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Developing Polytheist Myths

July 10, 2018 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Ritual Praxis -Divination

July 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Before digging into hearth cultus it occured to me that writing on divination first would be ideal. Given how often I referenced its use in previous posts and how much it is coming up in the hearth cultus section as I write it, divination needs some exploration. This post will dig into what divination is, divination’s place in Heathenry and the Northern Tradition, some simple methods of how to perform it, and how to put divination into practice.

Divination is a form of active engagement, of ongoing conversations and development of relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is how we come to know the will of the Holy Powers in a given matter, how we affirm whether an offering is acceptable or not, and how we should proceed at times in our lives. In this, we are not altogether different from the ancient cultures we relate to.

The way that modern divination is done spans a gamut of arts and techniques, among them sortilege, omens, dreams, trance states, meditation, and the use of books, poems, and songs. Again, as with ancient polytheist cultures, we are not so different here. Ancient polytheist cultures engaged in all of these things and more, including some divination methods our modern societies would find illegal.

What information we have indicates that, according to Tacitus, ancient German cultures had many ways of divining, including using twigs and/or strips of wood marked with signs, cups and dice, and divination by omens such as how a sacred horse raced. Ancient Icelandic cultures would have used what was called a blotspann or sacrifice chip among their forms of divination. Scholars are uncertain as to whether this indicates that either ancient German or Icelandic cultures used Runes in divination. For at least the ancient Icelandics there was also spá, a form of ritual prophesy. It is unknown if Tacitus’ sources point to spá being performed by women in ancient German society, though in both cultures women were renowned for their arts of prophecy and magic. Dr. Jackson Crawford gives an excellent, brief overview of this here.

Ancient cultures valued divination for the same reason we do, and performed them for the same reasons. Whether or not our modern divination methods match theirs, what I believe to be more important is that it works. In this, I set aside whether or not reading the Runes is historically attested. What matters for my Kindred and I is that it works. Likewise, tarot may have started as a card game but the use of games for divination is historically attested to, namely in terms of cups and dice as mentioned above. Again, in the end, we use what works.

The Place of Divination

A member of the Kindred asked a powerful question: if we have the Nornir who weave Wyrd, then what is the point of acting? If all things have their stories written in the web of Wyrd then isn’t doing one thing vs another pointless? My response was that we are weaving Wyrd along with all the other threads in the warp and weft of Wyrd together, including with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Divination directed towards the future gives us a look at how the threads are coming together, and gives us information that we might act in anticipation of, or in reaction to those threads. Divination directed to our Holy Powers invites conversation with Them, giving Them a way for us to hear Their response. Divination directed to ourselves gives us insight into how our Wyrd may be weaving, its direction, or how we can act to better the way we weave.

Rather than in a singular place, divination sits at many crossroads. In crafting a rite, divination can provide guidance on how it is to be done. Before a ritual, divination may guide us in the selection of offerings for a Holy Power. During a ritual, divination may instruct those gathered as to the acceptance of an offering. After a ritual, divination may guide those gathered to the next steps to deepen a relationship with the Holy Powers. On and on, divination provides ongoing conversation and interaction with the Holy Powers.

It is important to note we humans are not the only ones who do divination. It is noteworthy that in the lore our Gods also divine. In taking up divination a Rune reader is not only following Odin in His journey in taking up the Runes, but also in His work as a diviner. Likewise, we are also taking up following our human Ancestors who divined. Divination’s function, cosmologically, keys us into the active weavings of Wyrd. It indicates where we may move the threads in our power to affect change, and it may show us some of the effect that change can make.

Divination does not replace our need to know what is ours to know. Lore and archaeology are maps, not territories, but they can give us indications on what roads to take. It would be foolish to take a road trip without checking the maps, developing familiarity with the route, and planning for stops and needs along the way. Before one does a rite to a Holy Power, getting to know that Holy Power is paramount. Before one asks a question before a life event, possessing as much information as one can is paramount. When asking a question in divination phrasing the question carefully, and really getting to the heart of what you want and/or need to know is paramount.

The place of divination is to help us live our religions well. It helps us to know the will of the Holy Powers. When we are stuck, it can help us find a way forward, or what to do.

Divination engages us in active communication with our Holy Powers. Its place is to help us develop, keep, and further our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, as divination provides some of the places we can hear Them the clearest on these things. It helps us to do our best in weaving Wyrd together with our Holy Powers. Divination helps us to establish and keep right relationship with the Holy Powers. Divination’s place is at the crossroads of our lives, the events within our communities, and our relationships, communally and individually, with the Holy Powers. Divination’s places lies in all the between spaces where we can seek guidance if we just reach out and work with it.

Learning is Doing

There is an Estonian proverb: “The work will teach you how to do it.”

Divination is a form of work whose expertise cannot be taught out of a book. Divination is a profession of study and especially experience. As divination is a profession learned by doing, the best way to begin to do divination is to start small. Far better to start small, say with a Rune or card pulled a week, or starting with small-impact questions from friends before a big question comes.

In regards to Rune divination, knowing the Rune Poems, the Havamal, and what other lore and archaeology we have that tells us about Them is useful to have and know, but this is where scholarship leaves off and the work of religion begins. None of the Rune Poems, the Havamal, or our other sources of lore are religious texts and should not be treated as such. I keep referencing them as guideposts because that is what they are. How we relate to the Runes and divination, however much these are informed by the past, are a largely modern phenomenon and there is no problem in that.

It is controversial in many Heathen circles to suggest that folks read the Runes, to recommend modern Heathens’ books on working with the Runes and doing divination and/or magic with the Runes. As I mentioned above we have only suggestions in our sources that the ancient Germans read Runes for divination, and so anything we have extracted from this and other sources are based on people’s own exploration of the resources and with the Runes Themselves. The books I recommend are Runes: Theory and Practice by Galina Krasskova, and Taking Up the Runes by Diana Paxson. Both are books I have worked through and would recommend for those looking to get into working with the Runes.

No matter which divination system(s) one goes with, it takes time to develop competency and expertise. In time, even with relatively simple binary divination systems, i.e. yes/no, one can get a lot of information depending on how a question or series of questions are phrased. Certain divination systems may be able to be used at any point, whereas others may be restricted to certain settings for their usefulness, i.e. outdoor omens like the flight of birds. Certain divination systems may be tabooed for a diviner to be used only in certain rituals, or a divination tool may be dedicated to a single Holy Power, whereas other diviners may have free and open use for all the tools in their toolkit. What makes the difference is how each person walks their path, what taboos and tools become used during that walk, and if the diviner continues to develop their expertise.

Divination Systems Other than the Runes

Not everyone uses the Runes, and not everyone will find use in working with the Runes in divination. Going into all the ways one could learn to divine within a Heathen worldview would, I imagine, be a book unto itself. Rather than go through such an exhaustive process I am going to list three divination methods a Heathen might adopt that do not involve the Runes.

Dice

In reading Tacitus’ Germania it is noted that the Germans took their games of dice seriously, so much so that they would bet their freedom on the roll of a die. With contests such as horse-racing with sacred horses, and the nearby peoples actively practicing forms of astralogomancy, it is not a long stretch to imagine that dice could have held a similar place in German culture. In any case, simple dice divination can give quite a lot of information with the throw a single die.

Even ascribing simple meaning to the dice, such as odds being “Yes” and evens being “No” can yield a good deal of information if good questions are asked. Another method of dice-throwing may be having an individual meaning given to each number or pips on the die, such as a 6-sided die having the following:

1 = “Yes”

2 = “Unfavorable”

3 = “Neutral/Maybe”

4 = “Reconsider the subject/question”

5 = “Favorable”

6 = “No.”

It may be worth considering adopting a system besides the usual 1d6 and look at different dice, such as the 10-sided die in regards to representing the Nine Worlds. 0 could represent Yggdrasil Itself or Wyrd, with 1-9 representing each of the Nine Worlds. Questions would be asked, with relevant information coming out depending on which World, or if Yggdrasil/Wyrd is drawn, a second roll is made with the attributes of the World the die lands on being especially impactful or auspicious.

Dropping Stones

As with dice a great deal of information can be learned in a short amount of time by using dropping stones to divine. Tacitus’ Germania states that wood chips with “signs” marked on them were thrown onto a white cloth for divination. While this may work, one may also want to throw onto a printed image, such as a map of Yggdrasil or onto a cloth with words sewn, embroidered, or printed on it.

One method I have been taught that works well is a three stone divination which has a Yes stone, a No stone, and an indicator stone. These three stones are dropped onto bare dirt or onto a mat blessed for use in divination. It is simple, straightforward, and effective, and a great deal of information can be gained by being careful with a question, or series of questions.

Seeking an Omen

To seek an omen is to seek a phenomena of “Prophetic significance.” Seeking an omen has a long history with a lot of branching paths that can be taken. Among the long list of historical forms are looking at the flight of birds, astronomical events, disjointed chatter from a crowd forming a word or series of words or, as noted in Germania, the racing of sacred horses and noting the winner.

Of the ways we have explored so far, seeking an omen is the most subjective of them. As this is the case, seeking an omen needs to be specific enough that a sign can be accurately discerned. So, asking for an omen of a flight of birds may be far too broad, particularly if one has lots of birds in the area. If one is looking at the flight of birds then looking for a specific kind of bird associated with the God, Ancestor, or vaettr in question is ideal, and noting which way they are flying. While we could look at birds flying east as a good sign, as that is the direction of the rising sun, the meaning of each direction may depend on where one lives. If one lives near a body of water then a flock of specific birds flying towards or over those waters can carry different signficance than those flying towards. So, to an extent the usefulness of seeking an omen is dependent on how developed the symbol set one is working with, what lore one associates with a given sort of omen seeking, and how one integrates the knowledges one has about the subject of the omen, the object or being the omen is contingent on, and one’s expertise at discerning whether or not an omen has occured. As with the previous divination skills, I recommend starting small and working up to larger questions.

Ways to Divine with the Runes

If you are going to work with the Runes for divination then get to know as much about Them as possible. Do your research; read the Rune Poems, look at what the archaeology and lore in general has to say on Them. Look at what modern Runeworkers and diviners say about working with the Runes, and compare your understanding to theirs. It is important to point out that not every Northern Tradition Pagan or Heathen will work with the Runes, and not every one who does Runework does so to divine. The examples I have laid out here are just some of the ways in which the Runes can convey information or divination can be done with Them.

Drawing a Rune

Perhaps the simplest way to divine is drawing a single Rune out of a bag in response to a question, and exploring the answer with the knowledge and experience one has with that Rune. This method is deceptively simple. After all, the Runes represent and are a sound, a letter, and an extended meaning to the ancient Heathen cultures that They com from. There is a deep well of information that can be gathered out of a single Rune being drawn in response to a question if the person has the knowledge and understanding to get it and use it.

Drawing or dropping a series of Runes

This would be placing one or many Runes into a preset pattern with designated meanings. One method I have used is a simple North/South reading style, with the extreme North being representative of Niflheim and negative/slowing/death, while the South being representative of Muspelheim and positive/quickening/life. This is because the further North you go the colder it is, the colder it is the higher your chance of dying. The southlands of many of the ancient Heathen cultures were places where, even in the harsher climes, it was easier to grow food and raise animals. There are many nuances I found with this divination system, some of which comes from finding Runes associated with the opposite element in the two poles, or thinking on what a given Rune might mean if it is in the North vs the South.

Dropping Sticks

This takes its cue right from Germania. The method may be either an appropriate number of sticks are marked with the Runes and dropped on a white sheet to see which turn up, or unmarked sticks are dropped on a white mat and it is seen if any Runes are seen in their pattern. Either way, the effect is rather random and the answer may be quite direct or hidden, depending on if the Runes are clear or not.

Seeking a Rune Omen

This method of divination engages with the Runes directly. Generally, when I am looking for a Rune omen I will make a small prayer to Runatýr (Odin’s heiti meaning God of the Runes) and the Runevaettir. Then, I do some cleansing work, and keep my eyes peeled for something that forms a Rune. Perhaps it will be a walk in the park and fallen branches form a Rune, or a fallen branch takes on the form of Fehu or Ansuz, both of which have happened to me when I was seeking an omen.

As with seeking an omen in general, this is more intuitive and requires you to know what you are looking for. Something that may be useful for discernment is asking the Runes to show you an omen three times. As with the previous example, the placement of the Rune, what the Rune is ‘made of’, i.e. branches, shadows, flight of animals, etc. may have its own part to play in your interpretation of the message.

For example: if I asked a question like “What is the next step?” and the shape of Uruz is the answer on the ground after I have picked up trash in a park, it may be strength is required in service to the goal or for the next step at hand. If the branch came from an oak tree, perhaps I need to seek out Thor and see if He has requests of me. If a birch tree, perhaps speak with or make offerings to Frigga. The oak may also mean finding strength in deep roots of service with community, or the birch may mean that service to those healing long term. Again, as before, context and one’s knowledge of the Runes, and the mediums the Runes come in, can profoundly affect the interpretation of the omen. Double checking the omen with other forms of divination would not hurt, particuarly if you are unsure.

Engaging in Divination

Since divination is an engaged conversation between the Holy Powers and us, I approach each divination session as I do ritual. This ritual discipline orders your internal headspace, orienting it towards the divination at hand, centering it as an engagement with the Holy Powers, and entering into a sacred headspace. This is the format I will generally follow:

Step 1: Cleanse the space and those present for the session.

Step 2: Make prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to engage in conversation.

Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.

Step 4: Do the divination.

Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.

A Sample Rune Divination Ritual

This ritual is designed for a one-on-one divination rite, and should be able to be formatted to whatever the situation calls for, whether it is a group ritual or at the end of a rite to see if an offering was accepted. As with other rituals, I will modify as the Holy Powers and venue require. If I am doing divination in an open space where fires are unresitricted, I will likely work with fire to cleanse. Where fires are restricted I may work with water, song, and/or Runes to cleanse a space.

I begin by making the Fire Prayer before I light a candle: “Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail to Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Ves ðu heil Eldest Ancestor!”

I then pass the candle flame over the divination area, saying “Thank you for cleansing this space, Holy One.” I repeat this prayer for myself, the client, and over the divination tool(s) and any sacred items present. Generally I pass the flame three times in a clockwise circle over whatever it is I am cleansing.

I will then make offerings appropriate to the Holy Powers present. In the case of a Rune reading I generally make offerings of whiskey, vodka, and/or clean water. Other offerings I have made include food, coffee, and mugwort.

I then make prayers to the Holy Powers of the divination ritual. If it is a Rune divination session I pray to Runatýr and the Runevaettir:

“Hail Runatýr! Hail Runevaettir! Hail Disir! Hail Väter! Hail Ancestors all! Hail to the Holy Ones! Hail to the Holy Ones! Hail to the Holy Ones!” I will usually repeat “Hail to the Holy Ones!” as a mantra in 3s, 6s, or 9s, until I am in a semi-trance or full trance headspace.

Then I will address the Holy Powers and ask Them for me to divine well. “Hail Runatýr! Hail Runevaettir! Help me to know well, to speak clearly and true!”

Even if the client has already made the question known to me I still ask them to repeat it, usually three times. This serves two functions. One, is if the question needs clarification or refinement we can do it before the question is ‘locked in’. Two, is that the querant understands the question they are asking and is accepting responsibility for the answer.

I will then engage in divination itself and as the answers come up and as need arises I may repreat the steps above to reestablish good headspace, the sacred space, the making of new offerings, and the introduction of new questions.

Once the divination session is over then prayers are made the Holy Powers asked to be present. In this case:

“Thank You Runatýr! Thank You Runevaettir! Thank you for providing us [answers/wisdom/insight/etc.]! Hail Ancestors! Hail to the Holy Ones! Thank You for being present, for helping us to find [answers/wisdom/insight/etc.]! Ves ðu heil!”

The Sacred space and all people and items within it are cleansed with the fire of the candle. “Thank you, Eldest Ancestor, for cleansing us within and without. Thank You to the Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Thank You Loki! Thank You Glut! Thank You Logi! Thank You Surt! Thank You Sinmora! Ves ðu heil!”

I will then make prayers to the assembled Holy Powers otherwise, saying “Thank You Runatýr! Thank You Runevaettir! Thank You Disir! Thank you Väter! Thank You Ancestors all! Thank You Holy Ones! Thank You for this time to divine, to know Your messages, to experience Your wisdom. We make these offerings in Gebo!” Then the offerings are usually taken to a holy tree representing Yggdrasil, and laid down there.

Divination is Change in Action

Divination is change in action because divination opens ourselves, and our communities to Wyrd’s weaving. It is direct engagement with weaving Wyrd itself. We can come into better or worse alignment in right relationship with our Holy Powers. Done well, engaging in divination enters us into a better co-creation of Wyrd, of ties of hamingja with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.

Divination is engagement with our Holy Powers. Just by engaging in it divination will cause change. Incorporating the results of divination session, whether a ritual unto itself or as part of a ritual, requires us to be open to change and challenge. More to the point, it reqires us to be committed to action in accordance with the message divination gives us. This can be quite challenging, especially with a divination result that upends one’s life. This can also be quite easy, especially if good relationship with the Gods is consistently being sought and maintained. The change could be something minor, but important, such as confirming the wine you intuited the Gods might like is actually deeply appreciated. From that comes change: you trust your intuition and dialogue with the Gods deeper, and can gain a more refined sense of our intuition in this way over time and experience with this small, disciplined work. The change coul be something major, such as undertaking an initiation, sacred journey, or letting go of a dream you had your heart set on seeing through.

Divination is part and parcel of ongoing dialogue with the Holy Powers. It has the power to utterly change how our rituals are structured, how we engages with the Holy Powers, our relationships with one another, and how we live in this world. It has the power to bring insight and wisdom if done well, and if done poorly, a lack of good connection to the Holy Powers and confusion where there should be clarity. Even for seemingly minor things, divination is a holy rite of engagement and needs to be respected for the powerful place it holds not only in our own religions, but for anyone of any religion that seeks it.

As with worship, divination is understood and expressed in doing it well. As with worship, the work of divination is in doing it. As written previously: “Divination is done to establish and/or confirm that rituals, offerings, and so on are done well in accordance with the Holy Powers.” With worship, divination is the foundation of polytheism. It informs how we may live in good reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is how the foundation of worship may be formed and maintained, in what ways it grows and changes, and what we do to establish and maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers.

With this understanding of worship and divination we can now turn to hearth culture.

On Ritual Praxis -What and Why?

March 3, 2018 1 comment

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

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

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

and praxis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Start?

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

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

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

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

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

Developing Rituals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a Good Host, Be a Good Guest

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

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

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

The Small Details of Ritual

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

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

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

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

The Roles of Divination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the Rites Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unfolding is Ongoing

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

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

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

A New Series of Posts on Ritual Praxis

February 10, 2018 5 comments

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

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

A few things to note:

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

Open to Questions Year 3

July 25, 2017 4 comments

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

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

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 1

April 28, 2017 3 comments

I want to thank my good friend, Nick, who inspired me through his post hereon how networks and the self emerge. When I first began writing my response to his article I did not think it would unleash the torrent of writing it has. So, there’s going to be at least three parts to my reaction. The first will be a reaction to the article he cites, the second to thoughts on interconnection and the Soul Matrix inspired by the NPR article and his post, and the third will be a response to his post itself.

It got me thinking on how I relate to these things as a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist.

To go into the first part where he explores NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog article,“Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?” I can tell you that, no, neuroscience is not rediscovering anything. Further, there is nothing adverse or knee-jerk about presupposing that the soul, or as in the Northern Tradition, parts of the soul are numinous. If anything, I find it deeply irritating that a science blog would lead with such a clickbait headline.

Neuroscience is not really here to tell us anything in regards to spiritual experience or spiritual phenomena. The science is not equipped to. It can test claims and show what spiritual experience and phenomena express in terms of our reactionto them, but until and unless there is a method and way to measure, say, spiritual force or a way that science may identify the soul or soul parts, there’s not much use in this article using the word soul itself.

Now, to be sure the questions the article raises are worth thinking about.

But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

However, I see no reason to revisit the definition of the soul. There are plenty enough words within our language to express and understand what it is that neuroscience is digging into without muddying theological orscientific waters with the understandings we have emerging from current scientific research and thought. To abandon the notion of a soul as something other than physical is not a threat in and of itself. My hugr, or thought, the part of my Soul Matrix that will stop upon my death because my thoughts will stop, will cease to be. However, my hugris not all I am.

Certainly, if we consider the the soul “as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?” then my hugr, my munr (memory)and possibly my lich, my body,would beall that I am. It denies the other parts of the Northern Tradition and Heathen Soul Matrix.

This boils down the soul itself to a purely materialist concept, dispensing entirely with the numenous. It may make the concept of the soul more palatable to ‘modern’ people, but it is poor theology. It is like saying “All I am is my cells.” While strictly true in a physical, materialist sense, it belies the creativity with which I write, the life I lead. “What of my mind and my individual will?” for example, is a concept poorly explained in such a system. If indeed we have any notion that we are other than living in a mechanical, purely material universe, then this notion ignores our will, and the mind itself. If the concept of the soul merely boils down to “You being you is merely the result of your genetics, and the way your brain is formed and wired”, then it not only neuters the understanding of the soul, it outright destroys it. What use is the word soul at all if the meaning behind the word is rendered other than what it means?

The author of the piece goes on to think about aging and the prolonging of life through the uploading of the ‘soul’.

Can all this be reduced to information, such as to be replicated or uploaded into other-than-you substrates? That is, can we obtain sufficient information about this brain-body map so as to replicate it in other devices, be they machines or cloned biological replicas of your body?

These questions are among many thatscience fiction has explored and looked into for quite a while. The anime classic The Ghost in the Shell explored the implications of these questions quite well, as did The Matrix.While we may not be able to do so now, soon or even in the far future, I think there are a set of powerful questions that we ought to ask, among them being “Should we?” and “What do we potentially lose in such a process?”

This would be, if technologically possible, the scientific equivalent of reincarnation, or of the long-sought redemption from the flesh — an idea that is at least as old as organized religions in the East and West

Again, this is the problem of science trying to take over ideas in religions. If science fields want to take words or concepts from religion, or if science bloggers want to take religious concepts out of their element and try to apply them to science, then there needs to be a clear reason to do so. The author’s assumptions only work if we accept the notion of the soul purely as a result of physical, material phenomena. Since I do not accept a purely material view of the soul, and the use of the word soul has no place in the field he’s talking about, then thinking about the soul in this manner, and reincarnation or redemption from the flesh simply does not make sense. What he is describing is transference of consciousness from one mode of life/living to another. There is no need to try to take the word soul, no need to grasp for religious words and concepts. There’s plenty that work for the phenomena he wants to talk about without appropriating religious words.

Further, he is not even accurate. The redemption of the flesh is a Christian concept because Christianity views the body as being full of, or potentially full of sin. Transfering one’s spirit into another body would not stop such a theological view, nor would it resolve the sin the Christian is hoping to remove through accepting Christ as their Savior.

However, it becomes pretty clear to me why he is using this kind of language, and trying to twist religious language to suit these concepts, as soon as the next paragraph comes up.

Well, depending on who you talk to, this final transcendence of human into information is either around the corner — a logical step in our evolution — or an impossibility — a mad dream of people who can’t accept the inevitability of death, the transhumanist crowd.

Transhumanism is “The belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” Many of its central features sound a lot like Rapture-based Christianity: there is a coming moment or series of moments where we will Transcend this flesh, but through Science rather than Jesus. All ills can and will be cured, but instead of through faith in God, it is faith in and access to the right technology.

Transhumanism is essentially as close to a salvation-based religion one can get while being devoid of religion. It is a secular, generally atheist view of the world while retaining a salvation/Rapture narrative. It is one of many secular worldviews that have emerged from Progress-based narratives, which themselves by and large have emerged out of Protestant theologies, such as Calvinism and Prosperity Gospel movements. Writing on transhumanism and similar outlooks from my view as a polytheist would be a whole other blog post on its own, so I’ll leave critiques and thoughts on transhumanism for another post.

As the article goes on, it talks about two initiatives that Google is developing:

Google’s company Calico states right upfront thatits missionis to tackle “aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.” The company’s approach is more one of prolonging life than of uploading yourself somewhere else, but in the end the key word that unites the different approaches is information.

and

Another Google company, DeepMind,is bent on cracking AI: “Solve intelligence to make the world a better place.” Google is approaching the problem of death from both a genetic and a computational perspective. They clearly complement one another. Google is not alone, of course. There are many other companies working on similar projects and research. The race is on.

Approaching death and aging as problems to be solved, rather than simply being part of the human condition, is one that I find worrying on a number of fronts. First among them is that I look at aging and dying as natural phenomena to be embraced among being a living being on this planet. We already see great problems with humans interrupting the natural life cycles of animals, plants, and indeed, entire interconnected systems of life through our intervention. In intervening in this fashion with our own makeup, assuming of course that we can advance our ability to age and stave off death at all, I really question what the consequences of such a thing will be.

If we are seeing the impacts of ecological collapse on a number of fronts, especially getting faster and heavier since the dawn of the Industrial Age, what would be the point of prolonging human life? We extend a human’s life, thus extending its ability to consume resources that are already dwindling to grasp at a few more years? If we accept that the world is full of Gods and spirits, at what point do the concerns and rights of the Gods and spirits to exist override the desires of some to eternal life?

Gods and spirits die. In the case of Gods of rivers, when the river dries up and disappears, that God could be said to have died. Likewise, the spirit or spirits of a river. I hold no illusions that Gods are incapable of dying and humans are indeed able to kill some of Them by our actions. An example from my own childhood is when the woods were bulldozed behind my neighborhood. Countless trees and plants, animals, insects, all dead to make room for more trailers. I have no doubt a great many landvaettir were killed. My reaction as a child to losing this place was grief, like grieving someone I lost. Because, in essence, I had. I had lost not only a safe place to explore, but I lost an entire world that I and my friends and brother had spent a great deal of time in.

How much pain and grief will we, as a species, need to inflict on the world’s environments to achieve the extension of aging and staving off of death? How much pain and grief will we, as a species, be willing to accept so that we may extend our lives on and on? The other side of this, is how few of us will be able to enjoy this at all, on base line of fairness? Will it only be those investors in companies like Calico and DeepMind? Will it be only the workers and shareholders? Or will it, as is often the case with technological advancements, only in the hands of the most wealthy or rich?

Exactly how much suffering will the rest of humanity be willing to endure so a few can enjoy an extended life? What of our leaders, and the implications for systems of democratic government in the face of what could threaten to unbalance the ultimate leveler: death? How many Gods and spirits are we willing to kill for a shot at a longer life? How much of the planet are we willing to bend till breaking so a few us can live a couple of more years?

As a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen polytheist, the idea of interrupting something so fundamental as death is disturbing. Death should be something we welcome and develop a good relationship with, not somethingto be conquered or overcome. We have such a horrific relationship with death in our overculture already, with treatments to prolong the life upheld at all costs, including one’s death with dignity, andour treatment of the Dead as something to be avoided or that is ‘over there’,that this looks nothing less than a continuation of stigamtizing death and dying. Rather than approaching our end with dignity, care, and honor, this approach of elongating our lives or seeking immortality looks quite desparate and utopian. We’re born to life dying. Our end happens at some point. Far better, to my mind, that we greet death and our ends with care, dignity, and respect, than to seek out every method to elongate our existence.

For Part 2 I’ll go into how this article made me think on relationships and interdependence in a Northern Tradition and Heathen view.

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 3

April 28, 2017 1 comment

One of the joys of having Nick as a friend is that his writing and his thoughts push me, myself, to think on how I view things and how I relate to things. As I am a polytheist, and being a polytheist also an animist, I think that there is a lot that we share in worldview and the consequences of our beliefs, even if we phrase them different or some of the minutae of our worldviews differ.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

What he refers to here as ‘my spirit’ I may think of as the lich, huge, munr, and ond, along with a few other soul parts depending on the context, such as hame and hamingja.

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons.

I find this an interesting concept, because if this is the case there is a unification of purpose and order to the internal ‘universe’ of spirits that inhabit the body. It also has implications for my worship of Mitochondrial Eve and Chromosomal Adam as Ancestors. If I recognize these two as Ancestors, then it is not much of a stretch to say that my cells are each spirits in and of themselves. I take it to mean that, in this context, that Nick is not saying that each of these cell-spirits are determinative of their own form and function on their own, but exist in a rather more restricted space than I, both in terms of their field of choices for existence, and sentience. This does not strip them of being spirits at all; rather, that they/we are collectively ‘aimed’ towards a purpose. In the case of red blood cells, circulating oxygen so the larger spirit-driven flesh-vehicle can keep on living, and fulfill its own set of needs and influences on the world at large. In the case of white blood cells, these spirit-driven little bits of me/us fight off infection for the same reason.

Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Yet, we have differentiation from Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person, and I think this is something to take note of. I don’t necessarily think that Nick loses that point here, mind, I just want to be sure we do not mistake trees for forest. My cells are prerequisites for the functions of my body, as are the networks of relationship between various cells, organs, etc. Yet, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, I am not my heart metaphysically or physically. My heart is a part of me. I think that, though Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person overlap in the Venn diagram here, there is clear demarkation that I am not my cells, but rather, that my cells are my own and distinct from Nick’s cells and Nick’s person.

Part of the reason I spent Part 1 of these posts exploring and taking apart Gleiser’s post, ‘Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?‘, is because I disagree with science communities or scientific writing taking over theological definitions when there is little-to-no reason to. If we are describing the soul, let us describe the soul. If we are describing the mind, let us describe the mind. Let us differentiate our language clearly, not because these realms never overlap, but so that we can be clear when they do, without muddying the specialized language and understanding of both.

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Meanwhile reading it made my skin crawl in a rather uncomfortable way, for reasons I described previous. Now, the idea of the mind being embodied and the self not being an isolated property but an emergent one of the mind-body integration is essentially taken as a given in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Of course identity comes out of one’s selfhood as in the godhi/gydhja, Ancestry, one’s spiritual communities, one’s actions within one’s community. The NT and Heathen religions assume an interconnectedness as part and parcel of existence, whether it is how our huge and munr develop. Our sense of self develops out of our various Soul Matrix parts into who we are in this incarnation. The lich lends itself to the mind-body connection as firmly as the more ephemeral Soul Matrix parts do.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

This is where Nick starts to lose me, and I acknowledge this could simply be a matter of phrasing. I understand the lich and huge or hugr as parts of the Soul Matrix, that ‘the soul’ as a whole in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry is made up of these souls/soul parts. In isolation, however, the huge would not be the same without a well-functioning lich to go with it. It is not that we are fundamentally disagreeing all that much here, except in that he is using the idea that these networks are ‘my body as well as my soul’ and that the word hugr fits this idea. It is the singular, that these networks of individuals form a single soul that is encapsulated in word hugr that I disagree with. It reads to me like the individuals existentent within the multiplicity of the Soul Matrix are, instead, fashioned into a singularity. It is at odds especially in regards to what I understand is a part of the Soul Matrix, itself a collection of different parts of, or different souls themselves. To have good hugr one must also have a good lich to go with it. Certain Soul Matrix pieces are interwoven with one another, and hugr and lich are among them. Yet, hugr is still hugr and lich still lich, and it would be a mistake to say they are one in the same when they are, in actuality, connected by individual.

An example is hamingja, what is often referred to as group luck, power, or soul. It is what we inherit from our Ancestors, by blood, adoption, and/or spirit. We can appreciate that many, many generations worth of souls, certainly not all of them human, went into developing this when we inherit our hamingja, but it would be a mistake, I think, to look at hamingja as a singular thing given it has so many Beings that make it up. Yet our hamingja is also our own because we are the latest iteration of the Ancestors, so there is tension of a kind between the collective and singular, places where we certainly are differentiated, but we cannot be wholly separate, as we would not be without our past.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Absolutely, this is wonderful. As with our bodies, minds, cultures, and so on are the results of a million lives before us, and is impacted by our environment, so our spirit(s) develop from those who came before us. What is more, as with our bodies and the passing on of traits, or the passing on of how we understand the world, and/or our culture(s), we impact them and those who came before us in return. If we fail to tell the stories, they eventually fade. If we fail to pass on the culture, eventually it dies. If we pass these things on, they continue to live and become part of future generations.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self. In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

In reading Grönbech’s The Culture of the Teutons and having read quite a bit of lore on ancient German and Scandinavian societies, one of the things that continuously comes up is that these are tribal societies, and that identification of and with the tribe is part of being alive. To be outlawed is to be dead, or something worse than dead. Within the collective society of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tribes, it was not that the individual completely disappeared, but that all one’s decisions, all one does or is, is reflected upon because what one does affects the tribe, and likewise, the tribe affects the individuals within it. The tribe was, as in the plant example above, affected the push and pull of various decisions and needs and wants that are expressed and addressed from within the network, the network in this case being the tribe.

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

I think it is important to discern, though, that networked tasks and networked things, in this cases leaves within a plant or bacteria within the gut, does not make the leaf the plant nor the bacteria the gut. They are pieces of a whole that helps the whole to function, is indeed necessary for the whole to function well in their contexts. If we agree that a leaf and the cells that make it up are each souls within souls, that the soul of the leaf is made up with the cells that make that leaf up, with each leaf itself a part of the soul of the plant, at some point the collective emerges around forms and functions. It is at this point that the ‘leaf cells’ become leaves, and that leaves become part of the plant. Necessary to the plant being alive and propogating, but not the plant as a whole. The leaves emerge from the plant, and the plant from the seed.

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

‘Collective networks’ functions well as a term if we’re just talking physical realms. There’s a word for this in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this tapestry of networked beings in the lattice work of all reality. It forms the ground of how we view ourselves, so that this idea is hardly alien. This is wyrd. Yet, unlike the networked beings and individuals described here, wyrd also takes into account spiritual impacts and phenomena. This is one of the places where I see the Venn diagram between science and religion crossing in terms of understanding some ways of interconnectedness.

As Haskell says;
“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself.

Given our understanding of how life began, whether looking at this through the scientific lens of the Big Bang or through wyrd and the Creation Story, with the unfolding of Creation through the emergence of Muspelheim, Nifelheim from the Ginnungagap, I’d say that networks of interrelationship are older than life itself. That the building blocks of our reality rely on series after series of things relating between one another, whether in opposition, tension, or in concert.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

Interesting. In my exploration of ancient German and Scandinavian cultures, the fundamental unit of how we understood ourselves as people began in the plurality of tribe, clan, and/or family. The individual tribe/clan/family members were a temporary manifestation of relationship, carrying and passing on hamingja, for instance. This understanding of ‘network’ could easily be replaced with the word ‘community’, ‘tribe’, etc. The tribe is a plurality, and each person part of it. We invididually exist within it, functioning separately, yet together form a collective identity and being.

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge.

As a polytheist and animist with a particular worldview, I see that what Nick has laid out is quite well along my own lines of thought. Where I keep getting myself hung up is in disagreements with particulars, such as considering the sum total of a soul to be all of/in this world.

So I have some questions for Nick, and I’m curious to see how he answers given what he said earlier in his post:

“I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

and this later:

As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

So if you think you have a spirit, a life essence, a life force, what is it? What forms does it take? Where did it originate from? Does it have a finite existence? If you do not believe your spirit is at all separate from your body, does it die along with your body? In other words, how would ghosts and spirits-after-death fit, if at all, into your cosmology? How does this fit into Ancestor worship and/or veneration (i.e. if the spirit dies with the body why rever/worship the Ancestors)?

Do you believe that the spirit is one piece, or that it is a whole collection of different ‘spirits’ in one body? I’m intensely interested in your cosmology, especially because if spirit is bound to body, then if something does not have a body, then, does it not have a spirit?

If animism is concerned with life living in relationship with each other does that preclude the numinous, or less body-bound realms of things? How does animism unfold as a, or part of, a religious point of view for you? What does animism of a worldview include, for you? What does it not include?

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

I am deeply curious to see how Nick would answer these things as well. I will below.

In considering our relationships well beyond ourselves, I think we first need to think of what things are actually within our spheres of influence. If we think of our ability to impact the world as represented by bubbles, with the further out we go having more and more reach, my bubble would be quite limited to those in my immediate surroundings, those in my family, my religious communities, and communities otherwise. Even in how I buy and consume things, my impact as such is quite small in scale compared to a large corporation or the collective impact of the US government.

After a while I stop considering relationships well beyond myself and the bubbles I can affect. My relationships with those outside of certain circles gets so tenuous and abstract that the ties I have to others are miniscule. In others they are nonexistant. This is one of the reasons I’m not as into Big Tent Paganism as others. It’s much like my view of being a US citizen. As with Pagans and issues particular to the communities we/they are part of, I care about the rights of all US citizens, but I’ll likely never interact with most of the folks out in California. I certainly won’t develop or keep up meaningful relationships with them. While my words may carry impact out there, I have only so much capacity within myself to develop meaningful relationships with those outside of my family and friends. I only have so much time to keep the relationships I do have. Since my energy and my attention are things that I have less and less of, between work, religious obligation, family obligations, and local community obligations, there’s not much time left over to develop deeper connections with folks outside of a couple of my bubbles where my time and attention goes.

Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

The sum total of all our technology and the natural world is deeply out of step with one another. Our technology allows us to do amazing things, from the interconnectedness of the Internet to the generation of power so countless people have electricity, heat, and water, to beautiful pieces of art. Yet, I see so much technology now as being obsolescense for its own sake, or to increase someone’s bottom line at the expense of great swathes of this world, Earth, animal and plant alike. I see devices intentionally built to break. I see technology taking jobs once held by great swathes of people with nothing to replace them, leaving great stretches of this country destitute. I see great and small bodies of earth, water, and air poisoned by oil and gas, the production of our computers and cell phones. I see a world we will have a harder time living on and with because of the production and industries that bring up that oil and gas to burn so our electricity flows, the lights stay on, and our economies continue to be productive contributes to the very things that are rendering our planet less habitable to us.

Looking at our cities from space I see systems that have deep need of repair, both in terms of how they function internally and how they relate to the natural world. I see great swathes of resources going to these places; we can see the light of them in space from the photo Nick has provided. As a whole our relationships with the Earth through cities have become fraught with taking increasing amounts of dwindling resources, whether that be water, oil, or gas. The growth of cities has been useful in allowing us to live on less land, but we have not fixed fundamental problems with how we, especially in America, deploy ourselves in the land. If the supply lines get cut off for 3 days LA essentially starves. Now, thankfully, there are people who are opening up places in LA and Detroit to community gardens and community agriculture. However, we have basic problems with infrastructure that must be addressed if cities are to continue to remain viable places to live. We operate our cities on incredibly complex, but very, very brittle systems of transport that are, increasingly, operating with less and less support for the infrastructure that makes them possible. I have serious doubts as to how long our cities will be viable in how we have developed them.

In my own case I am developing good working relationships with my local earth, the earthvaettir, and landvaettir, vaettir otherwise, as well as the Gods and Ancestors. I am living as a good member of my society, providing for my family and developing ways to live in better concert with the Earth. I am doing all I can to be a living example in how I live with Her. I am pushing my local governments and cities to do more to get off of fossil fuels and generate our own energy through less environmentally destructive mean. I encourage people to explore their own local options, especially where their impact can be felt keener and firmer.

This, I think, is a lot of where polytheism and animism meets our proverbial road in life. In how we live our lives. In our daily interactions with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another. The worldviews of polytheism and animism informs how we understand ourselves in the world, how we identify within our human communities, and how we live our lives accordingly with the values we live by. The foundations of our worldviews tells us what we consider ‘alive’ and ‘ensouled’ how we live well with all that lives and souls within us, and around us.

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