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Posts Tagged ‘acknowledgment’

Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 2

October 9, 2014 3 comments

So, I wrote this awhile back and completely blanked on posting it.  Part 1 is here.

If there are outward ways of acknowledging the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that are commonly accepted, it then follows that an absence of these can be an indicator of one’s devotion to Them.  In the case of a lack of offerings, a lack of hospitality may be seen.  If certain prayers, rituals, ritual actions, dietary observances, etc., are expected by one’s culture, Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, then to go without those would also be lacking in hospitality, possibly breaking ritual taboos, and/or hurting the spiritual power of the person, and/or their group(s).  Such an act may (and I imagine probably will) hurt one’s relationship with a God or Goddess, Ancestor(s), and/or spirits.

Even with the less human of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits I work with, starting here with baselines of “I do not know you, but I hope this offering is acceptable” at least showed I was making an effort to come to understand Them, even if They had me offer or do something (or in some cases nothing but open my ears) later on.  I do what I can to meet the Beings who interact with me on Their own terms; it is respectful and Gebo in my regard to do so.  In my experience, in turn, if They wish to have a relationship with me, They try as best as They can to use words, images, sounds, smells, concepts etc. as I can use and/or understand.  It is entirely possible with some Beings that They may have a learning curve in kind to us as much as we to Them.  Not all Gods are omniscient.  Indeed, most of the Gods I have worshiped or interacted with are not omniscient.  Sometimes They may well need you to talk to Them or interact with Them in some fashion for Them to know what is going on.

In the end we are navigating relationships, and to seek perfection here is counterproductive.  If apologies or amends need to be made along the way, if these Gods, Ancestors, and spirits mean so much to us, we should be willing to meet Them if They are reasonable, and negotiate if not.  We should also be willing to be flexible in our understanding of what is reasonable in kind; what may seem a hardship to us may have been expected on a regular basis by Them.  If we can develop good relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, then surely we can develop ways to deepen these relationships while giving Gebo and remembering to allow Gebo to come to us in kind.    Screwing up happens.  Being a responsible person means owning up to one’s mistakes, and where possible, rectifying them.

I would say that a lot, if not all of these things apply to the Gods as guidelines even when the Gods, some Ancestors, and spirits are less human-focused, human-centric, or just plain not like humans at all.  Respect, good offerings, hospitality, all of these are baseline in any relationship even if the attitudes and mores regarding what these things are change.  I find this especially true if you are going into a place that is definitely a God, Ancestor, or spirit’s place, such as a sacred grove, a graveyard, a mountain, or the like.  Hospitality is even more important when you are in another’s home or place.

The only way that I have found to get better at understanding what one should do in a relationship is to ask questions, and then to do it where one can, and bargain or accept one’s limitations and work at them, where one cannot.  Even as a godatheow I generally still have the option of asking my Father for options, of negotiating in respect when I believe I am being asked too much.  It is up to me to ask for these options, however, and I certainly don’t expect other people to be offered the same paths, options, or consequences (good or ill) as I am.  However, for the work of good relationship building and engagement with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits you do not need to be a spiritual specialist; you merely need to be open and dedicated to doing the work necessary to forge and keep these good relationships.

In the Northern Tradition the communities we are part of, allied to, and so on, share and build hamingja, group luck or power.  If everyone is living in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestor, spirits, and one another, we are doing well.  If not, our hamingja suffers, and so will each person in turn for it.  This puts taking responsibility to a different level, in that you are not only responsible to yourself, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, but to those around you.  Even a solitary practitioner might have hamingja, since all but the most reclusive of hermits belong to a community of some kind.

This does not mean that ethical consideration for fellow humans stops at the question ‘who is in my in-crowd’, but those people do, generally speaking, carry more weight in one’s life.  Practically as well as in many other ways, our families carry a great deal of weight even if we physically leave where our families live.  The human communities we engage in, whether via friendship, association, fellowship, etc. all leave marks on our lives great and small.  When someone in our personal communities asks for help we are more apt to give it, and vice versa.  They are given more ethical consideration, in the end, because their impact and presence in our lives is much more immediate.

In much the same way, the Gods I have active engagement with are the Gods Whom I most care for in regards to my ethics.  Do I care about treating the Gods I come across in a ritual well?  Of course, and this links back to the earlier points about hospitality.  That hospitality is informed by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirit I worship and engage with on a daily basis.  For daily considerations and many, if not most of my life choices the Gods I am closest to and worship are the Gods Whose relationships matter most to me, my family, and my communities.  So, Their impact and Presence in my life has more pull on it.  The same with Ancestors and spirits.

I care about the Earth as a whole.  The landvaettir of any place I visit or pass through deserve respect, if not veneration and worship.  However, relating to the whole world is damned near impossible for me.  I have never been to a desert, for instance.  I can relate to it in a kind of detached way, see it as valuable, and believe they should be protected, that the deserts have landvaettir as well, but it is quite another thing to know the desert(s) and Their spirits.  I can imagine or be shown how beautiful the deserts can be…from a camera, but to go there and experience it is wholly different.  My ethical engagement, then, is limited with the desert and associated spirits as compared to my local landvaettir.

Polytheist ethics and ethical consideration extends to the communities we are part of, to the living, to the Dead, the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, communities, and the ecosystems in which one lives, among many other places.  These ethics also extend into the larger world, in places I may never visit.  I use less oil when and where I can because I acknowledge the Earth as a living Being.  As much as I can, I try to make my negative impact upon this world, through teaching, purchasing, and any way I can find, to be reduced.  No decision is made in isolation or without impact upon another.  Even if one is entirely reclusive, there are still the landvaettir and one’s local ecosystem to consider in one’s choices.  The local landvaettir may include the Dead who live in the soil the landvaettir are made of, the natives of the land we live on now.  It may be that the two are totally separate Beings and need separate consideration.  I can think of no place where we humans are not sitting, standing, and living on the bones of those who came before us.  In this recognition respect and actions that back up that respect go hand in hand.

These ethical considerations need not be jarringly huge, either.  I pray to the landvaettir and make offerings before I set up my tent at Michigan Paganfest, where I have helped tend the Sacred Fire the last three years.  I pay this respect to the landvaettir because it is not my land.

Then again, an ethical consideration may be jarringly huge in its impact, in the mindset that follows from it, and in the way one lives their life.  Even though our modern notions of property ownership may say otherwise, if I own land, even so it will not be my land.  It cannot be; the land is Its Own.  I may be allowed to live on it, my family, and generations after may be allowed to live on it, but the land is Its Own, and we humans may be part of It, or part of the landvaettir some day but we are not It Itself.  I may partner with the land, treat it well, till it, harvest from it, raise animals on it, bury my dead in it, and feel close to It, but I am not the land.  This does not mean I do not belong to the land, but that the land does not belong to me.  It was here before I was, and will be long after I am dead.  I can no more outright own It than I can own Jörð.

When we light the Sacred Fire there are prayers and offerings made  to Fire Itself, to the Gods of Fire, to the spirits of Fire, to the wood, to the landvaettir, Ancestors, and other spirits.  The Gods, Ancestors, and spirits all deserve our respect, especially the Fire Itself since the Sacred Fire is the heart of the festival for three days it is on.  We keep it day and night; to do otherwise is to extinguish the heart of the festival, and to insult the Fire, the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we have asked to be with us in Its heat and light, to sit with us by it and to speak with us when They will.  To extinguish It on purpose before it is time is to break our word that we will do all we can to keep It lit throughout the weekend.  To throw litter in It is to treat the Sacred Fire as a garbage disposal, which is inhospitable to the communities the Fire represents, and inhospitable to the Fire Itself.  To speak disrespectfully of the Fire is an insult to It and the community whose Fire It keeps as we keep It.  To treat the heart of the festival, the spirit of Fire Itself, the particular Fire spirit that is the Fire with disrespect, is insulting to the Fire Itself, to each person connected to the Fire, to those who form the community that the Fire is the heart of, and to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and so on that have been called by and to the Sacred Fire.  As with people, Fire too can be worked with when insulted, and amends can be made, but it is far easier and more respectful to not have to rectify insults and problems in the first place.

I will continue these thoughts on Ethics and Animism in Polytheism in Part 3.

Redefining Words and Claiming Space

January 22, 2014 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 1

January 2, 2014 6 comments

After reading this post by Anomalous Thracian, and this by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus some wheels in my head got to spinning.

These two quotes in particular stand out to me here from Anomalous Thracian:

I encourage folks — especially those who like to have clearly defined use of terms and ideas of what certain things mean — to suspend those for the sake of this discussion, and allow a certain level of elasticity to come into things so that we can navigate to the core of what is being discussed. It isn’t exactly about how one defines atheism or piety, but rather about some basic and intrinsic expressions of respect and acknowledgement-of-the-personhood-of-the-divine.

and here:

 I think that polytheism itself, as a collective movement (which is ever held in measurable space by its slowest parts or its most aggressive instincts or its most passive concessions), would and should and could be greatly bettered if more people engaged in a learned discourse around the practical implications of animism, which is in some ways far simpler than –theism (as it does not require a specific definition of deity) and in other ways far more complex (as it steps outside the realm of little theories and big theories and into the space of lived fact and acknowledged reality).

These quotes from PSVL got me thinking as well:

But, ritual to the gods and other divine beings is an entirely different matter. And, in my mind, it all comes down to the ethic of hospitality.

Continuing here:

If we are polytheists who acknowledge (note, not “believe in”!) the reality and existence of our gods, then “belief” becomes irrelevant (outside of a few possible definitions of the term that, again, I’m not seeing used widely), and whether or not someone else likewise acknowledges the reality of the gods we have come to know and experience and interact with, nonetheless we do, and thus the gods are as real to us as the air we breathe, the sunlight we bathe in, the waters we drink and offer, and the joys and sorrows that we encounter in our dances with the gods (as well as those we dance with others) in this world.

This hit it home for me:

I would, therefore, exhort all polytheists who are reading this to seriously consider shifting their usages in this regard. “Belief in” anything does nothing, and lack of belief in anything likewise does nothing: believing in something that doesn’t exist will not make it exist, and not believing in something that does exist will not make it cease to exist. Polytheists stand and triumph only on the foundation that their gods do exist, and that is a foundation that we don’t “believe in,” it’s a foundation that we know, in the most basic and primal and powerful Greek gnosissense of the word.

This last quote in particular made me sit back and think, really think.  It seems I have been using the terms ‘belief in’, ‘believe in’ and such, when what I mean is acknowledge and know.  I have a living, working knowledge that my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are real from my understanding and experience.  I do not need to believe in Them, as such, except in times of crippling doubt.  Belief, then, becomes not really some state of mind, but a choice.  The choice to acknowledge the Gods are real and to treat them in that manner, with respect, or without that respect.  I made a point of this in my post on Piety and Being Poor:

Devotion is not just important; devotion is VITAL. It is how a living, breathing religion continues. Acts of devotion keep that bridge between us and the Gods alive in our everyday life, whether it is a glass of water and a prayer, prayers made on prayer beads, food made in their honor, a pinch of mugwort or a small glass of mead offered at a tree, or an act of kindness for a human being.  Offerings, in and of themselves, are vital, and have always been vital regardless of which tradition one comes out of.

I went into why this is so important at the end, namely:

I put the Gods first because that is where They go in my life. The Gods are first; it is from Them that all good things in my life have come.

If what we are discussing is “the basic and intrinsic expressions of respect and acknowledgment-of-the-personhood-of-the-divine”, then we need to understand what the implications are when one recognizes that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits have personhood, and how respect plays into that understanding.

If a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit has personhood, that is, if a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit is a Being unto Themselves and not a means to an end, mental projection, thoughtform, etc. then a host of implications immediately come up.  If we acknowledge that They are real, then They have or may have expectations, understanding, views, opinions, and so on.  There is a relationship to be had, with understandings on both sides of that relationship, and ways of conduct that are expected.

To my mind polytheism cannot be without animism involved. I can think of no polytheist culture in which smaller spirits, local Gods, etc. did not play a part, and were not actively acknowledged. Forces and Powers on, in, around, about, and beyond the Earth are given names to call to, and/or ways in which They can be known, and ways They may be propitiated. Some are called Gods, others may be called powerful spirits, and yet others might Themselves be Ancestors whether of blood, lineage, adoption, etc. This, of course, depends on one’s tradition(s) and personal interactions.  Yet still, in acknowledging the personhood of Gods then it stands that the personhood of Beings beyond the Gods are worthy of acknowledgment.

Acknowledgment inspires action because belief is bound up in acknowledgment.  In acknowledging Gods, Ancestors, and spirits as Beings with personhood, it is an active belief in, and knowledge of the Gods, rather than simply believing the Gods exist.  Belief is utterly simple; it is ‘something one has accepted as true’ (OED).  Acknowledgment is an action and requires action in connection with the act of acknowledgement.

I can believe in the Gods as Beings unto Themselves and give no offerings at all.  Belief in the Gods as Beings does not require offerings, it merely says “I believe the Gods are Beings unto Themselves.”.  In acknowledging the Gods as Beings unto Themselves, I must then treat Them as such, with respect.  The giving of offerings comes about due to this understanding, and my place in the relationship with Them.

I can believe it is wrong to give the Gods rotten food and do it anyway.  I can acknowledge offering rotten food is wrong because it is inhospitable and reprehensible, and not offer it because that is the right thing to do.  Belief on its own requires no action except to believe.  People abrogate their beliefs each and every day; holding beliefs does not require acting on them.  Acknowledging one’s beliefs requires action when a violation of them may, or have occurred.

If I acknowledge my Gods as real persons then to offer rotten food is disrespectful in the extreme, and unbecoming of a host.  So, I do not put rotten food on my altar.

How did I become a host?  By inviting Them into my home with the altar in the first place, asking Them to take up residence on the altar in my home.

How did I know They wanted to be invited?  I prayed, I divined, I intuited, I listened.  I gave space for my understanding to grow.  I asked questions of people who worshiped these Gods before I did.  In some cases I had the spiritual equivalent of  a whisper in response, and in others the equivalent of a two by four to the back of the head.  Some, such as Anpu, invited me worship Them, and others, such as Odin, grabbed me up and said ‘Come this way’.  In some cases I had the spiritual equivalent of dead silence and had to rely on others to help me along and muddle through.

The particulars of codes of conduct differ God to God.  For instance I may feed Anpu’s statue directly, or drink an offering made specifically to Him, dependent on what it is, His inclination at the time, and etiquette understood before and during the offering being made.  For Odin I will generally offer to Him and pour out the offering when He is satisfied.  It is rarer for me to eat with Him, though I sometimes feel His Presence at the Ancestor shrine when I eat with the Ancestors.  In the case of a blood offering, such an offering will mean different things dependent on the God, the understanding we have, etiquette expected, and a host of other things.  This is why I make blood offerings to Odin and the Runes only, and not to every single God.  Some Gods do not want my blood and with some Gods an offering of blood would promise things I would not want to promise.

I and Sylverleaf gathered things that we felt, understood, acknowledged, were told, etc. that the Gods wanted or would accept as vessels, offering bowls, and the like, and set up the altar.  We adopted codes of conduct that were agreed upon or acknowledged without having to be said between us as conduct becoming of a host.  There are general codes of conduct we keep with all the Gods present in our lives.  A general offering to the Gods, often kept on the altar in the glass chalice, are usually poured out onto the local oak tree.  This is accepted by all the Gods present on the altar as a good, respectful way of dispensing with offerings.

In acknowledging the Gods as real, we acknowledge our relationships as real.  In acknowledging our relationships as real, we acknowledge that our actions have real effects in those relationships.  In acknowledging our actions have real effects we must then acknowledge that the giving of physical offerings has meaning, both in terms of our relationship with the Gods we offer to, and in the offering itself.  If this is accepted, then a physical offering will mean something real in a way that is different than a non-tangible offering.  A physical offering will mean something different rather than an offering made purely in sentiment, that is, made with feeling or emotion (OED).  Likewise, a physical offering made away from the altar will mean something different.

This is not to say that non-physical offerings can offer nothing to the Gods; as I wrote above, I went through a process of figuring out what are and are not good offerings.  Some good offerings we give which are not immediately physical at the altar to the Earthvaettir are made when we walk around our local park and pick up trash.  Doing this does not, however, impart the same effect, meaning, or effect in the relationship with the Earthvaettir as the giving of good clean water, incense or recels, and so on.  Giving an offering of bread, water, or the like does not impart the same meaning or sacrifice on my part as writing and saying a poem, or singing a song does.  It does not, however, automatically denigrate an offering of song, breath, or the like to say that water, for instance, may be expected as regular offerings.  A song or poem may be sung or spoken for a special occasion.

In each of these cases where the offerings are not immediately physical ones at the Earthvaettir’s altar, these offerings carry different meaning and weight in the relationship than the regular water and/or food offerings we give.  They simply cannot be replaced any more than food that I eat can be replaced by song.  If I am feeding guests, I am feeding guests, and if I am singing for Them I am singing for Them.  A loaf of bread is not a bar of notes.  To pretend otherwise is insulting to the guest, and intentionally stupid on my part as the host.  I could no more feed my Gods an offering of notes than sing to my son to fill his stomach.  Even in the case of the Egyptian Gods and some of the offeratory formula, there are at the least carvings of bread.  It was not as though the notion of food was wholly lost even if the offerings themselves were not strictly physical.

Perhaps this is an extremely literal way of interpreting one’s offeratory relationship with the Gods, yet it seems to me if all we are going to do is carve offerings rather than give them the physical offerings they represent what is the point?  If symbols are all we have to offer to those we acknowledge to be real, what can we expect in return?  What can we expect from a relationship where all that connects is a gift of symbols and an expectation to have some interaction?  This does not work (well or healthily) in any other sphere in regards to relationships, yet, it seems, this is expected here.  This line of thinking applies equally well to non-physical or non-immediate offerings, such as song or picking up garbage at a park.  If that is the Gebo expected from the Earthvaettir and I try offering bread as a substitute for those actions then I am not fulfilling my end of things.

I have had instances where physical offerings were refused because they were easier for me to give than the non-physical offerings the God, Ancestor, or spirit wanted.  Learning to make fire, for instance, was an offering to Skaði and my head Disir.  Giving water is far, far easier than trying to learn how to make a Sacred Fire using flint and steel.  It would have been entirely insulting and inappropriate for me to try to do so.  So, giving myself a good couple of whacks on my hand and some hours of effort I have been able to make Sacred Fire for the first time in my life using old methods.  No offering could have taken its place, its meaning, its impact.

I will continue these thoughts on Ethics and Animism in Polytheism in Part 2.

Update: Part 2 is here.

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