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A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 2

December 17, 2015 9 comments

The challenge we face as a country in the face of peak oil and climate change is getting back to a more human-sized society.  A large part of the issue of getting things back to a manageable size is twofold: 1) we have a very poor concept of wealth in this country, and 2) convenience has eclipsed resilience in a big way.

In regards to our unhealthy view of wealth in this country, to start with, wealth is not money in a bank account.  It is an abundance of things of value.  Money is not value, but a measurement of value agreed upon as a representation of work.  Work is of value; money is given value to represent the value of goods, services, products, and labor rather than someone having to directly trade as in a barter system.  A good way to look at this is the Rune Fehu.

FehuFehu means ‘money, cattle, wealth’.  Cattle require land, and so, land is also a form of wealth, and the maintenance of a good herd of cattle is a means of sustaining wealth in the forms of cattle and land.  Likewise, the means to feed the herd, and so, the health of the land itself, is a form of wealth.  Resilience is bound up in wealth in many ways.  The first way is that resilience requires more investment and maintenance up front than convenience requires.  Another is that resilience provides a way for wealth itself to be maintained and grow in ways that sustain the production and maintenance of these sources of wealth.  Resilience in cattle-based land is making sure the herd does not overgraze, but eats its fill, and that it has enough nutrients in the soil and vegetation to provide for many generations of cattle, not just one.  Resilience in cattle-based land may require rotation of the animals, crops and foods sources.  Certain forms of resilient cattle-raising dispense with rotation, and cultivate the manure as a form of fertilizer, while working with the herd to maintain the integrity of the land.  Resilience may also require a culling every now and again to keep the herd manageable.  By contrast, convenience would require as many cattle as possible to be raised then slaughtered in a given timetable to maximize production and profit regardless of the destruction to the land, the pain to the cows, or the overproduction of the meat itself.

Resilient cattle-raising is not as convenient as on-site feedlot operations, but then, convenient ways of cattle raising come with deep drawbacks that have to be accounted for.  Convenience brings a great deal of challenges with it that resilient methods do not.  Among them are logistical challenges, sourcing, and securing the various production pipelines that assure that convenience remains so.  In CAFO operations the maximization of profit is extended at the risk of increase of infection in the animals.  To counteract this, animals are given antibiotics, both to increase resistance to disease, and increase muscle mass so there is more meat to sell come the slaughter.  This has a knock-on effect in two ways, since 70% of the recipients of antibiotics are farm animals.  One, it increases the rates of mutation and development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and two, each layer of complexity provides an extra kink in the system that can develop deep problems. Enough cattle get fed an antibiotic at a low dose, and it can make the whole damned herd develop an antibiotic resistant bacteria that overcomes the treatment.  That bacteria could then kill parts of or the entire herd, and should that spread, could overcome other herds.  If it passes transmission to humans, it can than affect the local, and then State, and possibly national population.  There are people dying now because there are bacteria that have become resistant to last-effort antibiotics.

Resilient methods of cattle raising do not have this issue of breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria.  While antibiotic free cattle may succumb to disease, they do not have a constant low-level dose of exposure to antibiotics in their food or through regular injections that a given bacteria can become resistant to.  Would or will bacteria develop that will kill cattle? Sure, but not at the rates we see with antibiotic resistant strains, pushed forward by the cattle and other meat industries use of antibiotics in everything from feed to direct injections.  While resilient methods sacrifice money upfront for this, in the long run they provide a safeguard to herd and human alike. Other points of failure in this system is the supply of antibiotics themselves and all the infrastructure and support systems that go into manufacturing them. Another point of failure is the feed itself, with the fossil fuels that are used in growing, spraying, and transporting it to the cattle. Other points of failure can be found in all of the infrastructure and support systems that go into producing and delivering the feed upon which CAFO and other industrial meat operators depend upon to be profitable.

Convenience is more a method of exploiting wealth than it is of ensuring its survival or growth.  Methods such as on-demand services rely on entire networks of services to support them in the first place.  Look to any on-demand service whether it is Uber, Createspace or Lulu, Amazon.com or online food delivery services like Grubhub, OrderUp, or fisheries like this one.  All of these require massive amounts of fossil fuels.  All of these services rely on built up infrastructure from the electrical grid, the roads, bridges, and other aspects of the highway system, the vehicles themselves, and the cheap labor that allow these things to be affordable.  All of these factors in turn require inputs of energy, whether oil, coal, or natural gas for initial construction, maintenance, and use.  Even the means to make renewable energy sources such as windmills, solar panels, and the like, require great inputs of oil and rare earth metals, like neodymium and gold, all of which in turn requires inputs of energy to mine, extract from the rock/silt, and refine.  By their nature, these systems are brittle.  They become more so the more complex they are.

Let’s say, for instance, that gas goes back up to $4 per gallon for the average consumer.  Uber would either get more expensive or fold.  Createspace, Lulu, and Amazon.com, and the other online delivery services make their business with direct delivery.  Gas prices cut directly into the delivery services’ bottom line, requiring a price increase.  If any segment in the supply line fails, whether paper manufacturers continuously failing to meet a quota for Createspace or Lulu, the delivery servicers unable to maintain their fleet as well as they need to meet demand, or the fishery unable to make a profit via online sales, entire industries oriented around the on-demand service will go down.  While it may take a while for the supply chain problems to come home to roost, sooner or later they will, as increasingly larger pieces of the economic pie are devoted to handle the rising costs associated with their business.

Let us go back to the example of cattle-raising. If a rancher relies upon online on-demand meat sales to keep their business going in such a scenario, they will find themselves paying for a hell of a premium with such a drastic rise in gas prices.  This is true not only for the delivery of the meat, but is also felt by little nips and bites from the monthly bills for services, like their electricity and internet, that allow them to make their money in the first place.  They have a choice after a certain point: they can increase costs to their on-demand consumers, and/or try to pivot and seek out a new customer base that is more local, or voluntarily go out of business.  One would hope the rancher would have local reciprocal relationships already active and established.  However, for those who rely on these internet sales to drive their business, convenience bypasses a lot of the resilient methods of developing relationships with customer and the land in favor of upfront profit driven by demand.  When that demand goes down so too does the business.  In the end, convenience for the producer and consumer alike costs a lot more than developing and maintaining a resilient system and reciprocal relationship with the consumer.  It may not produce money as quickly, but it maintains wealth, value and money flow with a great deal more care and certainty.

Coming up is Part 3, which explores why convenience is preferred over resilience, and how it makes systems that rely upon it weak.  It will also explore the avenues I and others are taking in addressing peak oil and climate change where we are.

Part 1 of this series is here.

 

For other explorations of this topic, look here:

The Religious Implications of Peak Oil

Where is the Ground?

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 1

December 16, 2015 10 comments

“This world rips at you” I have heard it said.  But it is not the world.  It is our American culture.  It is the culture of stuff, of things, of valuing these things over our human experience.  It is the appreciation of the photograph over memory.  It is the rise of things over connection.  It is the map becoming the territory.

Animism and polytheism as I understand and live it as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, requires us to live engaged lives.  Stuff is not just stuff; it is enlivened.  The computer flows with firevaettir and the earthvaettir that make up its body.  It was built by countless hands and shipped by the death of countless plants and animals.  Whether we’re talking about the human and environmental cost of making the laptop I am typing on, or the infrastructure and energy that keeps the power flowing through it and connects it to the Internet, it required a vast amount of resources just to bring this product into my hands and keep it functioning.  Consumerism and capitalism kills not just the bodies of the countless billions who suffer under its yolk, it kills their connection to the land, to their Ancestors, and the Gods of the places they live.  It kills the culture of those it touches by valuing all at the extent that money can be made off of it.  It kills the soul of the consumer by denying relationship to that which is consumed.  It denies, at its root, a living reciprocal relationship with one’s world, and one’s communities.

Note, that I am not saying that markets, trades, industry, etc. are doing this.  We’ve always, in some way, shape, or form, had these things, whether the flint-knapper trading for skins, or the gatherer trading for meat, the farmer trading for cloth, and the weaver trading for grain.  What we have not had is such a strident divorce between ourselves and the things of daily life, for the things which make our lives possible.  Even my parents grew up farming and gardening.  I am the first generation in my family where my hands were not directly involved for the start of my young life in the production of food, industry, or crafts, and I am poorer for it.  I am having to relearn these skills now, and am seeking to learn more, because of how deep the divide is between my grandfather, my father, and my own generation is.

What bothers me most about this, in looking at all of this in the face of peak oil, climate change, and the rising costs of living, food production, and health care, is the sense of loss of inter-generational knowledge and skills.  While knowing how to treat basic illness with herbs, tinctures and the like may not have been common, it was well-known enough that you could get a few basic remedies from the simple growing of a few herbs.  Knowing how to kill, clean, and prepare one’s meat, how to grow and produce one’s food was not simply a greener practice, it was tied up in how we lived our lives. Knowledge and skill in how to make the things we ate, wore, and used was a daily part of life.  Not everyone did every trade or skill, but there were enough people doing varieties of these things that communities could get by interdependently. There are skills and knowledge that I and future generations will need to relearn, not out of a sense of ‘getting back to the land’ or some other sentimental notion, however well-placed, but because of basic survival needs.

It bothers me, deeply, how utterly dependent I am as a diabetic on the convenient, disposable system of food and healthcare.  I use needles that I use once and throw away.  My insulin is only able to be produced because of massive farming operations and/or labs requiring a hell of a lot of energy and resources.  The pills I take come in plastic bottles that, if I or someone else weren’t reusing them or recycling them, would likely go into a landfill.  The sheer amount of stuff that it takes to keep me alive is egregious.  Not because I am not worthy of life, but because of the mountain of stuff that is required in order to keep me alive, on a baseline.

This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live?  Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death.  If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do?  My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then.  It is about answering this question on a practical basis.  If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live?  Well, in the short term the answer is no.  However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically.  I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis.  I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent.  So, I won’t.

My response, then, isn’t to expect some cure or treatment to come forward and solve the problem of diabetes.  It also isn’t to expect the consumer culture to change; there is too much money wrapped up in keeping people in perpetual debt and consumerism.  The monetary system itself is sustained by exponential growth, and as we should have learned from the 1970’s oil shocks, the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980’s, the dotcom bust of the 1990’s, 2008’s housing/financial crisis, there are hard limits to that.  Booms and busts are a feature of our economic landscape, rather than a flaw in it.  The system goes on because it keeps getting inflated.  The exponential ballooning of the cost of living vs. actual earned income of the average American worker should show us that this way of life is unsustainable.  The increasing cost of heating at a time when natural gas in the midst of a glut should show us that.  The consumer culture, and those who profit from it, have no vested interest in doing things another way.  Those who suffer under such a system do.

Part of the response I am engaging in is to go through the hard lessons of relearning a lot of the skills my parents and grandparents took for granted.  It is to learn how to live with the land, how to live with a lot less, and learn how to live a powered-down life as much as I can now, and do more towards this wherever I can.  As JMG says, “Crash now and avoid the rush.”  That is what I am working towards.  I won’t stop taking my diabetes medication , but I will be looking for ways to reduce their use in a healthy way, with the long-term goal to get off of them entirely.

Another part of my response is partnering with folks who will or already live in a way that supports this, whether it is forming communities, alliances, business relationships, or personal relationships, or tapping into ones I have already established.  It is weaving community ties together in a way that supports my family, my community, and myself while encouraging others to do the same. It doesn’t mean a loss of autonomy, either, and it also doesn’t mean a loss of hierarchy.  It just means that, like a lot of things that need to, things get brought back down to a human level.

This is not without its challenges, and for me, the number one challenge right now is patience.  I’ve had my Gods, Ancestors, and a lot of vaettir pushing me hard to get land for several years, and I have been feeling ‘get started already’ quite a bit this year.  Couple this with my own impatience with how long that’s taking, and there are times where it’s hard for me not to get down.  The other challenge alongside this is resources.  Coming together with others, though, is helping for me to work through things.

Coming up is Part 2, which will explore the challenges we face as a country in addressing peak oil and climate change, and why a return to resilience over convenience is the way to address these directly.

For other explorations of this topic, look here:

The Religious Implications of Peak Oil

Where is the Ground?

If Your Paganism is Anthropocentric, I Don’t Want Your Paganism

August 25, 2015 51 comments

With articles such as this, it is even more clear to me why polytheists need to speak up within and without the Pagan Umbrella.

With respect to discerning John Beckett from John Halstead, I will use their last names.

Beckett wrote a post about the future of polytheism and the importance of ‘keeping the Gods at the front’.  Halstead’s article is the response to this.

‘John Beckett has recently written a post about his vision of the future of Polytheism- the future of the “polytheist revolution” -and the importance of “keeping the Gods at the front”. To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago – with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of the concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance.  It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”.’

To start with, it is clear to me that Halstead does not understand, nor cares to understand the perspective of polytheism, or polytheists in general.  The polytheist revolution is not world-denying; if anything, it embraces the world as it is, with warts and all.  It sees this world, and all that it is, and is within it, as populated by Gods, our Ancestors, and spirits.  I find it foolish that Halstead would find it too much like the monotheist condemnation of ‘idolatry’ when so many of us do exactly that, and worship Gods that are of this world, if not the Earth Itself.

Quoting Beckett:

“I would argue that if your religion doesn’t have a strong this-world component you’re doing it wrong.

“However…

“Our this-world concerns are enormous.  They’re here, in front of us, right now.  They demand our attention, they demand our time, they demand our effort.  And they never end.  If we are not mindful, if we are not -dare I say it- devout and pious, it is all too easy to let our this-world concerns becomes our gods and take Their place in our lives…

“When we don’t keep the Gods at the forefront of our practice, we put something else there.  That something else may be helpful or it may be a distraction, but whatever it is weakens our relationships with the Gods…”

Quoting Halstead in response:

‘To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago – with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance.’

Our polytheist religions have a this-world component.  We’re not world-denying religions.  There would not be talk of such things as regional cultus, and working with, revering, and worshiping the landvaettir were we doing so.  There would be no talk of our duty to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to treat the Earth well, to care for our oceans, to consume less, and a million other things that we polytheists may factor in when it comes to how we live on this Earth, whether we have children, how to raise them if we do, how we die, and how our bodies are cared for after our death.  Our Gods come first and foremost because we are polytheists.  It’s not a polite suggestion to believe in the Gods and treat Them as real accordingly.  It’s part and parcel of being a polytheist.  If that is not at the forefront of being a polytheist, then the identification as a polytheist, and associated religions that identify with this word, become drained of meaning.  Accordingly, our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir suffer when the Holy Powers are not first in our considerations.

I wrote on this idea of placing the Gods first a while back, here.

Quoting myself:

‘When someone puts the Gods first, does that mean the needs of one’s family are ignored?  Absolutely not.  What it means is that my family recognizes the Gods at the center of our lives.  It is not an either/or thing, here.  I do not love the Gods and ignore my family.  In loving and serving my Gods, I love and serve my family as well.  In separating one from the other is where error comes from.  If the Gods are in (or are) the Air, the Water, the Fire, the Ice, etc., then it is impossible to escape Them and foolish, if not hubris, to ignore Them.  Far better to partner with Them in good Gebo than to pretend we are somehow separate from Them.’

Again, from Halstead:

‘It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”.  It was because of its embrace of the “gods of this world” that I became Pagan.’

Considering Halstead has continuously denied the agency and Being of Gods in his writing, I find this very hard to believe.  Halstead has gone out of his way to deny that Gods possess Being, and are Beings unto Themselves.  Rather than embracing Gods, Halstead has made much of his writing about rejecting Them.  That rejection of the Gods, his embrace and normalizing of the term ‘Pagan’ in an atheist mindset is why I considered dropping Pagan as an identifier altogether.  If such a term is so open and wide to interpretation that a barebones belief in or respect of Holy Powers are no longer a requirement for identification with groups of Pagan religious communities, what, precisely, are we supposed to be huddled under this umbrella for?

‘For me, more than anything else, the word “Pagan” denotes a this-worldly view of life.  I had spent far too much of my early religious life looking for another world and missing the point of this one.  I was guilty of what Albert Camus called the sin of “hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” I found in Paganism a religion that embraced this world – with both arms.’

The problem I find with the word ‘Pagan’ primarily denoting a this-worldly life is not that it denotes a this-worldly life, per se, but that it is empty of any kind of religious meaning in doing so.  It is not about the Gods, Mysteries, our relationships with the Holy Powers, each other, or indeed the world itself.  It is solidly stuck in a this-worldly view, which implies that this is the only life that matters, that this is it.  Many polytheist religions carry afterlives with them in their cosmologies.  For some, reincarnating may be part of that, in addition to there being final destinations depending on how life was lived, what your occupation was, what if any Mysteries you were initiated into, and how you died.  The other possible implication of ‘Pagan’ meaning ‘this-worldly view of life’ is that our Ancestors and Dead do not get or have input, and Their agencies are ignored.  This is a mighty big problem in most polytheist religions, as the Ancestors and Dead have a lot of input in our individual lives, and active interest in how our religions are restored and lived.

‘While many Pagans do believe in reincarnation, most do not view the cycle of life as something to be escaped from.  And most of those who believe in a “Summerland” view it as the place where souls rest between incarnations, not as a “heaven” where one would want to stay.  Ultimate, for most Pagans, this world is all there is.  But where this would cause some to despair, the Pagan shouts with joy!’

What I have not seen featured in polytheist writings, nor in an polytheist circles I run in, is a worry about these afterlives.  There may be active cultivation of relationships with certain Gods (I think of Dionysian Mysteries and the Eleusinian Mysteries here), or certain Gods may lay a claim on a worshiper or group of worshipers, but in my experience, we generally leave the concern of where we go to our Gods of Death.  I would not eve say for ‘most Pagans, this world is all there is’, especially coming on the heels of Halstead saying ‘many Pagans do believe in reincarnation’ and talk of belief in a Summerland.  Not only is this assumptive of ‘most Pagans’, it also denies that many, if not potentially most Pagans have belief in some kind of Otherworld (i.e. the aforementioned Summerland) and afterlives.  It subtly denies polytheism in Paganism.

‘So when John Beckett talks about placing the gods before the concerns of this world, this is not just another form of Paganism – it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me.  For me, it’s this world or bust!’

This gets to the crux of the piece: Halstead is positing that the polytheism, and likewise the polytheists he is critiquing, what he calls ‘other-worldly polytheism’ is outside of the Circles of Paganism that Beckett, he, and others have used in their writing at Patheos.  In writing ‘it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me.  For me, it’s this world or bust!’ Halstead not only falsely places us polytheists who believe the Gods should come first on the opposite side of caring for this world, he is also placing us firmly on the outside of Paganism.

‘John goes on to argue that, in the absence of a belief in the gods, we will lack the motivation to care for the Earth and to build a fair and just society when the going gets hard.  I simply cannot agree.  How does putting the gods between us and our concern for the earth and its inhabitants strengthen that concern?’

Halstead would be asking an important question here, were he not completely missing the point.  In putting the Gods first, we necessarily place our concern for the Earth and Its inhabitants in a high priority.  It strengthens our resolve when it is weak, it gives us zeal when it is easier to ignore the problems we face, and it provides an undercurrent of relationships to why we care so deeply for our world, our local and global ecology, and all the Holy Powers who share in that relationship with us.  Our relationships with the Holy Powers strengthens that concern by denying our concerns merely for self-preservation, which is frequently short-sighted and self-serving, and pushing us, if not directly telling us that we need to care not only for ourselves, but future generations as well.  It’s not pushing enlightened self-service; rather, polytheism asks us to live for our Ancestors and our descendants/others’ descendants.  We are Ancestors in the making, Their latest iteration, and it is on us to be good Ancestors to those who come after us, even if we never have children.

As I said in What It Means to Place the Gods First:

‘Placing the Gods first means, though, that we accept the Gods as the center of our lives, as the forces with which we ally to bring good to our lives and the lives of those we touch.  As my family understands and lives this, it means that family is second to the Gods because without a good relationship with the Gods, we do not have good relationships within our family…It means that our Ancestors are never gone, but walk with us in this life.  That when we work with people, we understand the work to not just be work, but Gebo and the building up of maegen and hamingja between us.  It means that the religion we live carries weight in our lives, and ripples out into how we relate to one another, and to all things.’

Halstead continues:

‘In my own experience, the reverse has been true: care for this world is inversely proportionally to the belief in the importance of another one.  This has been true in my own life and in the lives of many others I have seen – like those who response to ecocide is “It’s all going to burn anyway.”‘

Again, this would be a worthy concern were I seeing any polytheist putting forth such a rash, irresponsible, wrong-headed repsonse like ‘It’s all going to burn anyway.’  This attitude is predominant in the monotheist eschatology in which the Final Battle purges the world, and God makes everything alright.  The corollary to this attitude in the atheist sphere is a nihilism that denies the usefulness of action.  I do not find either of these attitudes in polytheism.  Rather, I find that polytheist stories embrace the idea of facing steep odds, and are the kind of tests that make heroes.  I find that polytheist stories are stories of hope, such as Yggdrasil rising from the flames of Surt’s destruction after Ragnarök.

‘To me, it seems that a god-motivated concern for the earth – whether polytheist or monotheist – is more fragile than a concern that grows directly out of one’s relationship with the earth itself – for the same reason that stewardship models of environmentalism don’t go as deep as those that recognize our inherent interconnectedness.’

Again, Halstead seems to not understand that a Gods-motivated concern for the Earth is as much, if not more strong than a concern that grows directly our of one’s relationship with the Earth itself -because a polytheists our relationship with the land we live on is important, whether between the Gods and spirits of the local land, or of the Earth as a whole.  A polytheist’s attitude towards the Earth grows out of our relationship with It.  Stewardship models do not go deep enough, I grant, but even philosophies that recognize our inherent interconnectedness fail to go deep enough because they often remain philosophies, primarily of the mind, and are not lived.  Our religions require us to live in relationship with the Holy Powers, the land we live on, and from that, the wider Earth included.  In other words, recognizing we are interconnected is quite a different thing from living as interconnected beings.

‘What happens to our ecology when the gods are silent, as they sometimes are?’

We have free will, and it is well within our wheelhouse as living Beings to make our own choices.  We are humans, animals, and part of this world.  For us polytheists, we need not consult just the Gods.  This is why I emphasized the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir together, as each provides us with ways to answer questions, find guidance, and move forward.  If the Gods are silent we may need to consult the Ancestors or vaettir.  If all are silent, perhaps it is time we made up our minds, and acted.

‘Or what happens when the will of the gods do not align with the needs of our planet?’

I have yet to find a situation where wills of the Gods do not align with the planet’s needs.  Regardless, just because I know countless Gods exist does not mean that all are to be followed, nor that all have the world’s needs in mind.  Treating the wills of the Gods as a singular is problematic because the Gods are many, and so too are Their wills.

Halstead continues:

‘John admits that “…we aren’t the primary concern of the Gods…” Well, if we are not, and if this planet is not, then I wonder what is their primary concern?’

We cannot be the primary concern of the Gods because not all Gods are concerned with us.  The same goes for the planet.  Again, treating the wills of the Gods as a singular is problematic because the Gods are many, and so too are Their wills.  Their concerns no less so.  Asking ‘What is Their primary concern?’ is fruitless.  They don’t have a unified concern because the Gods are not One.

Halstead continues:

‘No doubt someone will tell me that the ways of the gods are mysterious or their ways are not our ways -but I’ve heard all that before, from my former religion.  I’m left wondering, if the gods are not concerned with us, and with the other lifeforms on this earth, why we should worship them at all?  The mere fact of their existence seems to be insufficient reason to justify placing them before everything else.’

If you need justification for worshiping Gods such as the Eldest Ancestor, the First Fire of the Universe that gave and gives light and heat out of the cold Void, or for worshiping the Gods that gave us life, form, and the ability to exist, if you need justification to be in good relationship, and give respect to the Gods, Ancestors and vaettir that allow us to live, gave rise to us, and live in relationship with us, then I have no idea how to convince you of that importance.  If you utterly refuse to believe in, acknowledge the Holy Powers, and actively deny such Beings exist, and that such relationships are real and impactful, I have neither the idea nor the time to convince you otherwise.  It is not merely Their existence, but that we exist that should be more than sufficient reason to place Them before all else, with an attitude of gratitude, if nothing else.

‘Of course, not all Polytheism is other-worldly. Not all polytheisms are equal.’

No polytheism I know of is strictly other-worldly.  What Halstead is trying to say with ‘Not all polytheisms are equal’ is that there are some polytheisms that are better than others, polytheisms he is ‘happy to share the Pagan umbrella with – a this-worldly polytheism.’  Again, Halstead is placing those of us who put our Gods first, whom he calls ‘other-worldly polytheism’, on the outside of the Pagan umbrella.

‘Some forms of Polytheism find the gods in the manifest phenomena of this world – its rivers, its mountains, its flora, its other-than-human animals.  For them, “We move through a world rife with gods and spirits, and a multitude of gods dwell within each of us…We rub up against the divine being with every turn in the sacred dance” (Alison Leigh Lily), from “Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land” to “Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things” (Morpheus Ravenna).’

I have no experience with or understanding that there are polytheists who do not find many Gods manifest in the phenomena of this world.  However, many of Them are found beyond it as well.  Again, referring to the Gods as a whole is problematic.  As the Gods are not all found in the manifest phenomena of this world, it denies Their multiplicity to exist from without the Earth.  In denying the multiplicity of the Gods’ manifestations, those Gods’ existence is also denied, the same with Ancestors and vaettir whose existence comes from other places.

Halstead concludes:

‘For some Polytheists, the suggestion that we should avoid placing this  world before the gods is nonsensical, a non-sequitur, because for them there is no distinction between the gods and this world.  That is a kind of Polytheism I am happy to share the Pagan umbrella with – a this-worldly polytheism.  But if your gods aren’t going to help me save this world, then I don’t want your Polytheist revolution.’

The problem with referring to the Gods as though They are a unified whole, is that his point here is rather more panentheist than it is polytheist.  There must be a distinction made between the Gods and the world, and the Gods who are the Gods of the Earth.  Otherwise, the many Gods are being reduced to a singular whole, rather than the plural, individuated Beings the word ought to mean.  In doing this, what was Many is reduced to a toothless, ineffectual One.  This world’s ability to provide us with the means to live will not be made, cared for, or secured in a single way.  We should not place such an expectation of sum-total unity upon the Gods, either.

If Halstead thinks that devotional polytheism is other-worldly polytheism, then he does not understand what he is attempting to critique, and needs to actually read what we write rather than read into our words what he wants to read.  We are advocating for RADICAL acceptance of responsibility to leave this world better than we found it, to heal it where we can, and to teach the next generation better ways of living than we inherited.

We do this by following the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits’ examples, guidance, and direction.

I ask him this: What do you follow?

Planting Seeds

March 4, 2015 24 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What It Means to Place the Gods First

February 25, 2015 11 comments

Having read Galina Krasskova’s recent piece at Polytheist.com, I have to say, when people like her or myself say “The Gods come first” that does not mean that family disappears as a priority.

As head of my little Heathen household, what it means when I say “The Gods come first” is that They are the first consideration when decisions are made, when efforts are undertaken, and around whom the placement of our lives is made.  Do we ask the Gods every time we do something small, like “Oh Odin, what shall I eat today?”  No.  What it means is that when we do sit down to eat, we pray to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, the beings we are consuming (both animal and plant) and on behalf of all of those who brought the food to us.  It means that we recognize our hamingja as a family is tied into right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and how we treat Them, as much as how we treat one another.  The idea that Gebo extends not only to the Gods, but to one another is one that suffuses our lives.

But why make the Gods the top priority above all, even family?  Because if the Gods are indeed the Gods, then They affect the forces of the world.  In ancient times Thor and Freyr were prayed to for good rains or Njord for good fishing.  Given many of the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were farmers and fishers, the idea that the Gods with whom these people were interacting with every single day were not at the forefront of their lives does not make sense to me at all.  If the Gods are the forces that help bring the rains so the crops would grow or the fish that keep your people fed, the Gods as the center of one’s life is not just a feel-good notion.  It is survival.

My family and I pray to Thor for good rain and to Freyr for the good growth of our garden, among many prayers we make to Them.  While we do not depend on the food in our gardens for survival, we are not cut off from the natural cycles of the Earth even if these relationships are no longer immediately evident as they would have been to our ancient Ancestors.  We do not husband, feed, slaughter, or butcher cattle on our land, but my wife and I make the effort for our son to understand where his meat comes from.  He has grown food in the garden, and we have farmland all around us.  Even if the cycles of life that sustain us are further from us, we cannot be separated from them.  If we are not separate from the cycles of life, and if we believe the Gods to be real, and not some vague notion we pay lip service to, then we are not separate from the cycles of life They affect, or help to keep moving.

When someone puts the Gods first, does that mean the needs of one’s family are ignored?  That the ties that bound a community are ignored?  Absolutely not.  What it means is that my family recognizes the Gods at the center of our lives.  It is not an either/or thing, here.  I do not love the Gods and ignore my family.  In loving and serving my Gods, I love and serve my family as well.  In separating one from the other is where error comes from.  If the Gods are in (or are) the Air, the Water, the Fire, the Ice, etc., then it is impossible to escape Them and foolish, if not hubris, to ignore Them.  Far better to partner with Them in good Gebo than to pretend we are somehow separate from Them.

When people hear the words “The Gods are first” I would imagine the notion may strike people in the same manner as when they hear reports of people beating the devil out of their kids, or giving all their money to a church.  In other words, devotion of this kind is conflated with monotheist extremism, abuse, and victimization from predatory religious apparatus.  Yet that ignores the monotheists who are well adjusted, utterly normal modern people who put their God first, and the helpful, vibrant communities that help them to do so.  It ignores the polytheists who are well adjusted, who put their Gods first, and the helpful, vibrant communities that help them to do so.  It conflates both of these groups of people: devout, pious monotheists and devout, pious polytheists with people who are dangerous and deadly, exploitative and exploited.  It also, in the bargain, casts those suffering from mental illness or exploitation as dangers and things to avoid in and of themselves, which is heinous as as it casts people needing help and victims of abuse as the ‘other’ to be avoided at all costs, and places them as the black to the white in binary religious discourse.  It places the idea that the Gods coming first into these extreme situations while divorcing both of these painful scenarios from their humanity and the humans involved in them.

The Gods coming first means that the priorities of one’s life are built on the Gods.  That is, not only are the Gods of one’s religion at the center of one’s life, in addition the values of and the requirements of one’s religion are at the fore and the guiding force of one’s life.  This is why divination can be so powerful a guiding force in polytheist religions.  It is one of the means by which we can understand, personally as well as communally, the desires, will, and sometimes the directions of the Gods.  It is one among many tools for understanding Them and the messages They have for us.  It helps us move forward when change comes to our lives personally and/or communally.  Divination no more takes choice from our hands than worshiping the Gods takes will from us.  They are still there, but placed into a living context between ourselves and the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  Given these are living relationships, that means that all of our choices, our exercise of choice and the use of will have consequences in our lives and in the relationships we share with the Gods Themselves.  So sure, we can ignore divination, the will of the Gods, all of of it.  Those are choices to polytheists, even ones like me with a collar to a God on.  Poor ones, in my view, but choices nonetheless.

Placing the Gods first means, though, that we accept the Gods as the center of our lives, as the forces with which we ally to bring good to our lives and the lives of those we touch.  As my family understands and lives this, it means that family is second to the Gods because without a good relationship with the Gods, we do not have good relationships within our family.  Practically speaking this means that every Thursday my son and I turn off the video games or put up the books half and hour or so early, before bedtime, to do cleansing work, and pray to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir when we could be doing other things.  It is why we take time in the morning to pray to Sunna and Daeg, thanking Them for a new day and a fresh start.  It is why we pray to Mani and Nött at night for the he light of the Moon and the blanket of darkness.  It is why we pray at every meal in thanks to all our Gods, to the Ancestors, the vaettir, and all those who made our meal possible.  It means that we take time out and give that time for devotion as a gift to the Gods for all They do for us.  It means we look at offerings we pay money for not as waste, but as gifts given to Those who share, bless, and walk with us in our lives.  It means that when we go out to a park that we make offerings at trees as thanks for walking on Their land and in Their home.  It means we make offerings not only to the landvaettir on the land we live on, but the vaettr of the house itself.  It means that when we pass graveyards we salute and hail the Dead and Warrior Dead.  It means that our Ancestors are never gone, but walk with us in this life.  That when we work with people, we understand the work to not just be work, but Gebo and the building up of maegen and hamingja between us. It means that the religion we live carries weight in our lives, and ripples out into how we relate to one another, and to all things.

In placing the Gods first, we can relate to all things in sacred manner.  In placing the Gods first in good Gebo, we can then relate to all things in good Gebo.  In placing the Gods first, we orient our lives around those Beings and the things They teach which matter most.

The Warrior Dead and Military Dead

November 15, 2014 9 comments

I have used the two terms Warrior Dead and Military Dead on and off, both here on this blog, and elsewhere. I felt that I needed to give some explanation, as the way I use these terms are not automatically interchangeable. Not everyone, Ancestor workers, spirit workers, or otherwise will agree with me, and that is fine. There are many I count as Warrior Dead that are not Military Dead at all. Not all the Military Dead are Warrior Dead. This does not mean that all our Military Dead who I do not count as Warrior Dead are somehow less.

For me, what makes the Warrior Dead and Military Dead different is this: a Warrior Dead has stood up in defense of their people and/or their ways, whether that sacrifice or stand is made on behalf of their tribe, religion, nationality, ethnicity, etc. They may have done so in spite of overwhelming odds, to safeguard a piece of their people or heritage. They may have given their life in service of their people, or their ways. Among the Warrior Dead I honor are the 4,500 Saxons who gave up their lives rather than convert to Christianity, and those who kept the sacred ways alive. Countless people not part of an army have risen to defend their people from oppression, genocide, invasion, hate, and privation.

Not all Military Dead are called to make such sacrifices. One of my grandfathers, when he passes, will have been in the military, and so I will honor him as part of the Military Dead. Yet, he will not have seen combat. He signed up, and so, would have been willing to place himself in harm’s way. I do not believe the only Military Dead worth honoring are those who have seen combat. As with my grandfather, one of my grandmothers has served in the Army in a noncombat role, she, as a secretary. Anyone willing to put their life in harm’s way for another deserves honor. Anyone willing to give up some of, if not all, of the best years of their life so another person does not have to, deserves honor. Whether one is a mail carrier, a secretary, a drill sergeant, a combat officer, or a medic, support staff or direct combatants, all deserve honor. All who are part of the Military Dead deserve our honor and our thanks.

I honor the Warrior and Military Dead together on a single shrine. Because of space constraints this is on a filing cabinet. On this shrine is Wepwawet, who I associate with the Warrior Dead. He is on the rightmost front part of the shrine. Standing before Him is a small ceramic cup (I think it was used for crème brule) which holds the whiskey I have in offering for all on the shrine. Beside it is a small mound of mugwort, and sometimes tobacco. In the center of the shrine is a ceramic container which contains the dirt from several veterans’ graves, which They granted to me with Their permission after I left offerings for Them and cleaned the dirt from Their plaques. It is something I try to do about once a month. To Their left is a pin I received at The Warrior Remembrance Ritual at ConVocation 2012, given to me by the ritual leader. I wear it sometimes when I serve the Military Dead; otherwise it stays on Their shrine. To the left of this is a US Armed Forces pin and a mirror from WWII. I was told the mirror had seen combat when I picked these up from an antique shop. Behind this is a muslin-wrapped figure whom I have given a lot of work to: Ramses II. Given he was a renowned warrior and his tomb had been disturbed, I have taken time doing spells and giving offerings for him. He has a small glass star at his head. The very front of the shrine has scraps of paper with the names of people I am giving offerings to, and prayers for.

Some of these Dead have responded in kind, and asked for me not only to pray for Them, but those They left behind. After all, this is a two-way street. We do not just look after the Dead. As the Lithuanian proverb goes, “The Dead are the protection of the living.” In honoring our Warrior and Military Dead, we offer Them a way into our lives, to walk with us again, and to share in our lives as much as our offerings. Our Gebo to Their sacrifices is to remember Them, to honor Them, and to keep Their memories.

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