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Thinking on Modern Concepts of Money and Fehu

September 1, 2019 2 comments

Something that is a current in many of the documentaries, blogs, and YouTube videos I watch is our modern society’s relationship with money. Money as we generally experience it in modern society is through the lens of fiat currency. This is true whether we are talking about the US dollar, kroners, or cryptocurrency. As I began to think on these things the Rune Fehu came to my mind.

Before I get into where Fehu gets into all of this, let us look at how modern currencies operate.

The US dollar ceased to be on the gold standard June 5th, 1933. On August 15th, 1971 dollars to gold ceased to be converted at a fixed value. What tethered the modern world’s reserve currency to any notion of physical boundaries disappeared a long while ago. Fiat currencies are the majority of the world’s currencies. So if there is no way that currencies are bound to physical things of value, where, then does our money come from?

All money is loaned into existence.

Both Investopedia and Chris Martenson of Peak Prosperity have explanations that agree on this. What does it mean for us that all money is loaned into existence with no backing to the currency by a physical object to which the value of money is tied?

As Michael Ruppert pointed out in the documentary Collapse:

Before the great growth of populaton which occured with the advent of oil came this revolution in the monetary system as well. There was a time when a pound sterling actually meant a pound of sterling silver. There was only so much silver out of the ground. You couldn’t print silver, it was something real. You cannot print any more money than there is energy to back it up.

That last point is deeply important especially since the banking sector relies on fractional reserve banking. Again, quoting Michael Ruppert:

Then there is Fractional Reserve Banking. If you brought me $10 deposit I could make $90 worth of loans just based on having that $10 in my drawer. It is all calculated that not everyone is going to come in and want their cash all at once -that’s a called a run on the bank. When I lend now a total of $100 based on that $10 deposit that is more money I create out of thin air. Well gee, that means that in order to pay off whoever gets that money [that person] has to make more money still to feed in at the bottom so that the banks can create still more money.

Because all money is loaned into existence at interest this means that the economy as a whole is constantly having to produce money, and thus, all those things tied to the economy have to keep on producing things that make money to keep up with the demand of the economic system. When a company goes under, unable to pay back its debts and defaults that money entirely disappears from the economy. Likewise, when I pay back a loan. This encourages debt to a degree heretofore unseen.

This kind of thing simply does not exist in nature. You cannot take any more carrots out of the ground than there were carrots growing to harvest. You cannot take any more milk from your cow than she is able to give. You cannot pull any more oil out of the ground than there is to be had.

The Rune Poems are quite simple and profound in what they have to say about Fehu. These translations I found on The Ragweed Forge. Fé, Fé, and Feoh are the respective Rune to each poem.

From the Icelandic Rune Poem:

Wealth
source of discord among kinsmen
and fire of the sea
and path of the serpent.

From the Norwegian Rune Poem:

  1. Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen;
    the wolf lives in the forest.

From the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem:

Wealth is a comfort to all men;
yet must every man bestow it freely,
if he wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.

The first two poem sources note that wealth is destructive among kinsmen, while the last calls it a comfort. Fehu, the proto-Germanic reconstruction of the root to the Rune in these poems, translates to cattle. Fé and Feoh are both related to the word cattle and the concept contained within it: mobility, wealth, and mobile wealth.

It makes sense that Fehu is related to cattle. Cattle are a significant source of wealth in Proto-Indo European cultures for a few reasons. First, maintaining any size of herd is expensive due to their need for pasture. The land, the ability to hold it securely, to staff it, and to care for it need resources all their own to work allow for this. Second, cattle produce immense amounts of milk from the cows and any cattle slaughtered for meat produce a lot, as well as a lot of skin, fats, and bones, all useful for an incredible varied amount of foods and goods. Third, they produce incredibly useful manure that returns vitality to the soil and allows fields to grow green and tall. Cattle, in turn, require healthy places to range, protection, and care from those who raise them. There is reciprocity bound into the relationship as a mandate for animal husbandry to work -at all.

Contrast this with how our modern systems of money and value are utterly divorced from these relationships. Cattle cannot grow forever, cannot exponentially reproduce in their lifetime. They die. Like every other living being they go through a life cycle of birth, maturation, decline, and death. There is no International Bank of Cattle. To be sure, there are cattle ‘stocks’ per se, but these are based more on how much poundage a given rancher can squeeze out of their cattle. The rancher is actively encouraged by the economic system to ignore what is best for the cattle, and ultimately, their own livelihood and continued wellbeing, in order to squeeze a few more pounds onto their animals prior to slaughter. The maximization of profits at the expense of the cattle’s comfort, health, wellbeing, as well as that of the lands they graze, or in the case of CAFOs, the bare minimum square footage they occupy prior to being slaughtered. The introduction and continued use of sub-clinical doses of antibiotics, used to increase the weight of animals so they produce more meat for slaughter, now is affecting the ability of antibiotics to kill diseases. We now have diseases developing or that have developed resistance to every available antibiotic.

The way our money system works defies the value that Fehu, even on a basic reading of its etymology, presents to us. Go deeper. Fehu, in the idea of wealth, presents not only living concepts of wealth in that wealth is in the land, water, air, and our relationships with the living world. I firmly understand Fehu as living in right relationship. Cattle can only grow healthy, well, and in numbers able to keep the herd and the humans who work with it healthy in this way.

Why do both the Icelandic and Norwegian Rune Poems warn of Fé being a source of discord among kinsmen? In the Icelandic Rune Poem it is called the fire of the sea and path of the serpent. The fire of the sea is a kenning, as gold is often referred to in fiery terms and it was often raided for. The path of the serpent, in my understanding, is a direct reference to Fafnir, the dragon featured in the Volsungasaga who is slain by Sigurd. The path of the serpent is greed, hoarding, miserly behavior. Wealth accumulated for its own sake, not shared with the community, not allowed to flow, turns poisonous. What should be a healthy relationship with things of value, shared with the community, with friends and loved ones, when kept to oneself turns destructive, destroying both the ability of the hoarder to give and the community to receive. It destroys good bonds of hamingja, denies the vaettir the ability to circulate and develop relationships with those who the wealth would help, and in doing this, stops the wealth’s own ability to be a positive force. Fafnir’s lair is described as desolate, and the air and water around him as poisoned. If we understand the idea of wealth to be those things from which value is able to derive, eg good soil, clean air, clean water, right relationship with all these things, and so on, then the hoarding of wealth allows these things to be destroyed or spoiled. One could easily look to a modern Fafnir as the landowner who simply sits on land, allowing the buildings on it to crumple and blight a neighborhood. One could easily look to a modern Fafnir as the company that operates in a town for years then, once it has entrapped the local economy and destroyed local businesses, when it downsizes or goes abroad for cheaper, more exploitable labor, it leaves behind all its effluence and rips apart the town as it goes. Then it is free to do it again in whatever town it finds itself down the road.

So what of the wolf in the forest in the Norwegian Rune Poem? The wolf was a consistent source of strife for the farmers. You can invest countless hours of work in maintaining your herds of cattle, sheep, or flocks of birds, and find at least one if not many eaten. Those animals were going to help you and your family survive the oncoming harsh winter. Now, they go to feed something that neither lives in your community or contributes to it.

The wolf lives in the forest, meaning it is utgard (outer yard aka outside) to the innangard (inner yard aka interior) of the farm. When looking at the Norwegian Rune poem, the idea I get is of the outsider coming in to disrupt the right relationship wealth has among kinsmen. A prime modern example would be the Pennsylvanians featured in the documentary Gasland. The companies that came in to set up fracking sites made a situation where one neighbor who profited via their mineral rights were pitted against their neighbors who did not until towns, even neighbors, were at each others’ throats over fracking deals being made. Whereas the Icelandic Rune Poem is a caution against the path of the serpent where wealth is hoarded and poisons both the person hoarding it and those around them, the wolf in the Norwegian Rune Poem is the outsider who ravages or pits neighbor against neighbor, profiting from the discord and gaining wealth for themselves and depriving everyone else of it. Since the wolf in this case is utgard, having no bonds of loyalty to those innangard, its disruptive force is even more impactful as it breaks good, healthy bonds of hamingja as well as those of right relationship between communities and the sources of wealth that sustain them and allow them to thrive. The wolf gets its meal in the form of the broken communities it leaves behind and the community gets to clean up after the slathering wolf who bounds away from the community’s slain lambs, licking its chops.

Contrasting these two poems, thankfully, is the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem. Where the previous two cautioned against the dangers of wealth, this Rune Poem extols its virtues. Indeed, wealth is a comfort to all. Good air, clean water, good soil, right relationship, and the ability to provide for one’s community and self through these things is a source of deep comfort. Without the ability to bestow it freely, and receive it in kind we are left either to hoard it or destitution. Which Lord’s sight would we gain in honor? In my view Odin or Freyr works here. Regardless, when wealth is allowed to flourish the good things of that wealth circulate. From here we are able to give good Gebo to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Without wealth our cup is empty. We cannot make offerings from an empty cup. The potential of wealth, and indeed money itself to do good is there. It needs to be cared for and allowed to flow to do so healthily. We must be free to care for the land, air, water, and our communities. We must be free to work with the sources of wealth, to bring up good things in it and from it, and to exchange in good Gebo with each other. Fehu’s usual entrance in Runic dictionaries of ‘cattle’ belies the deep ties and right relationships it requires.

So what of modern money and Fehu? If we understand that wealth is not money, but rather, money’s value is derived from wealth, it presents a very different understanding of things compared to how modern society operates. A fiat currency is only able to be exchanged as payment for goods and services because we, as a society, have decreed this currency is able to be used for that purpose. Untethered from any real good, such as gold, which could serve to give it a basis in reality for its value, money’s value fluctuates based on availability in the economy, at how much it is borrowed into existence, and the price of the goods it is able to buy. In the end, money in our society is backed up by the amount of energy that makes it able to purchase goods and services and to pay taxes and our faith that it is a good medium for exchange. This way of organizing how money works directly impacts how we care for all the sources of wealth, our communities, and ourselves. If the only way attain the value of a thing is to price it in terms of what x amount of dollars can buy y thing then unless the sources of wealth can be readily exploited and converted into cash they are deemed relatively worthless. This is why a single room apartment in New York City, cramped and with thin walls, can cost upwards of $2,000 a month where a two bedroom apartment here in Michigan can cost around $800 to $1,000 a month. This is why vacant farmland, cut up and parceled to sell to homeowners, can run anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 an acre just depending on how close it is to the nearest city.

Fehu requires us to tend the things from which wealth flows. The land, air, waters all must be tended so cattle, mobile wealth, can flourish. So we need to not only protect the land, air, and waters, we need to work to regenerate them. Yellowstone found that when wolves were reintroduced it had huge knock-on effects because rivers would come back and flourish. This was because the trees which held water and held the soil together were not being destroyed by hungry animals. This, in turn, allowed more and more of the park itself to flourish. Fehu, then, requires balance and true appreciation for those things which are the very sources of life, of wealth, and of the good things we can make of this life. We must be living well both spiritually and physically with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and with one another. The soil and water must be healthy so the grass is healthy, so that in turn the grass is healthy so the cattle is healthy, and we who eat the cow then are healthy as well. What we value needs to be valued in life and in death. Slaughtering a cow is still a big undertaking. They need to be cared for well, they should be slaughtered humanely, they are heavy, and their body can make a lot of food and tools. All of this requires preparation, skill, and care to be taken with each step. Even without slaughtering a cow, while the excreta of cows is a potent fertilizer and balancer to the soil, it can only be so if it is allowed to compost properly so it does not present as a vector for diseases to soil, water, to the cows, or to us.

I agree with Kelly Harrel’s point in The Runic Book of Days: as the first Rune in the Futhark, Fehu is the warming power of Muspelheim where Uruz is cold solidity of Nifelheim. Both these Runes are thethered not only to physical concepts but to the spiritual and intellectual ideas found within the Runes. Again and again, wherever I look, Fehu is homeostasis, living balance found in living with the environment one is in. It is not peace; that is another thing entirely. Imbalanced, Fehu is the out-of-control population of hooved animals eating a piece of land to death, hot manure spread over soil, but not allowed to decompose. Imbalanced, Fehu is the path of the serpent and the wolf who breaks the boundariess of the yard, leaving privation and destruction behind.

Our ideas of money, then, should be oriented towards those things which allows the wealth of the soil, the water, the air, our bodies and our spirits to be healthy. This, in turn, makes our money useful to all these things while giving it the opportunity to grow in a useful way rather than for its own sake. When we herd we place boundaries on where the herd is able to go to protect the soil, the water, the air, and the cows themselves. We need to do the same with our money so it does not all leave us, just as we need to give it room to move and be useful. For our purposes, the budget shares the same purpose as the fence with cattle, and the objectives we turn our money toward are similar to the pastures we raise the cattle on. When it comes to Fehu and money I ultimately see a regenerative relationship should we keep in right relationship. The money we ‘graze’ today as investments can come back to us as good cows whose lives we honor by using everything they give us to its best extent. Ideally, we grow our sources of wealth and our money as we would actual cows: by making strong relationships that our descendents are able to benefit from and grow long after we become part of the Ancestors.

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Relationships with Spirits -Part 1

July 9, 2019 5 comments

Thanks to The Rusted Barrow for their dedication to writing on the spirits. Reading that post inspired my own.

Alongside The Rusted Barrow I got inspiration for this post from reading the book The Tradition of Household Spirits by Claude Lecouteux. It has been an excellent, approachable, and informative read. It digs into the various kinds of household spirits, their places, and practices associated with Them, and then what Their origins may be. It predominantly focuses on European beliefs, including those of France, England, Norway, Angland, and Russia. I highly recommend reading it, as many of the practices will be right at home with hearth cultus for any Heathen or Pagans in general.

Having read both The Rusted Barrow’s post and The Tradition of Household Spirits in the same week, I felt I had to write something on the topic of spiritss and I got to thinking: there have not been many guides on what spirits are out there in Heathenry and the Northern Tradition, nor of how to start a relationship with one, or how to interact with spiritss you are not used to. What started off as a large single post look like it will become another series of posts all on its own.

I call the spirits by the Old Norse plural for the word, vaettir; vaettr is the singular. The vaettir are all around us and within us. There are vaettir in and of the earth, jordvaettir aka earthvaettir, just as there are vaettir in and of the fire, eldrvaettir aka firevaettir. There are vaettir within us, and we ourselves, both our essential or ‘higher’ selves and various of our soul parts, which have their own names, are vaettir. For this post I will not be writing on the Soul Matrix, since that is a subject all on its own. This post series will focus on the vaettir external to humans. I think it is important, though, to reflect that even we humans are full of vaettir, whether we are talking about the spiritual reality of the blood of the Ancestors running in our veins or the individual cells of our body each being in and of itself a vaettr that helps to make us up.

What are Spirits?

Any thing which is ensouled can be said to be a spirit. They are any thing which weaves and is bound up in the web of Urðr or Wyrd. What, then, can be ensouled and woven in Urðr/Wyrd? Potentially everything, from the tiniest of atoms to the largest expanse of space. Whether or not a thing has a larger or smaller sphere of influence depends on the effects it has on others and its ability to act in creation. A given thing being a spirit does not mean it operates or acts in a way we may consider logical or at all with our interests in mind. Planets have their own spirit, for example, but whether or not that spirit can or has the desire speak to me, or vice versa, is another matter.

Mikilvaettir

Over time I’ve worked out different words in Old Norse that get across ideas relevant to the experiences I and others have had with vaettir. One of those words is mikillvaettir.

Mikillvaettir or ‘big/tall/powerful/great spirits’ is similar in my understanding to a head/co-head and/or guardian spirit over a family line, specie of tree, animal, and so on. We can have close relationships with spirits, even the mikill, and so may appeal to them using more close, familiar terms. I call the mikillvaettr of Mugwort Grossmutter Una, German for Grandmother and Old Norse for Joy. Were I being more strict with my language I would be calling Her Amma Una. Mikillvaettir, both as a word and concept, is distinct from the term totem. Totem is a corruption of an Ojibwe word, doodem. As the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary notes, doodem itself means “clan, totem” and that “There is no simple independent word for clan, totem. A personal prefix goes with the dependent noun stem /=doodem-/ clan to make a full word.” Further, /=doodem-/ are related to personal clans in Ojibwe cultures. Mikilvaettir may be related to us, such as the Disir or Väter, our powerful female and male Ancestors, or They may be head of a kind or group of vaettir.

When viewed in this worldview, even the familiar takes on spiritual significance. If we understand that our cells can be ensouled, then so can a disease like the flu. The flu has a discernable way of coming into existence, of spreading, being fought, and triumphing over an infected host or being defeated. Since each iteration of the flu is a spirit, we can extend this knowing to the variouss strainss of the influenza virus and to the flu as a whole. The idea is that, as we might approach a mikilvaettr of a plant (for instance mikillgrasvaettr for ‘big/great grass or pasture spirit’) so we may have better relations with its ‘children’, we may also approach the flu. We could refer to as mikillsóttvaettr or ‘big illness spirit’. Understood this way we may not be able to beat the big illness spirit that, like our own Ancestral lines, governs the development of its own descendants. However, we may propitiate it or negotiate with it to tamp down on its rambunctious children. Barring that we might simply do spiritual work, alongside our physical remedies, to stop the small flu spirit from burning through a person, killing and dispelling the flu spirit so the person gets well. Since our own lich, our body, is a part of the Soul Matrix, in such an animistic view physical remedies for the flu are spiritual as well. The difference is how the remedies are made, where they affect, and what they affect. Some may be more effective than others. So would I take only a magical/spiritual approach to the flu? No. I vaccinate myself, I take care to wash my hands, and do all the other prudent things to ward off the flu just as I do unwanted spiritual influences by regular cleansing, grounding, centering, and shielding work. The approaches work together.

A Vaettir-Filled Worldview

When we view what is often understood as ordinary, whether it is the electricity in the walls, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the places we live, where we work, all as being full of spirits, the world changes. Not only are we not alone, but literally everything around us is composed of spirits. Each spirit, in turn, has Ancestors of some kind. The concrete used in the construction of our buildings (jorðvaettir) to the furnaces (eldrvaettir) used to heat them, to the pumped water (vatnvaettir) going into them. Through merely co-existing in the web of Urðr/Wyrd we weave in relationships every moment of every day. Some may be perfunctory, some transactional, and some truly deep. In my experience most of our relationships with spirits are going to be on the same kind of level as we might passing a random person on the sidewalk as we are both heading opposite directions. We are neutral to each other, trying to stay out of one another’s way and just trying to get wherever it is we want to go. Except where one party or the other initiates contact for a deeper relationship most of our connections with spirits are really cursory. A simple example of this is when we come into cultus with the landvaettir and/or husvaettir. After all, we are living on and with Them so it is in our best interests to get along well with the very land we live on and those we share our home with. Sometimes we have to do a lot to even attract Their attention. Because of experiences with humans in Their past some vaettir may need some patience on our part, and for us to put our best foot forward early and often. With some vaettir, we need to know that we are not going to get along and leaving the vaettir alone is the best way for us to have good relations.

With a vaettir-filled worldview Heathenry does not allow for the centrality of humankind. This puts it at odds with many philosophies from the start, such as humanism, which proposes a human-centric worldview. Humanity in Heathenry is just one class of vaettir among many. With the centrality of humanity absent, understanding ourselves in relationships with the Earth (Jorð) around us and potentially any of the Nine Worlds, we then enter a region in which human desires must take a back seat to the needs of other Beings if we are to live well together. We do not denigrate ourselves or ignore the needs and wants we have in a vaettir-filled worldview. Rather, one of the central tenets of Heathenry is to live in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir; a human-centered worldview is utterly at odds with this.

Kinds of Vaettir

The Heathen worldview encompasses a lot of different kind of vaettir. My point here is to give a basic overview of what the vaettir are, and how one might encounter them rather than give an exhaustive look at specific vaettir.

Ancestors

Ancestors are those vaettir who are related to us. The tack I take with who the Ancestors are is very broad. Ancestors and ancestry is complex, a weaving of relationships of blood and bone, spirit, lineage, and adoption. Ancestors can be human and non-human, Gods as well as other kinds of vaettir.

Ancestors, especially the Disir, Väter, and Ergi (more on these later) have our immediate interests at heart. Generally, Ancestors are among the first vaettir to have our back in hard times and to work well with us. Each of us are Ancestors in the making and will someday join Them, so beyond being Their descendants They have a vested interest in us doing well so when we join Them we are best placed to help our own descendants.

Ancestors of blood and bone are those Ancestors we are directly related to through blood relations. These are the people you are looking for if you do geneaology or are looking for via DNA results. Taken at large, all of humanity shares blood Ancestors at some point in the distant past whether we are looking at our common early homo sapien Ancestors, or even further back through to Chromosomal Adam, or further back, Mitochondrial Eve. As a primarily Norse Heathen I look to Ask and Embla as our common human Ancestors in addition to those of our larger human ancestry.

Ancestors of spirit generally refers to Ancestors that are spiritual kin to us whether that is through a group of vaettir bringing us into their fold by adoption, by blood relations where a vaettr had a hand in the creation of a line of people such as Ing to the Ingvaones, through initiation/ceremony into a group who share common spiritual Ancestors, or by direct invitation into a vaettr’s family. These Ancestors may or may not be human.

Ancestors of lineage are our Ancestors related to us through our work, through initiated lines such as mystery cults, or are spiritual specialists like priests or diviners. These Ancestors might be also relate to us through crafts such as weaving, woodworking, painting, sculpting, brewing, etc., as most of these professions were, at varying times, initiated roles such as Master and Apprentice, or had deep spiritual significance in the ‘home cultures’ of Heathens.

Ancestors can be adopted as can we. Fostering is one way Ancestors can adopt us. Another is when we become part of a close-knit spiritual community, such as a Kindred and/or Heathen tribe. In my own Kindred I make offerings to all of our Ancestors, and include at least a few Ancestors of beloved people who are chosen family. A common refrain in various forms that I am seeing across the Internet lately towards QUILTBAG+ folks is “If you are disowned by your blood family for being who you are, I am now your parent.” If someone were truly taking on this role then I think in turn they would be adopted as sure as anyone fostering a child would be.

Disir

Disir are the powerful female Ancestors. Many of the alternative interpretations for what They are that I have found online I understand are among the roles the Disir occupy: They are the guardians of family lines, those who keep the other Ancestors in line, act as the voice of the Ancestors where needed, are instructors, and may act as mediators between Their living relatives and other vaettir.

Väter

Väter are the powerful male Ancestors. While many will use the term Alfar to refer to Them, I do not. I understand Alfar as Their own discreet kind of vaettir. The Väter occupy very similar places to the Disir in my experience of Them.

Ergi

Ergi are the powerful queer Ancestors, and occupy similar places in Ancestors to the Disir and Väter. Like the word queer, ergi used to be an insult which has been reclaimed. In this case, ergi referred to someone being unmanly, namely the recipient in homosexual sex, and was considered an insult deep enough to kill or outlaw over.

Fylgja

Fylgja is a word meaning ‘follower’. Generally it means those spirits that follow a given person. A fylgja is often conflated with the Celtic ‘fetch’ which appears as an omen or a familial vaettr to a person. Its sighting is said to portend the person’s death. I use the term to mean any vaettr which a person works with in a tutelary, guardian, familial, or similar capacity in which the vaettr in question would have reason to actually ‘follow’ or, along with its other meanings, to ‘help’, ‘attend’, or ‘serve’. Rather than describing the kind of relationship one has to a fylgja, it is a term for a vaettr that one is attached to or vice versa.

Kinyflgja

As with fylgja I use this word in its more general capacity. Here, however, it references those vaettir who are tutelary, guardian(s), helping, attending, or serving in reference to one’s Ancestors. These may Ancestors Themselves or vaettir related to our Ancestors, whether they are animals or plants asssociated with Them, or bonds our Ancestors made with vaettir that They have in kind passed on to us.

Vorðr

A word describing a vaettr, among whose meanings are ‘guard’, ‘guardian’, ‘watch’, and ‘warden’. This word is very-much what it says on the tin: it is a spiritual guardian. In spiritual sight it may take the form of an animal. It may also take the form of the hamr of a person, their spiritual body. So far as lore is concerned I have not found a definite answer to where the vorðr comess from. The origins of a vorðr may come from one’s Ancestors, either a spirit of the Ancestors or from the Ancestors, eg a spirit the Ancestors formed some relationship with to watch over Their descendents. Depending on its origin you can reckon a vorðr as fylgja or kinfylgja.

Alfar

The word means ‘elf’ and belies the vast corpus of beliefs that have grown up around this word. I look at the diminutive use of elf in the same way that Lecouteux describes in The Tradition of Household Spirits, namely that it, like dwarf, sprite, and others have been used so much to cram lore about various beings into it that we need to differentiate what we are actually talking about from the mass it has become in Medieval and later folklore. Rather than take the approach that any diminutive, ‘cute’ or similar vaettr is an elf, the Alfar are namely those vaettir who belong to the world Vanaheim. Though there may be cross-currents between Scandinavian and Irish sources for what elves may be, I look at the Tuatha de Denaan as utterly different beings to Alfar. Likewise, I differentiate from many other Heathens in that I understand the Alfar to be Their own distinct spiritual category of vaettir rather than the powerful male Ancestor (whom I call Väter) or from the Dead who occupy burial mounds. So what are Alfar? Vaettir who often take on many (often beautiful) forms who are powerful in magic. In my experiences with Them I have found Them statuesque, powerfully spoken even when ‘quiet’, a commanding presence, and able to make powerful magic and having varying connections with natural places, especially groves and wooded areas.

Dvergar

The word means ‘dwarf’, and like Alfar belies the absolutely immense amount of beliefs that have become attached to that word. As with ‘elf’, Lecouteux describes in The Tradition of Household Spirits how ‘dwarf’ came to mean an absolutely dizzying array of things, some of them interchangeable with ‘elf’. The Dvergar definitely have more to offer from the lore we have, including that They are the best crafters in the Nine Worlds. Their moods tend to be stern and They exact heavy tolls from those who cross Them. My experiences with Andvari is that They are concerned with what is Theirs, and that part of keeping frið (good social order) with Them is maintainin awareness of what is ours.

Jotun

Jotun is a word related to ‘consuming’ and ‘devourer’, while often glossed as ‘giant’ nowadays. Jotun tend to be related to wilderness, natural forces, and animals. They can be monstrous, achingly beautiful, both, and neither. As many forms as nature can take, so can They, and yet more. Some Heathens eschew relationships with Jotun entirely, others only with those aligned with the Aesir, and yet others are willing to work with Jotun from any corner. Where one falls on this depends on the understanding one has of what Jotun are, Their place in the cosmology, and what our relationships with Them as humans can be. For myself, seeing as how many of the primal Holy Powers are Jotun, eg Surtr and Kari, and individual Jotun may be vaettir related to specific weather events, nature, and similar things, having a working relationship with at least some of Them can be good, in keeping with doing right by Holy Powers underpinning our Worlds. We do not have to get along with every vaettr to have a good relationship with some of Them any more than we must worship every Heathen God or Goddesss to be a good Heathen.

The Dead

The Dead are any vaettir which once lived. While the Ancestors are generally looked on as Dead, not all of Them are. Some Ancestors may never have incarnated in Midgard, eg some Ancestors of spirit. The Dead encompass a wide range of vaettir, including the Dead of those mentioned above. Some of the Dead are ambivalent to the living, while others actively seek out the living. The Dead may be bound to a particular place such as a barrow mound or grave, they may wander free, or belong to a realm of a God or Goddess, eg Folkvangr, Valholl, and Helheim. In my understanding, most of our Ancestors’ graves and barrow mounds were both a resting place for parts of the soul matrix, and a point of contact or a possible ‘door’ between whatever afterlife They go to and where we are. Because a portion of the soul is in the lich, the bones, furs, teeth, and claws maintain powerful spiritual connections to the Dead.

Elemental

Elemental vaettir are directly related to the Elements of the Northern Tradition/Heathenry. While not reckoned in this way in the lore or other sources, I find looking at the elements Themselves in this way speaks to the breadth and length at which vaettir are in our lives. It also helps with organizing associations, unsderstanding, and where and how those relationships are made. Jorðvaettir are Earthvaettir, Eldrvaettir are Firevaettir, Vatnvaettir are Watervaettir, Vindrvaettir are Windvaettir, and Issvaettir are Icevaettir. Why look at the Elements Themselves in terms of vaettir? Because not all Eldrvaettir are necessarily Fire-Etins, nor all Issvaettir necessarily Thurs. Having kinship with or association to certain Elements does not make Jotun necesssarily vaettir of those Elements. An Elemental worldview does have its limits, and that is about when it stops being accurate to the Being of a given vaettir.

We can also break down what we mean when speaking about certain Elemental vaettir. Jorðvaettir is more of a broad category when we look at a piece of land, because it belies all the many vaettir contained on and within the land. A single big Earthvaettr may be made up of the trees, animals, insects, and other vaettir in that piece of land, and yet that does not negate that each of those trees, animals, and so on are, Themselves, vaettir. I count my húsvaettir, or housevaettir, among the Earthvaettir. As my relationships with the land and the house that lies upon it differ, so too does my relationship differ between their vaettir. It is also worth pointing out that how and in what form you engage with a given Elemental vaettir may have drastic consequences on how it responds to you. Just starting out working with Eldrvaettir? Probably best to start with candles rather than a bonfire. Regardless of the size or scope of its form give any vaettr its due respect.

Beginning Relationships

While each vaettr may have its own requirements for how it wishes to be reached, perhaps the easiest way to reach out is to make room for the vaettir on our home altars. If you are starting absolutely new to Heathenry or the Northern Tradition, my first recommendation is to build an Ancestor altar before anyone else’s. Not only will this encourage good relationships with your Ancestors, it will also have the benefit of the Ancestors you build good bonds with helping you to make new good and safe bonds with vaettir going forward.

To begin a relationship with a vaettr first you need to actually want to make a relationship with a vaettr. This might seem self-explanatory, but a good mindset is the best thing you can have starting off. Having a gipt fá gipt (gift for a gift) relationship, a relationship based in good Gebo, is not about transaction, but about wanting to establish and maintain right relationship. A gipt fá gipt/Gebo relationship is one that honors both participants, is good and wholesome. If you are looking for a transactional relationship where you put an offering out and get something immediately or near-term for it, that is fine to engage in with a vaettir you want to have a business relationship with. However, that is not what I am talking about here. What I am talking about here is developing a long-term and powerful devotional relationship with vaettir.

Once you are clear that your intention is to develop a good relationship you need to make space for that relationship. Making a physical space for that vaettir on an altar, often called a vé, or sacred space, is a powerful way to invite that vaettr deeper into your life. After all, you are making or setting aside space in a sacred space dedicated to the spiritual relationships you have and you are developing. So if have never made an altar, how do you go about doing it?

The Simplest Altar

A solid surface with a white cloth, a cup for water, and a single white candle with a lighter or book of matches and a holder for spent matches. That is the bare minimum you need for a simple altar. The surface can be a table, a bookshelf, an Altoid tin, or a cigar box. The candle can be as big or small as you need, from a birthday candle clear on up to a big taper. The cup can be made of whatever material is best for your situation, so long as it is clean and holds water. Start small. Altars can always grow if they need to.

A Simple Invitation Rite

Most of my relationships with vaettir have begun in similar fashion. First, I realize and affirm that I want to begin a relationship with a vaettr or group of vaettir. Then, I make space for Them on the altar. Then, after cleansing an object representing the vaettir/vaettir, I make prayer and offerings, then consecrate the item as Their representation and/or vessel.

Before beginning the rite, for a simple cleansing, ask the Eldest Ancestor, Fire, to cleanse you and the space. Something simple like “Hail Eldest Ancestor, please cleanse me and this space.” then pass the candle over yourself and the area clockwise. If you are seeking to connect with the Ancestors the Eldest is the best one to go to first. Leave the candle burning through the ritual if you can, and invite the Ancestor(s) you wish to connect with. Simple is better, especially if you are just taking your first steps. If you are just beginning Ancestor worship I would call on the Disir, Väter, and Ergi first, along with any Ancestors you knew in life, and for the first few months just dedicate Ancestor worship to Them. This establishess your relationship with your powerful and known Ancestors first, which helps to protect you from interloper vaettir pretending to be Ancestors, and helps your own discernment. Once the vaettir have been invited and asked to bless the items dedicated to Them, spend a few moments speaking with Them about the relationship you would like to build with Them, and spend time listening to Them in turn. You may ‘hear’, ‘see’, etc nothing, get no kind of spiritual feedback. That is fine. What is important is that, regardless of your receptivity, you give in kind for the time you took to speak. If you have divination tools handy and want direct feedback through them, now would be the time to bring them out. It would be good to double-check that the rite is appreciated, the offerings will be accepted, and if there is anything else needing attending to.

Offerings can be a simple cup of water, any foods or drinks the Ancestors may have liked or were denied when they were alive, or sacred herbs such as mugwort, chamomile, or tobacco. You don’t have to smoke or burn offerings as incense, especially if you live in a place where burning is prohibited, such as a dorm room. In such a case, LED candles work for the same purpose and making the offerings at the nearest, biggest tree should be fine. If you feel you should burn the offerings, keep the offerings in a container, and burn them in a simple ceremony. Once the offerings are taken care of, thank the vaettir for Their Presence, and snuff the candle. Blowing on the candle means you may accidentally spit on it, and so, snuffing it tends to be more respectful to the Firevaettr and the Eldest Ancestor. I tend to make water offerings on the roots of the biggest, nearest tree after asking the treevaettr for permission.

 

This will be it for the first part of Relationships with Spirits. The next post will dig into how we can begin relationships with spirits, the kinds of relationships we can have with Them, and the ways we keep these relationships healthy.

On Ritual Praxis -Structure, Roles and Responsibilities

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Up until now the majority of the On Ritual Praxis posts have been applicable to both the individual and to groups. Having started at the individual level and worked our way outward, it is time to dig into the larger spheres Heathens are within. I will start with how my Kindred and I understand the structures Heathens operate within, the structures of Heathenry, and then on to the roles and responsibilities people within them may take up. As with other posts in regards to On Ritual Praxis, these are meant to be guides rather than exhaustive, and reflective of how my Kindred and I work. Folks may have different kind of relationship based on structure, worldview, or specific home culture from which their Heathen religion springs.

Structures in Heathenry -Innangarð and Utgarð

The most basic structure in Heathenry for my Kindred and I is the innangarð and utgarð. The innangarð, meaning within the yard/enclosure, start with our Gods, Ancestors and vaettir, us as individuals, our families (chosen and blood), and our Kindred. This innangarð extends out to our allies and friends. Those who are not innangarð are utgarð, outide the yard/enclosure.

Why does this structure matter so much?

It is how we prioritize our lives. It is where we understand ourselves as fitting within, and to whom we owe obligation. It is how we understand how our ørlög and Urðr unfolds, and to whom both are tied most tightly. This does not mean that those in the utgarð are beyond consideration, that only our innangarð matters, or that we are given license to ignore the responsibilities we share with the larger communities in which we live. It means that those within our innangarð have highest priority, and it is where the bulk of our energy, attention, and work belongs.

If the basic understanding is that one’s first priorities are to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then good relationships with Them are one’s first obligation. Likewise one develops a hierarchy of relationships and obligation to one’s self, family, friends, and allies. An understanding of the structure of one’s life begins with understanding one’s cosmology. That understanding then extends into every relationship one has, whether it is with those in the innangarð or those outside it. It extends to every piece of food we eat, even to the media we consume. A cosmology exists everywhere in every moment or it exists nowhere. We do not put our cosmology on pause, we live within it.

The innangarð and utgarð are extensions of our polytheist understanding. Those Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we worship and hold relationships with are within our innangarð. Those we do not are utgarð. This does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir that are utgarð are always bad for us or wrong to worship, merely that they are not within our primary scope of obligation. The Holy Powers in our innangarð are those we worship and have relationships with. They are who we turn to when things are rough and who we celebrate festivals and victories with. Likewise, the people in our innangarð are those we turn to when things are rough and help in turn, and celebrate our victories with.

Structures in Heathenry -Families, Hearths, and Tribes

Heathenry as an identifier is useful only insofar as it signals to ourselves and others that our worldview, religion, and culture is based in lived religion whose backgrounds are based in reconstructing/reviving ancient polytheist religions of Northern Europe which included Scandinavia, Germany, and Anglo-Saxon peoples among others. So we may say we are Scandinavian Heathen group, or an Anglo-Saxon Heathen tribe, or a Germanic Heathen hearth. Even so, this breakdown can miss the differences a given Anglo-Saxon Heathen tribe may have from one based in Texas vs Tennessee. We may share cosmological principles, and our conception of and relationships with Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir may be similar, but there will always be variations between how we relate to and understand each principle, God, Ancestor, and vaettr based in each person, family, hearth, or tribe’s relationships with these principles and Beings. Innangarð, utgarð, ørlög, and Urðr (or culture-specific names holding similar meaning) as understood through one’s Heathen worldview are the primary means for understanding and establishing webs of relationships. With this in mind, I primarily understand and refer to Heathenry as communities of tribal religions.

Some Heathen groups have not and may never make it to being a tribal group simply because they are a single person, family, or hearth that does not ‘click’ with any other ones. A Heathen whose organizing stays at the individual level has no more or less inherent value than one that is a tribe. It means the way one does ritual will change, who one is tied to in obligation changes, and the complexity of one’s relationships changes. The point of identifying structure is not to make tribe something to aim at nor solitary worship in Heathenry as something to avoid. The purpose of going through these terms, especially in how I am using words here, is to develop words with clear meaning for our communities.

Simply put, a family is a group of people related to each other by blood, marriage, or association. A hearth is the home/place in which a family or many families are gathered with a common religious outlook and practice. Tribes are associations of families and/or hearths linked by shared culture and religion. Mimisbrunnr Kindred, for instance, is a tribe made up of many hearths, each with its own family.

Divisions of Innangarð

I like to think of innangarð and utgarð as a series of circles. The first circle of the innangarð is the hearth, the second the bú (farmstead), the third the Kindred/tribe or other groups, the fourth is the Thing, and fifth are the wider associations we hold.

The hearth, as mentioned before, is in the home. These are the people closest to you, often those sharing your physical space every day. This is the level at which folks provide daily mutual support, raise their families, and live together.

I chose to use the word bú, or farmstead, to describe the second circle to connect the importance of those who are within it. As with a farmstead, those in the second circle together work together in close contact, trust each other, and mutually support one another and complete projects together that benefit each other and their communities. Why not name it something like family or the Kindred? Not everyone who is Kindred may have that kind of relationship with one another, either due to the nature of one’s relationships with a Kindred, time, or space limitations.

The third circle is the Kindred/tribe. These are members of our particular religious and culture communities, such as Mimirsbrunnr Kindred. Some folks at the Kindred level might blend back and forth between the different circles of innangarð, providing support for one another and caring for members within their Kindred/tribe as they can. A person within a hearth circle vs a Kindred circle is that they may provide less material and work support than others at the hearth or bú circle. Kindred ties are often likened to family ones, and this is also part of my experience. The emotional ties are certainly there, but the kinds of things that are expected of me at the hearth level, which includes the meeting of financial obligations and physical needs are less expected at the Kindred level. While I am fully happy to help Kindred members with meeting these needs the expectation is not there that I do that on a regular basis as it is with my hearth.

The Thing is another circle in which I took inspiration from history. A Thing was called to engage in trade, settle disputes, and make plans to work on projects. To my understanding the Thing circle is locally based, including my Kindred in relation to other co-religionists, allies to my hearth, Kindred, and tribe. The Thing circle are those our hearths, Kindreds, tribes, etc. are co-equal with who may come together for cross-community projects, conversation, conventions, or settling of disputes.

The fifth circle, associations, are the communities we have connection to but little in the ways of formal oaths or direct ties into our hearths, Kindreds, tribes, and other closer communities. The association circle we could look at as communities in which we may have mutual interests or some connection with, such as Pagan Pride groups, pan-Pagan groups and gatherings, perhaps the local brewing guild a member might be a part of, etc. These are people we have connections with and may even be important members of, but the connections we maintain with these communities stops at anything insular to our lives. The PPD communities aren’t going to be coming over to my home to help vacuum my house or make sure there’s food in the pantry; that’s a hearth through to Kindred circle thing. We might come together to celebrate Pride day or circle around to remember our Dead, but the community is not involved in one’s everyday life so much as one belongs to the community. A local brewing guild might be a source of great inspiration and camaraderie in the journey of a brewer, but aside from maybe hosting a gathering they will not be involved much in one’s day-to-day life.

Structure in Heathenry -Organizational Models

Since Heathen religions are tribal each group may organize itself differently and for different reasons. In my Kindred’s case our organization structure is hierarchical. I am a goði, filling a role as leader both as a chieftain and priest of the Kindred. As a goði I represent the Kindred as an organization to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the communities in which we live and interact. The others are, at the moment, lay members and do not hold leadership or ritual role positions though any of us might make offerings or prayers. The point of a Heathen goði insofar as we are concerned is as a leader, diviner, priest organizing and conducting rites, a representative for the group before the Holy Powers and communities, and a helpmeet to the Kindred’s members in keeping good relationships with one another and the Holy Powers.

We organize hierarchically in Mimisbrunnr Kindred for a few reasons. The Kindred started as a Rune study group with me leading it, and grew from there into a Northern Tradition/Heathen study group. From there, we grew into a working group, and from that group we grew into Mimisbrunnr Kindred. Our worldview as Heathens is hierarchical, whether we look to our Gods, our ancient Heathen Ancestors, or many of our vaettir as examples of how to organize ourselves. We work with a hierarchy model because through it we are organizing ourselves in a manner similar to our Gods, Ancestors, and many of our vaettir. We work in a hierarchy because it works for us, and we have not been told by our Holy Powers to adopt another model. Our roles in the Kindred are clearly delineated, and the work each of us has to do is supported by each of us doing our work.

Other groups may organize along different lines. I have read on groups which operate in egalitarian ways, and others that organize along strict king/subject relationships. Others organize as loose groups of people who come together to share in the occasional rite together. Each group will need to find which model works for it and the purpose it is gathering for.

Structure in Heathenry -General Roles: Laity, Leaders, and Spiritual Specialists

Laity

Laity are non-specialists in religious communities and tend to comprise the core of most religions’ members. There may be leaders in the laity, such as a head of a hearth or heading up a charity or some essential function in a family, Kindred, or Tribe. What differs laity from spiritual specialists is that lay members’ lives share the common elements of Heathen worldview and religious communities.

Just because a given Heathen is a layperson that does not mean they cannot do spiritual work or that they have any more or less value to a given Heathen community. Any Heathen, given practice and dedication to the work, can learn to divine. What differs a layperson who divines from a diviner, who is a spiritual specialist in a given community, is that the diviner does their work for the community as a respected authority or guide, and the layperson who divines may be talented but does not hold a wider communal role in doing divination.

Leaders

To lead is to “organize and direct”, to “show (someone or something) a destination by way to a destination by going in front of or beside them”, “set (a process) in motion”, to be “initiative in an action; an example for others to follow”.

A leader is someone who shows the way forward by walking it. It is someone that takes responsibility not only for one’s own actions but for anyone that follows them. A leader organize, directs, and sets those around them in motion. Leaders in Heathenry tend to be some kind of spiritual specialist whether or not they hold a formal title in a group. However, this is not a strict requirement. One can hold a leadership position in a group and still refer to spiritual specialists for things like divination or spiritual work needing to be done.

There is at least one leader for the hearth. This is someone who, whether by choice of the hearth or by default, represents that hearth before the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. They model right relationships if there are others in the hearth, tend to be the ones who makes the prayers and offerings first, and does divination to see if offerings are accepted. My wife and I share these duties in our hearth.

Spiritual Specialists

A spiritual specialist is a person who has developed skill, expertise, and works in some kind of religious role within a Heathen community. Some examples of this include goði/gyðja, priests, spiritworkers, diviners, spáworkers, seiðworkers, Runeworkers, and sacrificers, among a great many. Spiritual specialists may do one job, eg diviner or sacrificer, and otherwise hold a role in a given Heathen group like laity.

Spiritual specialists are not, by default, leaders, though many are. For example, a diviner may be consulted by a group, but the diviner may have absolutely no role in how the results of divination are acted on by the group or how a leader reacts and plans once divination has been done. Depending on the size of a hearth, Kindred, tribe, etc there may be no specialized roles like these, or one or two people may be called on to fill multiple roles.

Structure in Heathenry -Hosts and Guests

The structure around hosts and guests in Heathenry has a long history on which the home cultures have a lot to say. The Hávamál, for instance, has a great deal to say on the roles of hosts and guests. Structure of this sort extends to the holders of a hearth and visitors to the hearth itself in or out of ritual. This structure also is present in Kindred members hosting a ritual or gathering to non-members. Whether or not a visitor has religious business with a host makes little difference. As these are lived worldviews, structures like these do not end or start at our doorstep; these are lived wherever we go.

A host’s responsibilities include making sure a given guest is comfortable, free from hunger and thirst, and understands their role in the hearth, Kindred space, ritual, etc. This includes what taboos they need to observe such as “do not touch the altar or ritual items without permission” or a requirement like “make an offering to the hearth’s Holy Powers on entering”. For purposes of a ritual, a host may need to provide instruction for a newcomer to Heathenry, or to provide offerings for a given ritual so the guest can make them. The host needs to be aware as they can of everyone’s taboos, requirements, and so on, so both ritual and non-ritual situations can proceed in peace and order.

A guest’s responsibility includes being careful, humble, and not demanding too much from their host while making every effort to be firm in their own needs and requirements prior to visiting. Observing the rules of a hearth, Kindred meeting, and/or ritual is a must, as is following directions for ritual, and abiding by the host and other guests’ taboos and requirements where able. If conflict can arise it is the guest’s responsibility to inform the host. While a host needs to know everyone’s taboos, requirements, etc they do not live with a guest’s taboos or requirements, and may need reminding.

While this may all seem self-explanatory, the back and forth reciprocity of what I have written here is anything but. Many people may consider asking a person what their taboos or requirements are invasive, while others may be too shy or shrinking to state the needs their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, or personal circumstances have placed on them. Still others may simply not know how to ask or say, so having that onus on both host and guest is one that can prevent sources of problems. This same onus in regards to ritual also helps to prevent issues arising from a given host or guest’s taboos, needs, or requirements in ritual space. Far better to be notified ahead of time needing to apologize in a ritual for a slight, even if it was not meant.

Such a taboo or requirement may be quite simple. While I drink I have Kindredmates that do not. Part of the onus on me as a leader in a Kindred ritual, such as a celebratory feast, would be to ask what they can drink as a substitute, such as juice or root beer, and provide it, or to encourage them to find an alternative they are comfortable with. The Kindredmate has to be honest with me, asserting their need to have an alcohol-free choice just as I need to sensitive to that need. Likewise, being a diabetic, I may ask that there be diabetic friendly options for me in the celebration feast. The role of host and guest is reciprocal, each having a piece in determining the comfort and well-being of the other.

Structure in Heathenry -Grith and Frith

The word grith is related to sanctuary and security, while frith is related to peace and good social order. Both are to be held sacred by guest and host. A host provides an environment that is safe and secure for the guest, providing a place for grith and frith to be, while the guest does not bring things or do things that would harm grith or frith. Again, reciprocity is the rule of Heathenry.

Which Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are being worshiped are part of how one designs a ritual and influences what good conduct for it would be. Part of keeping grith, especially in ritual, is to be sure that everyone gathered observes the rules of the ritual and the sacred space. If a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or vaettr to whom the ritual is dedicated has a taboo to observe then the host needs to be sure everyone is keeping to it. Something as simple as everyone turning off their cell phones prior to a rite is keeping grith.

Keeping frith in ritual is everyone being involved in the ritual and carrying it out well, and avoiding what would interrupt the rite, or cause problems during it. This is part of why roles can be important. If there is a need to do divination then having a designated diviner who divines and interprets the divination will allow the ritual to proceed with good order and clear ways forward. Having a ritual leader allows for the leader to correct missteps or to help with folks unused to ritual, or one of its forms without folks stepping on one another’s toes or undoing the ordered space of the ritual.

Being mindful of the vé, what to or what not to place on it, and at what time, is part of grith and frith. Each hearth’s relationship with the Holy Powers, layout of their vé, what is and is not acceptable as offerings, on and on, has the potential to be different from any other hearth’s. Open and honest communication about every aspect of a ritual, and if there is to be some kind of celebration, what everyone’s taboos, allergies, etc are is a must. Nothing will spoil a ritual like having to firmly stop someone from making an offering that is taboo, or a post-ritual feast like having to rush someone to the hospital because someone did not list the ingredients in a dish!

Structure in Heathenry -Gebo, Megin, and Hamingja

The focus of Heathen ritual praxis has its feet firmly planted in the idea of gipt fa gipt, gift for a gift. In other words, reciprocity. I often refer to it on this blog as simply Gebo or living in good Gebo. The reason we do ritual is to establish, strengthen, and appreciate our relationships with the Holy Powers. Doing this allows for the good flow of megin and hamingja between the Holy Powers and us, and between those we engage with in ritual.

Megin translates to “might”, “power”, “strength”, “ability”. Hamingja translates to “luck”, “group luck”, group power”, “group spirit”, or it has to do with the guardian of one’s family line or power, often seen in a female fylgja. Where megin is more straightforward, because of the issues Lars Lönnroth states about how hamingja has come down to us, different people relate to the concept in different ways. Some view or experience it as a straightforward force, and others as a spirit. Regardless, megin and hamingja are built well in good Gebo.

Why might we care about having healthy, well cared for megin and hamingja? These are pieces of our soul. Megin is the ability to affect the world around us, to do things. Hamingja is the unfolding of our ørlög and Urðr with others, whether through the spheres of influence we can affect or how others affect us. Megin and hamingja are how we get things done, how are actions are felt through the things we do.

Gebo, megin, hamingja, and all they touch are integrated. By doing right by our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another, we allow for the good flow of Gebo, and the building of good megin and hamingja. By building good megin and hamingja we build our webs of relationships well in ørlög and Urðr. Whether we are alone or in a hearth, Kindred, tribe, or a larger community, in doing this we allow for the foundation of good relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and with one another. These good foundations are what Heathenry is built from.

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.

Developing Polytheist Myths

July 10, 2018 18 comments

I love audiobooks, particularly The Great Courses series. They get my gears turning, and sometimes provide inspiration and fodder for ideas I explore here. In listening to Great Mythologies of the World, Chapter 2, I ran across an excellent statement that got me thinking on the role of myths in modern polytheism:

We tend to think of myths as springing fully formed into specific cultures, and most of us think of the ancient Greek myths, as well, Greek. But the Greeks drew heavily from their predecessors and neighbors just as later cultures, especially the Romans, would draw from them. Because of this it is best to think of mythologies as living entities, always on the move, shapeshifting as they pass from culture to culture.

This last sentence is especially important in the context of modern polytheism. It is not enough that we have good translations of our sources for the religions we are reviving. We need new myths to carry us, and those who come after us, forward. We can build on what is there, and I firmly believe we should. The Greeks certainly did not wrap up writing myths after Homer, Hesiod, or Orpheus wrote. There is no reason for us to, either.

What I am proposing is both incredibly powerful and dangerous. Powerful, because we are making deep ties with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and likely tying these myths right into where we live as every ancient polytheist culture and tribe did. It is also incredibly dangerous because it can lead people and communities straight into territory where power playing, delusions, lies, and aggrandizement can wrench myth-making from its holy roots.

I firmly believe that consciously engaging in and acknowledging the making of myths is part and parcel of the future of polytheist religions. We know from following various Holy Powers and Their stories through history that sometimes They accrue stories through a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it is because They tell a poet to write down their stories. Other times a writer collects Their stories into a book. Other times They gain Their stories through absorbing or syncretizing with other Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits, and/or each Others’ stories. Any time someone says “I had x encounter with y God and this is what happened” they are engaging in living myth-making. We should not shy away from any of these. We need to actively embrace all of these ways of engaging with, and developing our myths with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

How do we embrace it? We engage in direct experience of the Holy Powers. We write down ours and others’ experiences. We embrace new experiences of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that are rooted in our communities, what lore we can trust, and engage the informed discernment available to us in our communities. We meet our Holy Powers where we are, and we go on pilgrimages when we are called. We involve our Holy Powers in our everyday lives, and acknowledge and thank and note when They come through for us, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. To do this, we need to develop better language across the board for doing that. To do this, we need to develop good discernment based in our communities, and not leave that responsibility up to academics unconnected to our communities. We need to be proactive in working to develop standards within our communities for what is accepted and what is rejected to become part of the mythologies.

I use the word gnosis to describe personal experience of the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits. I do not tend to use the term UPG or Unverified Personal Gnosis that frequents reconstructionist circles because the term is often used dismissively or insultingly, and I have never seen its opposite, VPG or Verified Personal Gnosis, used in online conversation. There is plenty of writing on what UPG is and virtually nothing on what is VPG. PCPG, or Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis is a term I sometimes use to get it across to folks that many people, usually in separate communities, had similar experiences with a given Holy Power. A simple example of this is offering strawberries to Freya. It is something a lot of people have offered to Her well before seeing it written down, and it still surprises some folks who do run into their gnosis written down in books today. A year or two ago, either at MI Paganfest or ConVocation, I ran into a person who had no knowledge this was a generally-accepted understanding of Freya, and was shocked that people around her were nodding their heads and saying “Sounds right.”

My dear friend and Brother Jim Stovall uses a phrase that I hope is on the mind and lips of everyone interested in developing the mythology and our relationships with the Holy Powers: spiritual accounting. He laid out the idea of spiritual accounting in an episode of the Jaguar and the Owl. Jim likens spiritual accounting to a three-legged stool, with the first leg being what stories and myths are already present, and what source writings, archaeology, linguistics, mythology, anthropology, and other sciences has to tell us. The second leg is divination. The third leg is experience accounting. He has gone so far as to set up an Excel spreadsheet of experiences he has had with given Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits for how reliable They are, what was asked, and what resulted. His discernment accounts for the understanding that spirits do lie, and we may misinterpret the meaning of a message, or it may be more or less deep than we understand it to be.

If we are to have spiritual accounting for our living mythology, then our first leg needs to first be grounded in what we do know. We need to understand what it is the lore, archaeology, and other academic fields we have available to us have to say, and what the limits of those fields are. We also need a solid foundation in our religion(s) and tradition(s) as they exist. With a basis in what has come before and is now, we can be discerning about what becomes part of the corpus of the myths we carry into the future.

The second leg, divination, requires expertise in the work. It requires the willingness to understand we may not have understood or reified our experiences accurately. A given experience may have just been for us. A given experience may need context we do not have yet, or inspiration for a poet, or another experience to tie it into the mythologies we have before us. Divination requires us to consider that what is most important is that we seek the answer and report what we find without flinching, whether it confirms or denies the entry of experiences into the corpus of myths.

The third leg, experience accounting, is to be honest, truthful, and unflinching in our assessment of our signal clarity with the Holy Powers. It is to be clear in what our understanding was at the time a message was received, how it was understood, and how it was accounted for. It is to engage in active discernment with the Holy Powers we worship, and realize that sometimes information is given to us not because it may be completely truthful, but useful. It is not as if our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, or vaettir are not given to subterfuge, lying, misleading, or misdirection. These are part of powerful mythologies, such as the Rescue of Idunna or Thor’s battle of riddles and wits with Alsvin. The point of experience accounting is to see where pitfalls in our communications lie, to see where the Holy Powers may not be honest or forthright with us, and to understand that what we experience and/or receive may give us many windows to understand what does become part of the corpus of myths.

When I use a term like corpus of myths, the image of a great weathered book might sping to mind. That belies the understanding that, until relatively recently in time, most understood their myths orally. It is not my intent that only the written word becomes part of a corpus of myths. Some parts of myths and the practices that come from them should never be written down, such as a myth involved in a secret initiation. Some parts may be useful to write down, as with the previous example, so that those who qualify for an initiation have to know the right phrase, deeper meaning of a piece of mythology, and/or have taken in a key lesson from a myth before approaching to be initiated. Some parts of myths should be as accessible as possible, such as Creation Stories, stories of the Gods, Ancestors, heroes, spirits, etc. that give insight into Them, lessons for us, and/or how we are to relate to Them.

Developing myths, even ones that seem to clash with each other or with the previous sources, may be seen in terms of how mythologies have unfolded in living polytheist cultures. There are many Creation Stories out there, and having more than one Creator God or Goddess has never fazed me. I have space for Odin and Ptah among the Creator Gods. I have space for the four Creation Stories of Kemet and the Creation Story detailed in the Völuspá. I also recognize in the same blow that I am dealing with stories delivered through a variety of hands. Rather than seeing many Creation Stories as wrong, or only one right and the rest mistaken, I see each Story expressing its truth, its understanding, its worldview of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

None of the stories as academia has handed them to us have anything to do with the construction of our religions. We have had to do that ourselves. Academics not of our communities are first and foremost concerned with academia and what each story tells us, has to say, and informs us of, what each story may hint at, and where the limits are in relation to their field of study. What differs us significantly here is that we seek to understand cosmogeny and cosmology so we may understand and live well within the worldview given to us by the cosmogeny and cosmology. Through understanding that worldview well we seek to live in right relationship our Holy Powers.

Developing myths is a process of developing theology. Myths provides the basis to understanding what our Gods are, what They do, Their place in the cosmos, our relationships to and with Them, and what offerings may be accepted by Them. Myths tell us who are Ancestors are, who and what we relate to as Ancestors, what our place as mortal Beings are in the cosmos, what offerings the Ancestors may accept, and what our relationships with Them should look like. Myths shows to us who the spirits are, what our relationships with Them are, Their varied places in the cosmos, what our relationships are, and what offerings They may accept. Again, mythology is not just the Creation Stories.

Myths are found as much in small things as great. The small myths may detail what offerings a God likes, and perhaps why. Stories written down, stories passed down, folklore, and personal experiences all may be part of mythology. A myth may be entirely wrapped up with a locale, such as Dionysus Laphystius with Mount Laphystus in Bœotia. Likewise, a part of mythology may relate to a Holy Power in respect to functions the God has dominion over or functions with/in, such as Lenœus, a name of Dionysus relating to His dominion over and function with the wine press.

For those identifying Athena as a Goddess of a war college like West Point or Athena as being a Goddess of libraries, this too is part of developing a God’s mythology. Where we find our Holy Powers and why, building up not only correspondences but understandings as to why a given Holy Power may look at a place as holy or one They have affinity for, places our understanding of our Holy Powers not only in the past, but in the immediate, the now. Looking for our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits in our modern landscapes is resacralizing our world, providing points of contact between ourselves and the Holy Powers. It also provides us unique opportunities to connect with Them in was our Ancestors may not have.

Shining Lakes Grove, an ADF grove, shows this work in practice quite clearly in their worship of Ana, the name they were given by the Goddess that is the Huron River in Ann Arbor, MI. Per their work within An Bruane they developed links with the Gods particular to their Grove and within the land they work and worship on. Were I to begin work with Ana, I would likely refer to their work and ask them questions on how to develop a good relationship with Her. After all, they have been doing this work well over twenty years. Likewise, they have developed a unique relationship with the land spirits and the Native American Gods that have called this land home.

In my recent post, Twice-Born, PSVL said:

Excellent work here! I love the series of Goddesses in the middle…that really adds a lot to this myth.

It was never my intention to add anything to the myth. I was inspired by the God to write a poem for Him telling His story. Yet, here I was adding to His myths. Every poem can build up the layers of meaning and understanding around a Holy Power, put new light to the old stories, and bring new stories into being. Writing mythology, whether through prose or poetry, is an act of co-creation with the Holy Powers. Far better for us to enter into this powerful and sacred relationship with care and clarity than to deny the connection this work forges between us and the Holy Powers.

Whether in brief or at length, each story written, each story told, each poem written, each poem spoken, each song sung, each one made for Them all build up our relationships with the Holy Powers. To be sure, not every bit of writing, poetry, or song is meant to build up myths, but all potentially may. We cannot leave our corpus of myths to the past or that is all we will engage with or understand.

Let us teach the myths that are the foundations of our religions and our communities in those conscious and sacred ways. Let us work to develop our myths with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in sacred ways, with care and devotion. Let us work to teach all of our myths consciously and thoughtfully, in sacred ways that honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, that bring us, individually and communally, into sacred and good relationships with Them.

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