A while back, I wrote a post for Galina Krasskova’s blog. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.
There was a response to it, which I only recently have seen. One part of the response, specifically this part, which made me think:
There IS a cosmology, which is quite strong, SAFE and very useful: the upper, middle and lower worlds.
This has made me think a bit on the ‘using’ of a cosmology. When I came to my Gods, I was not ‘using’ their cosmology. I was interacting with it, understanding my place in it, but not ‘using’ it. When I became a priest of Anubis, I was doing so in the context of being His priest within the framework of what that means within the Egyptian cosmology, and specifically what He calls me to do in the role of priest. The roles I serve in that cosmology are different than those I serve in the Northern Tradition. The cosmology, expectations, and requirements of my priesthood are very different from one another.
As the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, a cosmology is “a theory or doctrine describing the natural order of the universe.”
I have no problem with varying cosmologies living side-by-side in my life. By-and-large, I see the Work I do, and most of my world through the eyes of a Northern Tradition shaman. Does this mean that my priesthood of Anubis has no bearing on how I see the Worlds around me? No, but most of my interaction and my Work with Anubis is working with the Dead, and so, it doesn’t affect much of my everyday life. Most of the Work that I do with Anubis tends to not be as upfront as my Work with Odin. As time goes on my work with Anubis may intersect with more of my life, but my Work with Odin is first and foremost in my life. Does this mean I ‘use’ the cosmology of whichever God/dess or spirit calls to me? No, I interact with Them through that cosmology. I must interface with it, understand it, recognize myself as part of it (although that is already a given; They have contacted me). I do not see Gods as trapped in their cosmology, per se, but I think there is a respect due to Them to come to Them in Their fashion, understand Them as best we can through Their ways and cultures’ means.
Does this mean that when I worship Anubis I get up at a specific time every day, attending His statue as a priest would in ancient Egypt? No. This is simply not possible for me. I have neither the social nor the economic networks that would allow me to do that. I have certain ways, however, that I address His statue. I do feed it, water it, lay incense over it, and pray to it as an embodiment of my God. I treat it with respect, as if it was Him standing before me. I pray to Him, kneeling before His statue, and give Him respect that He is due by being my God.
What about the Afterlife?
I am a hard polytheist, so I have thought from time to time on how I reconcile the Egyptian afterlife, for instance, with the Northern Tradition one. I don’t see a problem with viewing them side-by-side, so I don’t really see a need to ‘reconcile’ them. In my personal experience, there are many, many afterlives that are possible, and I still don’t know why a soul might go here or there. I have seen a soul enter an afterlife by intentional recognition on behalf of the soul that this particular place is where they wish to go or belong, and/or the soul has received an invitation or is promised to come on behalf of the God, Goddess, spirits, and/or Ancestors of a particular afterlife. Is this hard-and-fast as a rule? I do not know.
I do not feel, however, that all the afterlives overlap one another or that some are even accessible side-by-side. For instance, I do not think the Duat and Helheim link up directly. Perhaps there are meeting places, or places where They overlap, like a Venn diagram, or perhaps there are passages between these realms that I simply have not experienced; after all, I’m not Hermes. I’d like to other Pagans’ perspectives on this. What I understand, is that afterlives are accessible based on a wide variety of factors, not the least being that particular cosmology’s rules on the soul, how the person lived in life, how many parts the soul has and which go where, and so on. Then, that brings up the next question.
What about the Soul?
Beyond the actual places one’s soul may go to in the afterlife, there is also the idea of different parts of the soul. In the Egyptian way, the soul is split up into, depending of course on the resources you look at and how you interpret them, into nine pieces. The Northern Tradition has a couple of ideas about how the soul is put together, and what parts move on. I understand the soul in context of the Northern Tradition by the Soul Map that Raven Kaldera received in his work as a shaman. Are there parallels? Sure, you could say there are parallels, but nothing terribly direct. The idea of the ka might have some things in common with the hame, but they are not the same. They do not mesh terribly well because they are very different by what they mean in terms of their own cosmology. The hame is not the ka because these words mean very different things to the users and the cultures these words come from. However, I won’t say that the hame and ka are not both talking about the soul. I’m a priest of Odin and Anubis, and so, whether I am seeing the soul through ka, hame, or some other fashion, I am seeing the soul. What I am seeing is different, however, depending on how I approach it. What information I gather is quite different depending on the filters of culture, language, etc. that I apply to understanding the soul.
So is all I am looking at nothing more than filters I can objectively select? No. I have yet to see Alfar in the Duat, or an akh in Jotunheim. For all that I believe the Gods, the Worlds, and Afterlives may have fluidity, in my experience, there are boundaries. There are places where certain Beings belong, such as landvaettir to land. I am not one to decide where these boundaries are, I just recognize that they are there.
Is there such a thing as a “safe” cosmology?
I have encountered this idea in different places, but I have never been able to accept it. No cosmology that I know of allows us to escape risk of some kind. No spiritual practice is without its downside should one take it to that place or be placed in a situation to face that downside. The Upper, Middle, and Lower World or (as it is often symbolized), the World Tree cosmology, to me, invites no more safety than other kinds of cosmologies. For instance, in the Siberian cosmology there are spirits that will spread disease and unrest. These are known as chotgor and they originate from the Lower world. The ozoor, ongon, and burhan spirits, spirits of the Middle world, may also cause problems for those who are flesh-and-blood humans in the Middle World. My references in this section come from the book Chosen by the Spirits by Sarangerel and BuryatMongol.org.
While there may be cosmologies that are less obviously dangerous or outright threatening than others, I have yet to find a cosmology that is ‘safe’. Whether one is interacting with beings from the Otherworld, nymphs and dryads, the alfar or even the ka of the deceased, there is risk. The risk can be in angering the spirits of certain offerings are or are not given. The risk can be, for instance, in the case of the Otherworld, being trapped if one eats food from the realm. Crossing a nymph or a dryad might bring you hard times or even death in their domain. Wronging the alfar or insulting them might get you elfshot, resulting in illness, pain, fatigue and so on.
Several realms of the Dead are known to be dangerous for travel. If you eat of the food of the Underworld, in many myths, you are stuck there. Even without this, there are spirits that may cause you grief during or after your foray, and will gladly follow you and make your life miserable until they are exorcised and/or their spiritual effects on you are removed. A slip-up in the realm of the Dead may also invoke a God/dess’ wrath, trapping your soul or being forced to perform tasks for Hir. Slip-ups with the Dead Themselves, such as your Ancestors, may invite negative consequences from Them as well.
I do not think this means that you need to walk around with the magical equivalent of body armor and shotguns all the time, but mindfulness is a must for any Pagan or shaman. If the whole world is full of spirits then mindfulness of your place in this world is a must. If the Gods are real, if the Dead are a presence in our lives, and if what we do is more than a thought experiment or a game, then mindfulness needs to be paid to ourselves, the world around us, and the Gods and spirits we interact with.
To be honest I find the idea incredibly insulting. These Gods, spirits, and cosmologies do not exist because we think they do. They exist independent of our recognition and, at times, awareness. To simply ‘plug into’ a cosmology on a whim, to me, is foolhardy. If nothing else you might insult the spirits or Gods of the particular cosmology or realm you seek to enter, interact with or ‘use’. At most you may get the kind of attention that will make your life very, very difficult. Of course you have to initiate contact with the spirits and Gods at some point, but to barge into a realm and call a spirit to your service, or call on a God you’ve never interacted with smacks, at least to me, of hubris. Without this respect due to the Gods and spirits, and the cosmology itself, how can you develop a working relationship with Them or work within the cosmology?
When it comes down to it, “using” cosmology is a form of blasphemy. It is using the Gods, spirits, and essence as things, as utilities in a ritual or outlook. Sure, integrating a cosmology into one’s life is a lot more hard than simply looking at it as a tool, but it is a damn sight more respectful. It treats the Gods, spirits and cosmology itself as a tool when each may be a Being unto itself, including, in some religions, the cosmology itself. A cosmology is something you exist within, not something that you pick up for a moment then discard when it does not fit your notions of what should be. A cosmology is challenging; it not only contains spirits that may not have your best interests in mind, but even more important is that it may contain spirits that do, and will challenge you in quite deep ways to do what is best for you should you befriend Them or They take interest in you.
A cosmology establishes your relationship to all things, including yourself. It establishes how you interact with the spirits and Gods. It establishes your relationship to the Earth, and your human communities. Sometimes integrating your cosmology into your life does not upset things. Other times, it may change things in your life in subtle ways. For instance, I pay far more attention now as a Pagan than I did as a Christian to the environment. Things ripple from your basic standpoint in cosmology outward, and may affect each and every part of your life.
To integrate a cosmology into your life is to recognize your place within it, and you cannot do that purely from the outside. It is also a lot more humbling, in my experience. You don’t have anywhere near as much control (even if the control was your own imagining), but there can be the feeling of peace and richness in understanding your place in a cosmology. My point is not that people should feel pressured into accepting this or that cosmology, but understand how revolutionary accepting a cosmology as real, as developing a belief in a cosmology is. It is a fundamental shift in understanding reality, of one’s place in it, and perhaps, of oneself. This cannot be done by merely using a cosmology, nor any religious belief. When you accept your place in a cosmology it is accepting all that entails, including shifting one’s mindset away from outdated ones and accepting what might have once seemed odd. I feel it also means exploring that cosmology and where you fit in it; not all our old lore and myths tell us the whole of how we humans fit into things. Just because you’re part of a cosmology does not mean the exploring, and the seeking of understanding ebbs away. If anything, in my experience, it calls you to dig deeper into it and see what you can see. It is much more than a light overview in a book, or a small foray into a wood, it is stepping into a whole new way of relating to everything. Explore, rather than use, and you may find your whole life changed.