Thinking on Polytheism and Media

I thought this would be a fun topic to explore as I’m working on finishing up the On Ritual Praxis series of posts.

So much of my thinking on media has been shaped by a key number of factors, including my own perspective as a polytheist, my consumption of and conversations around media with family and close friends throughout much of my life, the books Narrative Medicine and Coyote Medicine by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and looking at various video bloggers such as Bob Chipman aka Moviebob or Lindsay Ellis on the role of media in modern life. I use the previous two video bloggers as jumping off points for a lot of thoughts on the very topic of this post because they give nuanced and comprehensive looks at the material they review, and both acknowledge biases they carry up front.

Media is a shared source of culture. It is the music, podcasts, and audio novels we listen to, the news, movies and shows we watch, the books, magazines, and papers we read, and so on. Rather than attach polytheism to an aesthetic, style, genre, etc, polytheist religions and their adherents embrace many Gods, and right along with this embraces many forms of media, and its attendant aesthetics and styles as well. Each kind of media we have the ability to engage with has the capacity to connect us, to enforce or renew our connections, to deepen our relationship with our polytheist religions, Holy Powers, and one another. It’s other edge is that it can do the opposite.

Right now my ears are filled with Flykt’s Forndom as I write on this phone. Much of my playlist is filled with works of similar music, including Wardruna, Heilung, Hagalaz’ Runedance, and Paleowolf. I lean to furs and leathers in my winter dress and t-shirts and shorts in the summer, usually with some kind of geek/nerd or religiously meanginful iconography on the shirts. Folk music and polytheist-oriented podcasts or Great Courses audibooks fill my ears most often. Among the shows I watch are the Marvel Netflix series, anime such as Princess Mononoke and Wolf’s Rain being among my favorites, and documentaries about history, religion, technology, and science. My wife recently turned me onto the English Heritage channel and the BBC series Tudor Monastery Farm on Youtube. I play video games as diverse as The Walking Dead, Civilization, Final Fantasy, and Battlefield. I am a long-time tabletop RPG player, DM, and storyteller.

Despite my various forms of engaging with modern media, as a polytheist I often find myself frustrated. Media’s modern incarnations are so often geared towards the marketing of lowest common denominator material that its overall contribution to the positive development of society has been, and will likely continue to be debated for a long time. Set that aside, and most of the media made is not made for polytheists and much of the media makes that quite clear up front. Modern media is part of culture, and any part of media has a hard time breaking away from the mindset in which it is based. Modern American media, as modern American culture, is so mired in a Protestant Christian mindset, arguably the most toxic elements of Calvinism and Puritanism being its largest holdovers, that it seeps into many space in which there are actual diversities of work taking place.

The last video game I remember playing in which a polytheist religion figured prominently in the plot was in Mass Effect 2, where one of the squad characters worships many Gods as a matter of course and his gods and relationship with them explored in a generally respectful manner. In many of the books that I read polytheism is simply part of the landscape, such as the Jim Butcher Dresden Files books, or American Gods. These two both come with their own caveats. In a funny twist Harry Dresden has interactions with many Gods, but in this he draws a distinction between his interactions with Them and with his friend, Michael Carpenter’s faith as a Catholic, in that Harry does not need to believe in these Gods. They just exist, and his jury is out on Carpenter’s Catholic God. Despite being surrounded by Gods, and in some cases having contractual relationships with different Gods and spirits, Dresden never commits to worshiping any. This is not a problem in and of itself, but Dresden never comments on any but a Native American medicine man/wizard character working with spirits in a relationship rather than transactional way. No one in the Dresden universe has ever to actually have been shown to worship Gods, despite how much They show up and have pull in many of the plotlines he is involved in.

American Gods subordinates the existence of Gods to living through Their worshipers. The central conceit of the story is that Gods are real and live, but their ability to live and affect reality is enabled through the minds of their worshipers, the memories their descendents carry, and through the offerings that the few who believe in Them give. Where Dresden is an agnostic, Shadow is wandering into a world full of Gods, both ancient and modern, blind. As an audience surrogate to start with, he is not bad. Gaiman could have done far, far worse. Shadow struggles with doubt and disbelief in ways familiar to many of us who worship Gods, and his path in the book is similar enough to how I began working with the Old Man that the first time I picked up the book my jaw dropped at some of the parallels.

As a polytheist my view is that both works suffer from positioning the Gods as real, but their worshipers as unreal or utterly absent. As neither Butcher or Gaiman seem to engage the Gods and Their worshipers as being real in their respective works the polytheist view is utterly lost to agnostic points of view embodied in Dresden and Shadow respectively. Are the Gods real in these works of fiction? The simple answer is “Yes”, and the more complicated answer is “Real in what sense?” Butcher’s Dresden universe seems to treat the Gods as real Beings with Their own motivations, some at loggerheads with each other and others in cooperation. His view of the Fae is that They have control and power over/with the forces of nature, and His view of Odin is that the Einherjar are real, and the Wild Hunt actually features in one of his books in a really cool way. The Gods do not lack agency, power, or ability to influence the world in his books. However, Butcher’s development of monotheist characters like Murphy or the Carpenter family without any development at any time of polytheist characers or families shows the operating mindset that Christianity and agnosticism are the default worldviews even with the massive amount of Gods and spirits sprawling through his books.

Gaiman does treat the Gods as real with Their own motivations, views, and conflicts. However, his central premise (Their existence relying on worship) robs Them of being understood in Their own terms. His New Gods, such as Media and Technical Boy, are counted as Gods as well, with sharp divides between Old and New, and the dynamics of these relationships are the lattice on which the plot is built. Yet, his treatment of America is that America is hostile to Gods, that They don’t really have a place here. The one time a Pagan is featured they do not recognize Ostara standing right in front of them, nor recognizes the meaning or impact of Her Day. Granted, when I read this part I grinned like a damn fool since I have heard almost the same thing come out of Pagans’ mouths word-for-word, so Gaiman’s strawperson here clearly isn’t built up out of whole cloth. However, at no point is there a contrast to this person, at no point is a worshiper who keeps good cultus brought forward.

For all that the Gods are treated as real in these stories, we polytheists are non-people in these stories. Despite this glaring flaw I do like American Gods and The Dresden Files quite a bit. It is unfortunate that both works have these flaws, not only because I enjoy these stories, but also that these two are front-runners of urban fantasy fiction. These two have set the tone for many of the urban fantasy series in existence now, with many taking far more liberties with the abilities of their various protagonists’ powers, and more liberties with the reality and abilities of the Gods. Where both Butcher and Gaiman in their works seem to have respect for the Gods even if both are agnostic in regards to Them, more urban fantasy fiction seems to use the Gods rather than have Them as part of the reality of the world their characters are in.

My issue is not with fantasy, urban or otherwise, but with the treatment of Gods as mere characters for plot advancement. It seems many authors do not think through the impact that having many Gods takes on a people, most egregious in fantasy settings. A basic example is a story with a forest God in it. If there is a God of the forest it should make an impact on how the local village would interact with the forest and its denizens, festivals, etc. If polytheism is the default for a fantasy world it should have impact on how characters think, act, fight, fuck, marry, work, worship, raise kids (if they do) and express themselves. Many forms of media, not just genres of writing, could use some healthy polytheist mindsets and attitudes not only in terms of worldbuilding, but focus of plot, worldview of characters, and so on.

This kind of critique carries into any creative media where writing or messaging is a key factor. I do not just want more representation in media of polytheism, I want good representations of polytheisms in media. Whether a work of fiction takes place in our world or another, media does impact how we are perceived and does impact how we ourselves can see ourselves. As the saying goes, “Representation matters.”

Yet, we also need to be careful of taking too much of ourselves from media. Most media is made to sell. That which isn’t are often labors of love, thankfully more being supported through platforms like Patreon, YouCaring, GoFundMe, and similar. To my mind these platforms are powerful ways polytheists can support one another without resorting to dumbing down our ways of thought or the messages we may be asked through our work to bring into the world. Certainly, Bob Chipman and Lindsey Ellis use Patreon as their primary source of income so they can do their work on Youtube. Jim and I’s first podcast, The Jaguar and the Owl, had its costs taken care of by our Patreon supporters.

If we support polytheists in their various ways of making media then our media has more reach and better ability to actually be done and make an impact. An artist will be able to fully commit to their art because they are able to focus on it. An artist only able to do their art part-time because they have bills to pay with a full-time job will have a harder time producing consistent quality work. If we want quality work, whether that is art whether digital or physical, leatherwork, woodwork, yarnwork, video, the written or spoken word, music, workshops, audiobooks, or podcasts, we need to support that work.

A starving artist is one concentrating on trying to get their next meal rather than writing their next book, painting their next painting, or knitting their next project. People suffer more than enough just with the work needed to get to making quality media. This attitude that suffering should accompany media is actively unhealthy and halting a great many people who could be putting themselves to working on something of quality.

It is not just the media we passively consume that we need to be mindful of. We also need to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves. When I play D&D, Shadowrun, or a White Wolf game, I run each setting as a polytheist with polytheist assumptions. As much as D&D has contributed to folks thinking about God purely in terms of functionality, i.e. this is a God of Healing, even D&D has gotten better over the years for expanding on and giving the gods of their worlds mythology for characters and players to dig into. A creator god of the elves in the Faerun setting, Correllion, has an active conflict with Gruumsh, the creator god of orcs. This plays out into gameplay, potentially between player characters (PCs) and certainly between PCs and non-player characters (NPCs). At least since the beginning of 3rd edition, gods in D&D have become more fleshed out. Granted, they are still boiled down in stat blocks, being “God of this” and “Domains for clerics are this” and “alignment is this”. For instance, in alignment Corellion and Gruumsh are chaotic good and chaotic evil respectively.

Being mindful of how we consume our media and how we portray gods through it, even fictional ones, can better portray what a powerful impact a polytheist mindset has on the denizens of a given world and in turn give better representation of a polytheist mindset and its impact to one’s players. What does this matter, though? Isn’t this just something we pass the time with? Sure, as with any media some of it can be mindless consumption, but what we are engaging with we are bringing. It does us good to think on the impact that such consumption and sharing media has on us. Roleplay especially is impactful because we are not passively engaged in someone else’s story. Truth be told, if we are actively reading we are not passively engaged in that, either. Humans roleplay and make stories all the time, so the stories we tell ourselves have impact. Far better we take in and engage with stories in which our voices are heard, understood, respected, and engaged with.

There’s a lot of intersection between polytheists and various media just looking at my own interests that I’ve written about here. Rather than keeping our Gods and our views to ourselves, I would see us expand the people our works touch. To this, I don’t mean boiling down our beliefs to something easily digestible to the lowest common denominator. I mean that whatever our creative interests or engagement with media we make conscious choices so our religions are part of them. Some of our views will be deeply challenging to dominant paradigms just on their own. Being polytheist in and of itself is transgressive because our identity is wrapped up with believing in and worshiping many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

I blog, I podcast, and on occasion I make music and Youtube videos. I recognize that for all the good I may do there I am, by and large, talking with my own people. Some media is just going to do that. There is nothing wrong with that. When it comes to developing and exploring ideas in/of/to our religions many of these conversations are only relevant when in dialogue with our fellow polytheists. Even so, I think polytheists could do with being more forthright in our exploration, engagement, and creation of media so that our religions, norms, communities, and we ourselves have more representation, say, and impact on the societies we live in.

There’s a few reasons for why I would like to see this happen. Practically, the polytheist communities are quite small compared to the American population. Yet, if folks can blow thousands of dollars on various media there is no reason I can see that we cannot or should not tap into that as well for our own purposes. Further, so long as we are not in control of our own messages others will be. Polytheists producing and disemminating our own media is part and parcel of wielding power and influence. We can change perspectives by actively engaging in the public spheres as polytheists. Engaging in this way can deepen dialogue, develop perspectives, and open channels of communication between our wider communities and with one another. Engaging with the wider sphere of our cultures through media of all kinds allows our views to be heard and allows for change to take place, great and small, whose course we help to directly influence.

Paying Respect to My Ancestors

In my way, I’m not just related to people by flesh and blood; their spirit, whether we’re talking about the Wyrd they’ve passed on to me, or the kinfylgia, (the spirit-guardian of a family, or the spiritual energies of a family line) or their soul, is part of me.  They made me who I am, whether I am talking about my blood Ancestors or Odin, my spiritual Father.  In paying respects to my Ancestors, I cultivate a closer relationship with Them.  Why wouldn’t I?  They helped to make me; I owe Them that much respect at least.  They gave me the life I have.  That, and several of Them are really personable and cool once you get to know Them.  My great-grandfather emigrated here just before World War I, leaving behind the life he knew and entering into a world he really didn’t.  He joined his family in Michigan, and much of my bloodline on my mother’s side ended up settling there.  My folks haven’t left Michigan, so I have about two or so generations of roots in Michigan depending on where you look.  Considering the economic ups and downs the state has been through, that’s pretty good.  Damned brave, I’d say, especially when times got really rough in the Great Depression.

My great-grandparents and grandparents figured out how to tough it through hard times; my grandfather had to be put in a shoebox in my great-grandfather’s chest of drawers to keep him warm as a baby.  There’s a lot to learn from my Ancestors, not just survival, of course.  How to thrive as a family when you disagreed, especially when times were tough.  How to keep love alive and burning bright when everything else was so cold.  So many beautiful lessons, and so many beautiful relationships to have.

There are, of course, some Ancestors who want nothing to do with me for my religious choice, but my Ancestors’ religious affiliation in life or death does not stop me from honoring Them, or, in my experience, from Them speaking back to me.  There are simply some Ancestors who don’t agree with me and won’t speak to me, and others who do not care.  Like any other family, sometimes you reach an impasse and don’t speak about certain things.  Yet, there is a baseline respect I have for Them, because we are related.  I might not mention Them by name, but They still get offerings all the same.

I venerate my Ancestors because, beyond being worthy of that respect, I want that relationship.  I floated for awhile without that as a Pagan, and given I’ve cut a lot of my roots off after leaving Catholicism, it helps ground me with my blood and spiritual families in ways I would not have credited it.  I didn’t do Ancestor veneration until Odin called to me about four years ago.  During the first year I read a lot of books, and again and again the concept of Ancestor veneration kept popping up, especially in books by Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova.  Well, I thought, There’s got to be something to this.  I’ll give it a shot.  Soon after I was offering incense and some water, and I think, some bread to Them on my altar.  I could feel my Ancestors as I prayed for Their Presence, and something like hands on my shoulders, and beyond that, a feeling of welcome.  I didn’t have a representation of Them at the time.  I just had my heartfelt prayers, a slice of bread, and a brass chalice full of water.  Yet I felt Their Presence as strong as I do when I offer incense nowadays.  Maybe They’re just happy I’m paying homage and paying attention; either way, They are happy, and willing to talk.  Sometimes a lot.  Other times They’re really quiet and we sit together in that quiet just enjoying one another’s company.  Overall my relationship with Them is pretty peaceful, and good-natured.  I’ve only ever really encountered anger when I stopped talking to Them and stopped doing right by Them.  Having your Disir (powerful female Ancestors) sit down and give you a what-for can be scary, considering not only is this your family, but these women in particular have a good deal of pull in it.  Some were shamans themselves, others simply strong-willed women whose echo through the family lines reaches right down deep into mine.

Part of the challenge I have found doesn’t come so much from my Ancestors, but from Hyndla, the Jotun Goddess of Bloodlines and Geneology.  One of them is that I need to find out more about my Ancestors, and another is to learn from Them vital skills.  During my Nine Days on Yggdrasil, I had an ancient Ancestor contact me who taught me how to use the fire-bow method of making fire.  It looked like the Rune Naudhiz as I looped some braided yarn around it, and set it into a dry log.  I have never set a fire like this before, and never was in Boy Scouts or anything else that would have trained me for it, so I was coming at this fresh.  Under her guidance, my Ancestor helped me to make the start of a fire three different times.  I didn’t have any dry fuel, so I wasn’t able to actually keep it going, so I have no idea if it would have caught and built, but I felt accomplished for having done that much.  If my Ancestors can impart this bit of knowledge to me in the course of about three hours, there is so much more They can teach.  This is a survival skill, one that could some day be necessary to saving a life, or making it one more day in a bad situation.   Perhaps that in and of itself is humbling: my ancient Ancestors know more about the bare necessities, the absolute basics, than I as a college-educated adult do.  I can only imagine what else my Ancestors have to teach me.  I look forward to learning, though.

When I say I honor Odin as my Father, it is because that is what He revealed Himself to me as.  I denied it for a long time; I found it unnerving when He first told me shortly after we began to work together.  I thought This isn’t real; how is that possible?  I’m just bullshitting myself.  The Old Man wouldn’t let it drop.  He challenged me to examine the lore, to examine my own heart, and why I was denying what He was telling me.  To go out and get confirmation for myself.  After a number of Rune readings, and readings from totally unaffiliated people to my practice at the time, and some introspection and reading of the lore I eventually came around.  I freaked out about this for a full year before I finally settled down and accepted it.  Something that calmed me down was reading The Lay of Rig, and of the experiences of other people who, like me, were told of or found their connection to a God or Goddess.  Granted, a good chunk of these people that I have read about are God-spouses, but some have found lineage with different bloodlines of the Northern tribes.  Sometimes, not being alone can be a great comfort.  You feel a bit less crazy.  There are still times where I look at it and go How fantastical does this sound? but then I think to the Lay of Rig and all those people.  It helps, too, that not everyone will simply write you off as nuts.  After all, how many religious people say “We are all sons of” this-or-that God/dess?  Odin was supposed to have breathed the breath of life, Önd, into our Ancestors.  Spiritually, He and His brothers gave us life in the first place.  I am always tied to my son by the life I gave him; how is Odin any less with me?  Sure, my son may fight with me some days, may do things I don’t like, but I love him and he is still my son.  Perhaps the Gods know us this way too.  I no longer have an issue with calling myself a Son of Odin, but that is because I took the time I needed to accept it.  Odin, mercifully, gave me the time I needed to accept it.  I am sure that many more are out there, sons and daughters of Gods who have only to embrace their relationships with the Gods.  In honoring that, we can honor ourselves and our deep connections to the Gods.  In honoring our Ancestors, we fulfill what I feel are some of the best lines of the Hávamál:

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned.

Source:  University of Pittsburgh