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Reflecting on Two Articles on a Post-Christian Future

January 2, 2019 5 comments

Manny Tejeda-Moreno wrote an article, “Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response” for The Wild Hunt, responding to a New York Times op-ed “The Return of Paganism”, an article written by Ross Douthat.  Rather than dig through both articles, I found things within Tejeda-Moreno’s article I felt were worth responding to. Tejeda-Moreno’s response to Douthat highlights things that I felt were worth exploring, as I have seen Pagan and polytheist communities struggle through the fourteen years I have on-and-off called myself a Pagan and have been a polytheist.

It is pretty clear Ross Douthat is not a part of any modern Pagan religion, and he has been an op-ed writer for several years. I am not shocked Tejeda-Moreno is dissatisfied with the article. Over the course of his life Douthat has been a Pentecostal and a Catholic and was educated at Harvard. He is not only writing from outside our communities essentially about us, as Tejeda-Moreno clearly points out, he is doing so poorly informed.

His lamentations that there may be more witches than members of the United Church of Christ should be evidence enough that he is mourning or at least ill at ease in the post-Christian future he sees on the horizon. I find this notion at odds, though, with those exercising levers of power and in the majority. The most prominent and numerous members in US society are some flavor of monotheist, predominantly Christian. Those who are not Christians in positions of power, such as political or academic settings, are often agnostic or atheist. All tend to default to some variation of ‘hierarchy of religion’ in which one’s personal flavor (Christian, atheist, or agnostic) is the summit of the hierarchy. Pagan and polytheist religions are often derided for their belief in ‘demons/delusions’, ‘outmoded ideas’, ‘dead gods’, and the like, treated more as curiosities than anything worthy of regard either in academia or in interfaith settings.

I echo Tejeda-Moreno’s disappointment with Douthat’s assertion that Paganism is “some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.” Modern Pagan religions are neither that organized nor that well-developed. Even if we were, intellectualism or rationalism is not the main philosophy of a good number of Pagans or polytheists.  We certainly do not have the numbers for civic cultus, nor the structures which would make it relevant so far as I can see.

In the first place, modern Pagan religions do not even internally agree on what Paganism itself is. The term is so nebulous as to be unwieldy, effectively ending in some vague sense of ‘not Christian’. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are polytheist, believing in and worshiping many Gods. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are atheist, believing that there are no Gods and worship nothing. Saying anything accurate when even basic and essential matters of theology are disagreed upon internal to specific religions within Paganism is almost impossible. For instance: Are Wiccans theist? If so, which Wiccans, if any, are theist and which, if any, are atheist?

Then there comes issues of who gets to decide who gets to be called Wiccan in the first place. Gatekeeping, who gets to do it, and who has the right to gatekeep specific Pagan religions are a series of ongoing issues in many Pagan and polytheist religions. Without these basic methods of organization decided, it matters little whether one says “Wiccans are theist” or “Wiccans are atheist” because the ground upon which the matter would rest shifts dependent on the practitioner and not the identifier itself.  The reason I go over words and their meanings so often in my posts is because of this ongoing problem.  There is a consistent need to reinforce what words mean because the language in Pagan communities is inconsistently applied and used.  I can get more to the core of what I am by using the word polytheist rather than Pagan because, where Pagan is a very mushy word, polytheist says what it is right on the tin.

I have a bone to pick with Tejeda-Moreno, and that is the same bone I have with everyone and anyone who uses the term ‘organized religion’ without including our own religions.  The term organized religion means what it says, “A structured system of faith or worship” though most associate it with monotheist religions.  Every single religion is organized or it is not a religion.  Were Tejeda-Moreno to have written something like “Christian religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” or “Monotheist religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” there would be less issue from me.  It’s still an over-generalization of centuries of history, but it would be more accurate than to just hand Christianity and other monotheist religions the phrase organized religion.

Further, setting up Paganism and organized religions as being against one another is nonsensical.  The “continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings” regardless of which religion it is in question, and Paganism is no more immune to this than Catholicism is.  Indeed, it is also true that “Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred” is equally applicable to the Pagan and polytheist communities.  Arguably, it is something that most faith communities engage in rather than the work of their religions’ callings.

The failure here is that Douthat fails to recognize that people should be free to believe in a religion that offers them meaning without ridicule.

I do not think that he fails to understand this so much as it is in his Catholic view that there are true and good religions and those that are not.  It’s also his mistake in assuming that we Pagans and polytheists only conceive as Gods belonging to Creation, and not able to be both immanent and transcendent, or one or the other.  His agreements with Steven Smith’s assessment of things rests on shaky ground as Smith commits pantheists and atheists to his view without even so much as bringing in contemporary Pagan or polytheist authors to his article while mischaracterizing those same religious movements.  In it, he ignores the lived religions of Pagans and polytheists and misses what immanent as well as transcendent Gods, Ancestors, and spirits do to the weltanschauung of the religions and people who believe in Them and worship Them.

Tejeda-Moreno continues:

He avoids a basic reality, as well: individuals are not turning away from organized religion. They are turning toward something that has meaning for them. It may be praxis, or it may be dogma; whatever the reason, they are invoking the fundamental human rights of thought, belief, and religion. Complaining about them as sinful distortions, or implying a divine force is preparing to act in retribution, is using fear in service of patriarchal oppression.

Again, I think Douthat isn’t avoiding a basic reality, but couching in terms familiar to himself and his religion.  Douthat’s point is made here in that regard, and it is a good one:

These descriptions are debatable, but suppose Smith is right. Is the combination of intellectual pantheism and a this-world-focused civil religion enough to declare the rebirth of paganism as a faith unto itself, rather than just a cultural tendency within a still-Christian order?

It seems to me that the answer is not quite, because this new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

Douthat goes on to say:

However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.

He’s not wrong in his assessment here.  One of the major appeals in Pagan and polytheist religions is that we have living relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that in some way invite us to share in co-creating with Them.  We are invited to appreciate the beauty of our Holy Powers, the Worlds we inhabit, and so much more. Our Holy Powers occupy many places simultaneously that we can appreciate on multiple levels, including that of devotion, aesthetic, beauty, joy, and more.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers at our altars and in our statues.  We build relationships with Them in places They hold in high regard.  We build relationships with Them in sacred places in nature or our cities.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers when we bear jewelry or tattoos of Their forms, symbols or Names.  We build relationships with Them when we lay down offerings at a tree, look out to the Sun’s or Moon’s rise, feel Them in the breeze.  We build relationships with Them in the grip of writing a poem, knitting a blanket, or making a piece of art.

Douthat goes on with ill-conceived generalized histrionics that are wrong, namely in regards to ancient Roman elites.  Polytheism, not pantheism was the norm.  He is also forming his argument on shaky foundations for what it would take to form a living pagan religion under his view:

To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

His point here is wrong.  Pagans and polytheists do not need pantheists or outside civil religionists.  We have our own philosophers, and for those who wish to engage in civil religions there are ample examples to follow.  We need not partner with pantheists or civil religionists to create a fully realized cult of the immanent divine because we possess all the tools, ability, and functions to do so within our own religions.  We already have everything Douthat is pointing out here.

Likewise, Tejeda-Moreno is wrong.

Whether we are discussing Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan, individuals are not turning away from organized faiths; they are turning toward something more meaningful to them. Pagans are re-wilding their faith interactions to the immanent and the spiritual, and few things are more dangerous to what is “organized” than what is “wild”.

Individuals are turning away from monotheist religions, not organized ones.  They are turning towards something more meaningful to them, that is true, but it is not something that is not organized, only organized in a different fashion.  We are re-wilding our religions insofar as our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanently intertwined with the development of our religions.  What most who are coming into “Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan” are coming into is one where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanent and transcendent, not bound by us, our morality, our politics, or our views.  The Gods are the Gods, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The Ancestors are the Ancestors, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The spirits are the spirits, Their own, and we do not control Them.

It is not us who are re-wilding our religions.  If our religions are wild it is because the Holy Powers are not in our control.  We talk with our Holy Powers, we seek Their guidance, and whether through divination, omens, inspiration, or other means They make Their desires and wills known.  This does not mean we have no bearing on our religion.  We do, because it is in relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that our religions are woven.  We can disagree with our Holy Powers, negotiate, ask, work with Them to different ends.  We can also agree with our Holy Powers, obey, negotiate, ask, do the work we are given.  We can have times where it is hard to know what They want, times where our lives are fallow, times where we are sure of what They want, and times where our lives are so full we are fit to burst.  These are lived relationships.

Ultimately, Mr. Douthat argues that the promises of Paganism are vacant. The rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect: “I don’t know how many of the witches who publicly hexed Brett Kavanaugh really expected it to work,” he writes. The same sentiment could be shared for those followers of the Christian god who prayed for hurricanes to turn away from the United States toward Mexico.

I think that this is fair on both sides.  So long as we are not living solid in our relationships with the Holy Powers, then I agree that “all the rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect”.  Without prayers bound in meaning, in relationship with our Holy Powers, they are merely words.  Perhaps the only effect they can carry is offense or disinterest. Without rituals made in relationship with our Holy Powers with clarity, discipline, and skill, it is so much empty action.  Without magic rooted in our worldviews crafted with discipline, and skill, again, it is empty action.

Rather than seeing, as Tejeda-Moreno does, that Douthat feels entitled to an explanation from Pagans and polytheists, I see that Douthat has fear of what we may bring to the table:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

I agree with Tejeda-Moreno that Douthat “avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma” which, for monotheists is that they are not “living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love.”  I also think it is more complex than Tejeda-Moreno’s conclusion.  The problem with monotheist religions and philosophies derived from them is they seek to eliminate all others.  Those who espouse arguments like the ‘evolution of religion’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ wants its particular religion (or lack thereof) to get to the top so it can install its hegemony over all the others beneath it.  Paganism is not the boogeyman here, but neither is hypocrisy.

What is sitting in the background of monotheist religions is that when any attains power it then seeks to crush or convert any other religion.  Calls to the faithful to evangelize, to destroy the Pagans, to convert the masses of the world are still being made.  As Douthat says:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

What Douthat is afraid of is that we are going to be living in a post-Christian world and takes explicit comfort that a successor is not fully-formed to it yet.  After all, look at what the Christians did to the non-believers.  Why wouldn’t a Christian, having an understanding of the kinds of destruction such things brought, not be afraid of such things being brought down on them?  What Douthat and monotheists like him are afraid of is not just irrelevance, but that non-monotheist religions will make inroads, take up different power in different ways, and offer better futures than the one they’ve had the last two thousand or so years to build.  Their hegemony is slipping bit by bit, year by year.  They fear the loss of power.  They are afraid the futures we face without the hegemony of their religions and philosophies on our necks.  They are afraid of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

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Polytheist Relationships with the Land, Buildings, and Homes

January 1, 2019 Leave a comment

In a lecture held by James Howard Kunstler and William Fulton at the Congress for New Urbanism, both men go over in brief their experiences with and of urbanism as they grew up through it over the last 50 or so years. One of the striking things just listening to these two talk is how drastic the landscape changed in each others’ times being alive. Kunstler recalled experiencing what he called Central Park being the most lively and beautiful it has ever been after the financialization of the economy took place with the destruction of downtown NYC’s neighborhoods as a result, to the destruction wrought by urban planning in Auburn, NY in Fulton’s hometown. Throughout their lectures both men dug deep into the understanding that their relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land. What I appreciated about both is they both provided context to how each place looked historically, with Kunstler taking a detour to look at Buffalo’s progress over the last 100 years or so. The buildings that were torn down to make room for the new settlements went from places where one could walk, and as Fulton spoke, talked about how the landscape essentially went unchanged once the major highway cut Albany off from its residential zones, causing the zone to wither.

While the history of these places and their relationship to the burgeoning booms of the 40s and 50s are interesting in themselves, what it says about peoples’ relationship to the land is even more interesting to me. Kunstler roundly mocks people for the notion of building multistory food farms in city centers, and his primary reason for is that it is throwing a lot of resources at a problem while providing no long-term means for maintaining these structures. He points out that the urban areas are primarily for urban activities, and that the outskirts of cities and beyond, the rural areas, are the ones we have always historically grown the majority of our food in. That we are trying to get the cities, especially the multiplex cities to do this, is actively fighting against the point of having cities. This is not to say Kunstler is against folks growing their own food or urban gardening, but that we are ignoring the point of cities by trying to have the city do the job of rural areas by introducing ‘urban farming’ to them. For him this is no more apparent than these multimillion dollar projects of vertical farming.

Think about this for a minute. For the most part the cities’ soil is trapped under Gods-know-how-much concrete, steel, asphalt, and wood, and what soil is able to be gotten to may need quite a lot of remediation before it is ready to grow healthy food in. So this means, just on the basis of having enough soil to have enough for a multistory vertical garden, that much of that would have to be trucked in from somewhere else. The vertical gardens of the kinds that Kunstler was showing that are being proposed are massive, requiring millions of dollars in material and labor just to get built and Gods-knows how much more in maintenance. With climate change and peak oil both bearing down on us such projects are, in a word, untenable. Whether looked at from a cost perspective or a sustainability one, we have neither the treasure nor the resources to do this on the kind of scale that those who propose such techno-fixes would propose. We would be far better to retrofit rooftops to develop solar and wind energy, and retrofit the structure of the rooftops themselves to be able to be grown on and recycle water, use greywater systems, and develop top-of-building gardening and raising of animals. We have the technology available right now, the retrofits would cost the a small fraction of what it would to build wholly new vertical farming facilities, and it would have the potential of giving entire communities the ability to feed themselves far better with no space lost within them to what would probably be out-of-city/state developers.

There is another aspect to this that Kunstler did not touch on, and that is “Who is going to get displaced to make room for these? Who will benefit from this kind of development?” Just looking at the sheer amount of money such infrastructure would require I doubt, very highly, that any of the cities that could use such buildings would get them. If they did, in all likelihood it would generate one of the knock-on effects that the ‘urban farming’ initiatives are building in Detroit: gentrification. Sure, the buying up of and developing of properties is needed in the city. It keeps neighborhoods’ prices from depressing and creating a cascade effect in them. Yet, for many cities that are seeing a resurgence of affluent out-of-towners coming into the city and snatching up abandoned or especially foreclosed homes, it is pricing some folks, especially poor people of color, out of their own neighborhoods.

All these shifts, whether we look at the last 100 years in our own cities, towns, villages, and neighbrohoods, or across the board in how American living and commuting habits have changed since the introduction of the American highway system, provides insight in how we live on and with the land. There was a dynamic shift in how cities, towns, and villages were planned when we transitioned from horse, oxen, and waterways to trains for commuting and development. With the development of and later transition to the automobile these same places went through another shift, with the dominant feature being the main roadway arteries between various centers of industry at first, and more recently finance.

Just taking a look at US-12 here in Michigan shows how powerful these shifts are. The modern US-12 was part of two different and very old Native American trails, the St. Joseph Trail and the Sauk Trail. Both were footpaths for Natives here prior to European settlers arriving. It has always been a major thoroughfair for trade, and in the 1940s it was developed into expressways and freeways. Truck traffic still continues, but it has never really recovered from what expanding the highways have done to it. The aftereffects of the boomtown years can still be seen since US-12 is dotted with old, run-down tourist attractions from the 1970s and before, and the thriving antique shops throughout its run through lower Michigan.

As the train systems were demolished and automotives became our primary mode of transportation, many of the neighborhoods built up along the railroads died the same way our main outlets for shopping and commerce in suburban areas have been declinining since the 2008 financial crisis. Stores are shuttered, and entire areas that had once been full of life with residential communities growing in tandem along the railway, or in our case the main roads of cities and towns, went into foreclosure and short sales. Mom and Pop stores were replaced by larger companies or by centralizing stores in the same way that Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Meijer operates now. Those places that could not be replaced still remain as rotting husks of buildings displaying what once was a thriving place.

It is very sobering to think that automobiles have only been around since 1885, and in the time since, massive use of automobiles have only been around since the 1920s. So the main transportation method we take for granted today has only existed at most for about 133 years, and mass automotive use for 98 years. Before then we had mass transit in the form of electric streetcars, steam ferry, and trains. Before then we had horse, oxen, sailing ships, and of course, our own feet. With that in mind, what we have designed in America is an entire layout in cities, towns, and villages for a way of life that has only been with us for about a hundred years at best and is highly energy and resource intensive to create and maintain.

What does this mean for a polytheist view on these things?

We are bound up in the land we live on. Many of us worship Gods of the Earth, fertility, and local Gods. We worship our Ancestors, and the vaettir are all around us. Most of us don’t live anywhere near our Dead whether that is due to the amount of moving around automotives allow for, for personal ambitions, or the need to find steady work. For my family part of living well with our Ancestors is, where we are able, to live alongside Them. In this case this can mean something as small as an urn getting a place at an Ancestor ve, or as major a work as a burial mound being constructed so we can house our community’s Dead. The vaettir are all around us, no matter where we live. It is in our best interest to align well and live well in gipt fa gipt with all our Holy Powers.

If we are going to live well on the Earth with the Holy Powers we need to develop, revive, and encourage ways of life that align with the Earth’s ability to replenish and live well. We need to reduce or eliminate waste wherever we can, and to design our living arrangements so that we are not just extracting resources without Gebo. We have the cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods we have now. I would have us retrofit what we can in these places and replace what we need to for a sustainable future now while we have the resources to do so. Whatever we do the work we put our hands to needs to be for the best for the environment and future generations who will live there.

This approach to how we plan and maintain our cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods brings living with our Holy Powers out of abstraction and into our physical spaces, into lived everyday relationship with Them. It brings our concerns surrounding how we live in our everyday lives and asks “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision. It forces us to acknowledge that there are living relationships with Holy Powers to be had regardless of where we are, or with what part of our lives we are engaging with. Water treatment facility? Likely at least one, if not many Gods to be worked with in that, and many vaettir as well. The city square? Public life is acknowledged as having a spiritual dimension, even if not everyone appreciates that spiritual dimension. Parks and streets alike teem with spirits. Designing our living spaces with care will ultimately benefit the community and the bonds we hold together with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Planning for environmental impact, developing ways that honor our communities and making them places people want to live will help our communities thrive and grow resilient together.

Planning our living spaces does not have to be terribly jarring. We can orient future repair and maintenance projects to make everything as walkable as humanly possible in our cities. We can encourage repair and reuse where we now are encouraged to throw things away and just get a new thing. Encouraging people to live above their businesses where they could would help cut down on wasted space. Developing various districts that make use of locally harvested foods and goods, especially those closest to the our cities and towns, would bring resiliency into these places and in reciprocity, resiliency to those growing and processing these things. Developing intentional interdependent relationships in cottage industries between city, town, and villages with those in rural areas can strengthen bonds between them. Doing this will keep goods and money circulating within and between communities, strengthening bonds and the resiliency of all of those within these relationships.

Encouraging these kinds of investments in our own communities might require modifying entire swathes of building codes depending on how strict they are and the kinds of buildings and industries in a given area. It might require folks to reevaluate how we buy things, how we consume things, and from where we get the needs and wants of our lives. Looking into community efforts to not only put together recycling collections, but composting, can save a lot of space in landfills better put to use in fields and community gardens. Folks will need to decide on where it is best to put their energy. I think that creating more walkable, interconnected, and interdependent places will encourage people to be more active in their communities and develop tighter bonds with their neighbors and the spaces everyone in a community shares.

It is worth thinking about what a climate change and peak oil future looks like. Do not go for doom and gloom; give yourself room to explore the full breadth of human technology and innovation we are privileged to live with in this time. JMG noted in a recent interview he gave that we are not bound to a single time or place in terms of the technologies we can adopt to face the future, and actively encouraged folks to explore what technologies we could make best use of in an age of decline. So yes, that means at some point looking look at what it means to live with intermittent, and perhaps eventually little to no electricity. Look at what it may mean for us to live with little to no gas because much of it would be out of our price range. Once you look around yourself and really see how much work fossil fuels are doing for you, and what climate change can mean for your area, take a breath.

Think about all the technologies we put down because fossil fuels have done so much of the work for us and have taken us out of relationship with the world around us. Our food, our water, how we relate to physical work itself. How we relate to one another. Not everyone can or will farm just as not everyone can or will work metal or wood. There will still be need for writers and artists, laborers, and organizers. There will still be need for folks who know how to make infrastructure, or to design sustainable developments in the places we live. We will still have need of trade, we will still have markets, and we will still have need of means of exchange in some form. We have had cities longer than we have had fossil fuels.

If you think about it, that is damned exciting. If you work with moneyvaettir (money spirits), imagine bringing that dimension of respect for the power of exchange and the power a cultivated relationship that these spirits can bring to trade. When we no longer have our debt-based money system as the primary arbiter of relationships we give space for our relationships with one another to grow in different ways. If you worship Gods who care about governance, imagine bringing the lessons of your Gods to bear in local government work, in layout for the treatment of water, sustainable rain harvesting, or building codes. If you worship Gods who hold theaters as sacred to Them, rebuilding or encouraging a revival of local theater troupes might be a powerful form of devotion. Guilds for craftspeople can be a powerful source of devotion, whether to Gods of the craft, Ancestors (such as masters in the craft who have died), and the vaettir associated with the craft or to crafting in general. Just carrying on a craft or art in general, regardless of skill, can be a form of cultivating relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir associated with it.

When we allow ourselves to understand ourselves in relationship with our Holy Powers and one another not only in abstract ways, but concerete hand-to-mouth ways, our perspective changes. My understanding of Freyr changed when I recognized and worshiped Him as the God who blessed my asparagus with fertility. When I recognized the asparagus, each stalk a vaettr, as being in relationship with Him, it was a profound shift. Freyr could no longer abstractly be a God of fertility; His fertility was absolutely rooted in my soil and that has fed my family since we began to harvest it. Holiness is rootedness. The mead that I brew is related to many Gods and vaettir, and many of my Ancestors would have brewed their own drinks for their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and community. By taking up and engaging in the craft I have engaged in devotion with Kvasir, Gunnlodd, and in different ways, Odin. Likewise, I have worshiped different Ancestors I may not have engaged with, and the vaettir of the mead that I have developed has blossomed into a good, reciprocal relationship.

Through living our religious worldviews, in bringing these ideas of relationship, reciprocity, and wellbeing into our relationships with the lands we live on and the Beings we share this world with, we can avoid the devastating results that business-as-usual visited on Kunstler’s NYC and Fulton’s Albany. We can offer new ways forward in relationship of our societies to the lands we live on. Our neighborhoods may be more walkable, self-sustaining, and resilient. The very way we lay out these things can radically change. Our current ways of doing things are less than 150 years old. We can make our places that we live sustainable again. Arguably, it is one of the biggest shifts we could take so that our societies are in better alignment with Nature.

When it comes to peak oil and climate change we are looking at less is more. A simple example of this in action is a cob building. They can be constructed throughout most of the continental United States from local materials. Cob itself is a combination of soil, clay, and straw. The walls and ceiling are fashioned into multi-foot thick structures, often made in the footprint of the land they are built in. The placement below the frost line and thickness of their walls allows them to regulate heat effectively in most climates, with wood stoves, rocket stoves, and similar devices serving to heat them in colder climes.

Cob homes require very little in regards to fossil fuel inputs for their construction or maintenance due to being made of local all-natural materials, and can be fashioned by hand. Cob homes have lasted for hundreds of years as they were built. Contrast this with the average stick-built home not lasting well past a hundred years that requires massive inputs of fossil fuel powered machines, lumber, plastics, and so on just to build and even more to maintain. Cob homes can be built multistory, and can be built with basements as well.

Now, cob will not be useful in every situation, or even most urban situations where the layout of a city has been in place for a significant investment of time and capital. The same issues with soil quality that makes the question of whether an urban garden is a good idea applies to the fashioning of a roof and walls. Even putting aside issues of quality of the soil, the particular requirements for a home in the city may be too small for cob to be effective. Wattle and daub, made in similar fashion to cob with thinner walls due to its wooden ‘skeleton’, may be another house construction method with a long-term future. As with cob, wattle and daub can be made by hand and with local materials. As with cob, it has the ability to scale up and down for different building sizes. Unlike stick-built methods which require sizeable sums of lumber input, wattle and daub requires small amounts of timber with no need for processing pieces. Where neither cob or wattle-and-daub methods make sense, retrofitting homes and places of busines can still make dramatic impacts on energy use, repair, and development of spaces for different uses.

We could be much closer emotionally and spiritually to the places we live and work if we made them by hand, scaled them to our needs, and oriented them to maximizing our liveability in them. If we generated power locally, took care of our water and soils with an understanding that everyone in the community is part of the environment, we could not help but understand ourselves as living with the world around us. Making our communities easier to live and work in, making them more sustainable and resilient to climate change, peak oil, and other predicaments facing us, will benefit us and our descendants.

Engaging locally means our ways of doing things are much more accesible and doable at this level. Rather than fight with entrenched interests at the State and national level, we can encourage positive development where we live. We have the opportunity to be living examples to our neighbors, and encourage the spread of ideas further by showing that the things we are passionate about can be done. In regards to our polytheist religions, we can show the living our our religions and the values by embodying them. So yes, we are going to face push-back and set-backs will happen. The clear challenge to us is not that we need to reinvent the wheel but to put it to effective use.

By taking up the challenge of engaging in good relationships with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes as polytheists, we allow for our future with each to be better. By engaging with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes with respect, with devotion to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of our urban, suburban, and rural areas, we develop better working relationships with each. By asking “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision, we are mindful of our place in things, and open ourselves to the work before us. As we let the work each place asks of us to develop these relationships, this teaches us how to better to do the work.

Both Kunstler and Fulton spoke about how their ‘relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land’. It took less than 100 years for us to hit this point in our relationship with the land and all that has been built on it, much of it through fossil fuels and overextending renewable living Beings like our waters, forests, and land. By engaging with the land, air, and water in this healthier, more wholistic way, we are given the opportunity to repair our relationship to and with them. In taking up the challenge of repairing our relationships with and to land, water, and air, we can each weave threads that fundamentally change the tapestry of our society’s relationships with them for the better. Wherever you can and however you are able, start weaving your threads. There are no insignificant threads to developing better relationships with our Holy Powers.

Loki is Not Trump (Neither is Odin)

November 25, 2018 20 comments

Surprising no one, I did not care for Karl E.H. Seigfried’s recent Wild Hunt article on Loki.

From the start of the article he sets up a divide, stating:

For a thousand years, poets and scholars have seen Loki as a troubling figure who brings harm to the community of which he is a part. Today, there are many lovers of Norse mythology and practitioners of Pagan religions who view him as a positive figure, and even one deserving of veneration and worship.

His dividing line here is an appeal to authority and an appeal to tradition. He then goes on later to say:

At times, his most devoted worship seems to shade into a form of mono- or henotheism. I have met practitioners whose devotion to Loki and disdain for the other Norse gods seems quite far removed from a diverse polytheism.

So many strawfolks already set up. It is what makes his next statement seem so disingenuous.

There is no reason to challenge the importance that Loki has for so many people around the world, whether it manifests in pop culture fandom or intense religious devotion.

Except that is exactly what he does. He does the same thing when he quotes Tolkien’s dislike of allegory and then proceeds to dive whole-hog into one of his own in four parts, connecting Trump and Loki. He states that his writing is one of applicability, in line with Tolkien, rather than an allegory.

Trump is not Loki or Odin. The way the Seigfried tries to hook the narratives he has built around Trump into Loki is hamfisted at best, and lazy at worst. He builds up his defenses in pieces prior to the four part attack on Trump and Loki, namely in saying:

I do not believe that we should reconstruct every aspect of ancient worldviews situated in a time and place of normalized slavery, entrenched homophobia, and celebrated violence. I do not believe that it is even possible to reconstruct the detailed internal worldviews of a plurality of peoples who left behind no second-level theological discourse.

then:

That said, I am bothered by approaches to myth that brush aside any elements of ancient sources that readers don’t like or find problematic as “Christian influenced.” Academics and practitioners alike are guilty of this rhetorical turn

and then:

Again, I do not deny the personal meaning that many find in Loki. I simply can’t follow them to a place where the sources of our knowledge are read in ways that sometimes seem parallel to conspiracy theorist readings of today’s news stories.

He states that we cannot reconstruct the worldview of ancient Heathen cultures due to a lack of resources and then casts doubt on readings of the texts in which Loki is looked at in a positive light, connecting these readings of myth to conspiracy theories. Without applying prudence to reading what myths and legends we do have we are doing ourselves and those who follow us a disservice. Understanding as best as we can that Snorri had biases both from his Christian upbringing and the influence of Classical literature available to him and applying them to a reading of his sources means we are engaging in discernment, discernment we would be reasonable to assume whether we are reading a source on ancient Scandinavian/German myths, a translation, or modern retellings that can carry the biases of the original scribes or translators.

Painting Trump as Loki in this way brings Loki down to Trump’s level as a human. Loki is not human. He is part of the Aesir and a Jotun. He is a Being worthy of worship and reverence. Trump, being neither part of my ancestry nor of any cultus I pay homage to, is not. Casting one’s views of Trump in Loki’s mythological light obfuscates the myth, and one could accuse Seigfried of no small amount of cherry-picking in his mythologizing.

Calling the first section “Objectifier of women”, Seigfried did not include in his first of the four parts casting Trump and Loki togther that Thjazi instigates the means by which he extracts the oath from Loki to bring him Idunna. It is little wonder that Loki does not mention it to the Aesir until They come to Him. The last time something went wrong the Aesir threaten to torture or kill Loki unless He fixed the issue at hand, such as the giant working on Asgard’s walls almost winning the wager of the Sun and Moon as well as Freya’s hand in marriage. Loki pushed for the Jotun to be allowed to work with his horse Svaldilfari, so the Gods put the blame on Him and threatened to torture and kill Him if He did not fix the situation. They do the same when They figure out He lured away Idunna and is why They are aging due to Her no longer harvesting the apples that keep Them young. Not only does Loki fix the situation, returning Idunna to the Aesir at great risk to Himself, He helps the Aesir eliminate Thjazi’s threat when the Jotun is burnt at the walls, and gain Skadi as an ally by making Her laugh. In each situation where He is threatened with torture and death He more than makes up for His shortcomings, perceived or not, gaining the Gods great gifts and allies.

Loki is not objectifying Idunna. Both Loki and Idunna are used by Thjazi when he extracts Loki’s oath, and while She is in Thjazi’s hands. She is part of the Aesir, and They need Her service of keeping the fruit that keeps the Gods young. So, Her rescuer brings Her back. It’s a poor myth to start with in comparing Loki to Trump. It seems to me that Seigfried shaved off every edge in Loki’s favor in order for to try to make this myth fit his Trump-shaped hole. Having read through his article more than a few times, it seems he did so with every myth he refers to.

I am obviously biased in the favor of both Odin and Loki, but it is not my point here to pretend like neither God did not do horrible things in the myths we have. Rather, my objections lie in applying Trump to Loki. Trump is Trump, Loki is Loki, and Odin is Odin.

We can take lessons from our myths without mythologizing our politicians. It is an ugly precedent to set. We have enough issues with mythologized history, such as Thanksgiving being taught in schools as though it was a dinner to which Natives and the Pilgrims sat down respectfully across from one another as equals, or that Washington ‘could not tell a lie’. Painting Lincoln as ‘the Great Liberator’ while ignoring that he was the one who ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota who were captured fighting back against the settlers that had broken treaties with them after enduring privation and starvation. That great lie, Manifest Destiny. We have enough obfuscation in the way of reading about history that we do not have need of more of it by conflating our religions’ myths with our modern political realities, especially as poorly as Karl E.H. Seigried does here.

It certainly does not provide more understanding to President Trump’s life, election, and administration to frame political and economic realities in the same realm as myths either by allegory or by applicability of mythological stories. If you want to understand how candidate Trump rose to power and won the election you need to look at, among many things, economics, politics, and history. To my mind it would certainly be more enlightening to understand President Trump’s election into the Oval Office through the lens of history via Spengler, Toynbee, or through similar lenses looking at bigger arcs in history, and how paradigms change through economic, political, and social pressures.

Skepticism and eyes raise when Christians point to a politician and apply the label of Antichrist. I think one of our own doing the same with Trump and crying “Loki!” should receive the same response.

On Níðhöggr

November 19, 2018 6 comments

A while back I was asked to share my understanding of Níðhöggr by a fellow Heathen. Vikings of Bjornstad lists the meaning for Níðhöggr’s name as ‘Malice Striker’. The first section of the compound name, níð, is related to malice, insult, and strife. The second is related to beheading, striking, blows, or chops. Not much survives on this dragon/serpent survives from the lore. Among the places to look for Níðhöggr are in the Prose Edda, both in Gylfaginning and Skaldskarpamal, and in the Poetic Edda Grimnismal and the Voluspa. While the lore refers to Níðhöggr as male, my interactions with Níðhöggr have leant me to understanding the dragon as female.

I relate to Her as a God of Rot and Death, and a God of the Gravemound as well, especially seeing interlinks between the rotting of death and the eating of poison. My family’s compost heap is dedicated to Hela and to Níðhöggr, as we see Níðhögg as eating the poison of Yggdrasil and the making of it into the healthy new earth that is renewed. The gravemound takes in the Dead and the new growth results within it, holding the power of the sacred items deposited within it and the new growth above.

Most of my understanding and beliefs regarding Níðhöggr is from direct experience of seeing Her and interacting with Her. When I was saw Her, She was chewing the corpses of the Dead, taking the poison of Their lives, Their misdeeds. She does the same with the root of Yggdrasil She chews on, not to damage it, but to prevent poison that is collected in Helheim and the Nastrond from killing It.

A powerful insight of dragon symbolism, at least in terms of how I see it in Norse/Germanic/Scandinavian culture/myth is that part of their destructive nature is what they sit on. In Fafnir’s case it is his bed of gold and the greed associated with it. In Níðhöggr’s case She is lying in the midst of traitors, oathbreakers, and is sitting with the rot and poison of Yggdrasil’s root. She chews on the traitors, oathbreakers, and outlaws, as well as the root of Yggdrasil. One of the passages in the Voluspa says She sucks the blood of the slain. I see Her doing similar, chewing and sucking on the poison in the root of Yggdrasil, removing the rot so it stays healthy. It also explains why Her/His hall is the Hall of Serpents dripping poison because that is Níðhöggr’s environment. My fellow Heathen likened it to a poison dart frog, and I think that’s a fair reading of Her too.

It is telling that the only time She emerges in myth is during Ragnarok and She isn’t destroyed, but takes up roost again beneath the ground. I find Her very purifying, as She has been in the midst of all that rot, poison, and uncleanliness, and yet, She has not lost Herself to it. She engages with this Work before and after Ragnarok. She is rejuvenating and dangerous, the Chewer of Corpses and Warder against Poison. As outlaws and traitors were among the worst one could be, and both were put into the utgard of society, I see Her as a boundary-keeper since She gives these dangerous and vile Dead a place to go to be contained, chewed, composted so they do not harm the community or rest of Yggrasil. She is the God that chews the rot beneath the Tree, rejuvenating both the root and the soil in which Yggdrasil’s root rest; necessary and holy.

Thinking on Polytheism and Media

November 11, 2018 7 comments

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.

On Ritual Praxis -Hearth Cultus

October 21, 2018 1 comment

In the Beginning to Worship post I asserted that polytheisms the world over are first based in the home. This is referred to as engaging in hearth cultus and are often contrasted with state or communal cultus. The word cultus itself relates to “care, labor, cultivation, culture; worship, reverence”. The root of this word in Proto-Indo European, *kwel-, relates to “revolve, move around; sojourn, dwell”. The hearth cultus and temple cultus, then, are places where culture and religion come around to live and be cultivated, and are among the centers where worship and reverence take place.

Because a hearth cultus forms the heart of polytheist religions, it must have the backing of a solid worldview as to what the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are, and what and how these Holy Powers are offered to, the hearth’s relationship with the Holy Powers, and how the hearth relates to the cosmology of the religion. Sacred space within the home is established through the acts of cleansing a hearth and setting up a vé, a sacred place for the Holy Powers, whether it is on a physical hearth such as a mantle, the only dresser in a dorm room, or in the heart of a home on an altar. Hearth cultus is engaged in the hearth in both formal and informal worship, and in engaging in divination to determine offerings, questions related to development of personal and hearth cultus, and communication between the Holy Powers and the hearth. All come together in the establishment, carrying out of, and passing on of a hearth cultus.

The center of the home has switched a bit for modern America. In the interim since actual hearths and their fires were the center of the home, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually, the role of the hearth has been split in most modern American homes between the living room and the kitchen/dining room. The living room tends to be where we enjoy one another’s company, socialize, engage in festivities like Yule gift-giving or New Year’s celebrations, and play. The kitchen/dining room is where we prepare our daily meals and eat, talk about our day, and spend a good deal of time together as a family. When the table is cleared sometimes we use this space to do homework, pay bills, play boardgames, or engage in feasting festivals like Thanksgiving or one of our harvest holidays, i.e. the Haustblot. It is unlikely any two hearths look alike for cultural/religious reasons or for the physical layout and needs of a given hearth. Still, most share commonalities of function for the hearth and its members.

The Microcosm and the Macrocosm

A given hearth’s sacred space is both its own space and a reflection of how a hearth relates to its cosmology. This is why a firm understanding of worldview and sacred stories is needed for any polytheist’s development, let alone any cultus. How we relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of our cosmologies are important questions because it forms the core of who we are and why we do what we do. The worldview of the hearth is how the hearth is formed to begin with, how the members conduct themselves within the hearth, and how the vé of a hearth are made and maintained.

In setting up a hearth some questions need to be answered. Many of these questions were asked back in the post On Ritual Praxis -Beginning to Worship and serve as guides going forward.

The first question of any hearth is: What is a hearth’s place cosmologically, both in terms of representation of the larger cosmos and in terms of on-the-ground worship, reverence, and life for those who gather around it? How do members of a hearth relate to Fire Itself? How do the members of a hearth relate to Gods of the hearth? All of these are powerful questions, as each is intimately related to the kind of place the hearth itself occupies in the heart of a given home.

What Holy Powers are worshiped, revered, and called to in a hearth and how its cultus is shaped depends on how these questions are answered:

What are the Holy Powers and how do we relate to Them? Are there certain directions that are sacred to a given Holy Power, and if so, what are they? What Holy Powers belong in or to the hearth vé? How does the religion relate to Fire and Holy Powers of Fire? Are there established ways to light Sacred Fires within the religion? Are there Holy Powers that should not occupy the same spaces or be close to one another? Should some Holy Powers occupy certain places in a hearth not on the vé at the heart of a hearth, but in some other place such as above the stove, near the front door, near a source of running water, etc.? Are there specific ways each family member relates to the hearth and its keeping?

How the hearth and any vé besides the hearth itself are made and maintained depends on these:

What are the vé or equivalent sacred spaces in the religion? Are there traditional methods in existing sources as to how they are erected, or will new traditions around constructing one need to be made? Does the making of a vé differ whether it is an altar, shrine, hearthfire, and/or mantle? What are the right ways to treat the places where vé are kept? What offerings are good for making in vé? If a vé is at the heart of a hearth, such as above a fireplace or stove, or in the living room or kitchen, does it hold a special place for the family and in the culture/religion of the hearth? If so, what role does a given hearth member take on in relation to the vé?

These are how my own hearth answers these questions.

What a Hearth Is

The hearth is the heart of a family, or writ larger, a Kindred, tribe, or other similarly organized community group. It is where cleansing and purification begins, whether through Fire Itself or through the lives of sacred herbs such as Großmutter Una. It is where sacrifice takes place such as through the offering of Grandmother Mugwort or other burnt offerings, offerings of food which are consumed by the hearth fire or made outside, or where sacrifices and/or tools to make sacrifices are made sacred for their work.

The hearth is placed in an enclosure of Earth, whether it is outside in my family’s sacred grove firepit or in my Kindred main meeting home in a fireplace. The lighting of the Fire brings to mind the sparks that melted Nifelheim, and so, made our lives possible by allowing Ymir and Auðhumla to move about. The lighting of the Fire is also one made in honor of our Ancestors. Once kindled, the hearthfire is the boundless energy of Fire given bounds by Ice, in this case the entropy that occurs as heat and light is given off in the burning of fuel, and contained by Earth in which the Fire is housed and whose fuel Fire burns. Water results from the Ice melted and pushes to the surface of the burning log/Tree, and wisps of smoke from the log and any offered herbs continue the sacred burning of Fire Itself and Air from the smoke of the log and/or herbs. Each Fire is related to Muspelheim and each log to every tree, so we engage in the cycle of Fire that burns the Earth from which we come so that heat and light can warm us and shine on us, take in our offerings, and take up our prayers to the Holy Powers, including Fire Itself and each individual Firevaettr that comes to rest in our hearth.

So, each hearth made and each hearthfire lit is a living recreation of the Creation Story. Each hearthfire lit is itself connected with the First Fire and is a vaettr, a spirit, unto Itself. Each log burned is itself an offering of the Earth and we give offerings to Fire, Earth, and every other element involved in its lighting. In the midst of all this, a hearthfire is also a signal of cleansed, holy space to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and an invitation for all of us to come closer.

Personal and Sacred

Hearth cults are diverse, whether due to personal relationships a hearth has with its Holy Powers, the land one lives on, or any number of personal factors. A hearth cultus for a lone college student living on campus will look utterly different from that of a family on several acres of land. This diversity should be embraced.

Having been on both sides of this, restrictions can abound for college students that don’t exist for folks in a home. A prohibition against candles will mean that, instead of turning to a lighter or matches, one will probably turn to LED candles to represent the glow of a hearthfire. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; after all, electricity is a form of Fire. Some folks live in homes where size restrictions means that at most LED or tea lights will be the only sources of fire beyond, perhaps, the stove. Whatever the location of a hearth’s vé, the place will need to be undisturbed by animals and respected by those who will be in its presence. If the vé needs to be temporary, only pulled out when actual ritual is going on, then its holding place should be one held in sacred regard.

What matters for a vé is not the size of it, but that it is a place of good and sacred contact between a Heathen and their Gods. Even if the container for one’s hearthfire is a small tin, containing only an image of the Holy Power(s), a tea light, some matches and a small bowl for offerings, this will be enough so long as the Holy Powers are pleased and the cultus can be carried out with reverence. When I first became a Pagan I had a vial with five salt crystals to represent the Five Elements in my rituals. My altars grew from these small beginnings into the altars over time seen here, here and here. My mobile vé for conventions tends to be my collection of prayer cards, an offering vessel, and maybe a few representations of the Holy Powers otherwise. What matters it that you have the means to cleanse the vé, make some kind of offering, and have a container for the vé itself. This is where the map of lore meets the territory of being for Heathens. We bring forward as much as we can, learn as much as we can, and it is here, in hearth cultus, where we put all of this into lived relationship with our Holy Powers.

Making a Hearth

Cosmology, including what directions are sacred and why, what Beings related to the hearth, Fire, etc., need to be known in order for a hearth to become established. A hearth is the culmination of the macro and the micro of a cosmology, the welcoming in of Holy Powers, and establishment of sacred space. Without understanding why it is important to establish a hearth, what establishing a hearth itself means, or the importance of cosmology, myth, and how we relate to the Holy Powers, especially Fire Itself in the creation of a hearth, there is no structure for establishing a hearth nor how to do it. Without these bones there is no point to a hearth, no sacred direction to place it or space one may make it. Without the foundation there is no point to making a hearth. Without meaning behind it, then, there is no hearth.

A hearth is the central sacred space of a home.  For many of us, having a physical hearth is an impossibility.  So how do we bring in the hearth for hearth cultus without a fireplace?  Candles are one way, whether they are burnable or LED.

Are there traditional methods we can see in how to erect a hearth? We can look at how the ancient cultures Heathens erected their homes, and what information remains to us from how their own hearths were established. Most of the information useful to this goal will not be blatantly stated. Given that most of what is available to us in lore is relevant to rulers, not the average ancient Norse, Anglo-Saxon, etc, and given the sources are mostly for skalds and poets to read aloud or for instruction, much of the establishment of modern hearth culture will need to be derived from what we can find for the hints at mindset and worldview in the sources, and from there our own intuition and interactions with the Holy Powers.  A simple example is the centrality of the hearth from lore and archaeology. What remains to us is acknowledgement that the path of the Sun was sacred, and so East is a good candidate for a vé to face or be placed in.

As with a great many things, where lore and archaeology tell us little or hint at things, modern Heathens will need to make our best guesses, do divination, and be willing to correct ourselves when new information rises.  Likewise, the practical needs of any given space will need to be taken into account as well.  Even though the East is a good candidate for a vé to face in, my family’s Gods’ altar stands in the North before the only window in the room.  This table has the best space so our Gods’ representations and offerings are not crowding one another and best fits in front of the window.

Since we do not own the home we are living in and our altars are all upstairs, our vé hold primary places for us in the family, namely our bedrooms.  Were we to be living on our own I imagine the different vé we worship at would be spread over the home.  The Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we hold the closest cultus to might be in a central vé, such as above a literal hearth on a mantle, or on an altar in the center of the living room.  The making of a vé does differ, as a literal hearth at the center of our home would invite variations of ritual that our current set up does not.  If our vé were on a mantle we might not have an altar cloth, or if we did it might be made of very different materials such as pelts/fur and/or heavier cloths.  Our current Gods’ vé is adorned with different colored cotton cloths marking the different seasons.  Sometimes we change our Ancestor vé cloth colors as well to mark the seasons.  We have small heat-resistant stands for when we burn candles, incense, reykr, or offerings.  Given we are in bedrooms and the smoke alarms are very touchy we do not tend to light candles or burn much in the way of offerings or reykr.   This would this change with having a hearthfire, and so would the care of the ashes.  Living on our own, we might collect the ashes of the hearthfire to use in crafting sacred things, such as soaps for cleansing or in leatherwork for fur removal.

Our hearth cultus centers around the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we are closest to.  For each of us that differs with our individual relationships, but for both our family and our Kindred it is Oðin, Frigg, Freya, Freyr, Gerða, Loki, Angrboða, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Mimir, and Hela for the Heathen/Northern Tradition Gods.  Other Gods of our family hearth are Brighid, Bres, Lykeios, Lupa, Bast, and Anubis.  For our Ancestors we give cultus not only to our blood Ancestors, but also to the Ancestors of our lineages, such as the spiritworkers who came before me, and to those who have inspired me over the years such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Among the vaettir we hold cultus for are the landvaettir and housevaettir.  Each of us also tends our own personal vé to different Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  We engage in our hearth cultus daily, including night prayers and offerings at the hearth, and at the dinner table with meal prayers.  We also occasionally share in ritual celebration of different holy days around our hearth, or with the Kindred around its hearth.

An Example of Daily Hearth Cultus

My family’s daily hearth cultus tends to be quite simple. Most of our hearth rites are some variation on this:

  1. Begin by cleansing.
    1. Most nights we do this by deep breathing three times, expelling the dross of the day out of ourselves and away from the vé, and breathing in good, clean air so we concentrate on the prayers and offerings we are going to make. If we have had a particularly hard day, if we are in a time of powerful transition (such as after a funeral or during a holy tide), if a ritual calls for it, or if it just seems time to, I make a Sacred Fire with Großmutter Una, making reykr over all of us, and the vé. We may pass a lit candle in a similar fashion to working with Grandmother Mugwort, or work with both Fire and Großmutter Una together, passing them over the vé once or three times in a clockwise fashion around the altar. The number 3 is one we recognize as holy, and clockwise works with the turning of Sunna’s journey and the seasons She helps to bring.
    2. Cleansing by Reykr
      1. Make a prayer thanking the Fire, a simple one such as “Hail Eldest Ancestor!” or, a more elaborate one like “Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Hail Firevaettir! Hail Eldest Ancestor! Ves ðu heil!”
      2. Lay down the herb to be burned, in this case Mugwort. Make a prayer of thanks, simple like “Hail Großmutter Una!” or “Thank You for Your gift, Großmutter Una, that cleanses us and brings our prayers to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir!”
      3. Light the match, lighter, or strike the flint and steel. Waft the smoke around once, or three time around yourself, any attendants, and the altar and its contents. If there are items you would like the Holy Powers to bless, waft Them through the smoke before doing this so the item comes into the vé cleansed.
  2. Make prayers.
    1. Most of our prayers are fairly short and to the point. We have a Night Prayer we follow, which is a rote prayer my wife and I developed for our many Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It serves two purposes, the first being is a unifying prayer of thanks for all the gifts our Holy Powers give us throughout our lives, and it also helps our children to come to know the Gods through at least one attribute that They gift to us, and to be thankful for it. We take this time to give any other prayers, whether thanks to Thor for protecting us in the latest thunderstorm, or to Frigg for peace in our home.
    2. Prayers at the Vé
      1. Following the format of our Night Prayers, you could use the simple formula of “Thank You <Holy Power> for <Blessing/Gift/Function>! Hail <Holy Power!>”, for example “Thank You Freyr and Gerða for the World around us!” Another form of prayer would be to gather at least three heiti for a Holy Power you are close to, have fondness for, or are trying to get to know, and pray in a format like this: “Hail Oðinn, the Inspirer! Hail Alföðr, the All-Father! Hail Rúnatýr, God of the Runes! I seek to know You better!”
  3. Make offerings.
    1. It is not enough for us to only pray. We exist in a flowing relationship with our Holy Powers, receiving and giving good Gebo, gipt fa gipt, or gift for a gift. Given we have several altars we dedicate one day to each group of Holy Powers, the first to our Gods, the next to our Ancestors, and the third to our vaettir. Each God has some kind of vessel in front of Them. Our mainstay offering is water. We also make special offerings, such as whiskey, mead, coffee, or food. If we make a special offering that could spoil before our next round of offerings, we respectfully dispose of it in the sink if it is liquid, giving a prayer to the God it is for and a thanks for Their blessings. If the offering is food or herbs we do not burn at the altar, we place it outside in our sacred grove’s Yggdrasil representation, or wait until a Sacred Fire to burn it. We count food offerings among our special ones because we live on the second floor of a shared home and respectfully disposing of the food offerings as described above once the Holy Powers are done with them is harder to do, especially since most of our offerings are made and disposed of at night.
    2. Making Offerings
      1. As our usual offerings are water, herbs, and on occasion stick incense, I will use these as examples.
    3. For Water Offerings
      1. Since our worldview is polytheist steeped in animism, we recognize the Elements Themselves as part of our Ancestry. In recognizing this we thank the Elements Themselves and the vaettir Who we are offering to the Holy Powers. We might offer a prayer like “Hail Water, Elder Ancestor! Hail Watervaettr! We thank You for the gift of Your body, that we offer to the Holy Powers!” Good offerings to give in turn to Water and the watervaettir would be care for our sources of water, prayers of thanks and recognition of all that these Holy Powers bless. Honoring Water and the watervaettir are other sources of good Gebo in our daily conduct with water, including conserving and care for water sources we rely on and/or come across.
    4. For Burnt Herb and Incense Offerings
      1. Follow the structure above in the Cleansing by Reykr section 1, and in 2, change the language to reflect an offering is being given. Something like “Hail Grandmother Una! Thank You for the gift of Your body in offering to our Holy Powers!” or “Hail Mugwort! Hail to You for being our offering! Holy Powers, we offer this Gebo to You!” or “Hail Holy Powers, we make this offering of Mugwort in gipt fa gipt with You!” When addressing the Holy Powers directly, simply saying “Hail <Holy Power>!” or “This offering is for You, <Holy Power>!” or “I make this offering for You, <Holy Power>!” can be enough.
  4. Divination and Follow Up Work
    1. If divination has been called for, whether due to some accident like dropping an offering or knocking over an idol, divination having been requested earlier, or just a prompting from intuition, we usually do it here after prayers and offerings. Some folks regularly practice divination as part of their daily work in heart cultus. I generally do not, since much of our daily cultus takes place at night not long before I have to go to work and I haven’t gotten the message or intuition to incorporate this. Your needs as a hearth and your ability for/access to divination will be the best guide here.

Maintaining Hearth Cultus

The first step to maintaining a hearth cultus once it has been established is to care for the vé physically and spiritually. Cleaning the space regularly, including the disposal of offerings and changing out cloths, and keeping the icons of the Holy Powers clean promotes mindfulness and reverence for the place it holds in a hearth. The next step is to make prayers, offerings, and to do whatever other daily work needs doing at the hearth regularly.

If the vé is in a fireplace then the cleaning of it serves a practical function in keeping the chimney clear of debris and in good working order. This idea is equally true whether the vé is a fireplace, a mantle, a desk, or even a mini altar-tin.  Since the practical is part of the spiritual work, understanding the hearth and the process of cleaning the hearth from a cosmological standpoint makes the work take on deeper meaning. In setting up the vé you are asking the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to help you make an ordered Sacred Space.

The fireplace is no longer just a fireplace; it becomes the hearth, the spiritual heart of the home. The mantle, the desk, the tin is no longer just a mantle, desk, or tin.  In cleaning the vé, the hearth being the micro to the cosmos’ macro, you are helping to bring cleansing and order to this cosmos. It is the where you develop contact with the Holy Powers, worshiping Them and making offerings. As your hearth cultus goes on it may grow or shrink, (or in the case of tins maybe you will make/collect more) and so may the qualities it comes to represent and the meaning the place holds in your home and religious life. No matter your source of Fire for the vé, whatever you put into the Fire or set with It needs to be safely burnt.  Treating the Fire with utmost care is paramount. Every Fire is connected in our understanding, whether the smallest match, the electricity in an LED, or the largest star, and as the hearthfire itself represents Fire Itself, the care each Firevaettr is given should reflect on that relationship.

Whether it is five minutes a day, a half an hour or longer, many times a day, or as we do, cycling prayers and offerings different days of the week, the point here is to maintain a regular practice of devotional work and care for the hearth. Integrating the hearth into one’s life and keep it at the heart may be a struggle for many folks who have never grown up with this. Regular engagement with the hearth physically and spiritually will help this become part of one’s life. Keeping it front and center in one’s home centers the Holy Powers around which the hearth is based, and right along with it, the cosmology and its worldview.

The hearth is one’s cosmos in miniature even if one doesn’t have all the representations of the Holy Powers yet. As I wrote earlier, there was a time when all I had was five salt crystals no bigger than my pinky nail. Now, my family has statues for some Gods and representations for others. Some folks may find they cannot get or afford statues of the Gods. We have statues of Odin, Frigg, Freya, Freyr, and Thor by Paul Borda of Dryad Designs that we bought from different Pagan/Pagan-friendly stores. For Gerða we have a corn dolly with a rake in Her hand we found at a thrift store. Loki, Angrboda, and Sigyn’s representations are a slat of red fox skin for Loki, a badger claw for Sigyn, and wolf fur for Angrboda, each representation gifted to us. Sometimes the Holy Powers are looking for different ways for us to come into Their representations because the representation has something to say or it exposes us to worshiping Them in a new way. Sometimes a representation is what we happen to have at the time; during Many Gods West I had to leave a lot of representations and spiritual tools at home and ended up printing off pictures of the Gods for the event altar and my own.  At the end of the day, use what works to connect your hearth with the Gods.

If one’s hearth cultus is mainly in the kitchen your relationship with the cultus may change, and the Holy Powers one worships there, calls to first, or maintains the boundaries during prayer, offerings, and ritual. One might start a ritual in the fireplace by first calling on the Gods of Fire and then Gods of the Hearth, Hearthkeeping, and/or the Home. A ritual in a hearth’s vé located in the kitchen may do it the other way around, first calling on Gods of the Home and then Fire Gods, as the set up and priorities for the hearth may differ from a fireplace’s hearth.  One’s way of offering might change from Fire being the primary element into which offerings are made to Water.  One’s focus of the hearth cultus might be on the Wells rather than Fire, since the main tools one practically uses in this space shifts from containing and maintaining Fire centrally to containing and maintaining Water.  It does not mean that Fire’s importance is lost, only that the focus of the hearth cultus shifts.

For our family, our relationships with the Gods of family, social order come ahead of Fire given we generally do not work with Fire as much in our daily rites.  We involve Fire when we light candles, turn on the light for night prayers, or sit down to a meal, but the centrality that would be there were our vé on a hearthfire or on a mantle is not present.  Something that was suggested to me by my dear friend and Brother, Jim, is that since the namesake of our Kindred comes from Mimir and the Well of Wisdom, and that so many of our offerings and work involve water and water-based offerings, that while Fire Itself is still recognized as the First Ancestor, that Water, the Well, and honoring Mimir takes priority.  Our family is still working this out with our Holy Powers.

Understanding the role of Fire as central to the hearth does not change, nor does it shift the cosmological importance of Fire.  Without Fire we do not see, our altars are not illuminated, our food goes uncooked, our reykr cannot smoke.  What does change is how we relate to these Holy Powers and how these relationships unfold in our vé.  The cosmogenic unfolding from Fire and Ice meeting still is a powerful source of understanding, one that informs how the Waters that are more central to our familial hearth come about.  The Gods of our home will still be central to our hearth cultus even if Mimir and the Well of Wisdom are honored ahead of Them.  The fixed points of cosmogeny and cosmology do not change, only our points of relating to Them and the place they hold in our rites with the Holy Powers.

Differentiating Hearth Cultus Rites from Other Rites

What differentiates hearth cultus rites from many other polytheist and Pagan rituals is the general lack of altered states of consciousness and its focus on devotional worship and reverence. There is no ulterior goal or motive in daily hearth cultus. You’re worshiping and revering the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of your hearth. That is its goal and its focus.

When I was doing the #30DaysofMagick challenges I set the times I did my work with the Runes apart from my hearth cultus work. Not only did this keep my focus on the rites at hand, it also kept my family’s focus since we do hearth ritual as a family and I am the only one among us that does Runework. In keeping the rites separate I kept the kind of ritual focus needed for good hearth cultus in its place, and Rune work in its own. I do have a daily devotional rite I do with Runatyr and the Runevaettir, but again, that is separate from my hearth cultus because that is personal cultus and work I hold with Runatyr and the Runevaettir. Because neither my wife nor our children have initiated into doing Runework that buffer also protects them from collecting obligation or entanglement with Them beyond my family’s already existing ties.

I differentiate hearth cultus from other rites in the use of altered states since, broadly speaking, the focus of the rites which use altered states are generally to another end beyond devotion, worship, offering, and prayer. Altered states like deep trance work tend to operate as uncontrolled liminal spaces even if they are guided. Unlike a hearth rite, in which there are very clear steps, a focus, and end steps in a methodical way, once one enters into even an altered state, let alone contact with a Holy Power in an altered state, the directions one can go with it are many. There may be spiritual work one needs to do, initiation work to prepare for, or, the raw and intense experience of just being in a Holy Power’s Presence among the possibilities.

Gathering Around the Hearth

Hearth cultus can be engaged in by anyone regardless of aptitude for altered states, magical work, initiation, or experience. Its focus, steps, goals, and means to achieve them are clear and accessible to everyone. Many other rites require some kind of ongoing study and/or engagement with Holy Powers and spiritual forces, such as one’s hamr or önd. Some rites will require initiation and others will require exclusive focus on a goal other than worship or reverence.

The heart of polytheism is in hearth cultus. Through hearth cultus we come to worship, pray to, offer to, and know our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping hearth cultus accessible to everyone keeps our religions, traditions, and communities alive, vibrant, and engaged. Through hearth cultus anyone can begin, continue, and deepen relationships with the Holy Powers. We bring our traditions from the maps of lore, linguistics, and archaeology into the lived experience of worship, reverence, and engagement. Our worldview is lived through hearth cultus. Through it, our relationships with the Holy Powers is strengthened and enlivened individually and communally. With hearth cultus our religions are not mere abstractions, a collection of holidays or ideas. Through hearth cultus we pass on these ways of life to each generation. With hearth cultus being at the heart of our cultures and our religions, they are part of our lives, immanent for each of us and connective between us. Here, in each of our hearths, our ways of life are made and lived in good relationships with the Holy Powers and ourselves.

Revelation and Experience in Building Polytheist Myth

July 29, 2018 15 comments

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.

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