With articles such as this, it is even more clear to me why polytheists need to speak up within and without the Pagan Umbrella.
With respect to discerning John Beckett from John Halstead, I will use their last names.
‘John Beckett has recently written a post about his vision of the future of Polytheism- the future of the “polytheist revolution” -and the importance of “keeping the Gods at the front”. To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago – with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of the concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance. It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”.’
To start with, it is clear to me that Halstead does not understand, nor cares to understand the perspective of polytheism, or polytheists in general. The polytheist revolution is not world-denying; if anything, it embraces the world as it is, with warts and all. It sees this world, and all that it is, and is within it, as populated by Gods, our Ancestors, and spirits. I find it foolish that Halstead would find it too much like the monotheist condemnation of ‘idolatry’ when so many of us do exactly that, and worship Gods that are of this world, if not the Earth Itself.
“I would argue that if your religion doesn’t have a strong this-world component you’re doing it wrong.
“Our this-world concerns are enormous. They’re here, in front of us, right now. They demand our attention, they demand our time, they demand our effort. And they never end. If we are not mindful, if we are not -dare I say it- devout and pious, it is all too easy to let our this-world concerns becomes our gods and take Their place in our lives…
“When we don’t keep the Gods at the forefront of our practice, we put something else there. That something else may be helpful or it may be a distraction, but whatever it is weakens our relationships with the Gods…”
Quoting Halstead in response:
‘To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago – with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance.’
Our polytheist religions have a this-world component. We’re not world-denying religions. There would not be talk of such things as regional cultus, and working with, revering, and worshiping the landvaettir were we doing so. There would be no talk of our duty to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to treat the Earth well, to care for our oceans, to consume less, and a million other things that we polytheists may factor in when it comes to how we live on this Earth, whether we have children, how to raise them if we do, how we die, and how our bodies are cared for after our death. Our Gods come first and foremost because we are polytheists. It’s not a polite suggestion to believe in the Gods and treat Them as real accordingly. It’s part and parcel of being a polytheist. If that is not at the forefront of being a polytheist, then the identification as a polytheist, and associated religions that identify with this word, become drained of meaning. Accordingly, our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir suffer when the Holy Powers are not first in our considerations.
I wrote on this idea of placing the Gods first a while back, here.
‘When someone puts the Gods first, does that mean the needs of one’s family 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.’
Again, from Halstead:
‘It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”. It was because of its embrace of the “gods of this world” that I became Pagan.’
Considering Halstead has continuously denied the agency and Being of Gods in his writing, I find this very hard to believe. Halstead has gone out of his way to deny that Gods possess Being, and are Beings unto Themselves. Rather than embracing Gods, Halstead has made much of his writing about rejecting Them. That rejection of the Gods, his embrace and normalizing of the term ‘Pagan’ in an atheist mindset is why I considered dropping Pagan as an identifier altogether. If such a term is so open and wide to interpretation that a barebones belief in or respect of Holy Powers are no longer a requirement for identification with groups of Pagan religious communities, what, precisely, are we supposed to be huddled under this umbrella for?
‘For me, more than anything else, the word “Pagan” denotes a this-worldly view of life. I had spent far too much of my early religious life looking for another world and missing the point of this one. I was guilty of what Albert Camus called the sin of “hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” I found in Paganism a religion that embraced this world – with both arms.’
The problem I find with the word ‘Pagan’ primarily denoting a this-worldly life is not that it denotes a this-worldly life, per se, but that it is empty of any kind of religious meaning in doing so. It is not about the Gods, Mysteries, our relationships with the Holy Powers, each other, or indeed the world itself. It is solidly stuck in a this-worldly view, which implies that this is the only life that matters, that this is it. Many polytheist religions carry afterlives with them in their cosmologies. For some, reincarnating may be part of that, in addition to there being final destinations depending on how life was lived, what your occupation was, what if any Mysteries you were initiated into, and how you died. The other possible implication of ‘Pagan’ meaning ‘this-worldly view of life’ is that our Ancestors and Dead do not get or have input, and Their agencies are ignored. This is a mighty big problem in most polytheist religions, as the Ancestors and Dead have a lot of input in our individual lives, and active interest in how our religions are restored and lived.
‘While many Pagans do believe in reincarnation, most do not view the cycle of life as something to be escaped from. And most of those who believe in a “Summerland” view it as the place where souls rest between incarnations, not as a “heaven” where one would want to stay. Ultimate, for most Pagans, this world is all there is. But where this would cause some to despair, the Pagan shouts with joy!’
What I have not seen featured in polytheist writings, nor in an polytheist circles I run in, is a worry about these afterlives. There may be active cultivation of relationships with certain Gods (I think of Dionysian Mysteries and the Eleusinian Mysteries here), or certain Gods may lay a claim on a worshiper or group of worshipers, but in my experience, we generally leave the concern of where we go to our Gods of Death. I would not eve say for ‘most Pagans, this world is all there is’, especially coming on the heels of Halstead saying ‘many Pagans do believe in reincarnation’ and talk of belief in a Summerland. Not only is this assumptive of ‘most Pagans’, it also denies that many, if not potentially most Pagans have belief in some kind of Otherworld (i.e. the aforementioned Summerland) and afterlives. It subtly denies polytheism in Paganism.
‘So when John Beckett talks about placing the gods before the concerns of this world, this is not just another form of Paganism – it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me. For me, it’s this world or bust!’
This gets to the crux of the piece: Halstead is positing that the polytheism, and likewise the polytheists he is critiquing, what he calls ‘other-worldly polytheism’ is outside of the Circles of Paganism that Beckett, he, and others have used in their writing at Patheos. In writing ‘it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me. For me, it’s this world or bust!’ Halstead not only falsely places us polytheists who believe the Gods should come first on the opposite side of caring for this world, he is also placing us firmly on the outside of Paganism.
‘John goes on to argue that, in the absence of a belief in the gods, we will lack the motivation to care for the Earth and to build a fair and just society when the going gets hard. I simply cannot agree. How does putting the gods between us and our concern for the earth and its inhabitants strengthen that concern?’
Halstead would be asking an important question here, were he not completely missing the point. In putting the Gods first, we necessarily place our concern for the Earth and Its inhabitants in a high priority. It strengthens our resolve when it is weak, it gives us zeal when it is easier to ignore the problems we face, and it provides an undercurrent of relationships to why we care so deeply for our world, our local and global ecology, and all the Holy Powers who share in that relationship with us. Our relationships with the Holy Powers strengthens that concern by denying our concerns merely for self-preservation, which is frequently short-sighted and self-serving, and pushing us, if not directly telling us that we need to care not only for ourselves, but future generations as well. It’s not pushing enlightened self-service; rather, polytheism asks us to live for our Ancestors and our descendants/others’ descendants. We are Ancestors in the making, Their latest iteration, and it is on us to be good Ancestors to those who come after us, even if we never have children.
As I said in What It Means to Place the Gods First:
‘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…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 my own experience, the reverse has been true: care for this world is inversely proportionally to the belief in the importance of another one. This has been true in my own life and in the lives of many others I have seen – like those who response to ecocide is “It’s all going to burn anyway.”‘
Again, this would be a worthy concern were I seeing any polytheist putting forth such a rash, irresponsible, wrong-headed repsonse like ‘It’s all going to burn anyway.’ This attitude is predominant in the monotheist eschatology in which the Final Battle purges the world, and God makes everything alright. The corollary to this attitude in the atheist sphere is a nihilism that denies the usefulness of action. I do not find either of these attitudes in polytheism. Rather, I find that polytheist stories embrace the idea of facing steep odds, and are the kind of tests that make heroes. I find that polytheist stories are stories of hope, such as Yggdrasil rising from the flames of Surt’s destruction after Ragnarök.
‘To me, it seems that a god-motivated concern for the earth – whether polytheist or monotheist – is more fragile than a concern that grows directly out of one’s relationship with the earth itself – for the same reason that stewardship models of environmentalism don’t go as deep as those that recognize our inherent interconnectedness.’
Again, Halstead seems to not understand that a Gods-motivated concern for the Earth is as much, if not more strong than a concern that grows directly our of one’s relationship with the Earth itself -because a polytheists our relationship with the land we live on is important, whether between the Gods and spirits of the local land, or of the Earth as a whole. A polytheist’s attitude towards the Earth grows out of our relationship with It. Stewardship models do not go deep enough, I grant, but even philosophies that recognize our inherent interconnectedness fail to go deep enough because they often remain philosophies, primarily of the mind, and are not lived. Our religions require us to live in relationship with the Holy Powers, the land we live on, and from that, the wider Earth included. In other words, recognizing we are interconnected is quite a different thing from living as interconnected beings.
‘What happens to our ecology when the gods are silent, as they sometimes are?’
We have free will, and it is well within our wheelhouse as living Beings to make our own choices. We are humans, animals, and part of this world. For us polytheists, we need not consult just the Gods. This is why I emphasized the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir together, as each provides us with ways to answer questions, find guidance, and move forward. If the Gods are silent we may need to consult the Ancestors or vaettir. If all are silent, perhaps it is time we made up our minds, and acted.
‘Or what happens when the will of the gods do not align with the needs of our planet?’
I have yet to find a situation where wills of the Gods do not align with the planet’s needs. Regardless, just because I know countless Gods exist does not mean that all are to be followed, nor that all have the world’s needs in mind. Treating the wills of the Gods as a singular is problematic because the Gods are many, and so too are Their wills.
‘John admits that “…we aren’t the primary concern of the Gods…” Well, if we are not, and if this planet is not, then I wonder what is their primary concern?’
We cannot be the primary concern of the Gods because not all Gods are concerned with us. The same goes for the planet. Again, treating the wills of the Gods as a singular is problematic because the Gods are many, and so too are Their wills. Their concerns no less so. Asking ‘What is Their primary concern?’ is fruitless. They don’t have a unified concern because the Gods are not One.
‘No doubt someone will tell me that the ways of the gods are mysterious or their ways are not our ways -but I’ve heard all that before, from my former religion. I’m left wondering, if the gods are not concerned with us, and with the other lifeforms on this earth, why we should worship them at all? The mere fact of their existence seems to be insufficient reason to justify placing them before everything else.’
If you need justification for worshiping Gods such as the Eldest Ancestor, the First Fire of the Universe that gave and gives light and heat out of the cold Void, or for worshiping the Gods that gave us life, form, and the ability to exist, if you need justification to be in good relationship, and give respect to the Gods, Ancestors and vaettir that allow us to live, gave rise to us, and live in relationship with us, then I have no idea how to convince you of that importance. If you utterly refuse to believe in, acknowledge the Holy Powers, and actively deny such Beings exist, and that such relationships are real and impactful, I have neither the idea nor the time to convince you otherwise. It is not merely Their existence, but that we exist that should be more than sufficient reason to place Them before all else, with an attitude of gratitude, if nothing else.
‘Of course, not all Polytheism is other-worldly. Not all polytheisms are equal.’
No polytheism I know of is strictly other-worldly. What Halstead is trying to say with ‘Not all polytheisms are equal’ is that there are some polytheisms that are better than others, polytheisms he is ‘happy to share the Pagan umbrella with – a this-worldly polytheism.’ Again, Halstead is placing those of us who put our Gods first, whom he calls ‘other-worldly polytheism’, on the outside of the Pagan umbrella.
‘Some forms of Polytheism find the gods in the manifest phenomena of this world – its rivers, its mountains, its flora, its other-than-human animals. For them, “We move through a world rife with gods and spirits, and a multitude of gods dwell within each of us…We rub up against the divine being with every turn in the sacred dance” (Alison Leigh Lily), from “Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land” to “Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things” (Morpheus Ravenna).’
I have no experience with or understanding that there are polytheists who do not find many Gods manifest in the phenomena of this world. However, many of Them are found beyond it as well. Again, referring to the Gods as a whole is problematic. As the Gods are not all found in the manifest phenomena of this world, it denies Their multiplicity to exist from without the Earth. In denying the multiplicity of the Gods’ manifestations, those Gods’ existence is also denied, the same with Ancestors and vaettir whose existence comes from other places.
‘For some Polytheists, the suggestion that we should avoid placing this world before the gods is nonsensical, a non-sequitur, because for them there is no distinction between the gods and this world. That is a kind of Polytheism I am happy to share the Pagan umbrella with – a this-worldly polytheism. But if your gods aren’t going to help me save this world, then I don’t want your Polytheist revolution.’
The problem with referring to the Gods as though They are a unified whole, is that his point here is rather more panentheist than it is polytheist. There must be a distinction made between the Gods and the world, and the Gods who are the Gods of the Earth. Otherwise, the many Gods are being reduced to a singular whole, rather than the plural, individuated Beings the word ought to mean. In doing this, what was Many is reduced to a toothless, ineffectual One. This world’s ability to provide us with the means to live will not be made, cared for, or secured in a single way. We should not place such an expectation of sum-total unity upon the Gods, either.
If Halstead thinks that devotional polytheism is other-worldly polytheism, then he does not understand what he is attempting to critique, and needs to actually read what we write rather than read into our words what he wants to read. We are advocating for RADICAL acceptance of responsibility to leave this world better than we found it, to heal it where we can, and to teach the next generation better ways of living than we inherited.
We do this by following the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits’ examples, guidance, and direction.
I ask him this: What do you follow?
There’s a simple, beautiful connection in lighting a candle, some incense, and saying prayers. I’ve done it all my life. I did it when I was a Catholic, praying for the Intercession of the Saints, Mary, and Jesus. I do it when I light candles now, asking for my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to speak with me, to bless my family and I. Just sitting and talking with Them for ten, fifteen minutes, and despite a crush of harsh things coming down in the last week, I feel a sense of connection.
It’s not that I think anything is going to get resolved tomorrow, or even by my next paycheck. It’s walking forward knowing the Holy Powers are walking with me. Knowing that I can face the problems in my life with allies before, behind, and alongside me. It’s the feeling of connection I get when I smoke with the Holy Powers, sharing the pipe with each statue, and talking about the day, the week, what is on my mind, and thanking Them for being in my life, for the blessings They bring. That connection doesn’t always bring peace. Sometimes it brings anger, sometimes it brings weeping for the things They’ve gone through. Sometimes the connection brings frustration, as yet another thing gets added to my plate, or something I thought was key to me is taken away.
I think at times I give the impression that my conversations with the Gods are completely staid, or totally ceremonial affairs. However, a lot of my prayers go something like this:
- Hail or rote prayer.
- Whenever I light a Fire I always make a rote prayer that is made out of respect.
- Extemporaneous prayers, talk with the Holy Powers about the day, week, month, fears, thoughts, hopes, dreams, etc.
- Divination might be involved, especially if I’m asking questions I need confirmation on.
- Hail or rote prayer of thanks.
Offerings may be made before, after, or book-ending the prayers and dialogue. But how do I hear the Gods?
Sometimes I have impressions of, or spiritually hear words. Sometimes impressions of or spiritually get smells, an emotion, music, the feeling of a hand on my shoulder, or lips on my forehead. Sometimes I get a combination of these. Sometimes I get abject silence. My conversations with the Holy Powers can go in a number of directions, and part of that is natural intuition on my part, and what They are able or willing to use on Theirs. What also plays into this is what ritual tools I am using, and where I am. Outside in the garden, I feel a kind of flowing connection with the Gods of our garden with the Earth beneath my feet, the Ancestors, and the landvaettir as we pray to Them, whether planting, plucking, harvesting, or otherwise working with Them. Inside in the dark at the altars with the candles lit, the energy tends to be much more focused, intense, and personal. Again, it depends on how the Holy Powers respond. There have been times in the garden, particularly when I take out the compost and hail Hela and Niðogg, when the connection was focused, intense, and personal, equally as much as inside. That reminds me: I need to get some devotional items for Them inside.
What I find powerful with regular devotional work is that such conversations, dialogue, impressions, and so on, can become part of, to borrow a phrase from John Beckett, ‘our ordinary times’. I say ‘can’, because not everyone has such connections, nor are they required to be a polytheist. That said, that awe, that connection, that intuition can be cultivated by devotional work. It can be, and is invited each time we kneel in respect, prostrate in honor, give thanks, gift our offerings, open our mouths to pray, and share our lives with Them. We invite that connection to suffuse our lives each time we make space for Them. Each time that our religions twine with the whole of our lives, becoming lived rather than just identifiers. Each time we put our religions forth in our lives as matters of consequence, and not merely matters of belief.
The simplest connections have made for some of the most powerful interactions with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I have had. The simple little connections are what have sustained me in the hardest times, and keep me righted in the easier ones. Regular devotional work does require discipline, but it does not require a lot of ‘stuff’, especially if that would get in the way between us and the Holy Powers. Heck, even the rituals I put on with the church I serve require relatively little tools. What matters is that the connections between us are made, Gebo is made, and respect is kept.
So even in the hard times, keep up the devotional work. Especially then. Having that ground of discipline and connection has gotten me through, and keeps getting me through the challenges I face in life. As the polytheist religions continue to grow and thrive, putting down these roots will build up each member in strength and resilience, and do the same for their respective communities.
I seek inside myself
a place that was
carved from earth
scraped from stone
I seek behind myself
those that knew
life from death
power from tribe
I seek before myself
a place that is
sought from earth
sanctified from sacrifice
I seek beyond myself
a tribe that knows
strength from striving
bonds from trust
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.
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.
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.