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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.

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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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