polytheist characers or families shows the operating mindset that Christianity and agnosticism are the default worldviews even with the massive amount of Gods and spirits sprawling through his books.

Gaiman does treat the Gods as real with Their own motivations, views, and conflicts. However, his central premise (Their existence relying on worship) robs Them of being understood in Their own terms. His New Gods, such as Media and Technical Boy, are counted as Gods as well, with sharp divides between Old and New, and the dynamics of these relationships are the lattice on which the plot is built. Yet, his treatment of America is that America is hostile to Gods, that They don’t really have a place here. The one time a Pagan is featured they do not recognize Ostara standing right in front of them, nor recognizes the meaning or impact of Her Day. Granted, when I read this part I grinned like a damn fool since I have heard almost the same thing come out of Pagans’ mouths word-for-word, so Gaiman’s strawperson here clearly isn’t built up out of whole cloth. However, at no point is there a contrast to this person, at no point is a worshiper who keeps good cultus brought forward.

For all that the Gods are treated as real in these stories, we polytheists are non-people in these stories. Despite this glaring flaw I do like American Gods and The Dresden Files quite a bit. It is unfortunate that both works have these flaws, not only because I enjoy these stories, but also that these two are front-runners of urban fantasy fiction. These two have set the tone for many of the urban fantasy series in existence now, with many taking far more liberties with the abilities of their various protagonists’ powers, and more liberties with the reality and abilities of the Gods. Where both Butcher and Gaiman in their works seem to have respect for the Gods even if both are agnostic in regards to Them, more urban fantasy fiction seems to use the Gods rather than have Them as part of the reality of the world their characters are in.

My issue is not with fantasy, urban or otherwise, but with the treatment of Gods as mere characters for plot advancement. It seems many authors do not think through the impact that having many Gods takes on a people, most egregious in fantasy settings. A basic example is a story with a forest God in it. If there is a God of the forest it should make an impact on how the local village would interact with the forest and its denizens, festivals, etc. If polytheism is the default for a fantasy world it should have impact on how characters think, act, fight, fuck, marry, work, worship, raise kids (if they do) and express themselves. Many forms of media, not just genres of writing, could use some healthy polytheist mindsets and attitudes not only in terms of worldbuilding, but focus of plot, worldview of characters, and so on.

This kind of critique carries into any creative media where writing or messaging is a key factor. I do not just want more representation in media of polytheism, I want good representations of polytheisms in media. Whether a work of fiction takes place in our world or another, media does impact how we are perceived and does impact how we ourselves can see ourselves. As the saying goes, “Representation matters.”

Yet, we also need to be careful of taking too much of ourselves from media. Most media is made to sell. That which isn’t are often labors of love, thankfully more being supported through platforms like Patreon, YouCaring, GoFundMe, and similar. To my mind these platforms are powerful ways polytheists can support one another without resorting to dumbing down our ways of thought or the messages we may be asked through our work to bring into the world. Certainly, Bob Chipman and Lindsey Ellis use Patreon as their primary source of income so they can do their work on Youtube. Jim and I’s first podcast, The Jaguar and the Owl, had its costs taken care of by our Patreon supporters.

If we support polytheists in their various ways of making media then our media has more reach and better ability to actually be done and make an impact. An artist will be able to fully commit to their art because they are able to focus on it. An artist only able to do their art part-time because they have bills to pay with a full-time job will have a harder time producing consistent quality work. If we want quality work, whether that is art whether digital or physical, leatherwork, woodwork, yarnwork, video, the written or spoken word, music, workshops, audiobooks, or podcasts, we need to support that work.

A starving artist is one concentrating on trying to get their next meal rather than writing their next book, painting their next painting, or knitting their next project. People suffer more than enough just with the work needed to get to making quality media. This attitude that suffering should accompany media is actively unhealthy and halting a great many people who could be putting themselves to working on something of quality.

It is not just the media we passively consume that we need to be mindful of. We also need to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves. When I play D&D, Shadowrun, or a White Wolf game, I run each setting as a polytheist with polytheist assumptions. As much as D&D has contributed to folks thinking about God purely in terms of functionality, i.e. this is a God of Healing, even D&D has gotten better over the years for expanding on and giving the gods of their worlds mythology for characters and players to dig into. A creator god of the elves in the Faerun setting, Correllion, has an active conflict with Gruumsh, the creator god of orcs. This plays out into gameplay, potentially between player characters (PCs) and certainly between PCs and non-player characters (NPCs). At least since the beginning of 3rd edition, gods in D&D have become more fleshed out. Granted, they are still boiled down in stat blocks, being “God of this” and “Domains for clerics are this” and “alignment is this”. For instance, in alignment Corellion and Gruumsh are chaotic good and chaotic evil respectively.

Being mindful of how we consume our media and how we portray gods through it, even fictional ones, can better portray what a powerful impact a polytheist mindset has on the denizens of a given world and in turn give better representation of a polytheist mindset and its impact to one’s players. What does this matter, though? Isn’t this just something we pass the time with? Sure, as with any media some of it can be mindless consumption, but what we are engaging with we are bringing. It does us good to think on the impact that such consumption and sharing media has on us. Roleplay especially is impactful because we are not passively engaged in someone else’s story. Truth be told, if we are actively reading we are not passively engaged in that, either. Humans roleplay and make stories all the time, so the stories we tell ourselves have impact. Far better we take in and engage with stories in which our voices are heard, understood, respected, and engaged with.

There’s a lot of intersection between polytheists and various media just looking at my own interests that I’ve written about here. Rather than keeping our Gods and our views to ourselves, I would see us expand the people our works touch. To this, I don’t mean boiling down our beliefs to something easily digestible to the lowest common denominator. I mean that whatever our creative interests or engagement with media we make conscious choices so our religions are part of them. Some of our views will be deeply challenging to dominant paradigms just on their own. Being polytheist in and of itself is transgressive because our identity is wrapped up with believing in and worshiping many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

I blog, I podcast, and on occasion I make music and Youtube videos. I recognize that for all the good I may do there I am, by and large, talking with my own people. Some media is just going to do that. There is nothing wrong with that. When it comes to developing and exploring ideas in/of/to our religions many of these conversations are only relevant when in dialogue with our fellow polytheists. Even so, I think polytheists could do with being more forthright in our exploration, engagement, and creation of media so that our religions, norms, communities, and we ourselves have more representation, say, and impact on the societies we live in.

There’s a few reasons for why I would like to see this happen. Practically, the polytheist communities are quite small compared to the American population. Yet, if folks can blow thousands of dollars on various media there is no reason I can see that we cannot or should not tap into that as well for our own purposes. Further, so long as we are not in control of our own messages others will be. Polytheists producing and disemminating our own media is part and parcel of wielding power and influence. We can change perspectives by actively engaging in the public spheres as polytheists. Engaging in this way can deepen dialogue, develop perspectives, and open channels of communication between our wider communities and with one another. Engaging with the wider sphere of our cultures through media of all kinds allows our views to be heard and allows for change to take place, great and small, whose course we help to directly influence.

Revelation and Experience in Building Polytheist Myth

After reviewing responses to Developing Polytheist Myths I felt a whole new post digging into the ideas I fleshed out there would be of use.

The focus of that post was to say that we need to be open to the Holy Powers revealing myths to us in a variety of ways, including as part of the natural landscape, or in experiences persuant to natural features like rivers, waterfalls, etc. I was trying to get that across in the Shining Lake Grove example and in the exploration of the idea of their being a potential Odin-of Michigan. What I am not saying is that we should make new myths for our Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir. Rather, we should be open to Their stories unfolding to or within us, whether through direct revelation, and/or in experience in relationship with Them.

Personal devotion, as well as going through the work of developing discernment for both laypeople and spiritual specialist alike is part and parcel of this work. Good devotion is rooted in orthopraxy and orthodoxy, both of which inform and work with each other in lived relationships with the Holy Powers. If, as I have put forward again and again that lore is the map and not the territory, it makes sense that for our own experiences of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bring more details to that map.

PSVL made a good number of points that I want to expand on:

Edward Butler and I have spoken a few times about another nature of myth and mythic narrative: it can in itself be theophanic, which is to say it can reveal the nature and/or character of a Deity rather than having simply explanatory power. In other words, a given myth doesn’t just say why (e.g.) Zeus is associated with this particular mountain, or how a particular cult practice emerged, or why some aspects of the natural world reflect the Deity, but instead the story itself is a revelation (I know many people in our religious communities are allergic to that term in a spiritual context, but here we are!) of the Deity.

I agree. The stories of encountering our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in a place are revelations. Each time we tell the Creation Story, or one of the stories, the myths, of our Holy Powers, it is enlivened in that the story is lived through the experience of storyteller telling the story, the listener in hearing the story, and in the reaffirmation of cosmogeny/cosmology between the storyteller, listener, and the Holy Powers from Whom the story was received. New myths that result from the revelation of our Holy Powers to us also affirm cosmology, and in these revelations our relationships with Them as part of that cosmology. New myths reaffirm how the Holy Powers may relate to individuals and to our communities as wholes. There is not an ‘overriding’ in my understanding of this, but a deepening of relationships with the Holy Powers. It takes what mythology was left to us and brings it into lived myths that inform our religions, our lives, our worldview.

PSVL went on:

It’s a subtle difference, and one that gets very tricky to discuss, because for some people that can then easily lead to an even more ossified sense of myth, and–perhaps even worse–scripture and even potential literalism and bibliolatry in the way that such has occurred in certain other religions (sometimes in a more benign form…I’d say evangelical fundamentalist biblical literalism is far more pernicious and horrific in its implications than the Sikhs regarding the Shri Guru Adi Granth Sahib as a living entity and continuous guru, or Jewish people burying old Torah scrolls and dancing with them on Simchat Torah, etc.); however, that need not be the case. If we understand that there is a separation between any given myth, or even mytheme, and a text as an instantiation of such, then there’d be less problem…

Whether generally pernicious or generally beneficent, it is important that polytheism not engage in ossifying its myths and mythologies so that experience is only ever allowed in reification of what has come before. Polytheist religions need have a firm foundation while being open to a variety of experiences and understandings, including potential divergence. There is a need to be open to new expriences, including revelations while retaining the grounds of the myths the polytheist religions are built on. This ground of myths includes how the myths unfold, and includes where they unfolded before coming into our hands. It is a call to be firmly grounded in what has come before and is part of our current relationships with the Holy Powers while also being open to these relationships taking on differing forms given where we live and the desires of our Holy Powers possibly having changed since our religious Ancestors worshiped and lived in relationship with Them.

Ossification of myth is dangerous as it limits contact and interaction with the Holy Powers to the past. Note that this is not an attack on traditions. Rather, in order for a tradition to flourish it needs to be lived. In polytheism divination and revelation are two ways in which the Holy Powers engage in active dialogue and relationship with us. To cut out revelation and/or divination and thus, the new myths that can result, denies the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir active hands in our relationship. It relegates our relationship to historicity, history being the sole arbiter of a lived relationship with the Holy Powers rather than being part of the 3-legged stool mentioned in the last post.

This goes along with PSVL’s point in regards to the difference between myth and mythology:

Something else that I’ve never heard discussed in a practical religious context, but which a limited number of academics do acknowledge, is the difference between myth and mythology–the latter is not simply the formalized study or collection of myths, but instead reflects a stage of a culture which indicates that the myth is no longer a living part of the culture which informs everyday understanding. For how many modern polytheists is the reality that we have mythology (as reflected in sources like Snorri, e.g.) rather than living myth? It’s an interesting question, and also an uncomfortable one…

In my experience many polytheists are reflecting on mythology and not engaging with myth. That is, for some polytheists what we have is not part of a lived cosmology but rather something abstract or “out there” being reflected on. If the myths are not informing lived relationships then the myths have already ossified or are ossifying into mythologies. When myths are not lived they become things to be studied and looked at, but no longer informing living, vibrant cosmologies. It leaves the realm of our lived polytheist religions and enters religious studies, history, anthropology, and so on.

Melas the Hellene had this to say:

I think it would first and foremost be necessary to distinguish decisively between divine myths and human/heroic myths. Myths that recount a Deity’s new actions, functions, etc. or directly relate to the nature of a Deity should (in my opinion) be best avoided.

The modern world as it stands is full of troublesome shifts and turns (some are not mistaken to call it also polluted to degree) that myth making about the Gods would only weaken the core and the original myths.

The modern world is full of troublesome shifts, but to see that all the modern world is polluted and somehow the past was not is engaging in some pretty fiercely rose-tinted glasses. Yes, there is much in the way to restoring and revitalizing our religious communities. However, what I think is a solid stumbling block to this is that personal devotion, experiences, and unfolding of relationships are often sidelined either for some nebulous idea of what is approved in the lore that remains to us, or that we lack capacity in some degree so we cannot or should not enter into new territory with our Holy Powers.

Seeing as how myths involve Gods, and sometimes Ancestors and spirits, i.e. The Volsunga Saga and Odin, and Athena with Heracles in His Twelve Labors, I would say that unless we are intentionally editing our myths rather than receiving them, we ought not aim for any kind of thing with our myths. Rather, we should receive our experiences that bring us to potentially new myths, and bring them fully and faithfully to our communities. From there we can work with discernment to determine if these are myths that are now part of our understanding of the Holy Powers. We live in the modern world. We ought to be able to find resonance with at least some of our Holy Powers within it.

Melas goes on:

One exception to this is mythical reconstruction, as for example with the Celtic tradition, where many myths are lacking; this task would be best left to a council of well-informed and well represented preisthood who can serve the Gods in question properly. In general, preserving and worshipping the Gods is what we need, and if there’s a desire to engage further, new hymns and festivals are safer and better than myths. Now, this precaution would not be needed with human/heroic myths, where the brave and renowned deeds of great ancestors among men and women would be remembered. Two important points in my opinion should be mentioned here: 1) these myths should not be the work of a particular individual (otherwise it becomes history) but rather the collective product of a community 2) the myth should be at first oral and unwritten for an extended period of time (perhaps at least a few generations, otherwise it becomes history again) in which case it would organically develop and then, if worthy, both Gods and men will allow it to survive and pass into myth. These two points are meant to protect the elevated status that a myth ought to have, rather than expose them to human ambition. Thus much I have to say for the time being.

While a council of spiritual specialists may be ideal, for a lot of communities that is where that notion will start and end. We have few spiritual specialists, let alone enough in community with one another that would be able to effectively make a council. There’s also questions of certain spiritual specialists having the ability or skillset to effectively serve on such a council. The encouragement of dialogue and discernment is the encouragement to working on these things within our community, as these issues are already being made manifest within our communities whether or not they are ready for them.

Melas’ point in the creation of festivals does not make sense to me. If a God reveals a new myth to me, I would dishonor Him to merely make a new festival or hymn rather than teach the new myth. Making a new festival in reaction to a revelation strikes me more as intentionally modifying myths to suit our needs than it does to communicate what the God has given to me to communicate faithfully. This holds the same to his views on how myths should be incorporated. If my God gives me a myth to share, whatever the medium that God gives me to give to others is the one I use. My desires, views, etc are secondary to faithfully carrying out the Work of sharing the myth.

Many polytheist communities need to incorporate new myths not only because there is a lack of primary/secondary sources, as Melas notes, but also because this is something already in progress in a variety of polytheist communities. We’re not getting out in front of anything. Rather, wrote the previous post and this one because these experiences are already happening to folks and to whole communities. Far better for us to develop discernment and means of incorprating these new myths than to dismiss them out of hand or relegate them to less than the experiences our forebears had.

He goes on later in the comments to say:

a) If there’s “a need to experience the Gods here and now” wouldn’t hymns and festivals (and I’ll music) best fulfil such a desire? The divine myths that I objected to forming recount a God’s actions. Who are we to say what the Gods do in particular communities? That’s a rather human centered approach than a divine centered one.

Ultimately it is a given Holy Power that tells us how to celebrate and understand Them. Otherwise we are doing things for our benefit and our comfort. It is not ours to say what the Gods do in particular communities. Rather, for those of us who are given experiences, it is on us to faithfully communicate them. When those experiences involve the communication of new myths, it is on us to share them as the God(s) would have us do so. To do otherwise is human-centric and not Gods-centric.

I am going to split up b) into sections to better tackle it.

b) To continue the point above, you give an interesting example about Odin in Michigan. I’m sorry to say that Michigan’s local/regional cultus as well as its natural landscape have nothing to do with Odin, but everything to do with the indigenous Gods that were once there, until they were supplanted by colonialism.

Michigan’s local/regional cultus as well as its natural landscape have everything to do with Odin. How we understand Him through our locally-based experiences colors our understanding and the unfolding of His relationships with us in our lives and in our community. If we understand that the Icelandic myths were influenced by the local environment, i.e. the Creation Story with Fire and Ice reflecting the landscapse of Iceland as much as the experience and understanding of the Creation Story itself, then it makes sense that our experiences of the Holy Powers and our relationships with Them are influenced by our environment as well.

There is nothing to back up the assertion Melas makes here that regional cultus has nothing to do with Odin. I am a Heathen and therefore worship Heathen Gods. When I interact with my Ancestors, I do so as a Heathen. When I worship the landvaettir I do as a Heathen. Heathenry is my primary locus. I am a polytheist worshiping many Gods from many places, and while I worship Greek Gods in Their way and Egyptian in Theirs, the way live my life is primarily carried out through being Heathen and through that Heathen worldview.

I am not a Native American of Michigan. I can firmly believe that the Manidou are as real and powerful and so on as my own Gods but I cannot approach any of these Holy Powers through, for instance, an Ojibwe or Potowatami lens. To do otherwise is colonialism. In this case, colonizing the Native peoples’ traditions and ways of relationships with their own Holy Powers. Now if, as I have been shown with some Holy Powers there are good ways of interacting, i.e. offerings, prayers, etc. by those who are Native that is one thing. However, not being Native, not raised in the Native cultures, I cannot approach things as a Native. I must approach them as a Heathen or be lying to myself and all the Holy Powers, including the Manidou and local spirits. Even in approaching the Native spirits, big or small, I come to these as a Heathen. I have to -I cannot come to these vaettir as Native. If I am taught how to interact with Them in a manner best suited to them, again, this is one thing, and where I can it is just good reciprocity to learn. That said, there’s a lot of forgotten Gods, Ancestors, and spirits for whom my approach works and works well.

I wouldn’t implicate Zeus into where I live in America in order to feel better about myself while knowing that doing so is in effect replacing and not acknowledging a God that was native here. Again, we should have a divine centered approach. Where the Gods were born and where they have always lived, that is there divine home and mythical landscape. Bringing my Zeus and your Odin arbitrarily into the local cultus of America literally makes them patrons of colonialism. The same coule be said of all intrusions on indigenous land (tribal or modern) but we all know the case is especially severe with the native Americans.

For Heathens here in Michigan understanding and relating to our Holy Powers, developing myth and understanding of Them must be done through the Heathen worldview in the environment here in Michigan. To do so is not to implicate Odin over a Manidou or spirit, but to understand that Odin is Odin and that Manidou is a Manidou, and that being distinct from one another and being a Heathen first and foremost my cultus goes to Him. If I am lucky enough to be introduced to Manidou and other Native spirits and introduced in how to respectfully engage in relationship with Them then approaching Them in the manner prescribed is important, as it is both respectful and the right thing to do.

Having a divine-centered approach means that understanding some things are not for me as much as it means respecting where I am. Some relationships with some spirits are closed to me, whether due to the Gods I worship, my Ancestors, or the vaettir with whom Iam aligned. It would be colonialist of me to assume I can or should engage with the local land spirits or the Manidou in the same was a Native. To assume that I have a right to that kind of relationship, to the sacred ways of the Native peoples, or that the Native spirits even want that kind of relationship with me is a colonialist attitude.

What kind of myth making will be used to justify Zeus or Odin intervening in non-indigenous land? The forgotten native Gods who have been torn away long for justice and for a return, and they don’t need foreign companionship or replacements to achieve that.

There’s no need to ‘justify’ our Gods being here. They are here. Perhaps we will find They have worked out agreements with the Gods and spirits here. Perhaps we will find out that we’re all together in this land with one another in these places and we need to figure out between ourselves how best to live with one another. Rather than speaking on behalf of Native Gods, forgotten or well remembered, I think it best to remember my place as a human being and not speak on Their behalf or that of my own Gods, but to do my bet to live in good relationship with my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and those of this land.

I do not see my Gods as ‘replacements’. Rather, my Gods are just that: my Gods. I am not Native, was not raised in Native ways, and rather than appropriate Native practices and religions I am doing what I am called to do: to worship my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in my community’s ways. I do not know what Native Gods need or desire until They make this known to me. I would not presume to tell Them or Their Peoples what They need, desire, or call us to do.

c) Concerning the authority of communities to make myths, I’m not very sure if we should use that term where lore is much more applicable. From what is known about ancient Greeks and their myths, myths are very old (150+ years) and the only way for communities to develop them (however the means) is after such a long period.

Whereas I think if authority is not based in the community and that authority of the community is not based in lived relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, sooner or later these cease to be lived relatioships and ossify from myth into mythology. That’s not to say the old myths should be dismissed, ignored, or not part of the ongoing relationship of people and their relationship with myth (read: living theology) and the relationship that flows from this with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If theology becomes merely academic it becomes part of the realm of religious studies. If myth becomes merely academic it becomes part of the realm of mythology, and all the academic fields connected to this.

I think there may be a point missing in this conversation in regards to the establishment of myths. Namely, in that someone had to have an experience that informed how the myth came to be. Perhaps a poet had an ecstatic experience and was given a new myth to tell from a God or family of Gods. Perhaps an ordeal was undertaken by a village of people and a unique experience of salvation or pain was inflicted on the village by a Holy Power. There is some kind of foundational story in which the Holy Powers impact a person and/or a community, and from there comes the myth.

Melas is talking specifically from his viewpoint of a Greek polytheist, as he has mentioned, what he considers a traditionalist perspective. It could be this is a key point he and I are talking past each other. Compare, for instance, the sources of Heathen lore; we don’t have the volume or the depth of primary sources or secondary ones. Consider also the archaeological finds that have been powerful in filling in a number of areas for Greek polytheists of many stripes that Heathenry yet lacks.

d) I never said that oral mythology is totally resistant to human ambition (your word “intervention” I wouldn’t use). My point was oral mythology was far more resistant because it necessitates collective participation and transmission, unlike writing.

Here Melas is correct and I agree that oral histories tend to be incredibly accurate both to the content of the story and in the integrity of the story/stories due to the various factors in communicating them, not the least including amazing feats of memorization, taboos, and respect for the sacred nature of storytelling.

e) For the reasons in (d), I would repeat the same point about individuals making myths. Orpheus is a mysterious character, but it’s possible we think of him as an individual only because he came as a stranger to a new part of Greece (he was Thracian) leaving behind his native tradition. Nevertheless, it was his followers who wrote about him, and I blame them (if he were indeed the historical character he seems to be) for elevating him to myth so suddenly. But regardless of my traditional opinion, the point remains that he didn’t make myths about himself but they collectively did of him.

I don’t understand why the need to use the word ‘blame’. If His works are correct, in keeping with good relationships with the Holy Powers, and oracles and various omens were in keeping with that (see the earlier points I have made on discernment) what would it matter if they waited five minutes after receiving his teachings or 150 years? To me this an arbitrary number that seems to pride time as an arbiter of relationships with the Holy Powers and the passing on of Their myths, teachings, stories, etc., rather than good relationships with the Holy Powers.

f) The few extant sources on the Germanic myths do not suggest that those ancient myths originally developed also out of a few individual sources. They were rather a collective tradition that had the misfortune (and good fortune) to be transmitted by a few surviving works.

My point in hammering on individuals so much is not that the collective does not matter, but that individuals at some point had to have had experiences of the Holy Powers, and had the wisdom and ability to communicate this to future generations. An entire village could have had experiences with a Holy Power and yet, the way that the story is passed on, that it becomes a living myth, is through the storyteller or storytellers. Moreover, each telling of a myth is in some way, shape, or form, reengaging that myth.

In this understanding each time I tell the Creation Story I am, with the help of the Holy Powers and my own abilities as a storyteller, bringing to life each moment of that myth. Storytelling, aka mythtelling, and relating myth to others is a powerful and sacred act. It is dangerous because, in the case of Creation Stories, you are at once telling the living myth of how the Universe and all things came to be and still operate. It is orienting the understanding of those humans listening and living in the telling our place with the Holy Powers, how we are to act rightly, what our place is in the cosmos.

These myths, these powerful and holy stories are how we come to understand and know our Gods, our Ancestors, and our spirits. To tell a myth poorly, whether to misspeak or to get something totally wrong can throw the people out of good relationship with the Holy Powers. To tell a myth well is to lay a good foundation for generations to come. If we receive myths, then we need to relate them and teach them well, that we lay a good foundation for those generations coming after us.

On Ritual Praxis -What and Why?

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.

Reflecting on Media and Raising Polytheist Children 

I am a pretty big fan of American Gods.  I read the book having come to Odin about a year beforehand.  Having worked my way through the first three episodes, and a good way into the fourth, I can say that Starz has outdone themselves with their portrayal of the book.  There is much that I think polytheists can get out of reading Neil Gaiman’s book or seeing it brought to life on the small screen.  There are aspects of the book that I hope do not make it at all into polytheist discourse, namely the central conceit of the book and show: that the gods need human beings to exist, and exist because of our faith and/or prayers.  I think placing ourselves so centrally would be a grave error.  By placing humans at the center of the universe, so to speak, the Gods are thus removed from it. 

I think that wrestling with media is something, at least as American polytheists go, is something we may have to do for quite a while.  Certainly, before we saw the Marvel Thor movies when my son was younger, I had to do a lot of work to put down firm boundaries so he did not mistake our Thor for Marvel’s.  In raising the next generation, we will encounter issues that are essentially no different than those anyone else will. How much media will we expose our kids to?  What kinds?  What will be off-limits until a certain age?

Our son Kiba has enjoyed Marvel movies and comics during most of his young life.  We have always placed the Sacred Stories and our beliefs before the depictions of Marvel, providing clear guidance on what is and is not Thor.  I think, especially for our youngest, this is important because we are providing the baseline understanding they are building for the Gods.  If we build up Thor alongside His depiction in Marvel, we are doing our Gods, our children, and future generations a disservice.  Being able to discern true signal from noise begins early.  By allowing that signal to be muddied we are allowing things into the lives of our children that should not occupy the same space.

It is not that any particular media, even if it features our Gods, is in and of itself a bad thing.  I think that media can be an excellent bridge for ideas.  For instance, ideas of animism clicked for our son when he was younger after watching My Neighbor Totoro.  We pray and offer to the treevaettir, the tree spirits, because They live here, it is Their home and They guard it.  There are landvaettir who depend on these trees as homes, as places to receive their own offerings, and so on.  The movie provided us touchstones for moving forward in his understanding of how we relate to landvaettir.

Media is not an enemy in and of itself.  D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myth remains a staple in our home of telling the stories of our Gods to younger people, providing a steady bridge from child to youth.  Rather, we need to be careful that our children do not mistake the entertainment that features our Gods, whether it is a depiction of Thor in Marvel comics or D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myth for our Gods.  That we clearly define what media, whether it is book, comic, movie, cartoon, etc. becomes the maps for the next generation is part of our responsibility.  Likewise, it is our responsibility that we exclude as much as possible from our maps the media that has no place with them.   

When I last wrote on this topic I noted then how I still have difficulty seeing Thor as a redhead because of depictions I have seen of Him growing up were always displayed with blond hair.  I am relatively lucky in that Thor was not a favorite comic character of mine growing up. No, for me that was Wolverine and Spider-Man.  Not a lot of deprogramming needed to happen when I became a Heathen, and this depiction of Thor with blond hair is one I still cannot shake.

So should I shake the imagery of Thor with blond hair?  Not necessarily.  As I have said before, if people look at the image of the Joker as a useful image to approach Loki through I do not take issue with it so long as it is quite clear they’re not worshiping the Joker, but Loki.  I think that where I run the deepest issue is when pop culture becomes a substitute for our Gods.  In other words, it would be an issue if the image of Marvel’s Thor overcame who and what Thor is, and likewise, Joker over who Loki is.  When the God is mistaken for, or taken for a media image.

I do think that media can touch our Gods.  Certainly, I felt that Gaiman and the show of his book both get really powerful, even deep aspect of Odin.  Something his character says in the show got me, something he says to Zorya Vechernyaya, is that above everything he seeks knowledge.  Fits pretty well alongside to His seeking power in my experiences of and knowledge of Him.  Likewise, the first scene we see Anubis in was very powerful for me, and it was everything I could do not to weep at the beauty I saw Him and His Work conveyed with.

It is not that I think we should cut ourselves off from all media.  I think we should be careful and discerning about how much we let it influence us.  At the end of the day comic books are meant to see just as much as books are.  I think that placing anything of our religion into a medium whose primary concern is making money first and foremost, and not on the increase of knowledge, experience, and so on of our Gods, needs to be treated with suspicion.  If we can draw connections, metaphors, and understanding of our Gods from the many sources of media about us, I think this is all to the good.  If our media, rather than our Gods, becomes the object of our worship is where the problem comes.

Media in American Gods actually is quite a good depiction of worship-as-consumption and replacing the Gods with media as the object of our worship.  If media becomes what we worship, then all that time spent in front of televisions and handheld devices replaces devotion.  It renders religion as vacuous a question as “So you wanna see Lucy’s tits?”  If religion becomes the mere process of consuming media or simply being in a place exposing ourselves to media then we’re not practicing religion, but ritualized consumption.  This is another area that I think Gaiman actually nails very, very well on the head.  For some spirits that kind of attention could easily turn into food.  It’s so seductive because that kind of passive consumption-as-doing is built into our society.  It has been for awhile, but I think I really saw it in full, naked vileness when, instead of calling Americans to do anything useful, President George W. Bush essentially called on the country to go shopping after 9/11.  Rather than, say, plant a victory garden or otherwise put that anxiety, pain, and frustration to something community-oriented and useful, the one person whose voice was supposed to call out the clearest and provide good leadership essentially said “Fall back asleep, get back to shopping.”

It’s part of why I think we need to be careful of how we depict our Gods, teach about Them, and teach discernment on whether we are praying to or offering to our Gods.  It’s why a grounding in the lore, without turning the map of that lore into territory of the Gods, is important.  It is why being clear on what our entertainment is, and what we worship is so important. We could well be feeding a spirit that has nothing to do with our Gods.  It’s not that every offering we make needs to come with tons of divination to figure out if we’re offering to the right Being.  I think, rather, that it is about keeping clean headspaces about the Gods and any media representations so we do not mistake one for the other, and seek to develop a relationship with a modern adaptation or interpretation of Them, rather than the Gods Themselves.  In regards to Ancestors, this would be like developing a relationship with Uncle Joe only through the stories his wife told, and being unwilling to relate with as his own person. 

Beyond what I have spoken about here and before, I do not have hard and fast recommendations with how we raise the next generation of polytheists.  I do know this, though: it is our responsibility to raise our children.

When he is in our presence, Sylverleaf and I are totally responsible for what Kiba gets sat in front of, or doesn’t, for what he learns or doesn’t.  How could we cede so much power to the overculture that our own kids would become beholden to those things, rather than what we teach him and how we raise him?  To raise him otherwise would be abdicating responsibility for raising our child to the overculture, which is very sick and very deeply needing to change.  The next generation cannot make those changes if we continually cut them at the knees, demanding to know why they never learned to stand.  

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 1

I want to thank my good friend, Nick, who inspired me through his post hereon how networks and the self emerge. When I first began writing my response to his article I did not think it would unleash the torrent of writing it has. So, there’s going to be at least three parts to my reaction. The first will be a reaction to the article he cites, the second to thoughts on interconnection and the Soul Matrix inspired by the NPR article and his post, and the third will be a response to his post itself.

It got me thinking on how I relate to these things as a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist.

To go into the first part where he explores NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog article,“Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?” I can tell you that, no, neuroscience is not rediscovering anything. Further, there is nothing adverse or knee-jerk about presupposing that the soul, or as in the Northern Tradition, parts of the soul are numinous. If anything, I find it deeply irritating that a science blog would lead with such a clickbait headline.

Neuroscience is not really here to tell us anything in regards to spiritual experience or spiritual phenomena. The science is not equipped to. It can test claims and show what spiritual experience and phenomena express in terms of our reactionto them, but until and unless there is a method and way to measure, say, spiritual force or a way that science may identify the soul or soul parts, there’s not much use in this article using the word soul itself.

Now, to be sure the questions the article raises are worth thinking about.

But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

However, I see no reason to revisit the definition of the soul. There are plenty enough words within our language to express and understand what it is that neuroscience is digging into without muddying theological orscientific waters with the understandings we have emerging from current scientific research and thought. To abandon the notion of a soul as something other than physical is not a threat in and of itself. My hugr, or thought, the part of my Soul Matrix that will stop upon my death because my thoughts will stop, will cease to be. However, my hugris not all I am.

Certainly, if we consider the the soul “as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?” then my hugr, my munr (memory)and possibly my lich, my body,would beall that I am. It denies the other parts of the Northern Tradition and Heathen Soul Matrix.

This boils down the soul itself to a purely materialist concept, dispensing entirely with the numenous. It may make the concept of the soul more palatable to ‘modern’ people, but it is poor theology. It is like saying “All I am is my cells.” While strictly true in a physical, materialist sense, it belies the creativity with which I write, the life I lead. “What of my mind and my individual will?” for example, is a concept poorly explained in such a system. If indeed we have any notion that we are other than living in a mechanical, purely material universe, then this notion ignores our will, and the mind itself. If the concept of the soul merely boils down to “You being you is merely the result of your genetics, and the way your brain is formed and wired”, then it not only neuters the understanding of the soul, it outright destroys it. What use is the word soul at all if the meaning behind the word is rendered other than what it means?

The author of the piece goes on to think about aging and the prolonging of life through the uploading of the ‘soul’.

Can all this be reduced to information, such as to be replicated or uploaded into other-than-you substrates? That is, can we obtain sufficient information about this brain-body map so as to replicate it in other devices, be they machines or cloned biological replicas of your body?

These questions are among many thatscience fiction has explored and looked into for quite a while. The anime classic The Ghost in the Shell explored the implications of these questions quite well, as did The Matrix.While we may not be able to do so now, soon or even in the far future, I think there are a set of powerful questions that we ought to ask, among them being “Should we?” and “What do we potentially lose in such a process?”

This would be, if technologically possible, the scientific equivalent of reincarnation, or of the long-sought redemption from the flesh — an idea that is at least as old as organized religions in the East and West

Again, this is the problem of science trying to take over ideas in religions. If science fields want to take words or concepts from religion, or if science bloggers want to take religious concepts out of their element and try to apply them to science, then there needs to be a clear reason to do so. The author’s assumptions only work if we accept the notion of the soul purely as a result of physical, material phenomena. Since I do not accept a purely material view of the soul, and the use of the word soul has no place in the field he’s talking about, then thinking about the soul in this manner, and reincarnation or redemption from the flesh simply does not make sense. What he is describing is transference of consciousness from one mode of life/living to another. There is no need to try to take the word soul, no need to grasp for religious words and concepts. There’s plenty that work for the phenomena he wants to talk about without appropriating religious words.

Further, he is not even accurate. The redemption of the flesh is a Christian concept because Christianity views the body as being full of, or potentially full of sin. Transfering one’s spirit into another body would not stop such a theological view, nor would it resolve the sin the Christian is hoping to remove through accepting Christ as their Savior.

However, it becomes pretty clear to me why he is using this kind of language, and trying to twist religious language to suit these concepts, as soon as the next paragraph comes up.

Well, depending on who you talk to, this final transcendence of human into information is either around the corner — a logical step in our evolution — or an impossibility — a mad dream of people who can’t accept the inevitability of death, the transhumanist crowd.

Transhumanism is “The belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” Many of its central features sound a lot like Rapture-based Christianity: there is a coming moment or series of moments where we will Transcend this flesh, but through Science rather than Jesus. All ills can and will be cured, but instead of through faith in God, it is faith in and access to the right technology.

Transhumanism is essentially as close to a salvation-based religion one can get while being devoid of religion. It is a secular, generally atheist view of the world while retaining a salvation/Rapture narrative. It is one of many secular worldviews that have emerged from Progress-based narratives, which themselves by and large have emerged out of Protestant theologies, such as Calvinism and Prosperity Gospel movements. Writing on transhumanism and similar outlooks from my view as a polytheist would be a whole other blog post on its own, so I’ll leave critiques and thoughts on transhumanism for another post.

As the article goes on, it talks about two initiatives that Google is developing:

Google’s company Calico states right upfront thatits missionis to tackle “aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.” The company’s approach is more one of prolonging life than of uploading yourself somewhere else, but in the end the key word that unites the different approaches is information.

and

Another Google company, DeepMind,is bent on cracking AI: “Solve intelligence to make the world a better place.” Google is approaching the problem of death from both a genetic and a computational perspective. They clearly complement one another. Google is not alone, of course. There are many other companies working on similar projects and research. The race is on.

Approaching death and aging as problems to be solved, rather than simply being part of the human condition, is one that I find worrying on a number of fronts. First among them is that I look at aging and dying as natural phenomena to be embraced among being a living being on this planet. We already see great problems with humans interrupting the natural life cycles of animals, plants, and indeed, entire interconnected systems of life through our intervention. In intervening in this fashion with our own makeup, assuming of course that we can advance our ability to age and stave off death at all, I really question what the consequences of such a thing will be.

If we are seeing the impacts of ecological collapse on a number of fronts, especially getting faster and heavier since the dawn of the Industrial Age, what would be the point of prolonging human life? We extend a human’s life, thus extending its ability to consume resources that are already dwindling to grasp at a few more years? If we accept that the world is full of Gods and spirits, at what point do the concerns and rights of the Gods and spirits to exist override the desires of some to eternal life?

Gods and spirits die. In the case of Gods of rivers, when the river dries up and disappears, that God could be said to have died. Likewise, the spirit or spirits of a river. I hold no illusions that Gods are incapable of dying and humans are indeed able to kill some of Them by our actions. An example from my own childhood is when the woods were bulldozed behind my neighborhood. Countless trees and plants, animals, insects, all dead to make room for more trailers. I have no doubt a great many landvaettir were killed. My reaction as a child to losing this place was grief, like grieving someone I lost. Because, in essence, I had. I had lost not only a safe place to explore, but I lost an entire world that I and my friends and brother had spent a great deal of time in.

How much pain and grief will we, as a species, need to inflict on the world’s environments to achieve the extension of aging and staving off of death? How much pain and grief will we, as a species, be willing to accept so that we may extend our lives on and on? The other side of this, is how few of us will be able to enjoy this at all, on base line of fairness? Will it only be those investors in companies like Calico and DeepMind? Will it be only the workers and shareholders? Or will it, as is often the case with technological advancements, only in the hands of the most wealthy or rich?

Exactly how much suffering will the rest of humanity be willing to endure so a few can enjoy an extended life? What of our leaders, and the implications for systems of democratic government in the face of what could threaten to unbalance the ultimate leveler: death? How many Gods and spirits are we willing to kill for a shot at a longer life? How much of the planet are we willing to bend till breaking so a few us can live a couple of more years?

As a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen polytheist, the idea of interrupting something so fundamental as death is disturbing. Death should be something we welcome and develop a good relationship with, not somethingto be conquered or overcome. We have such a horrific relationship with death in our overculture already, with treatments to prolong the life upheld at all costs, including one’s death with dignity, andour treatment of the Dead as something to be avoided or that is ‘over there’,that this looks nothing less than a continuation of stigamtizing death and dying. Rather than approaching our end with dignity, care, and honor, this approach of elongating our lives or seeking immortality looks quite desparate and utopian. We’re born to life dying. Our end happens at some point. Far better, to my mind, that we greet death and our ends with care, dignity, and respect, than to seek out every method to elongate our existence.

For Part 2 I’ll go into how this article made me think on relationships and interdependence in a Northern Tradition and Heathen view.