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A Post for Newcomers to Polytheism

May 8, 2016 4 comments

There’s a great deal of needed dialogue going on in various polytheist, animist, Pagan, and associated communities right now.  I have been part of this, on and off, and while I do deeply feel these things are necessary, I also think that reaching out to the folks coming into this fresh, or those looking at coming back to the polytheist, animist, and Pagan communities are needed as well.  I have not seen a post like this make the go-arounds in a long while, at least on WordPress, so this post is made with these folks in mind.

What is polytheism?

Polytheism is defined by OxfordDictionaries.com as “The belief in or worship of more than one god”.  That is it, in a nutshell.  Most polytheists I know, and those I count among my co-religionists define polytheism in this manner.  This is because polytheism, as a word, describes a worldview and theological understanding, rather than a religion in and of itself.  A polytheist religion would be Northern Tradition Paganism, or any one of a number of Heathen religions.  Polytheists are those, then, that believe in or worship more than one God.

The polytheist religions I know of, especially those I am part of, hold that the world itself, as well as most things, are ensouled in some fashion, and/or are in part imbued with the numinous.  In this, most polytheists are, in some fashion, animists.  Animism is “The attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena” and/or “The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe“.  Like polytheism, animism is a theological position and worldview.

Polytheism as a word says nothing about the Gods one worships, what kinds of practices are accepted practice within a polytheist community, nor how one is expected to conduct oneself in or out of that community.  All these things are determined by religious communities that are polytheist.

What makes up a polytheist worldview?

Cosmology and relationships.  This may seem fairly simple, but when you take a look at the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, it’s far from it.

In these religions the cosmology, “An account or theory of the origin of the universe“, informs a deep amount of how the religion is structured and the place of the people within it.  The creation story alone is a wealth of information, namely on who created what, and where things came from.  Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar are described as discrete categories of Beings in the creation story, and form different tribes that intermarry on occasion, and war on others.  So too, Alfar (Elves) and Dvergar (Dwarves) are discrete categories of Beings.  The Dead are as well.  Even within our own Ancestors, the categories of Disir and Alfar/Väter (I use Väter, the German word for “Fathers” to differentiate between the Elves and powerful male Ancestors) differentiate the powerful female and male Ancestors from the rest of our Ancestors.  One of the lessons one gains from reading or hearing the creation story is that there are discrete categories of Beings, and They exist in hierarchy to one another and between each other.

In reading or listening to the creation story and others from these religions, it is understood that relationships form between the Aesir, Vanir, Jotnar, Alfar, Dvergar, and ourselves cooperatively as well as hierarchically.  The Aesir and Vanir war before peace and cooperation ensues, and an exchange of hostages occurs.  Likewise, there are tribes of Jotnar who make continuous war on the Aesir, those who do not, and Jotnar who join the Aesir by assertion of rights as with Skaði, or with Vanic Gods by marriage, as with Gerða and Freyr.  There are Jotnar who do not war on the Aesir, but keep to Themselves just as not all the Aesir war with Jotnar.  In other words, there are a great many kinds of relationships that exist between these various Beings.

If we take these stories as examples, there are a great many relationships we can maintain with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits).  Part of how this is done is by understanding our place within the cosmology.

Our understanding of where we are in the Worlds means a great deal to the religions we are part of.  It places us in how we relate to all things.  Jörð, and Nerthus, for instance, place us into direct relationship with the Earth beneath our feet as a/many Goddess(es).

What makes this even more interesting, in my view, is that because I am a polytheist, I accept a great many more Gods of the Earth than just one, including not only female Gods like Jörð, but male Gods such as the Egyptian God Geb, and others of differing/no genders, sexes, etc.  This does not create competition for this role of being a God/Goddess of the Earth, but more that They are in the same wheelhouse.  It need not be an either/or idea.

Rather, I look at it as an “and/and” notion that there are many Gods of the Earth Itself.  Sometimes I understand Jörð as the Earth Itself, and other times She is a local Earth Goddess.  Cosmology places us, and relationships form from this understanding of where we are and how we relate to the Worlds around us.  The particulars of how these relationships are shaped, what ways they develop or fade, and how things shake out otherwise depend on the religion(s) one is part of and how the relationships themselves go.

Polytheism is a foundation upon which the worldviews polytheist religions rest and build from.  Alone, it only asserts that a person holds belief in or worships Gods.  Everything else, from the relationships one forms with what Gods, clear on down to what kind of things are taboo, derive from the polytheist religion one is part of and are communal and individual.  In the end, the leaders one follows, or lacks, entirely depends on whether or not a person joins a community in the first place.  This acceptance or denial of joining a community will, in turn, impact the relationships that one maintains with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits of one’s religion.  This does not make these choices one makes right or wrong.  It makes them choices that carry consequences.  If one rejects belonging to a community it impacts one’s relationships with the Gods just as belonging to one would, though in different ways.  My relationships have definitely changed with the Gods I worshiped before and after I helped establish my local Northern Tradition/Heathen Kindred. Many vaettir I had worked only a little before became quite vocal in my life.  It takes all kinds to make a Kindred.

Polytheism really does take all kinds.  There are polytheists who never will be part of a community, and others for whom their community is intimately bound up in their life.  There are polytheists who have never had a powerful spiritual experience and never will, and others for whom there’s a quality of ‘They never shut up’ to their lives.  There are polytheists who are stay at home parents, and others who have absolutely no aspirations to be parents.  There are those who work in low-wage jobs as well as high.  There are polytheists on every part of the political spectrum.  In the end, the meaningful question in regards to polytheism is, “Do you worship or believe in the Gods?”

First Steps

So now that you have a rough idea of how polytheism works, what about first steps into being a polytheist?  When I began teaching the Northern Tradition Study Group in my area this is how we started out.

  1. Determine the religion you will be focusing on.

    This step is probably the most important.  When we organized the NT Study Group it was because there was enough people who had expressed interest in such a group.  Otherwise, folks were already developing relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of the Northern Tradition and Heathen religions alongside other religious and spiritual interests.  Bringing the group together under a single religious focus in Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheism brought a lot of advantages with it.  Having a single religious focus provides a shared lexicon and a deep amount of focus.  Having a single religious focus helps develop an understanding of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of the religion one is working with, and develops the relationships within the framework of that religion.  It also helps develop context for exploring and understanding spiritual relationships outside of this religion, giving a solid ground for the newcomer to put their weight down on.

    I would recommend that anyone new to polytheism or animism pick a single religious path to focus on for at least a year.  Even if you find that religion is not the one you end up staying with after that period of time it can provide good contexts and understanding for where you want to go or are meant to go from there.

  2.  Gather resources and do your research.

    This means tapping resources both written and from people, especially if you have folks in your area actively involved in the religion you want to join.  One of the sources I recommend at this stage is Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher.  The idea here is to develop spiritual hygiene and protection techniques so good habits are made early.  It also helps to separate out genuine religious and/or mystic experiences from sock puppets by doing the internal work early in the journey by developing methods of discernment early.  The early research may be a source of deep exploration, or a reference point.  It will depend on one’s personal journey with the Holy Powers, but at the least it gives everyone, especially if you’re doing this with a group, some mutual starting points to look at and refer back to.

    This is the step in the formation of the group where I provided a list of books for folks to look at, with explanations for why.  It is also the step where I recommend people talk to others in the community, even those who religious exploration will be solitary, because if you get a question you do not have the answer to you will be able to talk with others on it.  This may also be a good time to figure out some good diviners in your communities to talk with when the need arises.

  3. Determine your initial focus.

    I put it this way because for some people the ‘in’ to polytheism is through the Gods, others the Ancestors, and others the vaettir.  Determining Who you will be focusing on and developing your initial relationships with will help determine how your religious focus fleshes out in the following sections, what resources you will find of use, and in what ways you can best develop your religious work.  Things may not stay this way, but it will help provide some of that foundation I mentioned in part 1 above.

  4. Do regular religious work and ritual.

    When we started I recommended folks take 5-10 minutes a day of dedicated time and go from there.  Some folks’ lives are incredibly busy and setting aside even this amount of time can be hard, whereas for others setting aside this regular time is a source of orientation in their lives.  This is the heart and soul of any religious tradition.  Regular devotional work, even if it is a few moments of prayers with an offering of water, is powerful work, and builds on itself over time.

    I personally recommend anyone interested in polytheism and/or animism develop a spiritual practice with their Ancestors.  If the last generation or two has problems for you, I would recommend connecting with Ancestors further back, and talking to an Ancestor worker and/or diviner as you need guidance.

  5. Refine your resources, practices, focus, and so on as needed.

    I am not the same person I was when I became a Pagan in 2004.  In that time my religious focus has changed quite heavily, as has my roles in my communities.  Each person’s refinement might be different.  When I first began researching the Egyptian Gods I started out researching the culture and the Gods in general.  As my relationship with Anpu grew, I did a lot more research specifically into cities, festivals, and cultus around Him.  While I was doing this, I was developing my relationship with Anpu, doing regular offerings and rituals on a regular basis.  As things went on, I would do divination, or in some ways get direct messages such as through direct contact, omens, and other forms of communication between us.  I would then update my religious practices and views as these came up and were accepted.  This helped sustain me in the religion for the three years I was strictly a Kemetic polytheist.  I went through a similar process with Odin when I became a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, and it has sustained me, and those I have taught, ever since.

Relationship and Reciprocity

At the end of the day polytheism and animism are both based in relationships, and these relationships are based in reciprocity.  What we do in reciprocity changes on our circumstances and the needs and desires of those we share in our relationships with.  These relationships do come with baseline right belief, or orthodoxy. As far as polytheism itself goes that means you believe in or worship the Gods, whereas individual ptolytheist religions have their own orthodoxies that develop off from this understanding.  The understanding of right action of polytheism itself, the orthopraxy, requires baseline respect for Them and the reciprocity that sustains that relationship.  As with orthodoxy, polytheist religions will have their orthopraxy, and these will be dependent on so many contexts I could easily make hosts of posts about them.

The way in which a single person’s life could change for these relationships and be changed by them are incredibly diverse.  It is my hope that as more people become or are raised polytheist that the need for these sorts of general polytheist guideline posts becomes less relevant.  I hope to see all the polytheist religions respond to the needs of their individual communities and develop well.  It is my prayer that, so long as these posts are needed, that this one and others like it help those who find it.  May the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bless the work before us.

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A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part -Critiques

February 4, 2016 8 comments

My post here is written in response to critiques I am reading of folks in the peak oil community, and are several responses in one to common points I have seen brought up on Facebook and Tumblr today in relation to this post.

One way or another the capitalist/industrial model is, by how it is deployed in the landscape and how capitalism is interwoven with mass industrialism, doomed to failure. Both are running up against hard limits on a finite planet. The simple fact is sooner or later peak oil will hit. Climate change is happening right now.  There is nothing on this planet that can replace what oil does for us. Not coal, not natural gas, not any of the systems of electricity production such as solar or wind, and certainly not nuclear. There is no infrastructure in place on a national scale ready to bear the weight of all the needs United States citizens have now, let alone need to keep that infrastructure operating far into the future. Neither system of economy or production has the ability to address the hard limits being placed on them, whether one looks at the limits to growth in an infinite-money paradigm as capitalism has right now, or the ‘technology can solve all our ills’ on the other.

I absolutely agree this needn’t be an all-or-nothing deal, but technologism, much like critiques of scientism, is part of the central critique of folks like JMG and myself. If capitalism fails, with the way it is interwoven into the technology industries, it will take many, if not most of the technology industries with it. Technologies by themselves cannot allow us to live on if we continue to use the technologies we have in the ways we are right now, especially as dependent as it is on the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in order for them to be viable in the first place.

The idea of ‘seize the means of production’ sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, not because I think capitalism is invincible or that we could not actually seize them, but because I cannot see how seizing the means of production actually will help anything if all the feedstocks for, say, my diabetes medication, fall right along with the production of the meds themselves.  How many means of production can we realistically seize and kept running? I don’t see how ‘seizing the means of production’ will actually help anything, either as a narrative, nor do I see a practical application of this idea. Unless folks who want to seize the means of production can also seize provide upkeep for the means by which production is maintained and kept running in the first place, and can keep the people fed who do the maintaining and producing, and so on, there’s little point in my mind of engaging with the idea.

If we look at the ‘seizing the means of production’ from socialist countries or Marxist literature, this may be a good model to start with, but it runs into the same problems sooner or later. These are finite resources and we have no plans for what to do when they run low enough where the cost to produce goods and services exceeds the ability of the resource to provide energy and/or end product(s). Once a given thing, whether oil, natural gas, neodymium, etc., hits peak and begins decline nothing we do to extract, refine, or design more effectively will stop the decline of the availability of the resource. The hard limits problem must be dealt with, or anything proposed ignores the outcome of diminishing resources and at the end of the day is not realistic.

Technology is not a monolith. A stone arrow is a piece and product of technology as much as a smart phone is. Both requires certain resources, skills, and time to fashion. There are technologies which require significant investment of resources in order to make viable. If the neodymium mines which allow our hard drives to be built start running out of neodymium, 90% of which are located in China, how would we seize the means of production in order to keep our computers’ hard drives, and all the things that rely on good, working computer systems to function? This is my issue with these kinds of narratives. The baseline resources required to pull this idea off actually belong to someone else, and are only viable so long as production and refinement of these resources is able to maintained at a certain level.

As I said in Part One of this series:

“This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live? Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death. If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do? My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then. It is about answering this question on a practical basis. If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live? Well, in the short term the answer is no. However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically. I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis. I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent. So, I won’t. ”

If anyone here read any of JMG’s books or watched his talks on this subject, I would think it would very quickly put to bed the notion that he thinks this is some kind of utopia. It won’t be. There will be suffering, whether it is because people refuse to come together and put what technology they can put theirs hand to into use, or because they refuse to understand and/or act until the hard limits of reality come knocking, or because communities do not do the hard work to prepare for peak oil and climate change now.

The Long Descent is not some fantasy I want to have happen. I’ve looked at what evidence is out there, what I understand lies before us, and accept that I may well die because the means of producing the metformin, insulin, and other medications that keep me alive will cease to be viable economically or technologically because of resource depletion.

I am not telling people to reject technology, nor do I believe others who I identify with the peak oil and permaculture crowd such as JMG are. I am saying we need to understand the limits to growth, especially within the paradigms technology operates, and what these things allow to occur without significant personal investment for other means of making and operating the technology we rely on. I do not understand JMG to be saying that we should simply accept out of hand the suffering that is coming.

What I do understand is that peak oil and climate change are real, occurring right now, and there are things we can still do to prepare for it, and things that are beyond our reach.

As I have written about this previously, I don’t think top-down approaches will allow us to survive climate change or peak oil. I do not put much stock in theories and ideas which do not have a practical application. Much of my issue with much of the Marxist, anarchist, and other ideas currently out in the public sphere right now, is that there is no one saying “This is how to practically apply these ideas”. I can look at JMG and those of his ilk and see the solutions in action. I can do them myself. More to the point, I am enacting the changes in my life and learning the skills that will allow my family and I have a good chance at surviving peak oil and climate change. It is entirely possible I haven’t run across places, books, and other resources where anarchist and Marxist ideas on how to address climate change and peak oil are being applied. There are overlaps between folks in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, and other communities in the peak oil and permaculture communities, but I have yet to see this as centrally addressed in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist communities, as in the peak oil and permaculture communities.

One of the things that gets hurled around in some of the posts I have been reading is how privileged it is for folks to be talking about looking for alternatives to factory-produced medicines and the like, which require great amounts of resources. I’ve actually taken time to respond to the notion of my diabetes killing me because of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.  I have also noted on this blog and elsewhere, that I make an hourly rate just above minimum wage, and I qualify for Medicaid.  To me, looking for and engaging with alternatives to mass-produced medicines is as much part of the overall idea of surviving and thriving in a powered-down future as growing my own food is.

I’ll be honest: I’m getting tired, damned tired, of privilege being used as a club and thought-stopper when there are folks, like myself, with these diseases and issues who are working through the understanding of “Yes, I may well die from lack of access to medicines I need”.  There are folks like myself who, knowing this, recognize that climate change and peak oil need to be addressed, and that a powerful response to them is to build community ties, personal and communal skills while developing human-scale technology on the ground level to deal with these challenges as much as we can.

I recognize that I may not survive if, say trade or the medical industries that produce my medicines are hard-hit by peak oil or climate change.  That’s not the fault of green activists, permaculturists, transition town communities, or the like.  As I have said before, there’s not a lot any of us can really do about it.  Like it or not, the means of getting these medications will become harder and harder as peak oil and climate change continue.  This is not a call to ‘revert’ or go to a primitivist lifestyle, though that may be the answer for some, but to take what technologies we have right now, and do all we can to prepare for a future where these things are hard to access, if not cut off from us. This is not a zero-sum game, and it does us and our descendants no good if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality.

Capitalism, technology, and science are not monolithic, and are not untouchable.  We live in a world where the ability to pour massive amounts of money and resources into projects that do not further the survival of our species is being left behind.  We need to look at whether or not certain ways of using our resources are actually worth our time. This is not anti-science nor is it anti-technology, though in many ways it may be anti-capitalist. What it is, at the end of the day, is the use of discernment.

The process of coming to grips with peak oil and climate change, and how we live in this world becomes even more important to the animist and polytheist. Our world, and all of the things within it, carry the potentiality, if not the actuality, of being Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The working with and/or caring for the Beings around us, treating them all as Beings, including what we usually think of as ‘resources’, is a dynamic shift in thought. Look at oil as the distilled essence of the lich of the Dead which comprise it, and your relationship to this object which permeates our lives takes on new meaning. Look at Fire Itself as the Eldest Ancestor, and your relationship with all things Fire, whether the fire that burns the coal, natural gas, etc. that heats one’s home or powers one’s electronics, or that enables us to travel by bus, takes on a new dynamic.

We never stopped relying on all these Beings. What we have done is find new ways for them to inhabit our lives, and use more of the bodies of the Dead and the Earth than we ever have before.  What Westerners especially have done is taken and demanded more from the landvaettir than They have hope of giving while maintaining Their own homes.

Technologies, for all the ills we have wrought with many of them, are not our enemy. Using our knowledge of and expertise in technologies is part of how we can address climate change and peak oil.

I think that this person’s concerns need to be addressed directly, as I have seen variations of this come up.  I do want them to know I’m not picking on them personally.

This kind of anarchic tribalism mentality growing in, let’s be real, mostly English-language-dominant radical & occult circles, is seriously troubling to me. Part of the problem is, as you said, lack of consideration for all the horrific suffering that medical technologies and research either keep just behind the door or completely shut out. Anti-establishment thinkers in North America, the UK, and the European-dominated Antipodes have lived with the unacknowledged benefits of vaccinations, advanced sanitation, and disability aids for so long that I honestly think we don’t comprehend anymore that our life spans of 80+ years borne out in relative ease are because. Of. Science. Not natural immunity. Influenza anyone??? Yes let’s develop this the “““natural”““ way by letting viral infections wipe out 1/3 of our national populations every 30 years or so, GREAT PLAN.

Medical technology and therapies have given rise to immense advances in healthcare, no doubt.  I don’t think, though, that there is a lack of consideration for suffering.  We simply don’t have answers.  If oil becomes cost-prohibitive, as it will in a peak oil future and Long Descent, then very basic questions come up in regards to developing and maintaining medical infrastructure. How will we transport medicine?  What will the containers the medicine comes in be?  What kinds of medicines will be able to survive in such a future?  There are a myriad of questions, and very few good answers come to mind.  Sure, we can hang to what infrastructure we have for awhile, and maybe it could last a generation or two.  If we’re careful, the infrastructure we have, or better yet, develop, could last even longer, but that would require we start doing that now.

Here’s the truth though: the only reason a vast majority of folks are alive is because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, and a climate that allows regular food/medicine production, trade, and storage.  It isn’t a pleasant truth, but it is the truth.  Without the infrastructure, from roads to bridges, from trade networks to universities that do the research for a lot of the medical products in the first place, the only thing that keeps a lot of folks alive are the same fossil fuels that are polluting the environment and causing CO2 levels to rise.

Not everyone will get out of this alive.  Actually, a good number of us will die, or our descendants will because of the effects of peak oil and/or climate change.  No human gets out of life alive, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat The Long Descent as a Vale of Tears either, because it needn’t be that way.

By the way, when The Collapse happens, say goodbye to literally everyone in your little clan with a hereditary predisposition and / or environmental exposure to cancers that weren’t classed as surefire killers before.

This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous.  Not everyone with genetic predispositions develops a given disease or disorder.  Peak oil and climate change by themselves aren’t going to increase the cancer rates.

Corporate greed and pollution did its damage to your locale and your body’s cells long before you became politicized over it. You can’t undo that no matter how many animals / plants you “naturally” harvest & prepare yourself.

This is true of chemicals like lead, but this is not true of all cancers or diseases.  This is why most of the literature I have seen on the subject deals in probabilities rather than certainties. There are ways foods can reduce the impact of lead, noted by Michigan Radio here, and the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services here.  There are people seeking to reduce the impact of lead in communities hit by the Flint lead poisoning by getting good, fresh foods into the hands of Flint kids.  It isn’t a total fix, but it will at least help mitigate the damage.  This person is right, in that sometimes the impacts are out of our control, but once we understand these factors that are involved, that means that what remains is within our hands to work with.

That’s another blind spot, the idea that literally the day after you start back-to-nature living, you are magically (pun very much intended) cut off & protected from the ongoing damage caused by ill-used & unregulated technologies.

This actually isn’t a blind spot that I see in these circles except in all but the most naive. For example, when I talked about the plans I and my fellows had, the Strawbale Studio folks actively warned against the idea that living as they do would magically fix all the problems.  The idea that back-to-nature and living off the land can occur in our cities and towns is an idea that has taken root in permaculture, urban gardening, and natural building communities.  The tiny house movement has, in part, exploded because of the need for small, developed parts of land within cities.

If people abandon towns & cities en masse for the idyllic countryside, unmaintained lead pipes will poison waters & wreck ecosystems downstream for decades, if not centuries. The Pacific Garbage Patch will still be there, and oceanic fish will still build up particulate plastic in their bodies long after our grandchildren grow old. If we go off science & technology cold turkey, we will only be less equipped to deal with the fallout from the Industrial Age frenzy & late-capitalist lawless exploitation.

Because we are human we will never ‘go off of science and technology cold turkey’.  What is happening and will continue to happen as the Long Descent goes on, is that the technologies that require great amounts of energy to operate that are required for our complex societies to keep chugging along will get harder to come by, and thus, more expensive.  The sciences that requires great inputs of energy and material may keep on getting funding, but we thought that by now we’d be on Mars.  The NASA manned space program is pretty-much dead.  Maybe Space X, Boeing, and others will pick up the slack, but again, the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) of these missions will come into question as time goes on.

There will be a point at which the cost-benefit analysis will tell us there’s only so much we can afford to put towards getting this resource, like oil, or that material, like copper, and still break even, let alone make surplus of the resource or material, or a profit off the sale of them.  There’s a reason folks are relearning and reskilling for a powered-down economy, and it is not because we don’t like our laptops, phones, and other modern conveniences.  It is because these things require energy and materials that are getting increasingly rare to build and maintain.

The lead pipes are already breaking down.  The ecosystems are being poisoned right now. We can only do so much to stop this, especially with the major infrastructure systems unable or refusing to address these issues head-on.  Lack of regulations are not the only problem.  Collusion and cooperation between private businesses and government agencies is as well.  The MI Department of Environmental Quality stepped aside when Graymont sought 10,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula for development of a limestone mine.  The MI DEQ failed, or intentionally did not stop the poisoning of Flint citizens.  Citizens are left with few means by which to stop such things when our representatives and state workers step aside, or intentionally stop doing their job for us, the people.  It actually makes sense, for those who can afford to, to get the hell away from all of this infrastructure which is falling apart inside folks’ communities and homes.

I think part of the reason this “run away into the woods” reaction is so strong in the previously mentioned demographics is that we’re so used to having that choice. And still having some power to curtail the consequence of that choice. Don’t like your 9-to-5 city life, dominated by glowing screens and pointless work for the benefit of companies you resent? Form an “intentional community” and keep out the technophiles & corporate shills. And coincidentally the lower class neighbors who can’t afford to build an eco-friendly straw-bale home 2 hours’ drive from town on 3-day weekends they don’t have.

This is the other part of a lot of permaculture, transition town, and similar efforts though: staying where you live, stick it out, and make something of your home.  For some, going to the country is their answer.  For some folks, and I include myself here, I won’t make it in a city.  I’ve never lived in one for longer than a few years in my life, I don’t much care to visit them, and I don’t feel right in them.  Some folks thrive in cities, and that’s why they live there.  I don’t think the back-to-land movement, permaculture, transition town, gardening, and other folks have an all-or-nothing mindset as a whole.  Some folks do, like myself, because we’re just not suited to city living.  Some folks are all about city living and couldn’t see themselves living in the country.  Neither of these approaches are bad in and of themselves.

I lived in Flint for a few years, and I really, really didn’t like it.  Flint itself was not a bad place to live.  I just did not get city living and felt really out of place.

The downside to city living is that unless the infrastructure is in place, food access, recycling and reuse, and energy production are big issues.  Add to this aging infrastructure that struggles just to have basic maintenance because of budget cuts, and the pressure gets even harder.  Cities and towns can compound the issues because of how close everything is, but then, transportation between people can be a lot easier because its a matter of walking, biking, or taking a bus, whereas living in the country or even suburbs in America requires a car and all the attendant costs.

There are downsides to country living, but I find myself feeling better out here, and this is where I would prefer to live.  I don’t deal well with the compact spaces, the alleys, all of the noise of a city.  The city spirits are nice enough to me when I visit, but after getting lost in Ann Arbor a few times and making plenty of offerings to Her just to find my damned car, it’s safe to say this isn’t the place for me.

But another part of it is, I think, the sheer density of despair that we’ve grown up with. At least, this is my experience, and my internal struggle regarding the current state of science & tech as commodities under global capitalism: this system has deeply entrenched itself in my country. You only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine, materials tech, and automated services if you can pay for them. Human life is a utility, and will be cut off without a second thought if you get too behind on your bills. And that’s if you were born into one of the categories of people the ruling party WANTS to survive. The rest are consigned to ghettos and the prison-industrial system.

I understand how you only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine very well, especially when I didn’t have insurance and had to buy, or ask my folks to buy, for my insulin out of pocket.  Holy fucking shit.  I need this medicine to live and it costs $260-$470 per vial, and that vial might last a month.  Survival being a function of what you can afford is baked into how we survive.  It isn’t a specific evil of capitalism, though how capitalism sharpens that knife on the bones of the poor is especially egregious and vile.

My culture has already imagined dozens of future-Earth settings for entertainment purposes where the capability to live comfortably and to improve one’s basic living is actually a universal right, in deed & not just in words. We have the means to achieve that before I breathe my last breath on this Earth. But I won’t see that world, or be able to give it to my successors, because an oligarchy of national figureheads and business leaders have decided they want to win this ridiculous numbers game that is capitalism, which has tied itself to all human activities in order to effect a stranglehold on humanizing endeavors.

This assumes a top-down structure that would be able to stay intact for future generations, though, and I’m not sure that is going to be the case, or could be even if everyone did get on board with universal healthcare.  What makes socialism work, just as much as capitalism and communism, and any other modern mass societal organizations that I am missing here, is the cheap abundant fuel to make all of the programs, companies, and so on able to work in the first place.  The assumption that we would have the means to provide such a future is in deep doubt where I am standing.  This is also why, while I am a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I doubt we will have such a future.

There’s a deep despair in my own mind and likely the minds of a lot of comrades who see tech companies colluding with fascist governing bodies to spy on political dissidents & community leaders, or to remotely slaughter brown & black civilians of other nations because they’re on the wrong side of a war over toxic fuel for outmoded machinery. It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them. Our media is bent on national distraction & playing all sides against each other, another abuse of communications science that’s become background knowledge taken as given by most Americans I know under the age of 50.

I want to touch on this part in particular: “It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them.”

We cannot beat them at their own game.  This is why I, and those in my family, alliances, clan, and tribe, are looking at going off-the-grid as soon as I can as much as I can.  They have less control over me the less control I give them.  This is why we need to reweave local industries with locally produced goods.  If we’re not beholden to giant corporations for the wool for our looms, then the power to produce them lies in our hands.  If we’re not beholden to conglomerates of companies for the foods we need to live, the power lies in our hands.  The more we empower our own the less power we give to them. Its full effects may not be seen within our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for.  A given community member may not see the full impact of a community garden on their community before they die, but that does not mean these roots are not worth planting.

We’re constantly reinforced in the belief that with technology comes commodification – if you can fly or drive an oil drill or fracking rig there, you can exploit anyplace to ruination for profit. We don’t get widespread coverage on, to give a recent example from the Paris climate talks, other countries in the Americas approaching 50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources. The rest of the world outside of the villains given top billing in the U.N. are actually taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously, are both curtailing and evolving their technological sectors to mitigate harms perpetrated mainly by the Big 8. One can’t help but foster the impression that if we could just… just kinda sorta blast ourselves back into the Stone Age, the absence of the U.S.’s corporate-funded political maneuvering alone would leave so much more room for positive change.

I think that fostering the impression that ‘if we could blast ourselves back to the Stone Age then the US’s corporate-funded maneuvering would leave room for positive change’ is another form of delusion.  Countries like Japan, Brazil, and China, a few among many, snow the reality of things as we do.  China’s markets are coming unraveled, and yet the nationalist spin machine can’t twist the message hard enough that progress and good things are yet to come, even as the industrial economy takes a huge beating.  Brazil’s energy production is, in no small part, made possible because of massive damming operations which destroy indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and threaten the Amazon Rainforest Itself.

The problem with the sentence here, “50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources”, is that it belies what is actually going on.  It isn’t 50% or more of their energy needs being met, it is 50% or more of their electricity needs being met.  The cars still require 7 gallons of oil per tire, the roads still require diesel to power the equipment and make the materials that makes and maintains roads, lighting, signage, and so on.  Actual costs of maintaining many ‘clean energy’ grids are actually quite environmentally destructive, and they’re stopgaps at best. When our usual methods of getting cheap abundant fossil fuels are moot, what then?  We’re largely no longer dependent on what was called conventional reserves, like the big oil fields that were in Pennsylvania and Texas and sustained us through our own production peak in the 1970s.  The Bakken shale oil fields started being tapped at high rates because they were positive in cost-benefit analysis when oil prices were high.  At $25 or so a barrel of crude oil, that evaporates.  There are only a handful of shale oil, tight oil, and other similar plays that even make sense to exploit, and the EROEI is relatively small compared to historical levels.  Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, and related fields of technology are not new.  They just were less expensive than other options for a little while.  The only way a lot of companies are making any money in the fracking business is leasing, and it’s a matter of time before this glut dies a horrible death in a bubble/bust not unlike the housing market.

We’re going to go to a time where less cheap, abundant energy and less convenient material goods are the norm. The questions that arise from this understanding, then, are:  When we will get there?  How will we get there?  Will it be voluntary?  What actions can I and my community take now to prepare?

Technology makes dissent & better world-building possible – Twitter and Tor relays are among the best tools of anti-establishment & radical organizers. The Internet is the only reason many of us know what goes on in other countries, what progress others are making with science & conscientiously deployed technologies, while we wax faux-nostalgic about “simpler” lives.

I cannot wax nostalgic about a time I’ve never known.  If anything, folks like me get accused of being romantics, Luddites, and similar things.  As I said before, technology is not a monolith, and I think we need to be more clear about what kinds of technology we are talking about.  Food-oriented technology such as those used in GMOs’ processes are different from other food technology and distinct from mechanical technology like combines, and permaculture techniques that use earth movers are using different technologies.  Natural builders using axes, chisels, snap lines, and rules for roundwood timber framing are using different technologies as well.

With the resignation of four top executives, Twitter may well be going away, and that needs to be watched since so much activism is done on its platform.  What kind of technologies will be called on to replace it, and if it will have the ability to do the work for activism Twitter did, will be a hard question needing answering.  Part of Twitter’s success has been that it is accessible by non-activists, who can spread the word through the media conglomerates attached to it.

Winamp Internet TV streaming is how I found out about peak oil in the first place, and I do a lot of research online. Computer technology is how I do a lot of communication, and I include my phone in that technology camp since my phone operates more like a computer with phone functionality than a straightforward phone.  I would mourn the loss of such technology, but I also understand that living with it less is becoming more and more a survival skill as cell phone companies cut back on maintenance, and State and local money is less inclined towards basic infrastructure.  It’s part of why I am working on retraining my handwriting skills, which, especially compared to my typing skills, are atrocious.

What enables utopian-monolithic understandings of ‘Technology’, especially ‘green future’, medical, computer and communications-based ones, are the myth of progress.  It’s a very nice image, but it is a poor map of a very beleaguered territory.

And as much as the nihilist in me would love to see the total collapse of bloated Western wealth machines & all their tech & infrastructure, I cannot in good conscience wish for, work magic towards, or participate in radical subcultures that turn away from the misery and death such a collapse would unleash primarily on people who were only captive to this system, not its architects.

I think that if a given person’s morality calls for this that is fine, but I hope that they, and the others who contribute to the ongoing conversation, understand that it no longer matters what our wishes are in this regard.  Sooner or later the fuel will cost more than we can put towards pumping it out of the ground.  Saudi Arabia is looking to sell off parts of its nationalized oil company, and it is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia has been doing more and more offshore drilling.  That is incredibly expensive, environmentally dangerous, and should push people to take note.

Sooner or later the resources for production will cost more than we can put toward extracting it out of the ground.  Copper mines are a great example of this and Chris Martenson explores this idea pretty well in this video.  This is keenly seen in places like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, which is 2.5 miles across and 0.75 deep.  It’s a strip mine, the largest copper mine in the United States, and the deepest in the world, producing 0.2% ore concentration.  This means that, per 500 pounds of ore, you only get a single pound of copper.  This is simply unsustainable.  No, really, go look at the environmental damage in the Wikipedia article that the damn thing does to its surroundings.  Think on what Martenson says in the video above: look at how much energy and how many resources we are pouring into getting such little amounts of copper in return.  How long can we continue to justify these expenses?

It no longer matters if you are working towards dismantling the system.  The system is falling apart.  What is of utmost importance, in my view, is working towards building up communities that will last during and beyond the Long Descent.  Rather than staying tied to such a system, I am trying to mitigate the damage it will do to my tribe, my clan, my family, and my allies.  I cannot hope to save everyone, and I can only do what is within my quite limited capability to do.  Whatever I can do, though, is worth it.

This Greek proverb is part of the vision I hold for the future:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

We cannot do everything, but there is no reason for us not to do all that we can.

Broken Lines

January 11, 2016 6 comments

Broken lines run through many animist and polytheist religions.  In some places, those lines are fairly stark.  In others, the division between what was and where we are is sometimes bridged by practices and beliefs based in the old ways.  At least for Americans, most of us are completely divorced from even the lived folk ways and folklore that remained with pir Ancestors due to successive generations assimilating, by force or choice, into monotheist and then US culture.  We lost connections to where our Ancestors came from, their language, and their ways along with it.

I was never taught any folklore or folkways from Germany, England, Ireland from our family.  No songs, no stories, no practices, and only a few recipes collected from family members.  I was taught a smattering of German words.  There was nothing left by the time I was being raised.  I was raised a Catholic, which at least taught me virtues of regular prayer, piety, an appreciation of the Ancestors that came before me, and an appreciation of ritual.  Still, by the time I was being raised every vestige of any animist or polytheist inkling had been wiped out of my family.

So, when I felt the call from my Gods, I did what anyone would do in this situation: I read about Them.  As I read about Them and learned how to make offerings, and what kind of offerings specific Gods might like, I started to do prayers, to make offerings, and learned how to divine so I could better understand Them.  I had to reforge links with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir through trial and error.  Only after a few years of being a Northern Tradition and Heathen did I finally have an Elder to look up to, ask questions, and seek guidance from, and it dramatically changed my life.  She had done the same in her own turn before me, and I benefited from that.  There was so much I was able to grasp and explore because I had help in filtering things through a sift of experience, someone with the ability to separate ice cream from bullshit.  It helped me to grow in the religion, and it helped me to better understand myself, the Holy Powers, and my place in things.  While we are having to work with a broken lineage to our ancient, polytheist past, having Elders and co-religionists to rely on now helps to ease the burden of the journey.

I do not believe we would struggle as much in terms of basic dialogue, understanding, walking these paths, or learning about and from our Holy Powers if our lineages were still intact.  What is facing many animist and polytheist religions now is how to navigate these lines of separation.

I see these as issues that directly relate to most polytheisms having broken lineages, and being actively addressed now:

  • A basic lack of familiarity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of a given tradition. Not everyone needs to know every God or Goddess, but there are more than a few Gods who often get short shrift when, because of cosmological function, community function, or relationship with everyday life, They ought to be better known. For instance, Gerda.
  • A basic lack of familiarity, understanding of, and engagement with religious protocol. Things like the implications of the guest/host relationship factor really big into polytheist religion, and it ought to have more of an impact on how we frame our relationships given how these ideas influenced and continue to influence, when they are known, the lives of those who engage in reciprocity and guest/host relations in a way that is respectful to both and upholding of reciprocity between them.
  • A basic lack of familiarity with ritual purity. These don’t have to be elaborate. These can be simple things, like washing the hands and face before offerings, or taking a shower before holy day celebrations.
  • A basic lack of piety. The very bedrock of how we engage with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir need not be all bowed heads and uttering long prayers, though for some that may be the expectation and it is on the worshiper to fulfill it. A basic lack of piety means that even reverence at a shrine is not tended to. Things like the offering cups are cleaned on a regular basis, or you don’t just offer when you want something; you maintain a good relationship with a God, Ancestors, or vaettir. It would be like inviting Grandma over, not having cleaned or even prepared a meal for her after not seeing for a year to hit her up for cash.
  • A basic lack of understanding core principles of a polytheist path, such as the aforementioned reciprocity, guest rights/host rights, where one’s place is cosmologically and in relationship with the Holy Powers.

There’s so much more, but on a baseline we would have these things taught to us and modeled for us as a matter of course as part of being in polytheist societies.

Since our Ancestors did not stay the course, whether by sword, torture, starvation, and/or their choice of conversion, we can only speculate so far as to what they would have done.

Reconstructing and reviving the animist/polytheist religions requires us to do what we can as we can to revive, reconstruct, and/or revitalize the religions and cultures we are engaged in with the help and/or direction of the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. Where there are unbridgeable gaps in knowledge, we ask Them to help us fill in the holes, to create a whole, healthy religion and spiritual understanding in which They are tightly wound.  There are several factors worth thinking on in how we reconstruct, revitalize, and/or renew these religions.  A good overview of this, written by Caer, and exploring the ideas of antiquity and modernity in the context of these conversations can be found here.  One of the major factors being considered by a lot of folks is on modernity, and whether it is a help or hindrance to this.  I am firmly of the view that modernity is a deep hindrance to understanding and embracing a polytheist worldview.

Looking at life and the world now, there is little room for my Gods. Where would I look for my Gods in modernity when so much of it is built on the bones of sacred places and their worshipers? Where would I look for my Ancestors ways’ in this world when the holy sites of the old countries these cultures hailed from (now often tourist attractions/traps) have to be fought for just so they aren’t paved over or removed? Where would I look in modernity for the vaettir when companies gleefully bulldoze 10,000 acres of old growth forest just for 100 years of unfettered limestone mining?

Modernity demands my silence in one hand and pretty looking shackles in the other. It promises to spare me from direct shackles that others bear on my behalf so that my computer can be built, the electricity runs, the Internet and all the various apparatus that keeps it afloat keep on running. It’s colonialism by other means, with all the ‘externalities’ bought and paid for with the blood, sweat, tears, misery, and lives of other people. Part of my work in service to the Gods is to sever that cycle when and wherever I can. Modernity is a poor substitute for a religious teacher.

Polytheist religion informed by ancient cultures which were based in Europe is not synonymous with modernity’s Eurocentrism. Rather than encourage such a mindset, if we were to pay close attention to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and live in better concert with Them, it would be quite a revolutionary act. It would discard the largely Eurocentric-based and upheld myth of evolution which placed Christianity, then later atheism or agnosticism at the top of the proverbial heap. It would discard the notion that animist, polytheist, and similar religions were backward, misguided, or that what was found within these religions was something better relegated to a bygone period.

Animist and polytheist religions generally embrace living with and within a world we inhabit with our Holy Powers, where their considerations are taken into account. To my mind this is part of piety and reciprocity. It is a powerful, subversive, and revolutionary thing to regard a stream, lake, piece of land, one’s home, or wherever one goes to be full of spirits, and potentially a home to the Gods and/or Ancestors in addition to the vaettir who call that place home, or ARE that place. It is no small thing to consider that the rights of such a place to be free from damage is part of the rights of the land itself as the land itself is a vaettr (spirit) and/or collection of vaettir (spirits), or it may Itself be a God or many Gods.  It also demands that our religions live in the now, and not be ossified in the past, bound only to what the lore, or what archaeology can tell us.  Most reconstructionists will tell you this is generally what happens in reconstruction anyhow.  It’s a methodology for how to take in and work with information, rather than a religious model itself.

I had to tackle this head-on when I became a priest of Anubis.  There was no temple structure.  I was learning from someone outside Kemetic orders, traditions, etc., and all I had to go on was what they taught, and my ongoing spiritual work and communication with Anpu when they left my life.  There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel that goes on in modern Pagan, animist and polytheist religions, at least in America, because infrastructure is so lacking, very often all we have are books to look to.  If you are lucky enough to have a local community, you may have one or two folks somewhere in your wheelhouse who want to do ritual with you.  If not, it’s a loner’s game.

What I do not mean to say is that infrastructure, hierarchy, etc. is the only way for polytheists to do things moving forward.  Some folks simply don’t work well within such things, and that is fine.  For others, belonging to a hierarchy is actually at odds with their path for religious reasons, such as a taboo, what role(s) they may serve within a community, etc.

For a lot of folks, though, there’s a deep desire to have functioning communities.  Some people would like these with temples, structures, community events, festivals and celebrations, and so on.  This requires some kind of hierarchy to organize and to keep going. At the very least if one is part of a polytheist religion where the heart of the culture stops and starts in the home, a hearth culture, someone needs to teach the other family members the religion, and/or help keep devotional work, offerings, and so on, on a regular basis.  At the other end of the spectrum, a full-on temple could require things like dedicated temple staff who are the only ones to care for the icons of the Gods within an inner sanctum, with some staff dedicated either on a full-time, part time and/or volunteer basis to do maintenance and care for the temple.  While more hearth culture forms of animism and polytheism may not require much in the way of financial support, more complex and elaborate forms like the temple complex example above, absolutely do.

Each animist and polytheist in each animist and polytheist religion will be affected by these choices, and it will affect how future generations receive and understand their religion and culture.  In repairing our broken lines, we have to ask ourselves which lines we are able to repair now, which ways we accept may not be reparable, and what new lines we will make with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  How these broken lines are worked with, repaired, or made new will determine what religions future generations inherit, contribute to, and pass on, or whether future generations receive a grounding in the religions to begin with.

Thoughts On Clergy, Laity, Hierarchies and Roles in Polytheist Religions

January 6, 2016 13 comments

This is a reflection on a post written by Keen, titled On Pagan Clergy, Layfolk, and the Struggle for Selfhood.  Some of what I have written here will be pulled from comments going back and forth with Keen on the article, and some will be from my thoughts since then.

 

As I was reading this post I found myself struggling a bit. I get why Keen is writing what they are, and agree that clergy need to be part of the solution, especially because in the hierarchy of things, we’re placed higher on the queue than others are for the reasons they mention in the post.

Part of what I do in my own group is consistently remind folks they all have things to contribute, things worthy of hearing, and that the measure of what makes a prayer or offering good is whether the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir like and accept it. I also make a point of emphasizing that I do not and cannot know everything. I actually really like it when I can hand part of a lesson or ritual over to someone else. It takes me out of the facilitation role, even if for a few minutes, and into the experiential one. It doesn’t mean hierarchy disappear, per se, but it does mean that everyone knows they’ve got stake in this group.

The problems seen as within hierarchy stems more from that our society has deeply dysfunctional relationships with hierarchy than that hierarchy itself is a source of problems.  Many of the ways that hierarchy functions,  such as the reciprocity between folks in a hierarchy, the complimenting of responsibilities that should help build up folks within a hierarchy, etc., are completely out of whack in our country.  Would-be Congressional representatives ignore the needs and desires of their constituents to the point where it blase now to say that legalized corruption has a death grip on our political processes.  The societal contract between States and workers is so shredded that it is an expectation in some cases that the pensions promised will be ‘negotiated’ or legislated out of existence so the younger folks can have a hope at a job just a bit above what would keep them out of poverty.  Bosses of all kinds hold the fact that employees need to make a living (read: provide for basic needs like food and shelter) above their head, exploiting their labor for personal and company gains in some of the worst ways.  Officers wield immense power over whether a person lives or dies, and the justice system actively works to shield those who, were they in a different walk of life or profession, from facing responsibility for their abuses of power.  These, though, are societal problems and not issues of hierarchy itself.  Hierarchy and roles are not abuses of hierarchy and roles.

Roles are important, and I think part of the issue that has emerged quite a bit is that there are a lot of roles lacking in modern polytheist religion. There are folks, like myself, who the Gods snap up and say “come do this thing!” and we go and spend time and a lot of hard knocks learning how to do it, whether it is priest work, spirit work, becoming a priest, becoming a shaman, starting a group, or what-have-you. Then there are folks who don’t get snapped up, and the communities around them have little to nothing for them to do, whether that is the communities around them form before they’ve gotten these lessons, or there are just not enough interested folks in this or that direction to form one, a million reasons.

A given person may have no desire or ability to lead, so while they might have a great knowledge base, they have no personal reason to put their name out there. Another might have been badly burned and is still in recovery from the last time they put themselves out there. Another may simply not know where to start.

In some cases, there is active backlash against establishing or established hierarchy, which can be an impediment to community building. I dig established hierarchies and find it important to know where I am in a pecking order, even if there is no pecking order, so at least I know if I am among a group of peers or there is someone I should be looking up to for cohesion. Part of why I was able to get so much done alongside my fellows when I worked for a nonprofit for 3 years was because each of us knew our role and responsibility and had established protocol for working together. How things were decided on, such as program design and budgeting, was a matter of everyone knowing Robert’s Rules of Order. This allowed us to know how to propose ideas, how to deny them, how to debate the merits of a given proposal, and how to present to one another in a way that communicated clearly and effectively.

This point
“it is no wonder that the layperson’s reaction to this anxiety, this threat against their sense of selfhood and their relationship with the Gods and spirits, is to try to become clergy themselves”

and their last point:

“keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.”

are other points where I was finding some struggle.

In the ancient polytheist cultures I have studied, there were roles for folks that made sense according to the religion, culture, and societal mores of the time. Part of the issues I think we are seeing are for the reasons I noted above, and because most modern Pagan religions and polytheist religions do not have them yet, or have actively dispensed with hierarchies. Rather than being a completely useful device for getting people engaged in a religion, I see that this flattens the field so that people feel like they need to be everything at once. However, there was a reason one consulted an oracle and not, say, the local baker. Their skills were not honed in the area of oracular work, divination, etc. even if they may have had the knack for it, especially to the degree of a full-time (or even part-time) diviner. That did not mean the baker was not necessary. Far from it. It meant the skillset of the baker was different from that of the diviner. I’m also not saying the baker could not be the diviner, like somehow laborious jobs might make a person less fit for divination, I’m just using it for example’s sake.

My issue is that it seems there’s quite a lot of pressure put on clergy, spiritual specialists, etc., to take this weight off of other people. As I am someone who doesn’t see hierarchy as an impediment, but a potential boon, part of how I view this is that the religious leaders, specialists, etc., regardless of the size of those they are leading, should be empowering folks to live full, active religious lives, just as they should be living full, active religious lives. The particulars of that life will differ according to responsibilities to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, the same with regard to one’s duties to community, family, other obligations, etc. I think this weight need to be removed both by the leadership and by the laity.

I also recognize that there are certain places in which, as a spiritual specialist with a highly active religious life, I simply will not be able to have folks able to empathize as well with me. My wife, Sylverleaf, is one such person. She is not a spiritual specialist, is not a leader, and is very closed from a spiritual input standpoint. She’s just as polytheist as I am, just as good as I am, and is very comfortable being laity. Sometimes I have to take a good deal more time to explain why I feel I need to do this or that, i.e. I need to do something because I have gotten ‘flash traffic’ from a God or Goddess I serve, or an Ancestor or vaettir wants something, and will help me with this or that in exchange. She may not understand how I am getting the information, but she is supportive both in the sense that she helps me do what needs to get done, and that she also will ask direct questions that may help me reevaluate or think deeper on a given request. On a few occasions, her help has had me go back to the negotiating board.

Likewise, I do not empathize as well with folks who do not have very active religious lives because I have seldom had one. When Sylverleaf gets ‘flash traffic’, though, it’s rather unmistakable, so with her there’s often not a large sussing out period, certainly not as much as with me. Part of what I do for her is help to keep a regular offering schedule and help set aside time for prayers. I grew up Catholic, so regular prayers and ritual times are something I am used to, whereas she grew up in a mostly atheist household, and it is harder for her to remember to do things regularly.

So, I think that laity and spiritual specialists and leaders can be helpmeets for each other, but it takes negotiating these relationships to a better degree than has been done. I certainly don’t hope to have all the answers, but I hope I am adding something useful to the dialogue around these things.

They asked me to elaborate on these points:

“I know that there is always talk of what kinds of relationship “styles” are possible to have with a Power, but rarely does that translate into a wider discussion of community relationships, with the Gods and spirits being considered part of the community ecosystem, you might say.

Might you have thoughts about that?”

Roles, in my experience, are trickier in online space. I mean, the thing with physical groups in proximity is that yeah, you can walk a way, but there is more on the line. These are people you share physical space with, folks you might have eaten with, and you might have had guest rights with them in their home. It’s more vulnerable, or a ‘closer’ kind of vulnerable in my view, and so, it is also has the possibility of being more intimate.

Relationship styles with the Holy Powers can have community-wide impact, but then again, we’re back to what constitutes a community. My relationship with Odin is easy to ignore online, relatively speaking, since all it takes is clicking that little ‘x’ in the top right of the screen if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, thinks it is loony, etc. and doesn’t want to bother writing a rebuttal to what I have said. Beliefs, information, all of it is easier to ignore or amplify online because of the way a lot of social media works, and increasingly (especially automatic or database-created) Search Engine Optimization that can allow for more of an echo chamber.  Whether your community is mostly/entirely online, or mostly/entirely based in a physical community changes the dynamics of how the relationships can unfold, where one may hold the primacy of one’s own experience, how validation can help shape one’s religious experiences and understanding, and a number of other factors I could spend several posts going into.

Religious communities help to establish boundaries around our understanding of, and relationships with the Holy Powers.  The looser these ties are the easier it can be to dispense with ill advice, but the same is true with good advice that may be uncomfortable or hard to take.  The ties we retain online are different than those we hold in physical spaces, and I am not one to say online relationships are wrong or fake.

I maintain a good number of my relationships, including with a good number of my fellow polytheists, online.  Talking with one of these friends on Facebook is all well and good, but meeting them at Many Gods West, sitting down to dinner with them, and enjoying their physical company, and dialogue, is quite a different thing.  Even meeting with some of these folks on Skype is still not the same as meeting in physical space.  Having done ritual online in different programs such as Second Life, and through the medium of Skype, there are different dynamics going on, and there is a sense of ‘being there’ but also not ‘being there’ that is utterly different from worshiping with folks in physical space.

Community relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir can be greatly affected if someone is in a powerful personal relationship with a/the Holy Powers. Close, powerful community relationships can also greatly affect our relationships with the Holy Powers as well.  My entire life is engaged in the worldview of a polytheist, and my powerful personal relationship with Odin, the taboos He and various Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir have put on me, echo in ways big and small throughout my relationships. Folks who are close to me know about my food taboos, for instance, and so meals may be in part shaped by (or my bringing food) my taboos. In this regard it is not very different in terms of impact from my diabetes: folks who know I have it will try to have food I can eat even if the main course is carb intensive. They’ll let me know what’s on the menu ahead of time so I know to adjust my diet or if I need to get something else, I can.

What I just described is guest/host Gebo relations, reciprocity, gift-for-a-gift between guest and host. These factor pretty heavily into the various animist and polytheist religions and traditions, so while it may seem simple on the outside, these considerations get heavier in terms of spiritual weight and moral impact when one is an animist/polytheist than such things would be for someone who does not have such spiritual conditions around guest rights, host rights, and reciprocity between guest and host.

This has deeper impacts in terms of who I will and will not interact with. For instance, if I know that a group will be present that is actively hostile towards Loki, unless I am directly ordered to by Odin, I will not attend.

When it is brought up for serious discussion, as opposed to just being berated or sneered at, the subject of what function a godspouse would serve comes up. I would say that godspouses can, and actually do serve community functions, but how that comes about is entirely a result of how they and the Holy Power(s) negotiate the relationship, what form(s) it takes, if it has any impact on their community/communities, and so on. Basically, I am trying really hard not to gainsay the Gods here. Because I could say something general like “Godspouses are here to connect in a powerful, vulnerable, intimate way, and through this, bring to light different aspects of their God/dess and offer an understanding of their God/dess to others through that connection.”

I could also say that godspouses are a manifestation of a relationship with someone we humans can relate to here in Midgard, and through the godspouse we could come to a deeper rapport with a given Holy Power. I think that each godspouse may or may not have a mission or purpose of this kind to fulfill. It needn’t even be that kind of mission or purpose. A given Holy Power may simply desire companionship from a human for the duration of their life. It may be that a Holy Power wishes to manifest its Presence through this companionship and make Themselves known through this relationship. This person may simply be special to Them and has assented to a lifelong relationship.  It may be an expectation a culture places on certain cultus-holders or it may be a way of beginning a new cultus entirely.

In my view, though, very few powerful spiritual relationships are only about a simple connection, though I do not deny they could be. After all, I’m not a godspouse, and I wouldn’t speak on behalf of them when I’ve neither the experience nor the calling to be one. I can only speculate from the outside.

When it comes to folks like myself, called to spiritual specialist positions, leadership, and the like, the religious stances I take and the spiritual relationships I have, the alliances I forge, all of them interplay with one another. Hamingja, the interconnected luck of a community, means that I not only need to be very careful in fulfilling my obligations, but also to be mindful that any alliances, relationships, and so on that I start can affect the luck of those within my innangard (those within my gard, or inner circle), for good or ill. The relationship dynamics of those who are in one’s innangard, then, take on powerful new meanings. So if I screw up on a taboo, like the guest/host dynamic above, for instance, that can have repercussions for others in my innangard, and even those not as close, like some of my blood family who don’t share space with me and I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

When folks really tease out the implications of the world being full of Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, how we treat the Holy Powers and where we are in the hierarchy in relationship with and to Them become very important pretty quick. If I am living next to a stream that feeds my crops it is in my best interests to have a good relationship with the God/vaettr (depending on how It identifies and your relationship with/to It) of that stream. In my view, I am a guest on the land I live on. Many of the landvaettir and the Gods of this land were here long before I was, and will be long after I am dead. Certainly the old landvaettir can hold more sway than the younger by dint of experience, power, spheres of influence, etc. The oak growing on our property has a permanence here should it live well that I will not, and even when it dies, it is not ‘separate’ from the land, so much as the individual tree has died and its individuality may remain or fade, much like myself in relationship to the communities around me, when I die. Perhaps, like the tree, my persona will live on, be communicable in some fashion. Maybe certain soul parts like the liche will stick around with some or all of my persona intact to receive offerings, dispense advice, or chit-chat. Maybe I will become part of the landvaettir after awhile where I am buried, or immediately on being placed in a mound. Same with a blade of grass. I think this is not something I can fully answer, because each life and death is its own unfolding in wyrd, and how those strands interweave is part of the pattern, and I can only see so much.  Also, I’m not Hela, Odin, or any other God or Goddess who holds/hosts an afterlife.

It is a humbling feeling to understand the grass, the dirt, all the crawling things beneath your feet has as much if not more right to be there than you. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re automatically subservient to Them any more than They to us, but it is a recognition of where we are in the web of things, and where we stand in terms of our circles of influence, and power to affect change and wyrd. So, to me, hierarchy takes on a kind of immediacy in understanding where we are in the scheme of things, who holds what power over/to do/to act when and where, and what spheres of influence we carry or are affected by. In some ways I am quite powerful in comparison to the stream; I can divert its flow, utterly destroy it with a machine, or mold its banks so they irrigate the way I see fit. If I angered the stream God/vaettr/vaettir by changing it in a way it did not want, it could respond by not giving up the water I need to water my crops, flood my crops, or drown me if I went to swim in it. Questions of consent and partnership are part of the equation here if the world around us has moral and spiritual weight not just for them, but for us as well. Making sure we get our due is also important, but I tend to emphasize the Holy Powers getting Theirs since our society does a hell of a lot of taking without much, if any, giving back.

This worldview and the resulting understanding, idea, morals, and so on trickle out, from the concept of Gebo, hamginja, innangard, utgard (those outside one’s personal circle; outside the gard or wall), one’s place in the hierarchies of Beings and where one is in relationship to the Holy Powers.

Being an animist and/or polytheist comes with taking on a powerful worldview, or set of worldviews, and all that results from it. This worldview shapes and affects ones’ relationships with the land one lives on, the company one keeps, and the way one conducts their life.  It can affect what one eats, one’s calling in life, and what paths can open up in a given person’s lifetime.  Equally so, it can determine what paths close, what ways are best to avoid, and provide direction when one is confused on where to go.  The worldview of animist or polytheist religion(s) hold within it an understanding of hierarchy, where one is in relationship to all Beings.  An animist/polytheist worldview affects how one understand the Holy Powers, how one forms relationships with Them and maintains them, and where they may find expression in one’s life.  These things unfold, helping us to weave our wyrd with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and is woven throughout our lives, relationships, and communities when they are not only thought on and considered, but actively lived.

 

 

 

Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 2

October 9, 2014 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redefining Words and Claiming Space

January 22, 2014 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 1

January 2, 2014 6 comments

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

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

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

and here:

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

These quotes from PSVL got me thinking as well:

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

Continuing here:

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

This hit it home for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Part 2 is here.

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