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Why Animism and Polytheism are Radical Religions in Capitalist Societies

July 23, 2015 5 comments

A good deal of animism and polytheism’s power, as it is expressed in outward form, is that it directly challenges the overculture’s directions to consume and produce for their own sake.  Slavoj Žižek notes that products like Coke produce their own perpetual desire.  In “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, he notes that Coke self-perpetuates by two ways, in that it makes one’s duty to consume and enjoy Coke, and that the consumption of it leads to the thirst that leads a person to want to consume it more.  After all, it is a drink, but by its nature it produces further thirst rather than satiating it.

The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty, you drink it.  But, as everyone knows, the more you drink it, the more thirsty you get.

Polytheism demands us to understand that while pleasure, the satiation of thirst, and enjoyment may be side-benefits of our duties, enjoyment itself is not our duty.  The polytheist worldview demands that we see ourselves not as consumers, but participators in this world.  It also demands us to reject the idea of excess being with us forever.  Why?

Gebo is gift-for-a-gift.  While this gifting may not be an exact equivalent exchange, at least in the moment, the embrace of reciprocity requires the rejection of excess.  If one is constantly consuming there is no way to reciprocate.  Gebo requires a cessation of one’s consumption at some point, and a giving back at another.  For instance, in ancient Germanic and Scandinavian societies, one fed the guest until they were full.  It was on a guest to say they were full.  Part of the give and take of such a situation is that the guest is given food until they are satisfied, but the guest’s reciprocity is not to eat or drink to the detriment of the host.  Excess kills the Gebo relationship between guest and host.  The host may not ask the guest to come back, and additionally, the host may have been bereft of food or drink  to carry them through the coming winter without severely tightening their belt.  Likewise, a stingy host can make a guest feel unwelcome, or strain a relationship by not valuing the guest’s needs.

Expanding this notion of guest and host out further, humanity is severely unbalanced because there is simply no way that the excesses of mountain top removal or the destruction of old growth forest can be remediated.  While we cannot correct, at least within our lifetimes, the excesses of such a practice, it is within our purview as guest to the Earth Gods, such as Jörð, and to the landvaettir to live upon Her/Them in such a way that we conduct ourselves going forward as good guests.  Polytheism is radical in its view because it not only gives moral dimension to our relationship with the world as a or many living Beings, but to all other things that occupy that place.

Later in the documentary, Žižek states:

Antagonism, class struggles, and other tangents is something inherent to Capitalism. ..Instability is the way Capitalism functions.

Polytheism’s radicalization within capitalist and capitalist-leaning countries is present because it holds sacred what capitalism finds disposable; any social or legal contracts capitalism makes is easily shredded or ignored for the convenience of the movement of capital and the allocation of wealth.  Any piece of land is a bargaining chip or dollar amount, rather than possessing intrinsic value.  Honor and Gebo in regard’s to one’s word in capitalism is a matter of calculating loss or gain. This poisonous destruction of honor and Gebo can occur in government and private companies alike, as the calculating in this case is very similar. Look at how easy it is for a State to shed its duties to its people through earned retirement benefits, such as pensions.   Look at how easy it was for Detroit to cut so much from the bottom line of fixed-income workers, people who had given 20, 30 years to the city.  So quick as a document is signed, those things are cut.  Look at how easy it is for public lands to be sold to Graymont, 10,00 acres with at least a hundred years of ‘ownership’ are gained with barely a review, and a weak protest from the DNR.  So too with companies like BP, Exxon, and their ilk, who poison the land and balk when their money is demanded for the places they have destroyed in their exploration, mining, and refining processes.  They are hardly an exception, what with the clamoring of all these companies eager for what resources they can get their hands on, contributing little to nothing to the society that they take their tax incentives, resources, and cheap employment from.  Enbridge Energy, despite its excesses of capital and intentional risks it has taken with Michigan’s environment and accordingly the health of its citizens, and its failures to protect the Kalamazoo River, is still not sharing the risk assessment for the pipeline under the Mackinaw Bridge.  It is still pushing for the 60 year old pipeline to continue carrying oil despite the age of the pipeline, its track record, and the concerns of those of us who live near it, or whose waters will become poisoned when it leaks or breaks.

Animism and Polytheisms’ basic premise is a (or many) powerful social and spiritual contract(s), understanding(s), and/or relationship(s) between a worshiper and their God(s), Ancestors, and/or spirits.  Each offering builds up the relationship between them, further cementing this relationship, this social/spiritual contract expressed through reciprocity.  Each time Gebo is made, it furthers the spiritual growth and communication between the worshiper and their Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  Exponential growth is not part of the expectation of a polytheist viewpoint because 1) such a thing is an impossibility in all but the abstract, and 2) our own Gods can and in many cases, do go through life cycles or ways of change themselves.  Our Gods do not remain static, so our relationships cannot be so.  If we cannot expect our Gods to do such a thing, how can we expect ourselves, or our world to?

Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive each meaning, and so on and so on…to step out of ideology is a painful experience.

In this way, with using They Live as the backdrop, Žižek talks about ideology as our framing device.  How it is formed really without us thinking, it is our response to the world, how we frame our understanding and reactions to it.  It is the basis for how we relate to one another, things, the world around us, the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir.  It helps us to determine what we cultivate in our lives because it determines what is important to cultivate in the first place.

The extreme violence of liberation.  You must be forced to be free.  If you only trust your spontaneous sense of ideology you will never get free.  Freedom hurts.

Animists and polytheists, myself included, have written about the Filter as, among other things, a Being/thing that acts as a filter on our relationships with the Holy Powers,  One of its most insidious and hard to disrupt ways of doing this is acting through the spontaneous ideologies generated by the way that our society hard-conditions us to accept the ways of doing things as ‘normal’, and to reject the ways I have talked above in which we are called as polytheists to live with the world and the Holy Powers.  There is a loss that comes with accepting and understanding ourselves as polytheists.  We lose the ability to indulge in our over-culture’s wanton destruction of the environment, indigenous peoples, and sacred places.  We lose the ability to stand by and be at ease with the way our energy is mined for, made, and pollutes.  We lose the ability to be mindless consumers.  It is far easier to be so, if only because that is the dominant ideology.  Lived polytheism requires thought, discernment, care, living relationships, and an entirely different frame of mind than the over-culture.  After all, the ways of relationality in capitalism is through the consumed thing.

It was Marx who, long ago, emphasized that a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume.  A commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical niceties.  Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence.  The classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible quality.  Coke is The Real Thing, or Coke, That’s It.  What is that It, the Real Thing?  Its not just another positive property of Coke, something that can be described or pinpointed to something more. The indescribable excess which is the object cause of my desire.  In our postmodern societies we are obliged to enjoy.  Enjoyment becomes a kind of weird, perverted duty.

As Žižek points out, the object itself becomes imbued with meaning beyond its function.  It becomes a statement of who we are.  The shortcut to relationality in this over-culture is that we are what we consume.  A person who wears (buys) flannel and listens to (buys) records is a ‘hipster’.  A person who eats (buys) a wide varieties of food for enjoyment as well as sustenance is a ‘foodie’.  So on and so on, identity becomes less what we do for a living, our ethnicity, religion, etc., and more what we consume.  There are several branches of Christianity that fall into this trap of identification with what is consumed as well, i.e. Prosperity Gospel, and megachurch Evangelical Christianity.  New Age in its consumption of ‘spiritual tourism’ and ‘The Secret’, especially that idea of genie in it, play right into this.  Pagans, animists, and polytheists can play into this with the idea that one must have things to be in and identified with the religion, and fall into this trap.

It is hard to break this identification with what we buy.  In some cases it is damned near impossible.  Our necklaces, for instance, act as shorthand symbol-sets for Who we follow or what tradition we are part of.  In the case of Wiccans, the way a pentacle’s points face or if they wear jet and amber may say something about who they are within a tradition, or what degree they are.  Even the act of not buying things is a way of defining our relationships, and who we are.  Gifting has long been a way of solidifying alliances, paying homage to one another, and furthering relationships.  So too, has been the making and gifting of things.  I think what polytheism challenges us to do, is rather than dispense with the idea of relationships and relationality through objects, is to dispense with the identification with objects.  That is, not seeing ourselves as Pagans, animists, or polytheists because we wear a pentacle, Mjolnir, etc., but because of how we identify those objects as markers of our tradition, group, etc.  Granted, this is far easier to apply as an idea to our nascent religious movements.  It is far harder to apply to the over-culture in which we live.

That is not to say that sacred objects lose their importance because our over-culture relies on things as identification and commoditization/consumption as relationship.  Rather, the reason that sacred objects break this mold is they are a way of relating to the Holy Powers and vice versa, whether the object in question is a statue of a God, a cup dedicated to offerings to the Holy Powers, a Mjolnir one wears in mindfulness and dedication to one’s Gods, or a ritual tool of some kind.  They have identity that springs out of the relationships they help facilitate or are part of rather than being a means of identity that they ascribe to us.  These layers can build, since sacred objects can be made of many things, including naturally occurring items, recycled materials, including man-made materials and mined things.

We cannot consume our sacred objects.  They do not belong to us, at least, not exclusively.  In the case of my Gods’ statues, while I did buy them, they are not status symbols or ways in which I identify, but embodied vessels of relationality.  If they were all gone tomorrow, while I would be sad as I like them for their beauty and function, my identity as a Heathen and Northern Tradition Pagan would not disappear nor would my relationship with the Gods.

Within an animist/polytheist understanding of things, objects themselves need not lose their importance to us.  However, the importance of objects changes as our relating to the world changes. So too does the importance of money, and consumption.  The whole edifice that keeps capitalism afloat begins to crumble when we cease to relate to our bank account, our objects, and our careers solely as markers for who we are.  Without these internal methods of control to shackle us to meaning we can begin to take apart the ways that capitalism forces us into soul-killing ways of life, ways that ultimately will lead to the cessation of the ability of our planet to continue to give us life.

There is a difference between sacred objects and places, though.  Lacking relics, such as saints’ bones in the Catholic tradition, most sacred objects in Paganism and polytheism can be replaced if lost or destroyed.  Sacred sites, however, cannot.  When a sacred site is destroyed, whether it is the Al-Lat lion statue at Palmyra or the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, or further back Donar’s Oak in Hesse Germany, it changes how the people relate to the land.  Should the sacred grove in my back yard be destroyed, it will change how I relate to the land even if the trees regrow.  While we have few outright temple spaces, how we relate to places remains important.  Altars and shrines feature heavily in my family’s religious life, and when they change, they usually mark some kind of change in our seasons, and/or relationships with the Gods.  Some day, when we get our own land, we will be making some kind of temple space(s).  Whether it is open to the public or not, it will be for the Holy Powers.  In order for this sacred land to continue to be so, it needs to continue to be blessed, cared for and used by the Holy Powers, and cared for and worked with by us, as a meeting place.  Sacred places are places where relationships with the Holy Powers come forward.  Not every place is suitable for this, whether it is this place is isolated and gives greater ability for focus, or this place is in a place a God or vaettr likes, or this is where our Ancestors are buried.

Sacred places are touchstones.  While they, as with sacred objects, do not contain the relationship as a whole, they are places of relationality.  We relate to the Holy Powers through them.  The identification of Donar’s Oak as Irminsul, and a holy place, was such because trees were held in sacred regard by the Germanic people to start with, and this Oak was understood to be Donar’s, and a representation of the World Tree.  If we cannot relate to objects and places in a sacred manner, they can be divorced from relationality with the Holy Powers, and with us.  When that desecration happens then can places and things be commoditized.  It happened when the Enclosures were made, and it happens every time a sacred mountain has sewage water dumped on it so wealthy people can ski, or thousands of acres of old growth forest are sold so companies can get timber and mine limestone.  When the sacred places are desacralized, or, to borrow a term, disenchanted, so too are the things which come from the lands.

Žižek notes that we are not merely buying things when we buy things.  We often are buying the message and ideology right along with whatever it is at hand.

Are we aware that when we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks we are buying quite a bit of ideology?  Which ideology?  You know, when you enter a Starbucks store, it is usually displayed with a poster that says ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others, but’ and then comes the story, ‘we give 1% to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy or water supply for some Saharan farmers or to save the forests so we can grow organic coffee’ or whatever.  Now, I admire the ingenuity of this solution.  In the old days of pure, simple consumerism, you bought a product and then felt bad…The idea was you had to do something to counteract your pure, destructive consumerism.  What Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included in the price of a commodity.  You pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist, but  you do also your duty towards environment, the poor, starving people in Africa, so on and so on.  It is, I think, the ultimate form of consumerism.

The problem with consumerism is how rampant and tied in to daily life it is.  Often, there is talk of ‘voting with your dollars’, yet, some of the most exploitative practices of poor people around the world are perpetuated by the poor of countries like ours because of the cost and availability of food that is organic and better for the workers.  The idea of ‘voting with your dollars’ ignores income disparity; those who use their dollars the most cannot afford to ‘vote’ for better wages or a healthier environment.  The same is the issue with clothes.  Indeed, most any consumer item has this issue.  Companies like Wendy’s are still balking at a one cent raise for the Farm Workers’ Union that picks the tomato crops for their products, denying them better care for themselves and a marginal difference in their income.  Clothing companies will regularly relocate if the local population agitates too much for protections or increased wages.  The reason companies can squeeze profits like this out of sweatshop labor is because the most people are able to buy them for the premium the company charges, paying cents on the dollar (if they pay at all) to their workers.  Yet, the supposedly more ethical options, i.e. fair trade, come with their own problems.  Who ensures these products and services are actually fair trade?  Are they?  Are the standards for this across the board or voluntary?  Does the money put forth for these things actually help the intended cause, i.e. the environment?  If we agree we cannot consume our way to a better life, we cannot expect to pay in this way for healthier forests or healthier people.  The resources to get the job done are not there if this is the extent of our involvement.  Žižek goes on to say:

We should not simply oppose a principled life dedicated to duty and enjoying our small pleasures.  Let’s take today’s capitalism.  We have, on the one hand, the demands on the stipulation on the capital, which push us towards profit-making, expansion, exploitation and destruction of nature, and, on the other hand, ecological demands.  Let’s think about our prosperity and our own survival, let us take care of nature, and so on.  In this opposition between ruthless pursuit of capitalist expansion and ecological awareness, duty, a strange, perverted duty, of course, duty is on the side of capitalism as many…analysts noted.  Capitalism has a strange religious structure.  It is propelled by this absolute demand: capital has to circulate, to reproduce itself, to expand, to multiply for itself, and for this goal, anything can be sacrificed, up to our lives, up to nature, and so on.  Here, we have a strange, unconditional injunction.  A true capitalist is a miser who is prepared to sacrifice anything for this perverted duty.

Rather than engage in perpetual desire or the excesses of capitalism as if it were a duty, one of animism and polytheism’s main challenges to the dominant paradigm are duty to the Holy Powers.  Duty requires discipline and discernment to tell one’s duty from one’s distractions, and to follow through on that duty.  Duty is often inconvenient, and can be painful.  Rather than act as the true capitalist, who sacrifices of and from others for material gain, good questions to ask ourselves are: “What are we prepared to sacrifice for our duty to Them?  What is that duty?  How would They have us engage in it?  How do we live best with the world around us, in respect for It/Her/Him/Them?  How do we live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers?”

If, as Žižek puts forth, ‘a true capitalist is a miser who is prepared to sacrifice anything for this perverted duty’, then it is worth asking what we are prepared to do to deny the sacrifice of our world, our lives and our religions to the ever-hungering maw of capitalism.  What can we do right now?  What can we do in the future?  What can we leave to future generations so they can grow well, and away from this perversion of duty, and of life?  How best can we help future generations grow well in relationship with the Holy Powers, and in healthy communities that support them?

Animism and polytheist religions are radical in capitalist societies because they cannot merely go along with the capitalist narrative and remain authentic.  Profit above all else cannot take place in authentically lived animist and polytheist life; to do so is to deny our own religions’ and traditions’ teachings on reciprocity and our place in the Worlds.  It denies that the land spirits should have their own considerations met in regards to the use of Their bodies and spirits.  Profit above all else requires we deny the sacred duties we have in regards to the Holy Powers.  It requires we deny the sacredness of the land and all that comes from it in service to the expansion and retention of capital.  The radicalism of animism and polytheism is that it requires us to deny the ‘true capitalist’, the miser, and those who serve them, and to live an engaged life with the Holy Powers.  It requires we not to offer up in service to the perverted duty of capital and capitalism, but to do our sacred duties to the Holy Powers. To live an engaged animist and/or polytheist life is to give of, from and through ourselves for our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and communities.  It is to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers, and with one another.  It is to live with the Earth as a good guest.  If we are to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers then capitalism’s ideology is one we cannot support, and must deny wherever we are able.

Our Pilgrimage to Lake Superior

July 15, 2015 4 comments

I’ve been offline for a while, until recently.  Some of it had to do with taking the first vacation in about 10 years where I was not also there to do spiritual work for other folks.  Some of it has also had to do with not feeling like I had much to write on, and the inspiration to do religious poetry not being with me lately.

My family and I went to Lake Superior (aka Gichi-gami), visiting the Porcupine Mountains and living in a DNR yurt for a few days.  We had a great time.  We left immediately after we got home from our church’s Midsummer ritual.

On the road up we stopped at Lake Michigan at a rest stop.  It was quiet, just us and the Lake.  We hailed Her, gave prayers to Her.  I gave offerings of tobacco and mugwort, then smoked on the beach to Her.  Both Sylverleaf and Kiba eventually went back to the car, leaving me to smoke with Her a total of three times, thanking Her for blessing us, for allowing us to be with Her.  When She spoke, it was gentle, and with a deep, deep power.  With each rush of the tide bringing a word: lay.  I wish I had thought to change my pants or empty my pockets, since I did as She told in that moment.

I prostrated myself before Her, and a small wave washed over me.  I immediately felt both cleansed and blessed.  I was also immediately soaked and cold!  Thankfully nothing in my pockets was damaged.  I felt clean from my head to my toes, washed clean by the Goddess of Lake Michigan, and blessed by Her waters.  I felt my Soul Matrix cleansed in that moment.  She had me sing to Her, galdring Laguz to Her.  Before I went to leave, She asked me to take some of Her water and soil with me.  The powerful, almost floating feeling did not leave me until I got near the car, and had to change.  That feeling of being blessed and cleansed has stayed with me.

We crossed the Mackinaw Bridge late in the evening, and I found myself holding my breath at times.  I’m not a big fan of heights.  I thanked the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir profusely once we got to the hotel room, and we bedded down.  We woke, and explored St. Ignace for a bit, spending a great deal of time at the St. Ignace Museum of Ojibwe Culture.  We walked the Medicine Wheel, leaving offerings there, and I spent a lot of time speaking with the front desk clerk for about an hour and a half, mostly listening to her expound on history.  I had a great time.

Unfortunately, we spent so much time in St. Ignace that we had no time to do much else, and so, we made a dash for the Porcupine Mountains.  We arrived very late, too late, and after an hour or so of trying to find our yurt, we turned around and made for a local Americinn.  We crashed, hard.

When we got up the next day, we found we had been heading in the wrong direction  So, we asked for clarification on the map.  The map they give you is really tiny, and unless you blow one up on a phone or have a bigger one, some of the little trails, like ours, can get lost.  After we found the right trail and set off, we were set upon by mosquitoes.  Most were about the size of a quarter, and a few were about the size of a half dollar.  It would take us a few days to find a combination of sprays that would repel them.  So we made for the yurt as quick as we could, and got inside.

The yurt itself was pretty, elevated off the ground, and cozy.  It’s nestled in amongst a lot of trees, and it feels incredibly private, and the landvaettir were very inviting.  After taking care of offerings to Them and to the Gods of Fire and the Hearth, I got to work on building a fire in the firebox.  I found very, very quickly that it turned the yurt into a sauna.  I had not realized yet how, or that I could, open the sides of the yurt or the plastic dome.  So my first few hours I was absolutely drenched in sweat…but my wife and son were quite comfortable, thank you!

Because the yurt is a rustic camping site, it has no hookups; no electricity, no water, no sewage.  All the water was brought up from the stream behind and below the yurt, following down a path to a large stream, and hauling the 5 gallon bucket back up.  I felt a great deal of satisfaction in hauling and boiling the water, and cutting firewood.  It is a kind of connection to the land I do not have in my own home.  I already recognize that I am dependent on the land, and acknowledge and pray to the vaettir of the water that are in the well that gifts us with the water for our showers, our drinking water, and the water we use for food preparation and cleaning.  Yet, it lacks that really down-and-dirty tactile quality I experienced when I was physically hauling the water, and going through the process of finding wood for the fire, and cutting up the wood for the fire so that we could heat the yurt and boil the water we were going to drink and cook with.  It made me realize how truncated all of our processes of life, living, and thriving are in our modern way of living from where they have been with our Ancestors.  It made me deeply appreciate just how much work the hot water heater in our home does, how much work my Ancestors would have done just to get water to home.  I appreciated the making of a cup of tea much more when it was done with the wood stove.

We spent the rest of the day and most of the next relaxing in the yurt before braving the mosquitoes to explore the towns nearby.  We grabbed some breakfast at a local cafe, and headed to a gift shop in the town.  It turns out that if we had stayed up another hour or so from when we knocked out, we may have seen the Northern Lights.  I was bummed we missed them, but given where we were in the woods, I am unsure we would have seen them in any case.

After we explored around some more, we made our way to Lake Superior for the first time.  Lake Superior was quiet, and as in the yurt, I felt worlds away from anyone else.  Our first day at Lake Superior we only saw one or two other families.  There was maybe one person or family per stair access, and the driftwood was all about, and far out to tide you could see old, well-polished stones.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  The Lake was all around us, stretching out like an ocean.  The Great Lakes I have seen, offered, and prayed to so far feel something like oceans, Goddesses in Their own rights.  Something smelled familiar about each Lake: similar to the scent of the Undine Goddesses, yet unique to Them.  As with Lake Michigan, Gichi-gami’s power was gentle, inviting to a point, and yet, there was a ferociousness to it.  Not…hostile, per se, but this quiet, waiting ferocity and strength.

As with Lake Michigan, we made offerings, and I smoked with Her.  As with Lake Michigan, I dipped my sacred pipe into Her waters just enough so that She could smoke, without the water consuming the fire inside the pipe.  I smoked with Her three times, and offered Her mugwort and tobacco, and sang Laguz to Her.  Her power rolled in small waves on my feet; She was icy.  There was a power in Her waters, too, something I did not start hearing about with a name until I got back.  As with Lake Michigan, I made offerings not only to Her, but to the vaettir that were within Her, and the vaettir were pleased.  I had nothing in my pockets this time; I left my sacred pipe, the matches, the mugwort, and tobacco on a large driftwood tree when She asked me to prostrate myself before Her.  When Her waters rushed over me, the ice ripped into me; I yelped and cried out.  She hurt.  She burned with the fire of ice, and it took everything I had to stay down and let Her run over me three times in full.  It felt like so much had been taken away, as if a piece of Nifelheim Itself had come and taken my spiritual detritus, pain, and in a kind of quick death, had scrubbed me clean.  It was so cold.  I sweat in freezing temperatures.  I find a lot of winters here tend to be too warm; I sweat a lot.  So when I say “I felt cold down to my bones” I mean it felt like I was bathing in ice.  I shivered as I warmed up under the sun.

When we went back to the yurt and I built up the fire, it made me appreciate it all the more.  Granted, I was back to sweating, but I appreciated the feeling of cleanliness the ice and the fire brought, and given the Norse Creation Story, it made me appreciate it all so much more.  That evening when I was sawing logs I heard wolves howling, and it sent the shivers down my spine that said “Run with them! Go to them!”  I gave a howl of my own, and listened, and they responded a little bit later.  I feel blessed to have had that contact, to hear the kin respond.  I stayed outside for a few moments, relishing the feeling.  When I went in, I spent some time keeping the fire up that evening, and reading some of the entries from past guests, and making my own entries.

The next day we spent most of it traveling around to different towns, then going to Adventure Mine and walking in the old copper mine there with hardhats with LED headlamps on them.  A lot of mines around do little mine car trips; this one we walked.  It was quite the experience, heading in with just the headlamp.  I felt very close to the Dvergar then, and at points the mine felt like there were spots where the two Worlds, ours and Theirs, connected.  As we walked, we could see the old drill sites for testing and connecting tunnels, and the air shafts.  Looking at it, and taking it in,you could feel and almost experience, hear the work that had been done by a couple hundred hands over the course of a few centuries was amazing.  When we kicked off our headlamps and the guide lit a single candle to demonstrate how much visibility the miners had, it really brought home how dangerous the work could be, and how much you were at the mercy of your coworkers, the rock, and the mine as a whole.  It also made a good deal of sense why Tommyknockers were ubiquitous in the gift shops.  We came across native Michigan copper, one of them being a large chunk whose cost bankrupted the company that sought to mine it.

We returned to Lake Superior later in the day, and I smoked with Her after offering Her mugwort and tobacco.  I remembered the public shrine project that Galina had posted about, and set about making one while smoking my personal sacred pipe.  When it was finished I brought Kiba back to take a look at it, and he liked it, but did not add anything to it when I offered him the chance.

When we came back to where Sylverleaf was, I stopped at what I assumed earlier had been someone’s hangout area made with driftwood and local dead trees.  it would have maybe held one person.  When I took a good at it, though, I realized it was more of a shrine.  So I added to it, leaving a Yggdrasil made of stones and twigs.  I left it beside the opening; I did not feel that I should put anything into it.  When this was done, after smoking one last time with Gichi-gami, we headed back to the yurt for the night.  I felt that same ice-cold bone feeling in my feet creep up my spine, and when we finally got in the yurt, I immediately got a fire going.

Our last day in the Porcupine Mountains was going to be fairly brief; we had to be checked out by about 11am.  So, we packed everything the night before that we could and got it back to the car.  While Sylverleaf was taking things back I was sawing wood and keeping the fire going, leaving enough so the next folks should have an easier time of it than we did.  As I had been reading through the yurt’s journal, what came up again and again was that here Gebo was the rule.  You left wood for the next group, and if you could you left items you needed during your stay.  In our case we left wood, bug spray, a pack of toilet paper, and a lot of kindling and tinder.  It was interesting reading that those who had left little or nothing were chastised in the journal against doing that.  Many of these people were staying in the yurt in the winter, and were arriving after a 2 mile hike in snow with no trail, and only a tarp covering any excess winter wood there may have been.  Gebo meant the difference between these folks having to forage for wet wood, or going out 2 miles again, buying wood, and hauling it back.

By the time we were ready to go the ashes were cool enough to put into the bucket, and then into the pile.  We left offerings to the Gods, Ancestors, and the landvaettir for letting us stay, and for being so hospitable.   When we started heading towards the car there was a part of me that wanted to stay like that.  Maybe not necessarily in the Porcupine Mountains (because seriously, fuck the horde of enormous mosquitoes) but in a situation where we were living that close with the land.  We checked out, and feeling called to Her, we visited Lake Superior one last time.  She had me bring some stones home, and was generous enough to let me bring home water and soil from Her beach.  I smoked with Her one final time before we left.  The communion I have felt with the Great Lakes feels at times beyond words.  This sense of connecting with something that reminds of the ocean, yet is not one.  Connecting with this vast Goddess who smells like an Undine Goddess, whose one song I know of is how the Edmund Fitzgerald sank into Her depths, and yet has shown my family and I such gentleness, blessing, and cleansing.  Our Gods are many things; They can be ferocious and kind, brutal and gentle, and so much more.  I know in our short time there I only touched a bit of this Goddess, and hope to again sometime soon.

The ride home was nice.  Even facing the Mackinaw Bridge after the week didn’t leave me white knuckling much.  As soon as we made it home around eleven or midnight, we all crashed.  I had Michigan Paganfest to look forward to, and had to be up for Opening RItual at 10am.

The ongoing pilgrimage plan is to take a similar pilgrimage out to Lake Michigan.  It will be a lot shorter trip, and now that we know what to expect in a yurt we will be a good deal more prepared.

I feel blessed that we were able to take this pilgrimage, that we had such a good time, and learned so much.  It was a powerful time, even the times where I was cutting wood, keeping the fire going, or boiling water.  I’m looking forward to meeting with the other Lakes.

Connecting with the Gods, Ancestors, and Vaettir Outside Part 2

July 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Growing food and connecting with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir related to it is an area of life that, as a shaman, I have only recently had the time off to devote to it.  In previous years my schedule was so up-and-down or constantly changing that getting out and helping with the garden consistently was damned near impossible.  Last year we could not even maintain a garden outside of the yearly asparagus harvest due to our home’s varying schedules.  This year I have a far more stable schedule, so now I can give the time to get in the garden and learn from the Holy Powers and my living family.  I did not realize it till sitting down and writing it, but that is one hell of a burden lifting off of me.  I have enough hours to keep up with bills and enough time off consecutively so I can get things done.

We actually have a good deal of plants in the ground this year.  Lots of tomatoes, green beans, and beets.  We also planted squash, zucchini, and a few herbs.  Provided the birds lay off of them for a bit, we should have a good harvest.  In past time where we have planted equivalent amounts of tomatoes, green beans, and similar plants, we’ve had a good-sized stockpile even after giving away some of the harvest to family and friends.  It’s one of the reasons I am looking forward to the fall harvest.

There’s more to connecting with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir outside than just my garden or the local parks, though.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Skaði has charged me to learn how to hunt, to skin and dress a kill.  I have a wonderful Aunt with a standing offer to teach me to bow hunt after I take a safety course.  I am also blessed with a good friend who has offered to teach me the same.  With the amounts of time I have off every week I am actually far closer to making this a reality and fulfilling the rest of the obligations I have with Skaði.

The fertility of the landvaettir is a blessing, one that I believe we carry as an obligation to keep in partnership with Them.  It feeds us, nourishes us body, mind, and soul as surely as we help nourish the landvaettir by living well with Them.   The soil, the plants, and the animals all deserve their due, their respect.  Whether we are hunting, fishing, gardening, farming, ranching, or foraging, without the Gebo of honoring the cycles around us and taking care in our work, we do deep harm.  We can see the effects of this breakdown in how neonicotinoids are harming honey bees, how fracking is poisoning the water we drink, and how the elimination of predators has deeply upset the balance in regards to deer and similar animal populations.

Paying attention and honoring the cycles of life and seasons brings us into closer alignment with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  Given a good number of the surviving holidays we have are directly tied to seasonal and harvest cycles, it also helps to place them into a context that makes a good deal more sense than celebrating because a date rolls around.  I think as polytheists, Heathens and otherwise, carry traditions forward even more variations will emerge based on the climates where we live.  Truly partnering with the Holy Powers in our lives is working with the cycles we have rather than the cycles we are told by a book we ought to be imitating.  Many of us live in places where the seasonal cycles are different from, or simply do not match those that have survived in lore and archaeology.  If we are to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers we will need to adapt to the way things are.

Part of living in better Gebo with the Holy Powers also requires us to look at how we live outdoors.  What do our practices like gardening, farming, ranching, and the like have on the soil, the plants, the animals, and the water?  How does water flow?  Are the lands our homes rest on full of one-species non-native grass?  Why?  How can we better encourage native species to flourish?  How can we encourage the fertility in land, plant, and animals that makes life possible?   How do we live in good Gebo with the world around us?

I found myself seeing a lot of these answers in person at the Amma Center Amrita Farms in Ann Arbor and from the MI Folk School.  More importantly, Sylverleaf and I were able to get hands-on experience with these answers. We spent a day at the Amma Center with the people working on the farm area, permaculturists who have worked a great deal to help the land distribute water more effectively, and to utilize the space to greater effect for food production without using pesticides or insecticides.  We explored the creation of berms and swales, hugelkultures, crater gardening, the use of a keyline plow to make small keyline swales, the creation of compost tea, and small-scale orchard creation.

For those unfamiliar, here are some links for what berms and swales are, and how they are made.  This PDF explains berms and swales in pretty simple terms with explanations of when they are and are not good design ideas. This link has a good overview and video on swales.  This link shows berms and swales in action on a project for a front yard rain garden.  The work Sylverleaf and I did at Amrita Farms’ main area for berms and swales was to help transplant some apple trees out to areas better suited to them.  The staff led us on a survey of the berm and swale systems, and how it solved the Farms’ water flow problems.

What I want to stress here is that this is not fighting the landscape or imposing a system the land rejects.  Rather, it is helping the land to better work with water runoff to help solve water allocation issues one might have.  In many cases the berms serve not only as physical landscapes for the water to run over, but also a gathering point for plants to help combat soil erosion, helping to increase the ability of the land to keep its shape and provide fertility to the soil.  The swales give the water places to go without disrupting the landscape, and it helps catch water in the soil in a way that is efficient and works with the land rather than dumping all the water into a low point where it can attract mosquitoes and other insects.

In another section of the Farms, keyline plowing was used.  This link has a good overview on the technqiue.  It was done in an area where full-blown berms and swales would not have been desirable, and allowed for water to flow into the cut channels in directions that helped maximize water retention, and guided excess water to a pond.  Again, what was emphasized was this worked with the flow of the earth, with the keylines acting as guides for the water to flow.  While the Farms used laser-guided equipment and had a tractor come out to do the keyline work, we were shown that land surveying can still effectively be done by hand using simple survey techniques, and that (depending on the soil and one’s resources) having animals do the keyline plowing would not be out of the question.

The last, and for me the most fun I had at Amrita Farms, was when we made a hugel.  Hugelkultur is a beautiful way to compost wood, and a description of it is here.  Since we have a decent amount of deadfall at our home I am looking at making a hugel, though far smaller than the one we made at the Farm.  That’s the beauty of methods like these: most can be made to suit far smaller pieces of property than farms, and the projects that required mechanized equipment like the berms and swales, can be done by hand with a shovel or pick.

What I bring home from these workshops, again and again, is that there are far more healthy and wise ways to live in Gebo with Jörð than what capitalism and agribusiness continues to push at and on us.  These ways are far more accessible than one might think at first; permaculture can scale with one’s home and land (even if that land is, say, a community garden space), and hugelkulture can use great dead trees, or twigs as needed.  These ways, found in permaculture, gardening, various types of natural home-building, and so on, are ways we can live upon Her that helps us as people live more whole lives, and in doing so, bring us closer to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  If we take in these ways and help to foster them in others, we can help our future generations survive and thrive.  Taking these steps to restore our connection and relationships with Jörð and the landvaettir takes the vital connections that were sundered in and between our communities, and seeks to tie them together even stronger,  I can think of precious few gifts we could give the next generation than a lived, healthy, powerful relationship with the Holy Powers, and lived, healthy, powerful, relationships with our communities, both grounded in trust, respect, and honor.

As I mentioned in Part 1, as I become inspired (or pushed, as the case may be) to write, I will add to this series of posts.

Connecting with the Gods, Ancestors, and Vaettir Outside Part 1

May 26, 2015 4 comments

My indoor and outdoor vés and worship spaces get more time from me depending on the time of year, and where I am feeling drawn.  Given that now is the planting season, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time outdoors.  My family maintains a main vé outdoors in a small grove of trees where I have placed Odin’s godpole and where our family makes our Sacred Fires.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, Hela and Niðogg’s vé is the compost heap.  When we finally spread the soil after a year of adding to it, it was dark black, and had a rich sweet smell to it.  Where animals have been buried, all in the main vé, I also feel Hela’s presence.

This entire last week or two I’ve been outside quite a bit with the family in the large garden we’ve been prepping, tilling, then planting.  Every time we go out there is a time to pray, every action out there an opportunity to come closer to the Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, and other vaettir.  It doesn’t replace the offerings I make.  I make those too.  It might be a glass of water on a vé, it might be smoke offered from tobacoo or mugwort in a sacred pipe, those same herbs placed in/upon the Earth, or an offering from me as I do the work such as a song or praise.

Today, as I dug each small hole for the green beans, I prayed to Jörð, Freyr, Gerda, Freya, the landvaettir, the Disir, the Väter, and the Ancestors.  I sang songs I was taught in Ojibwe, and I sang songs for my Catholic Ancestors, who were coming on strong today, with my Dad as we planted.  The days when I dug the Earth I sang songs for Jörð and the landvaettir.  Increasingly, making songs for the Holy Powers is becoming a part of my offerings alongside the others.  I like it.  It’s an offering of breath and creativity, since a lot of the songs I’m making up the verses as I go along.

The Ancestors have been there every time, and fairly thick.  I’m not surprised; up until my generation, most of my family on both my parents’ sides have come from farmers.  It makes sense that I would feel a lot more of Them during similar activities, and that They are pushing for me to get land, animals, and the like.  I felt some different Ancestors around me, though, when my Dad hit a mole with the rototiller Friday.  Rather than simply bury it, my Mom actually suggested I skin it.

I asked the mole if it would give me permission to skin it.  When she agreed, I set up a space for it in the main vé.  I asked Ansuz to help me cleanse, Gebo to help me ground, and did my usual grounding, centering, cleansing, and shielding work.  This would be my first time skinning an animal; I wanted to do it right.  Given Dad’s done it before, he showed me how to sharpen the knives I might use, and briefly explained the cuts I would need to make.  I returned to the vé, and made prayers to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and landvaettir, asking for Their help.  At first I was surprised by Skaði’s Presence.  Then, I remembered: A long time back when I was first introduced to Skaði by Odin during my ordeal on the Tree and work in the Nine Worlds, She had tasked me with, among other things, learning how to make a kill, skin, and dress it.  While I do still need to do this in full, She let me know this was a good first step.

It turns out skin is damned tough.  I knew the knives were sharp, but this being my first time out, I wasn’t expecting how tough, especially on a little thing like a mole.  I was frustrated.  So, I returned and asked Dad if there was something I was doing wrong.  He came out, looked at it, and then mentioned to me that he usually started from a cut along the throat in bigger animals.  In this case, he felt I should behead the animal.  I asked the mole for permission to do so, and when the mole gave it, I did.  I took a breath, made some prayers, and focused.  I looked at the knives in front of me, and finally went with the smallest: a slim, curved steel knife with a deer antler hilt, a wolf burned into the pommel.  Again, I took a breath, made prayers, and focused.  I felt an Ancestor help guide me.  “This way,” Their hand on mine, showing me.  I cut, felt the blade slide through skin, flesh, flesh the crunch of bone, cartilege as I severed the mole’s head.  I thanked it for allowing me to do this, to take its body and make something from it.  To learn from it.  I set the head gently aside, bowed my head to it, and proceed to skin the rest of it.  An occasional ‘Good’ or ‘Careful’ from one of the Ancestors.  It went a good deal faster than I thought it would, and in about half an hour or so, I had it skinned and fleshed without damage to the fur or the skin.  I heard a ‘Good’ from Skaði and heard no more from Her, though Her Presence lingered until the mole was buried.  I pinned the skin to a good-sized chunk of wood, stretched it, and placed pickling salt on it.  I will be getting some alum as well, and following instructions to make this a pliable, tanned skin.

When its skin was safe in a dark corner of the garage, I returned to the sacred grove with a shovel, and offerings.  I asked the landvaettir for permission to dig, and once They gave it, and I ‘felt’I had found the spot, I dug a small hole.  I prayed to Hela and Niðogg, asking Them to accept the mole.  I placed the body inside, put down some tobacco and mugwort in offering to the mole and covered the hole.  I then gave some in offering to the Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir.  I washed the ceramic tile I had used, and went inside.  I made prayers as I physically cleaned the knives and my hands, thanking the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir for Their patience, willingness to teach, and the sacrifice of the mole.

It’s interesting in reflecting on it.  The life-generating cycle of prepping, tilling, and planting was started just a few days after this animal was killed and skinned.  I approach both in a sacred way because both are sacred.  I was not inspired to give songs for the mole; I was inspired to give reverent silence and my full care to the process of skinning, of not damaging the gift that she had given me.  I was inspired to sing loudly during the prepping, the tilling, and the planting.  Different sacred encounters with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir ask us to take different attitudes, actions, and offerings.  Perhaps the next time I skin an animal it will ask for a song, or for many songs.  Perhaps it will ask that I dance.  Perhaps Skaði or Freyr will ask that I dance, or sing, or to be silent.  Perhaps the next time I prepare a field, or till a field, or plant, the landvaettir, or the Gods will ask for my silence, a Sacred Fire, a ritual from my family, or perhaps They will ask for the same offerings year after year.

In connecting with my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir outside, it has made me realize just how much I rely on Them.  It made me realize in very grounded terms that I am vitally connected with the Holy Powers in very down-to-Earth ways: that Freyr is in the asparagus as well as His statue, that He helps to give life to the land, and that Gerda is both present on the Gods’ altar and in the garden giving life to the land and growth to the plants.  I understand the landvaettir are  the asparagus, tomatoes, beans and squash as much as They are the trees of the sacred grove, the grass of the lawn, the animals that dart about them, and the rich earth of the garden itself.  In understanding this, I understand the landvaettir are part of the house and the land, and that this land (and a good deal more I may never see, i.e. farms, mines, production areas, etc.) will help to sustain my family and I.  In understanding this connection I know that the Ancestors are right here with me, supporting me in the work at hand, and that if I listen They will help guide me in what to do.  All of these things reinforce the understanding that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are as vital a part of our communities as its living human members are.

Connecting and understanding my relationship with the Holy Powers is knowing, and especially acknowledging, that I need these connections spiritually as well as physically.  In putting my hands in the Earth and asking the Holy Powers to help me grow the food, I asking Them to help me be a shaman that, paraphrasing the words of my dear friend Two Snakes, “can make the beans grow”.  I am asking Them not only to help me feed my family and I physically, but feed us spiritually as well, living in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and furthering my path as a shaman.

This post is getting a little lengthy and starting to flow away from the topic at the start, so I think I’ll split this up into two posts.  If I get the inspiration maybe this will become a series of posts.

Narrowing Brings Discernment

March 19, 2015 8 comments

In reading this post by Helio, I found myself nodding at other times, having to reread sections to parse my feelings in others.  Overall I do not disagree with the idea of the Gods existing in a kind of Venn diagram where there is intersection between the Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, and vaettir otherwise.  I think where I disagreed most profoundly is in the differentiation of Gods.

But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

My understanding is that a God is a kind of spirit, but not all vaettir (spirits) are Gods.  This is because vaettir lack the spheres of influence, recognition, and/or Being that a God does.  I do not use God and vaettir interchangeably for ease of language, as I do recognize that some vaettir may well be Gods in Their own right, i.e. a local God of a river, lake, stream, tree, grove, etc. and in such a case, I use the word local God to denote this.  Venn diagrams are useful because they contain a discrete category, a pole, around which the circles are drawn.  These can then overlap, and this is the bleedover we can see between ideas of Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir where these centers intersect and cross one another. While the notion of Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, vaettir, etc. can overlap, in order to be useful as terms, they must be discrete categories in some fashion or else we are effectively describing nothing with any usefulness.  In other words, discrete categories, circles, are needed or else we are not describing a Venn diagram, but a single circle.

If godhood is to mean anything with any substance, then godhood should, as a term, be restricted to certain more-than-mere-human-beings.  In example, not all of those who live in Asgard are Gods.  The Gods have servants who may be offered to, but are not, so far as I know, recognized as Gods.  The Einherjar, honored Dead hand-picked by Odin, reside in Valhalla in Asgard.  Hunin and Munin are not Gods, yet They serve Odin, live in Asgard, and fulfill very important functions mythologically, and in terms of human-divine communication.  It would be remiss of me to recognize Them as Gods or to ascribe godhood to these holy Ravens.  This not a monotheist idea; rather, it is a polytheist means of discerning between Gods and not-Gods.  It is not a matter of value, but of substance, inquiring into the thingness of a Being, and recognizing It for what It is or may be.

Parsing what is and is not a God is a pretty important theological question, and I expect that each tradition, group, and indeed each person, may wrestle with this idea several times over their life.  I find this to be a good thing.  I find that marking out boundaries is equally a good thing because it aids in discernment and in understanding by having clear ideas of what constitutes this idea of a Being.  In developing the idea of discrete categories we can come to understand where the Venn diagram has Beings who overlap into different categories of Being, and where and how these categories can bleed into one another, and where a discrete understanding of what those boundaries are, and where in the Venn overlaps a Being is may be found.  If a person believes in the concept of a single circle and that labeling that as ‘g/Gods’ is sufficient, so be it, but I do not agree with it.

Helio uses the example of Disir, stating:

Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

Here again, I disagree with him.  The Disir, such as I understand Them, are not Goddesses Themselves, but powerful female Ancestors.  They may be divine women, but They are not Goddesses, per se.  Semantics, especially when we are talking about how we parse Who is what, is important.  While the word dis may be related to the word goddess, I do not see the Disir as Goddesses in the same arena as, say Freya.  It is more than Freya being more recognized; the Disir’s spheres of influence are less than Freya’s, and Their importance to the Heathen cosmology is less in impact than Freya.  While the Disir are very important in my spheres and perhaps regionally emenating out from Their relationship with me and I with Them, in the larger spheres of the religion the Disir do not carry as much weight.  Freya is more than what She is within the myths and stories, of course, but those myths and stories point to Her importance cosmologically, to the spheres of influence She has, and the relationships and relationality between Her and other Beings.  There is also the understanding that She simply wields a good deal more power than other Beings, going along with the notion that Her spheres of influence are larger.  At the very least She wields a good deal of power in areas other Beings do not.  So, because of Their roles within the religion, and Their relative effect on the religion and the power They each wield, I look at the Disir as powerful female Ancestors.

I also believe that were I to relate to Freya to as an Ancestor, I would understand this as an intersection between Goddess and Disir.  These distinctions between how I understand Goddesses and Disir would not disappear, however.  There would be a difference in calling to Freya as a Disir comparative to, say, the Vanadis.  That understanding is why I count Odin among my powerful male Ancestors, the Väter, and yet also relate to Him as a God.  His God-ness is not set aside, but my understanding of Odin also carries the nuance of relating to and understanding Him as one of my Väter.

Again, overlap in a Venn diagram does not and cannot erase the circles or it will cease to be a Venn diagram.

I do not disagree that humans have the potential to become Gods nor do I believe the categories should be so discrete that the circles never cross.  As I have thought on this, one issue that keeps coming up is that the idea that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir share similarities to kami.  While Helio does not go into this in the main article, he does in the comments.  I recoil at the notion that we should view our Gods this way, as there are categories of Beings.  The Aesir are not the Dvergar, the Dvergar are not the Vanir, the Vanir are not the Jotun.  While I may worship, for instance, Andvari, He does not become a God by dint of my worship, or the landvaettir would all enter into godhood as well.  While that notion would be what I assume, from his writing, Helio advocates, I find distinct categories as a useful thing.

Lumping everything into one category, i.e. ‘god’ does not strike me as respectful of the differences between different kinds of spirits, nor of the Gods.  It is one thing to worship a river God, and another to assume that all the Beings in that river, or that all big rivers, would associate themselves with such a notion.  From an animist point of view, Gods are big or more influential spirits compared to those spirits which are smaller, more localized, and/or have less spheres of influence.  So while I am not actively denying God-as-spirit, I believe that referring to all spirits as Gods misses the point of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’.  Just because the Germanic and Scandinavian people saw some Gods and vaettir as being one in the same, that does not set aside that they had different divine categories.  Bleedover between categories in how they saw the Gods and vaettir does not mean they saw Them as one in the same.  Even if there were related concepts, the sources I have seen and how I understand the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir deny homogenization of identity.

Narrowing, in my view, is not missing.  Not narrowing is erasing by homogenization, in this case.  It would be a disservice to our religions if we were to strip the meaning of ‘God’ and ‘Goddess’.  If words such as ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ are to retain any meaning in dialogue or theology, the circles need to be defined even if they sometimes bleed over into one another.  Divinity may be everywhere, and there may be a potentially unlimited number of Gods, Goddesses, but we would be unable to recognize Them as such without some clear ideas on what a God is, what makes a God a God, and what differentiates it from other spirits.  Categorizing all beings as such erases the meaning of the words.

Planting Seeds

March 4, 2015 23 comments

In thinking on the last post and the centers Nicholas Haney brought up in God-centric?, is that one of the centers that tends to get left by the wayside in the larger polytheist and Pagan blogs is family, and in specific how we raise our kids in our religions.  It is something that has been on mind for a while.  There’s a host of questions I will tackle here that I hope will generate deeper dialogue in the Pagan and polytheist blogs and communities.  I believe these are really important questions, tied not just to the center of family, but to the health and well-being of all the centers.  Without children, all we have are new converts to sustain the traditions and religions.  In my view, that is a lot of people coming to understand a whole new way of being, whereas kids raised polytheist do not have that learning curve, or the need to decolonize, or remove as much of the dominant culture’s mindset.

Before I get to the questions, however, I think it is important to tackle some of the reasons that I have heard, in person and online, for why people do not raise their children in our religious traditions.  Chief among them is some variation of “I don’t want to force my kid to follow my religion” or “I don’t want to indoctrinate my child.”  I will be honest, these reasons make me want to pull out my hair.  The definition of indoctrination is:

to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs

Raising our children in our religion(s) is simply not indoctrination.  Teaching them about our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, is not indoctrination.  Unless you are actively denying your child the ability to question concepts and people in the religion, not allowing them to explore the religion, or are actively denying your child’s ability to consider other points of view, you are not indoctrinating your child.  You are, rather, raising your child in the religion.  There is a gulf of difference between teaching a child “This is what the sagas say about Thor and these are my experiences with Him,” or “This is how we worship together as a family,” and “This is the only way to worship Thor” or “Only our way is the true way to worship Thor.”  Now, that is not to say that a given family will not have traditions, taboos specific to them, or certain ways they worship, but to entirely cut a child off from alternative views, and stunts the religious growth of a child.  My taboos are just that: mine.  We do not have taboos on offerings as a family.  What we do have are basic expectations of respect in religious space, how offerings that have been expended are disposed of, regular times for prayer, and guidelines and rules on handling altars, statues of our Gods, and various tools that may be on the altars.  For instance, on our Gods’ altar our son can dispose of the liquid (usually water, but sometimes beer or mead) offerings we make to Them.  He does not touch the offerings to Gods he does not have an active relationship with. Sylverleaf makes regular offerings to Frigga on this altar that our son is not to touch, as that is between her and Frigga.  He is not allowed to touch the swords or the hammer  on the altar without permission and an adult present.

How do we bring children into our religions?  Is it from birth?  If not from birth, when do they begin to learn, and what can they learn at what age?  How do we help our children understand religious phenomena?  If one has a very active religious life, how does one relate to a child that simply does not?  Vice versa?

The answers I have to these questions are lived by our son.  We brought our son into our religion by doing a baby blessing as soon as he was born, asking the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits to watch over him.  He was there as we prayed at our altar when we first brought him home, and has been raised with us praying and making offerings ever since.  Had we waited we would probably have started teaching him about our religion around age 3-5.  He has been raised with the prayers we make before he goes to school and before he goes to bed, and at each and every meal.  He is living polytheism.  He has been raised with a Dad who takes time out to explain religious concepts on his level, and who is not shy about being very blunt that “the Runes ask for blood in Gebo, and this is something you are not ready for yet, if you ever do pick Them up.”  He knows that if and when he does, it will be his choice and he will be able to make it on his own.

I firmly believe in raising children in our religions.  Without our children learning our religion, and co-religionists teaching their religion, there is no way for the religions to continue.  Teaching kids only a little bit about the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and not making daily prayers, devotion, etc. is giving a little soil to the seed and expecting a tree to grow to its full height.  Not teaching one’s children at all about the Gods is denying soil to a tree entirely.  Without a firm grounding in religion, the soil is loose and is blown away in the wind, or swept aside in the rain.  If we desire good religious communities that will last beyond us, we need to raise the children in our communities.  Indeed, we must do far better by them than has been done by us.

So how do I relate to our son when I have a very active religious life?  Some of the explanations we work with him on are helped along because we have taught our son how to interpret the Holy Powers’ messages, whether he has a reading done, asks Them to work with him through his intuition, or look for omens.  A good chunk of this work has been to encourage him to trust his intuition, to admit when his signal clarity is not where it needs to be, and to ask for help when he needs it.  He is encouraged to admit when he does not know.  We regularly talk on our religion, on the religious work I do, how it feels, and how it affects me.  I bring my son along when I do certain religious work, such as tending the graveyards I have been called to do, teaching him how to respectfully make offerings at the gate, to ask permission from the Dead before tending Their graves, and why we leave offerings of tobacco, or why I blow smoke on graves when I smoke a pipe as we clean.

The biggest link between all the religious work I do, and explaining it to our son, and in some cases involving our son, is the concept of Gebo: gift-for-a-gift.  Reciprocity.  That word opens up the larger world of animism and polytheism because it places us not at the center, but in relationships with all things, all Beings.  It is why we leave or make offerings to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, landvaettir, housevaettir, and so on.  It is that recognition and/or fulfillment of reciprocity.  It is sometimes asking for help, which may be a form of reciprocity in and of itself.  Bringing our son to rituals, performing them with him, helping him develop as a polytheist, in and of itself is a form of reciprocity with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, as it ensures that the religion, and the Gebo engendered between the Holy Powers and ourselves, and our communities does not die with us.  It allows us to pass on the maegen and hamingja of these relationships between our communities, and the generations that follow on with, and after us.

Helping our children develop their own understanding of the Gods, their intuition, and communication with Them is, to us, part and parcel of raising a child in a polytheist home.  It is the hope that when they raise their own family they will have a well-developed understanding of how to understand the Gods even if they never engage in ecstatic spiritual techniques or do trance work.  Sylverleaf, for instance, does not do much in the way of ecstatic work at all.  It is simply not a part of her religious life.  A simple divination technique she uses when she asks Frigga questions is to hold two of Her sacred keys in her hands, and the hand which is heavier is the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  If there are more complex questions she may ask me to read the Runes.  If she needs to get answers from her Ancestors, she may work with an oracle deck dedicated to Them.  Having two very different parents in this regard gives our son more models of polytheist life to understand, recognize, and live himself.  Raising our children as polytheists, then, is more than simply teaching and explaining.  It is modeling good Gebo, and the ways we do things by actively living in relationship with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  We are living examples to our children.

What age should we bring our children into animism or polytheism?  It is my belief that it is never too early nor too late to begin a lived animist/polytheist life.  Regardless of our age or the age of our children, sharing our religion is an important bond that we share between our communities, our families, and our generations.  It is the lattice-work that makes a strong bridge between the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another.

In speaking with Sylverleaf on this, she has said it has been far harder for her to keep with regular prayers and offerings in contrast to me because she was raised in a largely non-religious household.  Lacking a background in any religion made it that much harder for her when she did find the Gods and became a Pagan, as she had no models to follow except those in books, and no community to speak of for quite a long time.  Living a religion does have a learning curve, and she hit this hard because until we met she did not have regular time for prayer, any rote prayers to draw upon, or regular times for making offerings.  In talking this over coffee and pancakes, it hit me that she was denied a lot of things that I took for granted in my religious studies as a child.  For one, pondering the nature of God was probably something very hard to tackle in a home that either did not think much on God or thought the subject of God was a non-starter where conversation was concerned.  I was able to talk with priests who were more than happy to answer whatever questions I threw at them, digging into the meat of theology with me and explaining as best they could their understanding of Scripture, the nature of God, and where we fit into the Catholic cosmology.  That grounding is absent when religion is not lived.  The hunger of curiosity cannot be sated when the entire subject of religion is off the table.  It also cannot be sated when the religious community one belongs to has a piss-poor grounding in its own theology, as she discovered her youth ministers had, during the short time she attended a church.  This is why our children need not only parents grounded in good relationships with their Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, but communities, and their leaders, priests, spiritual specialists, etc. need this too.  We cannot support the centers of our communities without them all doing the necessary work of living the religion.

What It Means to Place the Gods First

February 25, 2015 8 comments

Having read Galina Krasskova’s recent piece at Polytheist.com, I have to say, when people like her or myself say “The Gods come first” that does not mean that family disappears as a priority.

As head of my little Heathen household, what it means when I say “The Gods come first” is that They are the first consideration when decisions are made, when efforts are undertaken, and around whom the placement of our lives is made.  Do we ask the Gods every time we do something small, like “Oh Odin, what shall I eat today?”  No.  What it means is that when we do sit down to eat, we pray to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, the beings we are consuming (both animal and plant) and on behalf of all of those who brought the food to us.  It means that we recognize our hamingja as a family is tied into right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and how we treat Them, as much as how we treat one another.  The idea that Gebo extends not only to the Gods, but to one another is one that suffuses our lives.

But why make the Gods the top priority above all, even family?  Because if the Gods are indeed the Gods, then They affect the forces of the world.  In ancient times Thor and Freyr were prayed to for good rains or Njord for good fishing.  Given many of the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were farmers and fishers, the idea that the Gods with whom these people were interacting with every single day were not at the forefront of their lives does not make sense to me at all.  If the Gods are the forces that help bring the rains so the crops would grow or the fish that keep your people fed, the Gods as the center of one’s life is not just a feel-good notion.  It is survival.

My family and I pray to Thor for good rain and to Freyr for the good growth of our garden, among many prayers we make to Them.  While we do not depend on the food in our gardens for survival, we are not cut off from the natural cycles of the Earth even if these relationships are no longer immediately evident as they would have been to our ancient Ancestors.  We do not husband, feed, slaughter, or butcher cattle on our land, but my wife and I make the effort for our son to understand where his meat comes from.  He has grown food in the garden, and we have farmland all around us.  Even if the cycles of life that sustain us are further from us, we cannot be separated from them.  If we are not separate from the cycles of life, and if we believe the Gods to be real, and not some vague notion we pay lip service to, then we are not separate from the cycles of life They affect, or help to keep moving.

When someone puts the Gods first, does that mean the needs of one’s family are ignored?  That the ties that bound a community are ignored?  Absolutely not.  What it means is that my family recognizes the Gods at the center of our lives.  It is not an either/or thing, here.  I do not love the Gods and ignore my family.  In loving and serving my Gods, I love and serve my family as well.  In separating one from the other is where error comes from.  If the Gods are in (or are) the Air, the Water, the Fire, the Ice, etc., then it is impossible to escape Them and foolish, if not hubris, to ignore Them.  Far better to partner with Them in good Gebo than to pretend we are somehow separate from Them.

When people hear the words “The Gods are first” I would imagine the notion may strike people in the same manner as when they hear reports of people beating the devil out of their kids, or giving all their money to a church.  In other words, devotion of this kind is conflated with monotheist extremism, abuse, and victimization from predatory religious apparatus.  Yet that ignores the monotheists who are well adjusted, utterly normal modern people who put their God first, and the helpful, vibrant communities that help them to do so.  It ignores the polytheists who are well adjusted, who put their Gods first, and the helpful, vibrant communities that help them to do so.  It conflates both of these groups of people: devout, pious monotheists and devout, pious polytheists with people who are dangerous and deadly, exploitative and exploited.  It also, in the bargain, casts those suffering from mental illness or exploitation as dangers and things to avoid in and of themselves, which is heinous as as it casts people needing help and victims of abuse as the ‘other’ to be avoided at all costs, and places them as the black to the white in binary religious discourse.  It places the idea that the Gods coming first into these extreme situations while divorcing both of these painful scenarios from their humanity and the humans involved in them.

The Gods coming first means that the priorities of one’s life are built on the Gods.  That is, not only are the Gods of one’s religion at the center of one’s life, in addition the values of and the requirements of one’s religion are at the fore and the guiding force of one’s life.  This is why divination can be so powerful a guiding force in polytheist religions.  It is one of the means by which we can understand, personally as well as communally, the desires, will, and sometimes the directions of the Gods.  It is one among many tools for understanding Them and the messages They have for us.  It helps us move forward when change comes to our lives personally and/or communally.  Divination no more takes choice from our hands than worshiping the Gods takes will from us.  They are still there, but placed into a living context between ourselves and the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  Given these are living relationships, that means that all of our choices, our exercise of choice and the use of will have consequences in our lives and in the relationships we share with the Gods Themselves.  So sure, we can ignore divination, the will of the Gods, all of of it.  Those are choices to polytheists, even ones like me with a collar to a God on.  Poor ones, in my view, but choices nonetheless.

Placing the Gods first means, though, that we accept the Gods as the center of our lives, as the forces with which we ally to bring good to our lives and the lives of those we touch.  As my family understands and lives this, it means that family is second to the Gods because without a good relationship with the Gods, we do not have good relationships within our family.  Practically speaking this means that every Thursday my son and I turn off the video games or put up the books half and hour or so early, before bedtime, to do cleansing work, and pray to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir when we could be doing other things.  It is why we take time in the morning to pray to Sunna and Daeg, thanking Them for a new day and a fresh start.  It is why we pray to Mani and Nött at night for the he light of the Moon and the blanket of darkness.  It is why we pray at every meal in thanks to all our Gods, to the Ancestors, the vaettir, and all those who made our meal possible.  It means that we take time out and give that time for devotion as a gift to the Gods for all They do for us.  It means we look at offerings we pay money for not as waste, but as gifts given to Those who share, bless, and walk with us in our lives.  It means that when we go out to a park that we make offerings at trees as thanks for walking on Their land and in Their home.  It means we make offerings not only to the landvaettir on the land we live on, but the vaettr of the house itself.  It means that when we pass graveyards we salute and hail the Dead and Warrior Dead.  It means that our Ancestors are never gone, but walk with us in this life.  That when we work with people, we understand the work to not just be work, but Gebo and the building up of maegen and hamingja between us. It means that the religion we live carries weight in our lives, and ripples out into how we relate to one another, and to all things.

In placing the Gods first, we can relate to all things in sacred manner.  In placing the Gods first in good Gebo, we can then relate to all things in good Gebo.  In placing the Gods first, we orient our lives around those Beings and the things They teach which matter most.

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