Question 12: Appealing to the Gods

Thank you to Freki Ingela for this question:

Are the Gods great Gods whom anyone on Earth may appeal to, or are they ancestral tribal spirits who confine themselves to looking over the descendants of northern Europe, or are they both? Or are they neither in your opinion? If so, how do understand their nature.

The Gods of the Northern Tradition are Gods I believe anyone can appeal to.  I do not hold folkish views regarding the Gods.  The peoples who worshiped these Gods (and how, what particular understanding of these Gods were prevalent and practices were done in this regard differed region to region) ranged all over the world.  They brought back people from these expeditions, merchant voyages, conquests, and raids.  They sometimes settled in the new lands, usually as colonizers.  To my understanding there is no barrier to anyone worshiping the Gods of the Northern Tradition so far as ancestry goes.  While I do believe that some of the Gods may have brought Their power into tribes of people, such as recounted in the RÍgsÞula (The Lay of Rig), as well as many of the hero stories, I do not think this is what determines if someone is holier or better than another.  I also do not believe that having bloodlines connected to people who may have worshiped the Gods of the Northern Tradition automatically makes you better suited for the Northern Tradition, especially given how many Europeans worshiped Greek and Roman Gods in many of the same places the Northern European Gods were worshiped.  Prayers for the Gods made with a good heart in the right place are good regardless of who makes them.

To understand the nature of the Gods, I usually recommend people read up as much as they can on the Gods, and then, while they are doing so, set up a shrine to the Gods and to their Disir (powerful female Dead), Väter* (powerful male Dead), and their Ancestors in general.  I’ve lived in a dorm room, so I have had to make do with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir all sharing altar space together.  When the shrine is set up, make an offering of water, if nothing else, every day.  Take at least five to fifteen minutes a day to do this, not just setting down the water, but praying at that shrine.  If you have prayers of your own, say them.  If you need inspiration, or want to use prayers from others, feel free to use prayers from my blog using the search bar, from NorthernPaganism.org’s wide variety of online shrines, Michaela’s Odin’s Gift website, Galina Krasskova’s prayers, or any others you find.   If you don’t have space or if you are in a hostile place you can leave a digital candle to one of the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir at one the NorthernPaganism.org’s shrine pages, like this one to Odin.

This is the recommended reading list I have for the Michigan Northern Tradition Study Group, with explanation of why we use them:

  1. Neolithic Shamanism by Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova
    1. Neolithic Shamanism is an experience of the Northern Tradition spirits, and only works with a handful of Gods, such as Sunna and Mani. The focus of the book is toward establishing right relationship with the Elemental Powers, the landvaettir, one’s Ancestors, and so one from the ground up.
  2. The Prose Edda by Carolyne Larrington
    1. This version of the Prose Eddas is very straightforward.  Having read both Bellows and Hollander, I agree with Galina that Hollander cuts things out with poetic license so the ‘flow’ goes according to what he wants.
  3. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera
    1. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner gives a good overview of the Northern Tradition, and has a good deal of practices such as prayers, how to use prayer beads, and what offerings are good or contraindicated for the Gods of the Northern Tradition. This book helped me deepen my religious practice.
  4. Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher
    1. Spiritual Protection is one of the best books on psychic/spiritual protection I have seen or read.  In a book market where protection is often given short shrift, this book goes to the absolute basics and is great to revisit whether you’ve been doing it for a little while, a long while, or not at all. As a word of caution I advise no one to seek to ground to any world but this one, Midgard, as even I haven’t gone and received permission yet to ground to another.
  5. Exploring the Northern Tradition by Galina Krasskova
    1. Exploring the Northern Tradition gives a good overview of the demographics of Heathenry, some ideas of varying practice and culture, and is a good guide to the differences between traditions that you may find in them.
  6. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
    1. This book gives an overview of the myths, Gods, and Goddesses. I would probably pair it with the Prose Eddas, but I also like people to dive right into the source material and make discoveries on their own, but if that style of study works better for you I don’t see a reason not to do it, particularly if the Eddas are a bit hard to work through.

Another book I would seriously recommend is Essential Asatru by Diana Paxson. It details some typical practices from both groups and personal practice.

 

*This is not a traditional name for the powerful male Dead.  It is German for “Fathers”.  I use it in preference of Álfar, since álfar means ‘elves’.

Leadership and Priesthood Part 2: Skillsets

I was recently reading a piece on io9 “The Real Reason Why Techies Are the New Yuppies”, and it occurred to me as I was reading in the comments that there is a parallel here. Not being alive any earlier than the 1980s, and not officially part of Paganism/polytheism until 2004, I cannot speak on what Paganism or polytheism was like. I am wholly a product of the early 2000s in regards to my religious development as a polytheist. The parallel that struck me was actually in the comments section in reference to a person having computer use and literacy as a skillset. They had a far easier time navigating things like the Obamacare website, versus a person who was not as computer literate. The person with the skillset took about 5 minutes to find the relevant information, whereas his housekeeper was sobbing after 3 hours of trying to get the damned thing to work. This, to me, brought something to light.

A lot of spiritual specialists are working with wholly different skillsets oriented towards different things than most people. We are often wired different for our jobs by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we serve. Many of our initiations serve in this capacity to alter our spiritual form, functions, etc. to the task at hand. For some this makes a certain skillset far easier, and for others, nothing changes aside from getting the go-ahead from the Holy Powers in question to do a thing or perform a service. Even if we are not altered by the Holy Powers for the task at hand, our skillsets develop in differing ways, and so, it may appear that we’re really awesome all around from the outside, when really we might be hyper-specializing in a few areas.

So for some of us, to use an example, entering trance or meditative states is a whole hell of a lot easier than someone else. This can (and often is) simply a matter of “I have had x number of years doing/working on this”. Other times it is a matter of “I am, for whatever reason, wired to have these experiences easier” and others “I was rewired to have these experiences easier”. There’s tons of reasons for this, but at the end of the day it makes little difference in terms of my worth as a person, religious, spiritual, or otherwise. Spiritual practice is, like a great many other arts and disciplines, something that has to be worked at to develop the capacity to do it, and do it well. The ability to use a computer well, likewise, does not make me better as a human being compared to a person who does not. It merely means that my skillsets are in areas that are immediately useful to the task at hand. I cannot do carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or other forms of trade skills (though I would like to learn, even on an amateur level) but that does not make me less of a person. I am absolutely at a loss with cars; if it sounds weird, I trust someone who is better experienced with my car. So while I am a piss-poor mechanic I am not a piss-poor human. A mechanic expecting me to be on hir level in regards to car repair would be like me expecting a person wholly new to polytheism to be on my level in regards to shamanism or priest work. It’s not realistic, and not what I expect of others any more than my mechanic expects me to have his working knowledge of my car.

Much like my mechanic expects me to do baseline maintenance though, I think that it is wholly fine for spiritual specialists to have expectations of the people who come to us for help. Some of the first questions I ask anyone who comes to me are: “Do you have an altar/shrine to your Dead?” “What Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and/or spirits do you worship and/or have relationships with?” and “Do you do daily devotional work?” and “Do you do daily personal work like grounding, centering, cleansing, shielding, etc.?” For me, these questions are no different than my mechanic asking me “What is the make and model of the car?”, “When was the oil changed?”, “What have the sounds/experiences been in driving the car?”, and similar questions. He’s not being a jerk by asking me these baseline questions, he is being thorough. Because his skillset is in a different place than mine, he has to ask the basic questions before getting to the meat of what might be wrong with my car. I am being very general, but even so, some of these questions come up even when the problem is something specific, i.e. my door won’t go back up and the motor for the window makes a clicking sound.

The comment in the article also made me think of the privilege involved in developing these skillsets, and the privilege these skillsets can bring. To be able to develop some of these skillsets, you have to have certain things, among them a computer or at least disposable income for car/bus fare (i.e. library trips), books or materials. To be able to have access to good resources, and/or a good teacher so you can develop these skillsets is another privilege. To have good training or teachings passed on to you, to be able to afford the various things that make such training, education, and making it to rituals and events to have experiences made possible for oneself is privilege. Once you develop skillsets as a spiritual specialist there may be things that you are simply better at due to the training, the hard work, and/or experiences, as in getting into trance mentioned above. It does not make you inherently better, but it does mean that there are opportunities in terms of training, resources, and experiences that may be available to you that are not available to the average person.

I have had powerful religious experiences throughout my life, first as a Christian and then, as a Pagan. I find it harder to teach someone to connect to the Holy Powers who does not or cannot connect as readily because of this. I haven’t, in general, had to work as hard as others to experience the Presence of the Holy Powers. I do not understand what it is like to go through life with an absence of the Holy Powers being readily in one’s life in a recognizable way. This is a huge blind spot for me when I teach people. It is not like I sit down every time I meditate or sit and pray at a shrine and have a ‘kaboom!’ reaction (read: peak spiritual experience)…but I also look at my experiences and understand why folks might be skeptical of them, to say the least.

I recognize that my experiences are not average, nor that they should have to be. I also recognize that my skillset is different, not better, than others. There are a good deal of skillsets I would like to have, among them, gardening, and ecologically sound building skills, i.e. making cob, strawbale, and similar structures. I have a lot of focus in my life to upper-head type of things, like psychology and theology. Yet, when it comes to things like gardening vegetables, which to a gardener would probably be really simple, like the housekeeper in the comment I get overwhelmed by all the options and data. So, I ask questions of friends who have green thumbs. Do I want results like they get? Of course, but to expect at the start to have plants that grow as well as theirs is probably unrealistic without help. I don’t know much about growing vegetables. Dad has shown me how to do simple gardening, from tilling to planting to watering cycles. Before he gave his help my plants were withering and some died because I did not understand them well enough on my own. I am nothing like a master at this; I am lucky that the aloe plants we keep are so hardy. I have not managed to keep any other plants of mine alive inside the house.

This reminds me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that comes around my Facebook feed now and again: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” If I judged my gardening by Master Gardeners then I would continuously feel like a failure. Context for understanding where the quality of a skillset should be is pretty important.

Skillsets within religion are important. For some religions, understanding the text of the religion may or may not be important. Singing may be important to religious rites and services. There are too many individual instances to list here. Religion is more than a value system, or system of beliefs. It is lived. It is the way in which one conducts themselves in the world, understands their place, and relates to everything. With religious and spiritual engagement devotional work is a must. Religion requires certain skillsets to develop to be done well. While belief is not, to a great many polytheists, as important as worship and right relationship, the ground of these two things is in acknowledgment of the Holy Powers as real and worthy of worship. It is a given, not altogether different from a fish being surrounded by water.

So if there is a baseline set of skillsets for a polytheist, what are they?

There will, I imagine, be different emphases depending on the Gods and Goddesses one worships, Ancestors, spirits, one’s tradition(s), and individual group(s) within those traditions. Rather than write a list full of caveats and exceptions, here are some ideas of general skills to develop:

  • Develop and maintain relationships. Have or be willing to develop a working relationship with your Holy Powers, whether this is the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. This does not need to be a do-all end-all kind of devotion with every minute given over to your Gods, it just needs to be consistent. Even 5-15 minutes of prayer, song, or something where you directly engage with the Holy Powers a day is good.
  • Reciprocity. Have or be willing to develop or engage in a regular system of offerings, even if all you can afford is tap water. Take out the tap water after a full day on the altar, or, if you cannot because people in your home are hostile to your religion, respectfully flush the water or pour it out in a sink. Another option would be to put the offering in a bottle of water, collecting the offerings in the bottle each day, and taking it out to a river, lake, or a tree nearby.
  • Ask questions. I know of no Holy Powers that expected me to know or understand everything all at once. I am still learning about my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If you have people you can contact, use them. If you are in luck and have a community that works with or worships the Holy Powers you are interested in learning about, so much the better.
  • Research. If you have a license to drive a car, you sunk some time into understanding how the car starts, runs, and operates. The Holy Powers deserve just as much, if not more consideration. If nothing else, ask for a recommended reading list. Some texts that would be useful to deepening an understanding of the Holy Powers may be on free websites, like Sacred-Texts.com, the Gutenberg Project, or similar public offerings.
  • Dedication. Do the work. Whatever it is, whether it is research offerings, prayers, meditation, gardening, cleaning, etc.
  • Ask for help. If you are stuck, if you do not understand something, or if you need or want more help even after asking for help, ask for help. As with ‘ask questions’, I don’t want people to not understand what is expected of them by a tradition or to have to reinvent the wheel, or repeat mistakes I or others have made.
  • Double or triple check. If something feels off, maybe it is. It is always better to be sure than to be wobbly on where you are planting your feet.
  • Simple divination. This can be throwing stones, dice, coins, or something small and simple that costs little to nothing in terms of money. While not everyone may have a knack for divination, a really simple yes/no divination style can be very helpful in answering questions, especially when you are stuck.
  • Decolonize your life. A lot of Western ideas are intertwined with Christianity, and many of the sources, including many pieces of lore, are heavily influenced if not corrupted by the scholars who wrote them down. Many scholars themselves have and still do go back and forth over how Christianity, i.e. in the Norse myths, influenced what was recointerrded, and what is genuine religion, holdovers, mixed tradition, and so on from the original peoples being written about. Clean engagement with the Holy Powers will require this, especially since many of our Gods do not fit well within modern Western paradigms of acceptability. Even speaking about the Gods as real Beings unto Themselves is met with derision in much of society, and untangling that from our minds, thoughts, and words is hard work. It requires us to be careful of the words we use, the ways in which we approach our Gods, and even the ways in which we approach the lore available to us. Treating Loki as the Norse Satan, for instance, is a holdover from Christianity. I am not saying you have to like Loki, or believe His actions/reactions are good, but putting Him where Satan was, especially if you are a convert from Christianity, belies the complex relationships the Gods have, and how important He is, given how intertwined He is with almost every myth we have. It also will interfere with how you understand the other Gods, as Loki is often a traveling companion to Thor, Odin, and other Gods.

Skillsets do not have to be developed in isolation either. You can develop skills while also doing devotional work, for instance. These are just a few ideas, but they are the main ones I can think of right now. It may be that you are or develop a craft, and making origami boats for Njord is devotional work for you. Researching your genealogy, and then including the Ancestors you find can be a powerful piece of devotional work. Gardening and tending your land, or a community garden can be a devotional activity involving your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping your home would be a good offering not only to your Ancestors, but to Gods and spirits that are part of or have domain/dominion in the home, i.e. Frigga, Hestia, and houesvaettir, among a great many. While it will not, in my view, replace a daily offering of water or a weekly offering of food, finding ways to incorporate your Holy Powers in your life provides more ways of connection, dedication, and devotion.

To borrow a word from Rhyd Wildermuth, this process is re-enchanting the world around you, suffusing it with the understanding and active acknowledgment that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can be connected with anywhere, and the world itself, wherever you are, is holy and a potential place for the sacred. This is good work wherever one is in their life, whatever their relationship is to the Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, spirits, or communities. Our skillsets will not look the same, nor should they. I would hope that as polytheists we could agree that the basics of devotional work, dedication, and right relationship with our Gods would be among the common ones. This does not require one be a spiritual specialist. The main requirement is that each of us is willing to do the work that each of us can do, each of us in our own time, space, and ability in accordance with our tradition(s) if any, and the will of our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits.

Leadership and Priesthood Part 1: Leadership vs. Priesthood

I have been a Pagan for 10 years, and in that time I have seen very few groups in which priests were not also the leaders of whatever group they were part of. This can be done, and done well. I am part of groups that are very well run and well taken care of by their priests.

Some time ago I went into the difference between what a shaman and a priest are. This is how I defined a priest then, and this is how I still view a priest:

“A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods. When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion. A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity. A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.”

Since this post I have felt the need to put more emphasis on the notion that a priest serves their Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits) first and foremost. That the priest’s first duty, within polytheism as I understand it, practice, and experience it, is service to the Gods. This may have absolutely nothing to do with one’s human community/communities. Much of my work with Anpu, as I noted in the article “Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest”, has nothing to do with living people. Much of my service to Him is to help the Dead. In the last seven or so years I have not done a single public ritual with anyone in regards to Him, yet He still counts me as His priest and others have come to me asking for help with Him. I serve Him, and I serve Him in the ways He asks me, and on behalf of Him with other people where called.

Being a priest does not, by default, make me the leader, or even a leader outside of certain circumstances. It makes me a priest. So if I am making the point that priests are not necessarily leaders, then what are leaders?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”. A leader is someone who may be a trailblazer, just as they might be someone modeling good values, just as they might be the head of a group. The focus of a leader, at the end of the day, is on people first and foremost. They are about the people they lead. A volunteer coordinator is a leader just as a head of the local Kuwanis Club is a leader. Often a leadership position is in service to other people. Contrast this what I have written above in regards to being a priest, and there is a stark contrast: the leader is about the people, and the priest is about the Gods. Their actions are geared towards their focus.

If you are a priest you might be a leader, just by default in a situation like a ritual. You might be the only leader(s), as many groups are lead by priests. However, I think that the onus of leadership is something that ought to be more shared. It is a lot to ask of a person to keep a personal cultus with Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, in addition to possibly holding rituals for a group, making offerings, and holding a job, and lead a group on top of all the other things required to make a group function well. The list of demands grows if your group is official with the government at all, or if you have a busy ritual schedule. That is a lot on one person, or even two people.

Some people are able to do all of this and keep their group running well. I think, though, that we would have more effective priests and groups in general if this was an option and not a necessity. Note: I am not saying every priest who is in this situation should give up their leadership roles.  From where I stand that is a lot of weight on a person’s shoulders. If they choose to, this is where the priest, especially if they are in or have been put in a leadership role, needs to be willing to speak up, set boundaries, and especially to delegate responsibilities and trust people to fulfill/look after them. In turn, those they trust with the leadership and various responsibilities need to follow through on their obligations and promises.

I saw this at work very effectively as a Catholic. There are councils set up to help the priests do their work, i.e. pastoral councils, financial councils and the like, so that the priests can focus on doing their mission: serving their God and in turn, their congregation. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be laid to make this work well for polytheists, but if we want to have dedicated priests, temples, and the like, some amount of hierarchy, organization, and heavy lifting will need doing. A council format allows for concerned folks to get together and pull their weight together, vote on ideas, and make things happen with a core membership that then goes out into the community and gets things done. In the Catholic Church they work with the priest hand-in-hand to make sure that what is needed is taking care of so the priest does not have to worry about the lights getting turned off or what they are going to do about needed work on the church. This is an effective model that works. Granted, the Catholic Church itself kicks in much-needed money so the wheels are greased. Yet, I believe this council model can effectively work so that our communities can make the amenities, like temples, charities, communities, public ritual space, and so on, that I have heard so many wish for. A priest alone trying to do all of this, pull of this together, would have a very, very hard time.

Why is now is a good time to think about this, and separate priests from large amounts of leadership responsibilities? Because we are coming into a time where we may have the people to do so. There are second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation polytheists, Pagans, and those of like mind who are coming into the world. I would like to see effective foundations laid for them all. Part of this, I see, is defining who and what we are, as-is the need to build lasting groups, buildings, and so on for them to inherit. Not everyone is a priest, nor should the notion that ‘everyone is their own priest’ mean that priests, themselves, and all the skillsets required to be an effective one, get put by the wayside.

More on skillsets in the next post.

Redefining Words and Claiming Space

After reading the polytheism section of this post, and more recently here, that John Halstead has written over and over again, I have to throw my hands up. Granted, I disagreed with him vehemently on a great many points before he worked on this post and wrote an addendum to it, but I still deeply disagree with him over what I view as one of the most egregious forms of twisting words.

When someone speaks up and misuses words they need to be checked. It is wrong to take words out of their historic, and current context, and to twist them so that the words mean what you believe. Polytheism does not equate or equal panentheism or pantheism, which is more or less what I see John Halstead trying to say with his supposed paradox that “The Gods are many…but one.”

Nowhere in his first piece does he quote polytheists, now living or dead. He notes in his addendum there are folks in the polytheist, reconstructionist, and other camps that directly disagree with him on this point, communities that use this word, and yet goes ahead and writes what he wishes as polytheism is supposed to relate to his Neo-Paganism. I absolutely do not recognize what he quotes as polytheism as such; I do not ‘use’ my Gods, nor are They psychological constructs.

Mr. Halstead quotes from Waldron in The Sign of the Witch “From a neo-Pagan perspective polytheism is not the belief in a world of separate and distinct Gods but is rather an acceptance of the principle that reality and the divine is multiple, fragmented and diverse.” Okay, this may be a neo-Pagan perspective, but I do not find it polytheist at all. So far as I have seen, read, and understood to be true, polytheists treat and believe our Gods as complete in and of Themselves; They are not a fragment of some whole. Nor are They facets of a jewel. To use the metaphor, each God and Goddess is a jewel unto Themselves, and a great many facets or a single facet of Them may be seen, known, and worshiped by a person.

The question of “What the hell is Mr. Halstead getting at? What does John Halstead understand about Neo-Paganism, let alone anything regarding Paganism?” are some questions that have come to mind a few times as I have read his works, but never so much as here. How in the Nine Worlds is his idea of polytheism supposed to actually square with anything resembling polytheism such as it is lived by its adherents? How is it supposed to square with historical polytheism? All I see in his examples are panentheism, and monism. These are not polytheist. The quotes he has given are not polytheist. “The radical plurality of the self”? I have no idea what his point is here. Polytheist religion recognizes a plural Self, i.e. the Soul Matrix of the Northern Tradition. Polytheism has plurality built into it.

If Mr. Halstead’s point is solely psychological, i.e. ‘psychological polytheism’ then I believe has has missed his mark by not being more clear about what he is trying to define, and using improper words to try to define it. Religion helps shape a person and society’s psychology, its understanding of states of good or ill health, in the mental, physical, and spiritual realms. However, religion is not psychology itself. Nor should psychology, in my view, seek or be sought to supplant religion. If I have misunderstood his intent, I apologize. If I have misunderstood or misconstrued his meaning, I hope to have better definitions and descriptions written by him in the future without twisting words which I use as primary personal descriptors, such as polytheism. Were Mr. Halstead writing solely from his own view with at least something recognizable behind the words he wishes to redefine, and not using a word that people already use as a primary identifier, myself included, perhaps I would have less of an issue.

“According to the theologian, William Hamilton, the gods of Neo-Pagan polytheism are not to be believed in, but are “to be used to give shape to an increasingly complex and variegated experience of life.” (quoted by Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon). “

So his idea of polytheism is that They are to be used, to be a tool to help us shape, and therefore also understand the world around us. Yet we are not to believe in Them, even as They are supposed to be used to shape and understand the experiences of life? When I make a woodcarving I do not stop believing in the tools nor their effect on the wood any more than I stop believing or believe that the wood came to me as-is or was grown in the shape I bought it in. That wood had a life before it was cut and shaped. That wood was part of a tree, and that tree had roots in the ground, and that ground had an existence of its own well before I ever set foot upon the ground or happened upon that cut of wood from that tree. So too the tools and their components, which came from other places, and had to be fashioned into the shape they are now.

The Gods, then, are cast only into the form of the tool, rather than the ground. In the form of the woodcarving rather than the tree from which the wood came. I fully believe the Gods can be the ground, the tree, the tool, the toolmaker, the carver, the carved, and so on. In other words the Gods can be in and/or be each part of the process (the process itself may have God(s) and Goddesses over and/or involved in this, too), to say They are merely to be used as a tool denies Their actual involvement and reduces Them to an object to be manipulated. It takes away what is essential to a polytheist perspective of the Gods: personhood. Not that They are human or human-like, necessarily, but it denies Their Being and Self, as independent of us. It denies one of the basic understandings that polytheism, in any form I have practiced or been exposed to, teaches: the Gods are Beings Unto Themselves.

I do not use my Gods; I use a computer. I may ask a God or Goddess to lend Their power to a spell, or to intercede on my or someone else’s behalf, but intercessory prayer does not equal use. I do not use my Gods in ritual; rather, I pray to Them and ask for Their Presence. This point is perhaps the largest point of contention I have when anyone uses the word ‘use’ in regards to the Gods, or to Ancestors or spirits.

If I say “I use Bob on First Street when I have car trouble”, it does not diminish Bob’s personhood nor does it treat him as an end. I acknowledge his role in my life and that he is a person I trust. Saying “I use Brighid when I need healing” does not acknowledge the personhood of the Gods and instead makes the God’s identity and relationship one has with Them about their use.

It matters little if it is a Wiccan talking about ‘using’ Gods in ritual, or an atheist Pagan about ‘using’ Gods to understand the world, or themselves. If one is using this language, then they are talking about ‘using’ Beings, which I believe have agency, self-awareness, understanding, and sentience. They are talking about Beings I consider to be worthy of worship. They are talking about ‘using’ Beings from traditions which I believe to be holy and good. When the language of ‘use’ (as in using tools like an athame or wand, screwdriver or saw) is used in regards to the Gods it is disrespecting both the Gods and the traditions that hold Them as dear, holy, and worthy of worship.

One cannot utterly separate the Gods from the traditions or cultures which give/gave worship to Them. Understanding and knowledge of the Gods are informed by the traditions, cultures. The Gods inform the religions, cultures, and traditions in turn whether by mystic experience and/or simply by being the basis of the religion. This does not mean that you need to be a member of my particular Northern Tradition religion to worship the Norse/Germanic Gods, or to do it right. What it does mean is that one must acknowledge that to worship the Norse/Germanic Gods one needs to understand the culture and traditions out of which the Gods of this/these traditions come. It means that one must come to the religion with its background culture(s), tradition(s), etc. rather than trying to make it, and an understanding of and relationship with the Gods, come to you.

Taking the Gods out of these contexts renders the understanding of Them incomplete. When Ms. Krasskova or I, or another author say ‘take on an indigenous mindset’ part of this means is that one must meet the Gods on Their own terms rather than our preconceived notions, ideas, and beliefs of how our relationship should be. “Odin is the God of Wisdom” is an easy phrase to make, and while it may be true, is not the whole of all He is, and may or may not reflect my relationship with Him at all. I and other polytheists who worship Odin can come to independent understandings and relationships and so on with Him while believing Him as a God independent of our existence, and agree on basic clear concepts, on to deep details of theology. This does not necessarily make established tradition(s), culture(s), and so on, the do-all end-all of any relationship with a God, Goddess, Ancestor, spirit, etc. (although it may) but it will inform, shape, define, and further develop one’s understanding of these Beings, and the ways in which one relates to, worships, etc. Them. The traditions are the bones on which the meat of the relationship are built.

“It is the reality experienced by men and women when Truth with a capital ‘T’ cannot be articulated according to a single grammar, a single logic or a single symbol system.” (David Miller, The New Polytheism).

If you cannot articulate truth, or even try to articulate Truth, then your logic and symbol system have failed. We can debate the nature of reality according to different belief systems, and the extent that different polytheist traditions agree or disagree with one another on these things. Yet, without a single grammar, logic, or symbol system, our understanding of the Gods falls apart. Without coming to understand our Gods on Their terms, as best as we can, we are leaving our understanding of Them woefully inadequate.

Without a single grammar, logic, and symbol system, understanding the Northern Tradition, and most polytheism, falls apart. You cannot understand the Northern Tradition through the Kemetic, nor Roman polytheism. To say otherwise is saying that one can understand and speak German fluently after having done so with Greek. Are there some universal truths? If there are, (and to avoid speaking for all polytheists I will say if), they are broad, such as: the Gods are Beings Unto Themselves; respect is given for the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits; hospitality to people, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits; offerings are given in respect to the wishes, traditions, customs, etc. to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. The appearance of respect, for instance, will differ between traditions, customs of certain groups within a given tradition, the Gods worshiped by a group, the relationship between the people and their Gods, Ancestors and spirits as a whole and individually, and many, many other factors I could not hope to account for. Yet, on a baseline, there are similar beliefs, even if the shape and effects of those beliefs differ tradition to tradition, group to group, and person to person.

Polytheism is not just a term or a description; it is an identifier that an entire religious community uses to understand itself. It is an identifier people use as means to express who and what they are to others. It has an accepted meaning, Trying to dilute the meaning of this word is an attempt to dilute the meaning and understanding with which this word is used as an identifier. To try to redefine polytheism as something it is not is an insult at the least, and if enough people start using it in the way Mr. Halstead would care to, actively will produce problems in communication.

In the second post linked above, Mr. Halstead seeks to “’re-god’ the archetypes”. I take great pains to say that this is not polytheism. It is fine that he seeks to do it, but it is not polytheism. I believe that he, seeking to put the numinous back into archetypes, rather than Gods into archetypes, is a fine goal for him to do. However, it is not polytheism as I understand it, practice it, believe in, or acknowledge. It is perfectly fine that he believes, understands, practices, acknowledges, etc. in a religious context different than I. What is not fine, and what I will not stand for, is his appropriation of the word polytheism, polytheist, etc. to suit his own ends. What he describes and espouses is nothing I recognize as such.

He rightly points out that his beliefs are a choice. So too, is identifying as a polytheist, and embracing the beliefs therein. As he points out in the post, these are his beliefs. I am not attacking his beliefs, or him, please let me make that perfectly clear.

The spectrum of religious belief does exist on a spectrum, but rather than a singular spectrum, I believe it extends from many, of which extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism is just one. Religious beliefs are also a series of continuum on which belief and disbelief are polar opposites. These are tools which can help us understand where we lie in relating to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, ourselves, the world around us, etc. You can be a polytheist that disbelieves their own experiences in the extreme just as you can be a be an atheist Pagan and fully believe that your experiences of the Gods, such as They are, are real. The scale is only as useful as how accurate and accepted it is.
Mr. Halstead writes “The spectrum of belief regarding the nature of divinity ranges from extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism. I fall more toward one end of the spectrum. Others fall more toward the other end. But we are on the same spectrum. For example, whatever they believe about the ultimate nature of divinity, I would wager most people can acknowledge that the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical, in that divinity can at least seem to be both “in” us and “outside” of us, both a part of us and also other than us. ”

Well, yes, when we are placed on that spectrum of course polytheists are in a very different spectrum from him. In a great many places our various religious positions do not line up. We may be able to agree that ‘the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical’. In my case, the idea that the Gods can be cosmically as well as personally present is one place where I could say the experience of a God, such as Odin, is powerful and mind-boggling.

Recognizing that I may have attributes within me, or parts of me that resonate with Odin does not mean that Odin is in me. It means that these parts, attributes, etc. resonate with Him. Odin is Odin, Odin is within Himself. When He gave breath to Ask and Embla it was a gift, one which did not cease to be His breath or a gift, but much like my parents’ DNA, that gift of life and existence is part of me. I am, in the end, external to Him. For me, this in particular is not a paradox. It makes sense, since He is not I, and I am not Him. My parents gave me life, and their DNA is bound up in me, but I am not them, nor they I, and while there are parts of me that resonate with them and parts of my persona that match up very well with them, I am not them, and vice versa. Finding the nature of the Gods in ourselves is not a paradox. I can look to a great many things, fictional and non-fictional, in a variety of media, and ‘find myself’ or aspects of myself, things that resonate with me. So too may I see the Gods in the world around me even while recognizing that my personal experience of ‘if I see three pairs of crows it may mean Odin is present’ may either be inaccurate (i.e. it is just 3 pairs of crows, congrats) or simply a personal experience for/with me alone.

Devotional polytheists have contributions to the larger Pagan communities that we may make. Whether we can make these contributions depends largely on whether or not we are given space to speak in it from our own beliefs, experiences, and traditions. Our contributions will depend on whether or not our words and identifiers are respected. I do own the word polytheist the same way that I own the words cis-gender male. The same way that I own the word pansexual. These are identifiers. I do not make these on my own, since meaning is not made in a bubble. These words are accepted by the communities that employ them, and in larger society as meaning certain things. They are, in general, respected for what they are, even if not fully agreed upon. If Neo-Pagans like Mr. Halstead are going to try to include us, respect for us starts with respect for our identifying words, our beliefs, traditions, and experiences. We do not have to agree, that is not at issue here. At issue is basic respect.

Mr. Halstead says that using the words ‘polytheist’ and ‘polytheism’ in psychologized and naturalized senses has precedent. Yet, even he admits there is better precedent for how I use it: “there’s better precedent for using the word to mean a belief in gods as literal, independent, sentient beings”. So while he writes that he sympathizes, he will continue to misuse one of the primary words by which I identify myself. There are two definitions for sympathy, and I am not sure which one rankles me more in this context: “feelings of pity for someone else’s misfortune”, or “understanding between people; common feeling” (OED). What this tells me is that either he is unmotivated by his sympathy to change his behavior, or in the face of it, he is ignoring something that wrongs others so he can use words as he sees fit.

If someone is misusing a label or term, they are misusing a label or term. His belief that “that saying Margot Adler — or Doreen Valiente — is not a polytheist is a little like saying Paul was not a Christian.” No, actually, it is stating a truth. From what writings I have seen, and with my experience of having been on a small panel with Ms. Adler, neither one of these women are polytheists such as I use, understand, or acknowledge the term. The quotes given are monist, panentheistic and/or pantheistic. None of the quotes acknowledge the Gods as Beings Unto Themselves, nor even that They are differentiated from one another. Beliefs like “all the Gods are one God” and the like are not polytheist. There is no belief in many Gods to be had here. It is not polytheist. It does not make any of the contributions these women have made to Paganism and Neo-Paganism less, it simply means they are not polytheist. These women are Pagan (or Neo-Pagan if you will) but they are not polytheist. So no, this is nothing like saying Paul was not a Christian. It is saying Paul was not a Lutheran.

Whether or not trying to erase or silence polytheist voices was Mr. Halstead’s intent, it is no longer an issue for me; it is what he and like-minded people are actively engaged in doing that concerns me. If you wish to identify as a Neo-Pagan and the larger Pagan communities accepts this I will not stand against them; that is their decision. If the larger Pagan and Neo-Pagan communities accept atheist and humanist Pagans as Pagans and/or Neo-Pagans, that is their business and their right.  ‘Polytheist’ and ‘polytheism’ are not just ‘something I found’ or just words that ‘capture’ what I believe. ‘Polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’ are words that identify who and what I am. It is an identifier of the communities and people I find common cause with. It is a religious identification. These words should be used with respect to and for the people, communities, and religions they represent.

In sharing his beliefs Mr. Halstead does not silence my beliefs or erase my community. His attempted co-opting of my words, most especially my primary identifiers, does. His insistence in using these identifiers as he has done and continues to, does attempt erasure and silence. Setting up his standards as norms for my community are further attempts at erasure and silence. His use of the words we primarily identify ourselves with in the larger Pagan community on an inter and intrafaith website decreases our ability to effectively define ourselves. Twisting the words ‘polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’ to mean something they do not dilutes their usefulness as words, silences our effective use of those words, and erases our identity along with it.

Update: My thanks to James Stovall for being a sounding board, and for the example with Bob in the middle of this piece. He helped me think on the term ‘use’, and how it can be used in a sentence without the loss of personhood, and with respect to the person.

Honesty and Truth; Self Identification and Communal Identity

I was reading a post by Aine Llewellyn on identification at Patheos.com and I thought about my own identity.

How did I come to know who and what I am?

I looked for something to identify with myself, a model or series of models to compare, contrast, follow, and reject. It necessitated looking at how others described themselves, seeing which words fit best. This is part of every person’s foundation. Self-identification and self-definition cannot happen in a bubble. While it is personal to some degree for much of our lives identity is communally developed.

Consensus reality is built with a standardized understanding of the world around us. Even with words that have their own continuum, words such as hot/cold, good/bad, etc. there must be a root knowledge of what is being described and compared for any meaning to be built. To understand hot we must understand ‘hotness’ just as we must understand cold by its ‘coldness’. We must also understand where those dividing lines are defined, even if it is relatively arbitrary. Without these foundations there is nothing for meaning, or identity to build on. These basic identifiers of reality then expand outward to more complex topics, such as religion.

If identity cannot be built in isolation how can identity take such as central role when only defined by oneself? If self-identification is all that matters what would the point of words, let alone consensus-based reality, matter?

I recognize that writing this post is, in and of itself, setting a healthy powder keg with ample matches nearby. To even address identity in so straightforward a manner can be viewed as threatening, confrontational, fundamentalist, or simply being a jerk. Or all of the above. It is not my intent, either in writing this or pointing out Aine Llewellyn’s post, to be antagonizing. It my intent to make some points on things I feel very strongly and develop constructive, needed dialogue.

If I cannot point to x, y, or z and discern x from y, y from z, and so on, what is the use of words? Words can, by their nature, restrict meaning, but it also gives us the means to sharing and understanding meaning with ourselves and with one another. In so doing it gives us the means to understanding, appreciating, and developing meaning itself.

Words like hot and cold exist on a spectrum, yet we can say that hot is not cold and cold is not hot; to say otherwise is to destroy the meaning of both words, and the concept for each completely falls apart. We can say where freezing is, where lukewarm (aka room temperature) is, and where the boiling point is for water, both in terms of scientific measurement, and in terms of common parlance. That is why I sincerely believe that exclusionary definitions must come into use, and be respected, in order that our words mean anything. If ‘Pagan’ is to mean anything substantive, at some point we must confess that hot does not equal cold, and thereby, cold does not equal hot. While pinpointing where that dividing line is may take some work on our part, it is a necessary thing.

I cannot, as a polytheist, animist, a priest of two Gods and a Northern Tradition shaman, walk into a Catholic Church and declare myself Catholic with any honesty or in truth. I do not believe, think, or have the worldview of a Catholic. As importantly, I do not attend Mass, believe in the Nicene Creed, or perform the sacraments, hold the Roman Catholic Church as my authority figure, or Jesus Christ as my Savior and YHVH as my God. For me to say “I am Catholic” would not be honest or true. I am not only ill-suited to being Catholic but it would be dishonest and untrue of me to identify as one.

I use the words ‘honest’ and ‘true’ because of their definition:
Honest: “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere”
True: “in accordance with fact or reality”

So one may be totally honest in the presentation of their feelings but untrue in what reality is. One may sincerely believe believe that a hot cup of tea is in fact cold, even while steam rises from it.

Would honoring St. Francis de Assisi, to the point of setting aside a shrine for him where I could commune with him and leave him offerings, make me a Catholic? Absolutely not. I would be a polytheist animist honoring the spirit of a man who deeply touched my life, whose namesake I took when I was Confirmed, and whose prayers I still enjoy.

To even try to breach this boundary would be an insult, if not a direct affront to myself, my Gods, many if not all of my Ancestors (polytheist and monotheist), many, if not all of the spirits I call friends and allies, and my Elders. It would equally be an insult to YHVH, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, devout Catholics, Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Pope. In short, I would be honoring nothing and insulting everyone.

What of those Catholics (few, I imagine, given my experiences in the Church) who are in between the points of boundaries, such as those who think you can be Catholic and worship Gods? What of those Pagans who believe that the words ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ should mean whatever their user wishes them to mean? At some point there needs to be a consideration on whose voice matters, why, and for what reason their words should be recognized as honest or dishonest, true or untrue, valid or invalid.

A layperson in the Roman Catholic religion may make all the pronouncements on Church doctrine that they wish, and for all they may articulate their position well, with full citations from accepted Church sources, they will not be an authority within the Catholic Church. A layperson has no power to set theology, doctrine, or ways of conducting oneself within that religion. Few forms of Christianity exist which allows their laypeople to have this authority.

If one is truthfully and honestly identifying themselves as a Catholic then, according to the doctrine of the Church, you are placing yourself under its authority. If one is to truthfully and honestly self-identify as a Catholic you cannot be anything other than a Catholic who adheres to the beliefs of the Church. These are part of the rules laid out by the communal body of the Church through its doctrines and theology. These are the rules that one accepts, even if one disagrees with them and is seeking change within the Church, as part of being identified as a member of the Church. You can personally identify as a Catholic, going to Church, and believing as you will, even being fully polytheist, and your feelings may be completely honest and true in and of yourself, that you feel that way and identify as a Catholic. However, it will not be honest or truthful in regards tobeing Catholic.

A Pagan operating purely from personal gnosis alone will likely not be accepted as any kind of authority within reconstructionist circles no matter how fervent their beliefs or powerful their experiences. A reconstructionist Heathen will probably not be an authority figure within British Traditional Wicca. Pagan communities already practice discernment as to whose identification is accepted, who is an authority figure, and who is part of the community’s in-crowd. However, it is seen as rude and/or outwardly hostile when one tries to apply any rubric of discernment in determining who belongs to the larger Pagan community.

At this moment, one can truthfully and honestly identify themselves as Pagan regardless of personal theology. Among a great many, one of the differences between the Christian and Pagan communities is that Pagan communities each have their own standards as to who belongs. Some of these standards may be so lax as to be nonexistent. Some Pagan communities have no standards of belief and/or practice whatsoever, accepting all comers to the identification. Others, by contrast, are quite strict in their definition of who belongs to their particular community, while others’ boundaries are quite porous while still having a core of adherence required. In the case of Paganism, as it exists right now, the only way to identify a Pagan is to have one identify themselves.

In order for Pagan to gain more substantive meaning it needs to be become more exclusive. Why should Pagans embrace exclusionary statements? If there are 30,000 or so (and growing) denominations of Christianity, why not follow suit and embrace as many variations of ‘Pagan’ as come to the term?

Christianity as a whole discerns between itself and other religions in its namesake and its theological position. To be Christian is to follow Christ. That marks it as different from other monotheist religions as well. It is exclusionary in its very name, demarking itself from all other religions in that Christ, regardless of what denomination one follows, is the head of the religion and that one is a follower of Christ. There is no such thing in Paganism. There is no positive differentiation between Pagans and other faiths. We are defined by negative differentiation, by not being Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Shinto, etc. In other words, we are not even self-identified.

The Pagan identity is all but completely constructed outside of our communities. There is no absolute baseline for belief as the term is used today. There is not even a requirement for belief in a God or a Goddess, let alone Gods or Goddesses. Nor are there requirements for even a belief in a spirit, let alone spirits. If the word ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ communicates essentially nothing in terms of belief within our own communities, and communicates little to nothing of our beliefs when used by other religions as an identifier, what good is it as a description for any belief, let alone an umbrella of them?

By contrast, there is a profession of belief in declaring oneself a polytheist. It is simple and direct: the belief in many Gods. Individual groups within the polytheist communities may have different standards of belonging, belief, right action, right practice, ethics, etc. but the uniting factor is that belief is actually involved and it is in many Gods. This definition excludes atheists, monotheists, monists, and others, but that is what makes it an effective word: it does not say ‘the belief in Gods if you can believe in Them’, or ‘the absolute belief that the Gods are x, y, z, etc”, merely that one believes that many Gods exist.

If ‘Pagan’, ‘Paganism’, and related terms are to be of use they must be more than negatively outwardly-defined. They must be internally defined, and, more importantly, positively defined with a clear meaning.  

Communities and Tribalism

Tribalism is a term that, nowadays, gets a good deal of bad rap.  It is thrown around, like many words, and is taken out of its original meaning and is then twisted.   It is something that gets to me, as I find the word tribe and the concept of having a tribe to actually be a good thing rather than a negative one.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: “the state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes”.  The entry notes that this is derogatory.  According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, the word originated in 1886, meaning “condition of being a tribe”, meaning “group loyalty”. Strange that a word that could have very positive connotations is now used as a weapon in debates.

Digging into the word tribe, again, from the Oxford English Dictionary, “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”  The two examples given beneath the definition are “indigenous Indian tribes” and “the Celtic tribes of Europe“.  Notice that there is no mention of race.  In the example provided, the indigenous people of America and Europe are separated by their culture and dialect, not by race.  The divisions are social, not racial.  With this understanding of tribe, and tribalism, I find it maddening that the words are being misused when I find them to represent something quite beautiful. So what does tribe mean in a situation where a polytheist and animist worships and works with many Gods?  It means that one worships a group of Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and has ties of loyalty to those in one’s tribe.  These ties can be linked by family, lineage, adoption, and/or oaths.

In my own case, my spiritual House, House Sankofa, is one of my tribes, as are others who have adopted me into their own tribe.  In House Sankofa we are not limited in who we can worship, but we are limited in the sense that our identification is polytheist and/or animist in terms of religious identity.  Our Gods are approached in respect, each according to Their own ways.  Our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are given veneration, and all are treated with respect.  Our loyalties also do not need to be limited to just House Sankofa; I am a member of both House Sankofa, and recently joined another tribe without conflict with either one.

There is a key difference, however, between this House and a lot of groups organized online: in addition to being a member, I have physically worked with and worshiped with the members of House Sankofa.  As John Beckett says in his article, Tribalism: The Good, The Bad, and The Future to a commenter: “There is a place for virtual tribes, and long-distance networking within and between tribes will remain important. But there is no substitute for people you can actually touch.”  I agree with this, and it is because of this contact, my membership in, and ongoing work with House Sankofa, that I mark myself intimately connected with House Sankofa as I do with those of my smaller groups. What this does not mean is that all, or any of our religious practice looks exactly the same.  Tribalism, or belonging to any group really, need not mean absolute conformity.  Each person may not get along with this or that God, or this religious practice does not speak to them or work in their relationship with the Gods.  Tribalism does not equal uniformity in expression of our religious paths, nor of our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  I, for instance, do not work well with plant spirits whereas another House member might.  In general, with the exception of one God, I do not work with the Greek Gods as part of my everyday practice.  Yet, I have House members that do.  One does not need to be all things to all Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, especially if one can rely on others to keep good relationships flowing.  Not all of us are priests, shamans, and/or spiritworkers.  Some are just people worshiping their Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

So there’s a lot out there decrying why tribalism is a bad thing.  What are some good points to tribalism?

  1. Each member is part and parcel of a group of people who are organized around sets of principles, traditions, and/or sets of beliefs.
  2. There is a unity in the group, in focus, works, direction, etc.
  3. There is a hierarchy, and people to answer to in leadership positions and in non-leadership positions.
  4. There is a built-in support structure for all members.
  5. Changes made at the tribal level are easier to see, the impact can be more immediate, and the ripples from change can be followed up on sooner and more efficiently.
  6. There are set ways that people can become part of the tribe which can reduce conflict, and make sure prospective members are a good fit for the tribe.
  7. There are accepted methods of conduct within the tribe and in situations such as meetings, ritual, etc.
  8. There are accepted ways of resolving conflict that serve to help tamp down on hostilities while providing methods of conflict resolution.
  9. Each member is both a contributor and receiver, each to their own ways, means, and abilities.

Hierarchy does not need to mean your voice becomes worthless, or that your leader can or should ignore your voice.  Hierarchy does not mean that a leader can simply go whichever direction they like, either.  Like an arrow, there is a point that drives home the shaft to its target, the shaft itself that transports the point and the energy of the bow, and the feathers that keep the arrow on track.  All are essential to the arrow’s flight.  The bow is the common origin from which the arrows springs, such as the shared beliefs, traditions, etc. of the group.  The string is the zeal of the group, the drive to a certain goal, etc.

The unity found in a tribe is powerful.  When you share symbolism, ritual, values, identity, and so on, it is a powerful bond.  Anyone who has been initiated into a religious system can attest to this  This is true whether you are a Confirmed Catholic, an initiated Wiccan, or part of the Northern Tradition.  You place yourself into the worldview, hierarchy, and all the rest when you take on the label.  Further, with a tribe, you are accepting your role within that community, and all the responsibilities that come with it.  This differs from solely being part of a religious organization, at least here in America.  It carries a different weight to say “I am a member of House Sankofa” than it is to say “I am Pagan”.  It carries the weight not only of what it means to be a member of that organization, but one’s place within it.  The weight of the former is heavier, in my experience, than the latter.  After all, I can ignore the Pagan community if I do not agree with its consensus.  I can feel free to discard any notion of community with the larger Pagan community (note: but not the Pagan communities in which I am counted as part of tribe/in-group) far less effort than leaving House Sankofa.  The weight of that acceptance, those bonds of trust, love, and oaths, are not there with the larger Pagan community.

Unlike Paganism, for whom even the definition of the noun is still being debated on its baseline usefulness as a description, House Sankofa does have requirements of those seeking its membership.  It has clear rules set down as to what is expected of its members, as well as guests.  It has a few hard-stop rules, one of which being is that you need to be a polytheist.  So yes, tribes can be exclusionary.  That is what sets them apart, in some respects, from other groupings of people.  It is also what keeps tribes cohesive, collected, and moving in the same general direction when movement is required.  So while it sometimes can be a way of separation, it is also a way of bringing people together in a way all can flourish since there are no arguments on fundamental things like worldview, ritual etiquette, or role(s), as the rules and hierarchy of the tribe are accepted by all who are part of it.  This does not mean tribes do not change; much the contrary, part of the organization of a tribe allows it to take in new information and work with it.  What a tribe does not do, in general, is shift its fundamental positions that make up its identity.

When a group of people has an accepted worldview and way(s) of worship, that is, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it is easier to keep a group together in ritual both in terms of headspace and in terms of expectation.  It is also easier to stay cohesive and focused on what is important to the tribe even if different relationships and new information comes into play from members’ individual experiences with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  Having orthodoxy and orthopraxy, much rather than stifling a group or their individual journeys, gives rise to better ways to navigate them.  It is the difference between merely having a map and being able to read it.  A shared worldview and practice allows many contexts to all of the relationships in a tribe, physical and spiritual, making them easier to discern and integrate them into one’s life.

Tribalism provides a way for people to organize in ways that are harder to break down than a social club, interest group, or open group.  In rough times, its structure demands banding together.  In times of plenty, sharing.  This ongoing Gebo not only assures that the tribe keeps going, but it goes strong.  Special interest groups, if they achieve their ends or if they fail, tend not to last because these ties of sharing simply do not exist.  There is no idea of ‘if we fail we fail together’, excepting in the abstract of failing to execute the ends to which the group was founded for.

Tribes give touchstones to people, to our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that few groups can offer.  They give us a sense of place and belonging.  They give us a sense of healthy identity.  They give us support for the roads we travel together.  A tribe exists in some way, shape, or form, to exist and propagate itself so that all within it do better, building with and on each generation and adoption of people that comes into it.  It is grown stronger by unity and diversity.  In an age where resource scarcity and poverty are increasing both in undeniable visibility and scope, tribalism offers hope, to bring people together with bonds that can withstand what challenges the future brings.  It offers a future built together with those you trust with your soul, mind, and life.

Thoughts on Pagan Apologetics

*Note: I am going through my backlog of about 75 Drafts and publishing what I feel comfortable with publishing.  This draft was originally started 05-04-2011!

Some of this was taken from a Patheos.com post I commented on here.

Engaging people who are generally antithetical to your beliefs (or at least not in your ballpark), in my view, is healthy if taken in balance with understanding your own. My best friend of 15 years is going to college right now to become a minister, and he and I’s debates, conversations, and apologetics on both sides hones our abilities to argue our points, defend our faiths, and gain deeper understanding from the other. In his asking me questions, including two interviews for his classes, I am pushed to answer deep questions about my theology, my daily practice, and what it is I do as a Pagan priest and shaman. I also have to formulate arguments against age-old philosophers, evangelists, and his own professors of his faith as to why my faith is the way it is, is fine the way it is, and why I am not accepting Christianity as my path.

I know it’s not as if other religions who have been opposed to us so far are going to ‘up and accept us’, and indeed many simply may not for one reason or another. However, I feel that Pagans owe it to themselves to develop apologetics so we can at least defend our ways in public. Heck, I have had deep conversations with Christian Evangelicals who berated me for looking at Pagan books in Borders who, after conversation, had a much different understanding of what Pagans are, do, and how they should treat us in accordance with their own Scripture.

This is where I think I differ from Bishop Harber, in that knowing Scripture, and arguing our points from their own Holy Books can be beneficial. Many Christians don’t understand their own faith (certainly not all), much less ours, beyond shallow means. However, if they look to the Bible as an authoritative text, you can use it to bolster your argument if you have a good understanding of it. I don’t think quoting their text gives it authority over me or my argument, but I can see where the idea might come from. By legitimizing their text by using it in argument. To me, using their text means more than quoting passages, but also understanding where able what the passages might have meant to those who wrote them, historical context, and whether or not modern-day scholarship backs up claims from the text. So perhaps this is not an avenue that everyone can or should take. Also, if the person is approaching you from an emotional perspective, it may not matter how many verses you can quote back to them. I’ve heard the line “Even the Devil can quote Scripture” thrown in my face on more than one occasion. I just think of this as just one tool among many we can use. Depending on the situation at hand, it can be well or poorly suited to the task of defending our faith.

I also think any who call themselves priests, priestesses, shamans, etc. should build up these and other skills related to functioning as a priest/ess, shaman, etc. such as communication skills, leadership skills, some amount of scholarship (or at least a thorough understanding of pertinent texts), and practice of their faith. It does us no good to have people in leadership positions who don’t understand their own faith, and cannot defend it, much less talk about it. This can also put the community or communities they serve into a stronger standing by empowering the community to come together to debate theology, understand their paths better, and open up new avenues of communication.

This is where leadership roles must mean something.  It means that if you take on a titular role you need to know and be that role.  You don’t need to be extreme or the most studied individual, but you do need to know your spirituality and your spiritual practices.  In my case, I need to know why I use lore, archaeology, and primary sources as jumping off points in my spirituality and practice, and call it a reconstructionist-derived practice rather than a reconstructionist practice.  I need to know why there are parts of the lore that I won’t use in my practice or don’t have a place in my spirituality, such as Odin supposedly being from Troy in Snorri’s Prose Edda tale Gylfaginning.  Given that my Gods are many, I also need to know about how different pathways interplay.  Being that I and others in the groups I worship are polytheists, there’s also steps taken to assure that our Gods are pleased with the arrangement if we feel the urge to call to Gods from more than one Pantheon in a ritual.  We may be eclectic in our spiritual path together, but that does not excuse us from dialogue with the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, etc., and doing right by Them and/or the community.

Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

In reading a good deal of blog posts I am in agreement that part of the core problem of communication between different Pagan traditions and religions is that there is a sloppy use of words.  To help with this I first list the dictionary definition from the online Oxford English Dictionary as a starting point for discussion.  Then I will dig into the words and what they mean from my perspective if I have any perspective to add.  From there, I’ll go into where I see boundary lines in Paganism, and ask questions I find there.

Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.

This is pretty straightforward.  Each polytheist relates to the many Gods in a number of ways, some as son or daughter, some as servant, some as a worshiper, or a combination of these or something beyond this simple breakdown.

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

Henotheism: adherence to one particular god out of several, especially by a family, tribe, or other group.

This is a term I came across during my Religious Studies core courses, and it came up again in a Hinduism course.  It is a term rooted in polytheism in that it recognizes many Gods and worships only one.  Some bhakti worshipers are henotheists, and some Pagans devoted to one God are henotheist.  For instance, a Lokian may be a henotheist in that they believe in many Gods as Beings unto Themselves but only worship Loki.

Pantheism: a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Panentheism: the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.

Monism: a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in a particular sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.  The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Monism started off as a philosophical term and used in philosophy by Christian von Wolff which purported there is a unity to all thing, lacking a mind/body divide.  Religiously speaking the term monism has been used to mean that there is no divide between ourselves and God/the Gods.  So a person who believes we ‘are all part of the body of God’ or ‘we are all part of the Goddess’ is a monist.

Humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Naturalistic: the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.

Archetype Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

Pagan: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

Neopagan: a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Most of these definitions are fairly straightforward.  A polytheist is one who believes in and may worship one or more Gods.  A monotheist is one who believes there is a single God.  Henotheists believe in many Gods and worship just one of Them.

When I see these terms in this context it boggles my mind how archetypes are supposed to work in Paganism.  Archetypes are essential symbol sets we are supposed to have inherited from the Collective Unconscious.  While they may be full of meaning they are, boiled down, symbols, not Gods.  They are reflection of psyche rather than inputs from the Gods Themselves.  That said, I do not understand how one builds a religion around the notion of archetypes.  It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol.  It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.  While it may be true that Odin is a Warrior and Loki is a Trickster, that is not all they are.  Odin has up to 300 heiti.  How could one archetype possibly encompass all He is with so many heiti?  What does an archetypal Pagan cosmology look like?  How does it function?  What does it teach about the relationship one has with the world?  It would seem to me to be very hard to build a religion out of archetypalism, as it first stems from psychology and not religion, and its insights are geared toward the psychological rather than the religious.  That is not to say the two may not learn from one another, but describing deities, spirits, and people in merely archetypal terms belies the whole Being behind such categorizing.  It does not delve into the why of a God, or even into details, but what the God as a whole might represent to a person, i.e. Odin as a Warrior God or Dead-and-Risen God.  In viewing Gods through such archetypal lenses, while it may be useful to bridge a viewpoint or gain insight, it does disservice to the God or Goddess as a whole as it boils their Being down to this single facet.   It would be like someone boiling my whole identity down to a Psychology major or just my job title.

Where does atheism take its place in Paganism?  Do they hold religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions?  Well, considering all the followers of the major world religions, with the exception of Buddhists, believes in some sort of God, then the answer is yes in a basic sense.  But do atheists hold religious belief?  The hallmark of atheism is that, as the above definition shows, there is disbelief or lack of belief.  That is, that there is no belief in the Gods.  An affirmative belief from an atheist would then be “There are no Gods.”  What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?  What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief?  Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist.  If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology?  If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan?  

Monism purports that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual.  One can take that to mean in the materialistic sense, that all things are part of the physical world, or in the more pro-spiritual sense, that physical reality and spiritual reality are on in the same.  Either way, the physical is it, all there is, encompassing all of reality.  How does this work within Pagan religion?  I do not see how a philosophy that would deny something as fundamental to Pagan religion as the Otherworld, the Summerlands, Helheim, etc. would effectively fit Paganism at all.  If the physical world is all there is, there is no Asgard, and Asgard’s usefulness from the view of cosmology is completely limited to symbolism or abstraction.  Accordingly, so is all that is told of the place to us from myth, legend, experience, etc.

I have many of the same questions for humanism, naturalism, and rationalism as I do for atheism as it relates to Paganism.  How do any of these engage Paganism within its own bounds rather than imposing its own philosophy on Paganism?  How does humanism, naturalism, or rationalism fit into any Pagan belief structures, many of which are deity-centric?  How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

I am a polytheist, and there is a great deal of unpacking that so simple a label now asks us to do.  Am I a ‘soft polytheist’?  Am I a ‘hard’ polytheist?  This seeming dichotomy is actually what I view as an improper use of language.  If you believe that everything is part of a single God in the end you are a monist,  pantheist, or a panentheist (depending on the particulars of your belief(s)), not a polytheist, no matter how many permutations of ‘God’ you feel and/or believe there are.

During the last few months I have read a great deal of posts and responses, and there is a pretty consistent question that comes up: why should we be so discerning or heavy handed in dissecting what Paganism means?  I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but share my own answers.

First, the boundaries of my religion are sacred to me.  There are ways to properly believe and engage in my path.  There is such a thing as a blasphemy within polytheist Paganism, and every time I see the Gods called ‘nothing more than archetypes’ or the ancient traditions used as a medium for what I consider to be vacuous religion and/or spirituality, I see blasphemy being committed.  Can the Gods punish blasphemers?  Certainly, if They care to.  That said, as a member of the Pagan community it is also on me to say ‘this is not acceptable within my religion’.  If I am silent in the face of blasphemy I am giving it my tacit acceptance.

Second, the sloppy use or intentional misuse of language is often a way of erasure for minority paths in Paganism.  Statements such as ‘all Pagans believe’ are, like most blanket statements, incorrect.  Far too often have I heard this, whether from fellow Pagans, academics, or any number of well-meaning souls who are trying to speak on my behalf.  I may not agree with Atheistic Paganism, Humanistic Paganism, but I will not speak on their behalf.  The perspective I speak of is my own, from my own tradition and in my own voice. I recognize there will be polytheists who are just fine with Atheist Pagans, Humanist Pagans, and accept them as Pagan as they are.  Given my beliefs on the Gods I cannot do this.  I may not agree with you, and I will do my best to avoid characterizing you and your words wrong, but I will not speak for you.  

Third, I like my words to have concrete meaning.  Atheist Pagan, as with Humanist Pagan, leaves me with too many questions that are unanswered.  It, as a religious path from within Paganism, makes little sense to me, even on a baseline reading of the words without digging into the theology, or lack thereof.  If one does not believe in the Gods, and/or has a lack of belief in religion and/or spirituality it makes no sense to me to claim to be, in any way, shape, or form religious and/or to claim a religious title.  Archetypal Paganism leaves me with as many question, maybe more; are you worshiping images from the Collective Unconscious?  Are the Gods nothing more than thought/image symbols?  Is such a thing worthy of worship, or worth your time to worship?  If you are not worshiping, what is it one does with an archetype, religiously or spiritually speaking?

Fourth, I believe that having a better Pan-Pagan community means that we will run up against one another’s boundaries, and rather than pretend they are not there, I would rather acknowledge them.  You might hold the opinion that because I am opposed to including Humanist Pagans, Atheist Pagans and others in the Pagan community, that I am close-minded or a bigot.  Granted, you are entitled to your opinion.  This is not some decision I made overnight.  I’ve bandied this about back and forth for a significant amount of time both in my own head and with others.  I’ve thought on this a lot, prayed on it, and spent some time sussing out how I feel, and how best to talk about this subject.  You do not have to respect my opinion, or even my beliefs on this matter.  Acceptance, for me, does not change how I feel, or what my beliefs are in this.  I will respect your right to an opinion even if I cannot bring myself to respect the opinion itself.  In this, I am treating you no different than Christian friends or family, who feel much the same way toward me.

I know that, given the demographics, and overall feeling that is in the Pan-Pagan community the kind of boundary setting and exclusion I am speaking of will probably not happen.  There are too many people who accept Atheist Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and so on as part of the community.  That is, after all, their right.  It is also mine as a polytheist Pagan to speak up and out against it, and against the marginalization of our voices in Pagan circles when and where it happens.  May the Gods be hailed, the Ancestors praised, and the spirits honored.

What Constitutes Pagan Fundamentalism?

I have written about the value of words and meaning here and I think that the recent posts by P. Sufenas Lupus and Sannion hit the nail on the head.

Why am I so invested in the pop culture debate currently raging in Paganism?

Well, some of it has to do with the fact that I think conflating worship of fictional characters with my Gods is downright blasphemous.  I’ll admit that straight out.  You don’t have to agree with my position; it is what it is.

Rather than keep the conversation talking past each other, or spinning our wheels, let’s get to the point of this post.  Anomalous Thracian talks here that words are losing their meaning because they’re being stripped of them.  To quote Anomalous Thracian:

I want to address the bigger issue here, which is the overall misuse of words, the lack of “common ground” in conversations, and the entanglement of a thousand different topics as one “meta-topic” which is what fuels 100% of all fights and arguments in Paganism because these practices attack the very core of linguistic communion and expression: MEANING. A fundamental part of all communication must be an attempt to convey, achieve and establish greater collectivemeaning, otherwise it is purely about getting oneself off while looking longingly in the mirror that you’ve turned the internet into, striking all kinds of super-hero poses as you hammer out the dribble you call theology, debate, or “religion”. Religion itself, outside of the discussion of religion – which, by the way, is a real thing: religion outside of talking about religion does exist, if you shut up long enough to practice it! – is a thing that must orbit around the pursuit and exploration of meaning, which is a thing completely undone and undermined by using language and words that actually attack meaning. Directly.

Seriously, people. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

I could not agree more, and it is why I push for concrete definitions and understanding where and when possible.  I am not trying to dilute the numinous experience or cage a wild bird, so much as asking that we delineate the bird we’re watching from the sky it flies in from the tree upon which it lands.  There are relationships, and each thing has an underlying connection to one another, but the bird, the sky, and the tree are definitively separate things.  Words need to mean things or words like ‘God’, ‘Ancestors’, or ‘spirit’ lose all meaning.  To quote V for Vendetta:

Words offer the means to meaning…

The Gods exist without our leave, understanding, worship, or influence.  I do not know a polytheist for whom this is an untrue statement.    It is a concrete article of believing in the Gods, in interacting with Them, and worshiping Them.  This basic understanding is part of the foundation of polytheist understanding.  It places the Gods, Ancestors, the spirits, and us humans in cosmology, in the Web of Life, and gives us meaning for our place in the Worlds and in relationship with all things.  Without this notion of where we sit the cosmology essentially falls apart and all of the understanding of the Gods disappears in confusion.  Think about it.  If I was to claim I am a co-creator with my Gods, i.e. Odin, why would Ask or Embla need His breath to come to life?  Why would my Ancestors matter at all?  The very meaning of the Gods falls apart if for us in denying Their cosmological and mythic place, and Their fundamental relationships to us.  The Gods will keep on being, will keep on doing what They will, even if we deny the meaning of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ and my Ancestors will still be my Ancestors even if I use another term wholly for Them.

In destroying meaning, in reducing words to whatever we want to be rather than what we are, we dilute the understanding we gain from words, and in so doing, reduce our ability to communicate effectively within our human communities and with our Gods.  How?  Try speaking another language.  In German there are very rigid sentence structures, and some words in German can go on for a damned long time because of the convention of sentence and word formation.  American English has seemingly dispensed with rigidity and in so doing words are harder to pin down, and accordingly, communication is more difficult.  German is, for all its complexities (from my perspective as a non-native German speaker) more accurate in its speech and use of words than our American English.  Factor this in with ‘words mean what I want them to’ kind of attitude, coupled with an open-source use of foreign words, sometimes without proper translation of the culture/subject matter, and you have a hodgepodge language that is hard to parse from the get-go and gets harder with actual use.  Dig into theological concepts with this unwieldy shovel and the hole you dig may well be far wider and deeper (or haphazardly dug) than your original intent.

So when someone uses the word ‘fundamentalist’ to describe Pagans such as myself, polytheists who believe in the literal existence of the Gods, you have pretty visceral reactions from people.  The word fundamentalism has a historical meaning according to Merriam-Webster: ‘a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching’ and a fundamentalist is a follower of these beliefs.  With the plasticity of words the meaning has moved from this to any belief structure that is ‘a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles’ (ibid).  In both cases applying the word to Pagans such as myself this word, fundamentalist, loses meaning.

When someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “I do not believe that” even in rough terms, or an angry tone (or just outright venomous rage) that does not mean they are fundamentalist.  It means that you do not like their tone or reacting negatively to their anger, both of which are understandable, but taking in the words of another in that direction, even if accurate, is not fundamentalism.  Even when someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “That is blasphemy in my religion, tradition, etc.” that is still not fundamentalism, but a statement of belief.  Having baseline standards for a religious community is not fundamentalist.  Those standards include standards of belief, praxis, relationship, roles for clergy/specialists, etc.  Those standard differentiate a polytheist Pagan from a monotheist Catholic Christian.  Heck, those baseline standards delineate one polytheist community from another, and Christian denominations from one another.

If I am a Wiccan, I believe v and x.  If I am a Northern Tradition Pagan I believe y and z.  If I am a Catholic Christian I believe j and k.  These baseline beliefs can be added onto with other letters, but take out v and x for a Wiccan and the religion is no longer Wicca.  Can a Wiccan be a polytheist and not a duotheist?  Sure, so long as the religious belief system is accommodating to that with and left intact.  Can a person be an atheist and a follower of the Northern Tradition?  Absolutely not because the y is taken out.  Again, this is not fundamentalist.  Without y, a person cannot be a Northern Tradition.  The may be that you must be a polytheist in order to be a follower of the Northern Tradition.  If you are an atheist you simply do not fit the criteria.

The ongoing debate between Pagan communities are part of figuring out where our boundaries lie.  It is part and parcel of figuring out theology.  It is part and parcel of figuring out who and what we are.  We do not have to agree, and I count that as a blessing.  I’m not interested in converting Wiccans, nor am I interested in converting Pagans who worship Pop Culture icons.  Both are a waste of my time, an insult to them, and a waste of their time as well.  What I am interested in is where my religious boundaries lie, where we are similar in thought, and where we definitely disagree on, and why.  Our answers probably won’t be comfortable with one another; we are talking about our personal relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and the stories that have unfolded in our coming to these Beings and understanding.  In some cases there is no translating between our varying beliefs because we either don’t have the existent structure, it does not translate due to theological differences, or we have not developed enough in one way or another to speak to another’s beliefs and experiences on a given topic.

I do not see this parsing as snobbery, but an unfolding of religious communities.  That unfolding can be a damned raw experience.  I know that some people will balk at my belief that the Gods are literally real, and they hold the idea that the Gods as archetypes makes the most sense.  Yet no one has called a Council of Nicea to figure out just what is acceptable in Paganism as a whole, and that plurality is a good thing.  I do not need to agree that atheists belong in Paganism if someone accepts them freely.  That is your right as a follower, priest, etc. of that religious tradition.  It is my right to say such a thing dilute the meaning of the word Pagan, and you in kind can disagree.

Saying something as a statement of belief does not mean snobbery or fundamentalism, but just that: a statement of belief.  When I say something definitive, but for all the power, or lack there is in my ability to say something I will exercise that right to say it.  You can disagree with me; that is your right.  Just as it is the right of a tradition to determine beliefs, ritual behavior, praxis, and a whole host of other things that their religion considers sacred, impious, acceptable, and unacceptable.  That is far afield from fundamentalism.

Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest

Another question from Valiel Elantári:

What difference do you make between “shaman” and “priest” ?

I had defined a shaman in Question 9 as ‘an intercessor between humanity and the Worlds of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.’  A priest may be that as well.  Where I see a marked difference is the kind of relationship a priest has vs. what a shaman has in their community.  A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods.  When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion.  A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity.  A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.

Some of the Work of a priest I do see as dovetailing with the Work of a shaman.  There can be very direct parallels between the two jobs’ requirements.  Both, for instance, need people to be spiritually clean, firm in their religious foundations, knowledgeable in their cosmology and in particular the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits they work with and/or worship.  Depending on the needs of the community, the two jobs may place requirements on the shoulders of a priest and a shaman that are similar, if not the same, such as blessing a newly birthed baby, weddings, fields before or after planting, etc.  The requirements of a priest may be wildly divergent priest to priest, tradition to tradition, the same with shamans, so saying anything across the board means somewhere I am getting something wrong.  The palette has too many colors for me to accurately paint with a select few.

In my own work as a priest and a shaman, my work as Odin’s priest is different from being a shaman in that He may ask me to deliver messages on His behalf as a priest whereas in my role as a shaman I may be asked to do a ritual action instead.  In a way, it seems to me I am engaged more in action serving Him as a shaman than I am as a priest, in which I tend to act more in the role of a passive message-passer.  Then again, as I am both, sometimes the two blend together in terms of my service to Him.  So the only thing I can say for certain here, is that I serve Him as He asks or demands of me.

In my Work as a priest of Anubis this is a bit markedly different from my service as Odin’s priest.  For one, Anubis demands very little of my time nowadays, but I can feel Him starting to really come back to the fore now that I have a new altar to the Dead, rather than, say, just the Military Dead or my Ancestors.  For another, Anubis’ requirement have been to offer Him offerings on occasion, but nothing like the dedication of Ancient Egyptian temple priests.  I have a small statue of Him that I feed offerings to, put water before, and occasionally bathe in similar fashion to how temple priests might have done.  However, that is more or less the extent of my historically-based practice.  Much of my work with Anubis is pure UPG, and when He calls upon me to help a Lost Dead or to deliver a message on a spirit’s behalf on His behalf, I do, and my services are rendered, and I go on my way.  My service to Anubis is more haphazard and as He needs me then I imagine other priests might serve, i.e. those who have permanent temple space.  Some of my Work with Him dovetails well with the Work I do for Odin, for instance, the consistent cleaning, grounding, and centering rituals.  Keeping myself clean, as well as keeping the altars clean, are part and parcel of my Work with Him.  So too, making sure the altar to the Dead is kept well, that offerings are laid out.  I must also be sure that the Dead are not insulted or treated ill in rituals, another place where my Work as a shaman dovetails with my priest Work.

In this way, priests, as with shamans, are intercessors in that those who come to us will learn that there are certain rites to be observed, and taboos to be avoided.  One taboo I have as a shaman is that whenever I do for another I must in some way, shape, or form, have Gebo from the other party.  Another, in my role as Anubis’ priest, is that I must not let the Dead be insulted or poorly treated.  It is on me to establish what requirements and taboos there are to working with these spirits, especially the person in question is coming to me for help or training.  That is part of the Work of any intercessor: you are, in some way, shape, or form, establishing and reestablishing the proper boundaries of and engaging in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  For those who know them, you are reinforcing the boundaries of and encouraging engagement in right relationship.

I think this hits on another aspect of the difference between being a shaman and being a priest.  As a shaman I am often required to traverse boundaries, whether my own personal ones, or in journey work, or in transgressing some unspoken cultural boundary, i.e. Ancestor worship.  A shaman is often a boundary crosser, may be an ambassador of some kind to other communities including other Worlds, and puts hirself at risk so they, their community, and the relationships they hold can flourish.  A priest is often one who reinforces the boundaries, who stays within the boundaries and teaches from that place of power on how to live well, to live in right relationship, and establish communities in the teachings from their God(s) or Goddess(es).

To put it another way: a shaman often must journey to the útgarð for their Work whereas a priest’s main place and Work is done in the innangarð.