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On Ritual Praxis -What and Why?

March 3, 2018 1 comment

In tackling the subject of ritual praxis I think it is most useful to tackle head-on what ritual and ritual praxis is, why we have ritual praxis, and then, how and why we develop it.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of a ritual is:

1. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.

and praxis:

1. Practice, as distinguished from theory.
2. Accepted practice or custom.

The purpose of ritual praxis is that it is an established body of beliefs and actions rooted in serving a specific end. In devotional work this is fostering right relationship with the Holy Powers, that is, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. In magic, ritual praxis is established so that enactment of the ritual ends in the aims of the magic being attained. Generally, we will be talking about the former: devotional ritual praxis. If devotional ritual praxis is how we establish and reestablish right relationship with the Holy Powers it makes sense not to have to consistently reinvent the proverbial wheel with each new polytheist.

A refrain I heard a lot when I became a Heathen was that Heathenry is “the religion with homework”. What this ends up meaning is that folks will often throw a book list at people and say “Go read and then when you’re ready to talk I’ll be here.” This approach may be keeping out a lot of folks who could be good community members if the barrier to entry was not there.

Do not mistake me, I actually employ a variation on this approach. However, the diference is that I give people interested in the Northern Tradition, especially those interested in joining Mimirsrbrunnr Kindred a book list with a mix of academic and spiritual work-oriented books rather than merely academic texts. The reason for this is to establish that the person is willing to put in work, is willing to adopt and adapt to a Heathen mindset, and to show that they are willing to put time and effort into the Kindred. In other words, show they are worthy of our time.

This is not where I have seen folks direct the “religion with homework” idea. Often, the would-be Heathen is given an exhaustive scholarly book list with little-to-no instruction on how to be a Heathen. The question is not how useful these resources are to a Heathen, but whether or not their use is to the right end. The ‘right end’ in this case being the teaching of, and eventual integration of a Heathen worldview into a Heathen newcomer’s life. It is worth reflecting on what sources we recommend to those showing interest in Heathenry. It is worth reflecting how useful our sources are to the stark newcomer so that we are not merely flinging books at people or building in an assumption that books are the best and/or only way to learn how to be a good Heathen.

I put far more emphasis in my instructions on working through the reading materials, on the doing aspect of the materials, than I do on the academics. The reason is twofold. First, I need to see that the person is actually willing to join the religion not only in mind but also in heart and conduct. Second, I know that some of the material can be damned challenging if not near-impossible to navigate. I found Culture of the Teutons to be a very useful book, one of the best exploring luck, honor, hamingja, outlawry and the like in ancient Heathen cultures. I do not assign this book in the reading list. I had a hard time working through it, and while useful, many of the concepts within it can be effectively condensed into a talk, lecture, or workshop.

The difference between doing the homework vs consistently engaging in what amounts to amateur debates is part of what I see holds Heathenry back. We have experts within our communities both academic and religious. Rather than have each and every Heathen engage in what amounts to lifetime research projects, I would rather see Heathens and polytheists in general develop materials for children and adults who are becoming polytheists. In ancient times intensive studies would have been for ritual specialists alone. Ritual praxis, meanwhile, was on everyone. Everyone knew their roles, and there was little question as to who did what because traditions, including beliefs and ritual praxis among them, had been passed down the generations. If we are to be lived religions, then this approach is the one to aim for. My long-term hope is that the approach I take to prospective members of the Kindred becomes obsolete primarily through oral teaching and intergenerational transmission of the worldview, Kindred traditions, including the Kindred’s Heathen religion and culture.

Where to Start?

The start of right ritual praxis, aka orthopraxy, is in right belief, aka orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy form the ground from which polytheism grows and matures. The two concepts are not in opposition, but rather, affect and inform one another. Some very basic orthodox beliefs in regards to polytheist orthopraxy are:

  • That the Holy Powers deserve to be worshiped and honored.
  • That ritual is a good way to worship and honor the Holy Powers.
  • That well-done ritual foments right relationship with the Holy Powers.
  • That there are ways of doing ritual correctly and incorrectly.

Basic orthodox beliefs of polytheism includes the baseline of polytheism itself: the belief in and worship of many Gods, and that of animism: that all of Creation is, or potentially is, ensouled. Other beliefs would includes the foundational Sacred Stories of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir as we have them and/or are taught them. The Sacred Stories we pass on help to inform the content of our worldview and from this, our rituals.

Right belief is vitally important. Without it ritual is rendered without meaning. Likewise, right action is important. Without it, right belief is rendered without root in the world.

This does not mean that one’s belief in the Holy Powers must forever be ironclad. One’s belief in the Holy Powers may not be very strong or well defined. What needs to be strong is the belief that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits), the Holy Powers, are real and deserving of good rites. In regards to offerings, the belief that the Holy Powers are real and worthy of offerings is all one truly needs to begin, or begin again, to have a strong connection with the Holy Powers. It is why I recommend making offerings and developing devotional relationships to absolute beginners fresh to polytheism. It is not that the academic background knowledge of the Holy Powers are unimportant, but a matter of prioritizing the development of relationship with the Holy Powers over the development of the person’s collection of books and book-knowledge. Ideally, I would have the two develop hand-in-hand.

Developing Rituals

So if we understand that right ritual praxis is conducted from right belief, then, how do we develop rituals? Baked into polytheism’s cake is the assumption that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are real and that They are active agents in relationship with one another, the world, and with us. How do They respond to us? Through divination such as sortilege and the reading of Runes, and through spontaneous forms of communication, such as omens or direct communion.

If we accept that the ways the Gods can communicate with us are many and active then it stands that some of the ways They may choose for us to develop rites will differ greatly from one another. With that said, what I lay out here are guidelines for the development of ritual.

Step 1: Determine the basic purpose of the ritual.
What is the basic purpose of a given ritual? Is it celebratory, offeratory, or a magical operation? Is it a very formal prayer, or one given to a Holy Power extemporaneously?

Step 2: Determine what the ritual is about.
What are the specific purposes of the ritual? Is it a celebration of a cyclical harvest festival? Is it a weekly offering to one’s household Gods? Is it a magical operation involving the Runes to a certain end, such as healing of a broken limb or protection on a long journey?

Step 3: Determine if there are special considerations for the ritual.
Are there taboos to be adhered to, special needs for spiritual specialists and/or laity, or specific requirements for the ritual to be done well? Are there to be certain offerings made, or a sacrifice to be held?

Step 4: Determine the set up of the ritual’s space, including boundaries, altar(s), and so on.
How is the space to be set up? Are there certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir who need to be present? If so, how? Is the ritual area completely inviolate during the ritual itself, or are people able to come and go as needed? If there are special methods for a person coming into/out of the ritual space, what if any means are there to mark the space and tools/instruments/people to make this so?

Step 5: Determine the order of ritual and the roles of spiritual specialists, celebrants and/or operators.
What kind(s) of purifications are to be done? How are the celebrant(s)/operator(s) to be prepared for the rite? How is the ritual to be blocked, if it involves certain prescribed ritual steps or dramatic enactors? How is the space to be held, i.e. festive, solemn, silence?

Be a Good Host, Be a Good Guest

If a rite is to be more contemplative, such as a meditation space, the ritual space may be more permissive in celebrants coming into and out of space. It may need more seating space, and different kinds of seating arrangements for folks with different mobilities, and potential body restrictions. If the rite is to be festive and wild, then the considerations of places that will be accepting of louder noise, places for celebrants to catch their breath, the provisioning of food and/or water will need to be considered. It may be that some celebrants or operators wish to be part of a rite, and have need of special consideration.

Not all celebrants/operators may be able to handle hours of dancing, but may still wish to participate in a wild, festive rite. Consider this in setting up the ritual that folks with mobility issues may need areas designated for them to be safe such as space for a seat and/or mobility aid, walkways, and so on. Consider that some folks have dietary requirements or restrictions, such as needing to eat at certain times or not eat certain foods, so be sure that everything food and drink wise that you have a list of ingredients for these things on hand so all your participants may be informed and safe. Most of these seem to be common sense, yet simple set up for seating in an especially long rite can be overlooked in the early planning stages and later bring great distraction to an otherwise well-planned ritual.

Clearly laying out the expectations for the spiritual specialist(s), celebrant(s)/operator(s), and/or guests is a must. It may not prevent a disruption in ritual, yet it can help mitigate issues as they come up in a ritual. Letting people know who to turn to if they forget a step, or how to say certain ritual phrases will make the ritualists jobs’ easier and make the rite flow smoother. That said, if people become disruptive or antagonistic to the rite, it is far better to eject a person than it is to try to keep soldiering on. Ignoring a disruptive or rude person may be directly insulting to the Holy Powers, or lessen the usefulness of the working at hand. At the end of the day, for the people involved being a good host to and a good guest is key to ritual going well.

The Small Details of Ritual

If a ritual is a a ceremonial act done in a prescribed order, then it follows that as many great details to figure out, there are small details to consider a ritual ought to go. Should cleansing be done with the right or left hand? Should one enter into ritual space on a certain foot? Should an idol be approached only by an initiated priest? Are there exceptions to these rules, where an idol which is usually only approached by a priest is shown to the laity?

Notice I said these details may be small -not unimportant. Especially as polytheists develop their own traditions of worship with Holy Powers the disposition of small details may become more important to the completion of a good ritual. There may be good reasons related to cosmology for offerings to be laid down a certain way. For instance, in offering to Gods of Muspelheim one may be directed to lay them down in a southerly direction, as in lore it is said that is where Muspelheim may be located. For Gods of the Underworld, or for those spirits who are located beneath the Earth, such as the Dvergar, placing offerings for Them in an elevated place may be insulting, so you place offerings on or in the ground for Them. Rivers may be seen as running throughout the Nine Worlds, and so, disposing of offerings into running water may be seen as near-universal for the disposal of offerings, or only for certain Holy Powers, depending on one’s view and relationships with the Holy Powers. Since all the Nine Worlds hang on or are within Yggdrasil, making offerings at a special tree serving as Yggdrasil’s proxy may be a good place for offering to any of the Holy Powers.

The consideration of the small things may be the entire point of a given ritual or magical operation. If the small things are unattended to, the rite may be spoiled or the operation fouled. Something as seemingly small as not setting down an offering in an exact order, or circumambulating with a censer or blessed water may seem minor to us. If our point is to worship and honor the Holy Powers, then even our small things need to be oriented towards this.

It is worth remembering that in many of our rites we are reenacting cosmological principles in even the small gestures we make. Going sunwise, then, is not just something we do in many of our Heathen rights because it is something we brought in from Wicca. The Sun, through Sunna’s chariot, brings the blessings of warmth, growth, and life through Her cycles. By not following Her rhythm in a ritual, say, to bless a garden, we may be bringing in other cosmological influences that are not in accordance with the rite. In this instance, by passing our hand over the garden against the sun or counterclockwise, we may be asking for Mani and the Moon’s blessing or Nott’s influence in darkness to vegetables that need a great deal of sunlight. The symbolism we employ, whether or not we realize it, is alive with meaning and import to each ritual, even, and sometimes especially in these small gestures.

The Roles of Divination

Divination and other forms of spiritual communication are a good part of how the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy is kept in polytheist religions. It provides direct communion and feedback with and from the Holy Powers. The methods of divination available to a diviner are likewise hooked unto orthodoxy and orthopraxy. On a basic level, the orthodoxy of divination, and divine communication in general, is that the Holy Powers are real, and can and do commune with us. The basic orthopraxy, then, is that in the act of divination we are open to change as well as reaffirmation of what has come before, both in terms of our orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Divination serves a number of functions in the creation and execution of ritual. Among the uses for the creation of ritual itself are:

  • The creation of a ritual calendar/cycle.
  • For whom a given rite may be dedicated.
  • The timing of a ritual/series of rites.
  • Determining the proper order of a rite.
  • Determining the sacrifice(s) for a rite.
  • Who should be doing what before, during, and after the rite.

Among the reasons one may wish to divine during a ritual are:

  • That the set up for a ritual is good and acceptable to the Holy Powers, that things are in order for the rite to begin.
  • Checking in when an incident or accident occurs during the rite, such as someone being burnt during the rite to see that it is merely an error/accident and not a response by the Holy Powers to the occurence.
  • That the offering laid down are accepted.
  • That any messages the Holy Powers have for those gathered are received.

Divination itself is beyond the scope of this post. Like ritual craft, divination is a craft unto itself. Like ritual craft, divination requires you to do it to learn how to do it better.

Bringing the Rites Home

Generally speaking, a good chunk of ancient polytheist religion was lived in the home every day. It makes sense that the majority of polytheists today are in a similar boat. While folks may read everything above and think of it in terms of larger group ritual, such as a Kindred or similar group getting together, it matters just as much, if not more so, to the people in their homes. After all, if the majority of polytheist religion is practiced in the home, thinking about why and how we approach ritual has immediate impact on how we relate to our home cultus.

So why do rituals in our home? It’s where we live when we’re not working or running errands. It’s where our roots are set. Our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then, should be where the roots of our lives are set. Many of us live in places where going outside to do ritual is impractical, lack an outdoor space which would be undisturbed and kept sacred to the Holy Powers, and/or lack a temple space outside the home. By necessity then, the home is where most modern polytheists do ritual.

For my family the rituals we do as a family the most often are prayers to our Gods each day, each meal, and each night. We have rote prayers we have memorized for these, both because when we started to do them it was far easier to teach than how to do extemporaneous prayers. Doing things this way provided a set of common prayers for how to address our Holy Powers, a common well that we draw from in all our home rites. We do weekly offering rites which incorporate prayers, gestures, and the giving of physical offerings, usually water, food, and/or alcohol. We may celebrate the seasons and holy days doing much the same.

The beautiful thing about polytheism is that no one’s home cultus has to look like another’s. The how of how we do ritual in our home’s is individual. While my Kindred and I share similarities in home cultus, it is unique to each of our families. For instance, our altar setups are different. We use resin statues from Paul Borda of Dryad Design for many of our Gods, whereas another family uses statues from Unicorn Studio. Many of our offering vessels are clay, wood, or glass from garage sales and thrift shops. Our representation of Gerda is a corn dolly that came from a thrift shop with a wooden rake in her hand.

We also place different emphasis on different Gods depending on the household. In our home Odin and Frigga are the head Gods we worship and offer to, and then we offer to the others. Thor and Freyr may be the first Gods in other Kindredmates’ homes. Even between members of our family we have different emphasis on different Gods, even though we collectively worship the same Gods. Our son, for instance, has an altar to Thor and the housevaettir in his room that he takes care of on his own, while I emphasize Odin in my own practice and time where we do not worship as a family.

What unites us as a family and a Kindred is a shared worldview where the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are to be honored and worshiped, and shared ritual structures. What each of our Kindredmates does in our own home will have variations from each other depending on some combination of our relationships with the Holy Powers, what we have to carry out our rites with, and what we are able to do.

The Unfolding is Ongoing

As Heathenry and the Northern Tradition Pagan religions are lived through, rather than merely being set down in a book or series of books, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are continuously unfolding. Sometimes certain orthodoxy are held throughout one’s life and continue on through the generations, such as the Holy Powers being real and worthy of worship. Likewise, orthopraxy such as the giving of offerings for the Holy Powers are held right along with them. Some orthodoxy, such as the belief it is wrong to offer certain things may come to fall away with orthopraxy of divination to determine what are good and right offerings.

In the polytheist understanding of orthodoxy and expression of orthopraxy is that we are in living relationships with our Holy Powers. There is reciprocity consistently between ourselves and Them, lived in every thought we give to why and how we do what we do, and in the doing of the thing itself. There is reciprocity in the asking of “what should we do and how?” and following up on those questions. Why we do this is to live in good relationship with our Holy Powers. How do we do this? Eventually, all comes down to our relationships with the Holy Powers and Their impact on and in the lives of our communities, our families, and ourselves. As our relationships unfold with the Holy Powers, so too will our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and along with these, our worldview and ritual praxis unfold.

We will explore how one can start to worshiping the Holy Powers in the next post.

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A New Series of Posts on Ritual Praxis

February 10, 2018 5 comments

I was inspired by a conversation with two Heathens I speak with to begin writing on ritual praxis. For me, this project will take place along similar lines as Lārhūs Fyrnsida, especially in regards to their Ritual Format page. Before we get into types of ritual praxis, it is my firm belief that explaining why we develop a ritual praxis is more important, so that will be the first post in the series. Then, we can dig into how we develop a ritual praxis.

The reason I decided to write a series of posts on ritual praxis is because I have seen a lack of understanding about what ritual praxis is and why it is important in my local Pagan and polytheist communities, especially from a general Heathen perspective. My aim is to provide context for our home and communal rites, giving people a place to reference or jump off of in developing their own.

A few things to note:

  1. While I do not take a single ancient Heathen perspective my references are primarily Norse and Icelandic with bits of German and Anglo-Saxon. My use of language and the specific words I use reflects this view. I see nothing wrong with being eclectic. I respect that, for a great many people they find more use in sticking to one culture as their worldview. For me and mine, our worldview is primarily based primarily in Norse and Icelandic culture with appreciation for crosscurrents between other ancient Heathen religions as we find them.
  2. This will be a series of posts describing why then how Heathens without a particular cultural focus should and can build a ritual praxis. It will focus first on hearth cultus, religious life and rituals centered in the home. We can move out from there.
  3. This series of posts is meant to spur people to not merely think about their religion and religious activities, duties, and so on, but actively to do them. What this means is that if you are doing rituals and you are doing divination to check on things like “Is this ritual correct for us? Are the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir happy with this?” I fully expect you to act in accordance with your own results.
  4. The power and beauty of tribal Heathenry is that presumably the reader and I are not in the same tribe, and just because we may approach the very same Gods does not mean They will have the same responses to our offerings, rituals, and so on. I fully expect folks may get completely different responses from the Holy Powers, and the needs of a given community may differ such that ritual format, protocols, taboos, offerings, etc. may need to change. In other words, none of what I am writing should be taken to be set in stone. These posts are guidelines, not instructions.
  5. Down the road I may move these posts and future posts down the line into a format similar to the Lārhūs Fyrnsida because of ease of access and solid structure.

Open to Questions Year 3

July 25, 2017 4 comments

I am once again looking for topics to write on, so if you, or someone you know, wants me to dig into a topic let me know.

Ask questions!  They can be on anything related to the Northern Tradition, Heathenry, polytheism, animism, Gods, Ancestors, vaettir (spirits), shamanic work, priest work, spirit work, definitions, lore, etc.

A Response to Jön Upsal’s Freedom of Conscience and

December 2, 2015 Leave a comment

When I wrote my posts Orthopraxy Requires Orthodoxy and Reviving Religions vs. Reviving Cultures, I was happy with the discourse that followed.  I’m glad that people wrote about why they agreed and disagreed with my points.  I didn’t realize at first that Jön Upsal had wrote several posts following onto my reply to him in the Reviving post.

Jön raises a good point in that I am speaking from the perspective more as a separatist polytheist and less as a mainstream Pagan.  I am writing from this perspective for a few reasons:

My personal worldview, religion, etc. consists of Heathenry from an animist and polytheist point of view.  At least from my interactions with Pagans lately, the most theist response I get is either duotheism or an ill defined theism that allows for the Gods but also calls them archetypes or thoughtforms, sometimes in the same breath.  This doesn’t sit well with me at all, and it’s really not my view, nor how I live my life.  So, while I may be related to mainstream Paganism by being both Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, I find myself less readily able to relate to mainstream Paganism as I’m coming into contact with it.

Now, in regards to the model that Jön links to in his rebuttal to the Reviving post, titled Freedom of Conscience, he is absolutely right that I view the model as being the one that gives rise to animist and polytheist belief, that gives rise to the actions that are the expression of those beliefs.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines worship as:

The feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity:the worship of God

ancestor worship

Without believing that a God is worthy of reverence and adoration, and that the God is, in some way real, of what import is the reverence and adoration of that God?  This is not merely a personal question, but also a question of group belief and practice.  For some groups this will simply not matter, a subject I went over in the Reviving post. Jön responded to this as well, and it will be covered later.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, it’s not my job to screen people theologically if they have shown up to a public ceremony, which is why I was talking in regards to the sumbel being something I do with people that I know are on a similar theological level with me, both because of the regard I have for such a ceremony, and how the ceremony itself affects those who partake in it.  This is a ceremony, at least in how I partake in it, that I have very firm views on.  These are firm in no small regard given the oath-taking that can occur during it.

What I find interesting is that in every example I have been provided, by both Jön and in the Reddit threads I found my blog was being discussed in, I feel the main point I was making has been reinforced, that orthopraxy comes from orthodoxy, rather than the other way around.  To be clear on this, I’m quoting Jön’s post:

A thought experiment

That said, I submit the following thought experiment as a way to explain why an insistence on orthodoxy, that is, “right belief” is simply impossible on a practical level.

Imagine two self-identified Heathens, Einar and Eirik. Both are members of an Asatru tribe, both attend a Yule gathering. Both have many friends in the tribe, and bow their heads respectfully during the blót to Freyr while they are sprinkled with blood, both sit at high places at the sumbel, both give gifts in hall, and both make beautiful and impassioned toasts in honor of Freyr, their ancestors, and their host.

One of them believes the Gods have a real existence outside of ourselves, and one of them believes the Gods are merely mythological archetypes.

Which is which?

Unless you can answer me that question, then I submit that the answer doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t care. It’s impossible to police, as long as the non-believers take my advice from a week ago and simply go with the flow, as it were. That’s apparently what they’re interested in, supposedly.

Regardless of whether Einar or Eirik is the polytheist or atheist, they are both drinking from the same spring if they are from the same tribe.  The right thought informs the right action, the right thought and action being decided upon by the group, and not by either Einar or Eirik.  The right thought here is respect during the sumbel and giving the Gods and whomever has the cup/horn their full attention and respect.  What I find interesting is that in this example, both make impassioned toasts, but neither one is said to actively make an oath before the Gods, which is one of the sticking points in my own example.  This is also where I get into the part where we talk about groups oriented around culture and those oriented around religion, and Jon’s point here:

I don’t have to understand their position to understand that they might well have a reason. I’m not their judge. So when Sarenth says something like this:

Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense.

I have to hold myself back from yelling at the screen, “it doesn’t make sense to you, but it might make sense to them!

He’s right, it doesn’t need to make sense to me.  However, there is a big difference between having empathy for another person, and accepting their view as being as valid as my own.  In this regard, I do not accept atheism as being part of religious Heathenry for reasons I’ve made before.  Also, my point in the quote he is making is that holiness and sacredness at terms are tied into the Gods and the cosmologies They are part of.  I am speaking in terms of theology as well as etymology in this post of mine he quoted, which was a more overarching look into why atheists claiming use of words like ‘holy’, ‘sacred’, and so on do not make sense.   Keeping in mind as well, that in my Reviving post, I was making a lot of “I” and “my” statements.  I was speaking from and to my own experiences, beliefs, etc.  If a given Heathen group fully accepts atheist members, that’s their choice, and I welcome them to it.

This is also where I get into the difference between a living culture and reviving a religion.  My tack is in reviving the religion first and the culture following on from that, given that the overculture where I live is generally WASP, and that building up Heathen culture without it roots in the religious worldview and practice seems totally at odds in my mind with the revival of the culture to begin with.  From his writing, it seems that Jön is rejecting that, or taking the opposite view.

That said, this point is another one where I think he is making my case for me:

Orthopraxy stems from tradition and custom.

Okay, but what informs tradition and custom?  Right thought, right action.  How so?

Two ways, by looking at the meanings of the words tradition and custom, and the example he provides:

OED defines tradition as:

The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.

and

A doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures, in particular.

OED defines custom as:

A traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.

As to Jön’s example, here in terms of blót:

And how can we tell? One of the elements of blót is the taking of auguries and omens to see whether the offering has been accepted.

Not all of us have the benefit of Gods talking in our ears all the time, after all… Does your kindred or tribe or whatever harbor respectful unbeliever practitioners within its midst? If that really was something the Gods didn’t want, it would be reflected in the luck of the tribe. I’ve never heard of a systematic study being done, of course, but I would think if that did happen, the circumstantial evidence would quickly make the situation clear.

So following this train of thought we can:

-Have offerings accepted or rejected.

-Have trained ways and means to discern if the offering has been accepted accessible to spiritual specialists and/or the whole tribe.

-The Gods can let us know when They are displeased with an offering and we can act accordingly and respectfully to correct wrongs or errors when They make these things known.

-The Gods can and do affect the luck of the tribe, and the luck of the tribe is worth protecting.

The concern over the luck of the tribe being affected is again, first grounded in right thought.  Protecting the luck of the tribe is a desired thing, and can be affected by the Gods.  The right action of doing the blót well follows from the right thought that in order to do well by the Gods, increase the tribe’s good luck, and ensure the protection of the tribe’s luck before the Gods, one does what is respectful and honorable to/for the Gods.  Otherwise, what would be the point in worrying about the Gods, the luck of the tribe, or making good offerings and the like?

But they should be shunned and cast out not for their beliefs, but for their actions.

Again, if your group is a Heathen culture group rather than a Heathen religious group, I would agree.  If yours is a Heathen religious group that accepts atheists among its ranks, again, that is your choice to make.  It’s not one that I agree with, but then, I’m not part of your tribe/group/etc.  I also agree in the case of public gatherings and rituals.  For much of his post, I’m not actually in active disagreement with Jön at all.

I have to admit that when I read his post on Reviving culture vs. Religion, I laughed out loud at the Syrio Forel meme.  Yes, I agree, that today I’m not working on reviving the culture, at least as-a-whole.  I’m working on reviving the roots of the culture, specifically religious ones.

I counter that a polytheist religious group includes culture as well by definition, and a re-creation of the ancient mindset that accompanied it, because ancient culture and religion were inseparable.

Mind you, I’m not actively disagreeing with what he is saying here.  This is certainly my own case and that of the group I help to run.  I also agree that ancient culture and religion were inseparable.  It’s my hope that we can have that again.  It is my hope that we can someday have tribes again, and I’m all for anyone who wants to come and adopt the culture to do so.  Unfortunately, as it is right now, we’re still in the process of bringing back roots from religious worldviews that were largely laid down or only adopted into wholly other worldviews, worldviews that had animosity towards believing in Gods, magic, and the like.  So I’m looking at this from a revival from the bottom approach, whereas, if I’m reading him right, Jön  is adopting an all-of-the-tree approach.

So I thank Jön Upsal for providing some food for thought.

Where I Stand: Holding Tradition

November 10, 2015 1 comment

The fact of the matter is, that almost no one I disagree with will ever come into contact with me.  So why am I raising these issues at all?  Why write about holiness, the sacred, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc. for a larger polytheist audience?

I am a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, which means that I support anyone coming to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir into the Northern Tradition and Heathenry regardless of background, and that, on-the-whole, I’m more concerned with what happens to my little group of people and my little corner of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry.  My hamingja, and much of my personal concerns, are tied up with these people who are family to me.  That doesn’t mean that the wider Northern Tradition, Heathen, and polytheist communities don’t mean anything to me, but they are lower on the list, and most of them are not in my innangarð.

Yet, everything I write about here has come up in some fashion, whether it has been in working with folks who come for work, divination, or questions, interacting with folks at conventions, students, etc.  In some part I’m writing here so that there are polytheists out here saying “This is how I see it, and this is why this makes sense to me.” or “I disagree with this, and this is why.”  I would rather there not be an illusion of conformity or acceptance of an idea when there is not, especially when it is something I have had to talk about time and again with non-Pagans and Pagans alike, i.e. not all Odin-worshipers are racist, not all Pagans believe x, y, or z, there are some concrete beliefs to being a polytheist, and so on.

When I get into more heated discussions with folks in the larger Pagan communities, I do this in no small part because I am a Northern Tradition Pagan and a Heathen, and feel that my views and that of my co-religionists need to be presented.  This feeling is pronounced because I am a priest and shaman.  This means as much as I am a boundary crosser and an ambassador, helping folks to connect with our Gods, their Ancestors, and the vaettir, it is also my duty to present my religions straightforward, and present defense of the religion if needed, being a boundary keeper.

The questions of “Can’t the Gods defend Themselves?  Can’t They make Their displeasure known?” eventually do come up and need to be tackled.

Sure.  Our Gods are not helpless by any stretch, but that puts the full responsibility of keeping our traditions on the Gods, and not, as it should be, on ourselves.  It’s not about the Gods being able to defend this or that concept.  It is about the duty being on us, as worshipers, spiritual specialists, and laypeople, to engage in our religion in a way that is respectful, and keep our religious boundaries, communities, terminology, and connected ideas healthy.

I work with the idea of a teacup frequently as a container of ideas, the tea being the meaning of things and the teacup the word itself as a container of meaning.  The Gods I will liken to the kettle, water, and the leaves/herbs, the source of the tea itself.  They are poured into the teapot of religion to brew and be held, a defined form that gives the ability to transfer this meaning a bit more safe from being burned, yet still keep warmth, which we pour into our cups.  Some folks go right for the kettle and fill their cup right then and there.  You still get tea, but eventually, if you’re going to drink tea without burning yourself, it goes into a cup or you wait for the kettle to cool so you can drink straight from it.

I don’t imagine I will ever agree with the idea, let alone the acceptance of atheist Paganism in the Pagan community, but really, that’s not my call to make.  I’m not the Circle Police or the Pagan Police.  As much as people deride folks like Galina Krasskova, Tess Dawson, Sannion, and myself as part of the Piety Posse, do you folks honestly think I have any pull with folks who do not believe in Gods or theistic Pagans who accept atheist Pagan theological views as just as valid as their own?  I speak out because I feel the need to speak out, but I hold no illusions that my words hold any more sway than what others give them.  I certainly can’t stop you, but I also do not have to accept your views.  I hold the view of a polytheist, one in which the Gods are real, have agency and Being, and are not constructs/archetypes/etc. of human un/consciousness.  There’s nothing in atheism for me to find in common ground, religiously speaking.  We can meet at any number of other points, but I very-much doubt this is a place where we will find common ground, as the very grounding of our views is different in very powerful ways.  Further, any attempt by an atheist to co-opt religious language out of its meanings will not further dialogue with me at all.

I find myself on the opposite side of folks like John Halstead and B.T. Newburg more and more in no small part because the aesthetics of the religious communities I have called home for the last 11 years are being sought out by atheist Pagans, but not the substance.  The language which identifies me as a person within a set of religious communities and/or within a communal identity is being intentionally separated from the primary means by which that identifier is constructed: religious identity with concrete meaning in regards to belief in and worship of Gods.

My views are not simply matters of disagreement, but really, they are matters of course.  The course of logic that constructs my religious identity flows from the creation story of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, flows from the cosmology, and flows from the Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen worldview, the worldview I live within.  These things are essential to the construction of the identity I have as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen.  When the meaning of words like sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and so on are affected, the meaning of my identifiers and associated communities are affected.  It’s about more than just me, though: these are part and parcel of how any religious community defines itself.  So not only am I personally invested to see that sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and other words with religious meaning stay invested with that meaning, and how that plays out in my own life, I am also invested in how these words stay invested with meaning within my religious community, and how these words come to define and structure things within the Northern Tradition and Heathen communities.

Here is where I stand: as a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, I have primary concern for the those within my innangarð, but that does not mean I ignore the things or people who are utgarð to my personal or more wider communities.  While my hamingja is not tied with those outside of my innangarð, it would be a disservice to the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, and my personal communities within them, to not speak out on the things I have.  It would be a disservice to fellow polytheists, too.  I hold the traditions I am within, as does everyone who is within these traditions.  Each person needs to decide for themselves whether it is incumbent on them to speak up, out, or to hold silence.  For myself, given the roles of shaman and priest that I serve in my communities, as an ambassador, boundary-crosser, and boundary-keeper, I find myself being called to speak more often than I am to be silent.

Orthopraxy Requires Orthodoxy

November 9, 2015 8 comments

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

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

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

While the the Oxford English Dictionary defines orthodoxy as:

Authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are sources I consulted in exploring this:

Terms In and Types of Ethical Theory

Ethics: An Online Textbook, Chapter 9: Kantian Theory

The Basics of Philosophy: Ethics

The Basics of Philosophy: Deontology

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

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

October 30, 2015 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what Odinsson says:

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing sacred in the world but the gods?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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