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On Polytheism, Rhetoric, and Politics

March 17, 2016 10 comments

Politics and polytheism is not a conflation.  Rather, the one’s involvement with the other is an outgrowth of being human.  Politics is defined by the OxfordDictionaries.com as “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power”.  What we are seeing stretch out across the blogs, Facebook, and in personal interactions is not a bad thing, in my view.  It is absolutely necessary.  Polytheist communities need to figure out our politics, the rhetoric we employ, the authorities we trust and empower, and what hierarchies we are engaged in and will be choosing to build up.

Rhetoric is “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”.  It is how we speak, how we help our ideas to become known, and to become accepted.  As with politics, to do this well takes training, whether self-study or through mentors, teachers, and the like.  Rhetoric forms the foundation of how our religions informs us through the worldview it espouses and the place in which it sets us.  Politics is part of the rhetoric, rather than being able to separated from it.  When we talk of religious communities, there is rhetoric in that phrase alone, as much as what comes out of the community and its members.

The difference between those who are members of a religion and those who help to shape the core rhetoric is not a moral idea, but one of spheres of influence.  In other words, hierarchy.  You do not need to be named as a leader to be a leading voice that drives the rhetoric of a movement, any more than being the head of a religion actually means that you will drive the rhetoric of that religion.  This comes down to authority.

Authority is defined as “The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience“ and “The power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something”, and with regards to people, is “A person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert”.  Hierarchy is defined as “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority” and “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”

You may actively oppose the entire notion of leaders and still be a leader.  You may actively try to cultivate leadership and never be reckoned a leader.  Authority, then, is something given to a leader whether that leader is a willing one or not.  Authority is not always gained by consent.  In some cases authority invested in certain people is a given, such as an employee’s relationship with their supervisor in being employed by a major corporation, or being a Catholic and holding the Roman Catholic Church as the spiritual authority of the religion.  Authority in academia is invested in those who have positions within the field that are respected by those who have put the time and experience into the field and treat one another as peers.  In other cases, authority is taken up by a despot and enforced through the use of power.  Sometimes authority is seized upon by a person giving or being viewed as giving voice, such as in populist politics, to the energies, emotions, and feel of a given group of people.  Sometimes authority is relegated to an ‘us’ rather than a singular person, such as in consensus-building endeavors.  However it is made, relegated, maintained, taken or given, authority plays a part in communities.

In polytheism we have many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  Whether or not these Beings have authority over us as humans depends on your religion, its worldview, cosmology, these Beings and Their relationships to the religion itself, that religion’s worldview, Their placement(s)/function(s)/etc. within the cosmology, Their relationships with one another, the understanding of relationship between ourselves and the Holy Powers, and finally, potentially, your personal relationship with Them.

What is unmistakable in polytheism is that there is hierarchy and authority as part of these religions.  Hierarchy is part of polytheism because of the basis of discernment that polytheism as a word describes: “The belief in or worship of more than one god“.  If you are worshipping a God, then you are not the God being worshipped.  You are not the Gods, then.  On a baseline there must be a hierarchy within polytheism as there are Gods and not-Gods, those who are believed in or worshipped and those who are believing and worshipping.  To deny this is to deny the basic understanding, definition, and relationships that polytheism requires for a polytheist to be a polytheist.  It may not be a hard or inflexible hierarchy in every instance of it, but hierarchy is there nonetheless.

There is authority in polytheism because the cosmology is ordered in a certain fashion by and/or from many Power(s), and/or Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  For instance, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, Wyrd is the authority which governs the existence of all things so that the Gods Themselves are bound up in it.  Odin is the authority which created Midgard in the first place in the Creation Story of the Northern Tradition.  He did it by exercising authority and power, and destroying the hierarchy that came before Him, that of His Grandfather Ymir’s reign.  He replaced the hierarchy of Ymir with His own.  He was given authority over the Aesir as chief by the Aesir who followed Him with this act into the formation of Asgard.  In this, He was also bound by the rules of the Aesir as chief, and was bound to the authority of the rules of Their tribe which bound Them together as Aesir.

The basic rhetoric of the Northern Tradition is that hierarchy and authority are found in many places, and in, of, or by relationship.  The different Worlds are held in authority by certain Gods: Surt in Muspelheim, Freyr in Alfheim, and Hela in Helheim, for instance.   Hierarchy is not merely how how a society orders itself.  There is actually hierarchy in nature, but it is not the first definition that this is found in, but the second.  That is, “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”.  What is important to a rabbit is different than what is important to a wolf.  Who is important to that rabbit or wolf is likewise relative.  Threat vs. non-threat, food vs. not-food, pack/burrow vs. outside the pack/burrow.  Animals use discernment, and with discernment hierarchies are created.  The complexity of these classifications and their import into deeper topics aside, separating ourselves off from animals in this understanding is actually a big part of the problem I have with many of these criticisms because they are anthropocentric.

Hierarchy within polytheism does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or individual spirits are less important than the Gods, but that each Being’s importance is relative.  Relative to what?  The cosmology, one another, the World(s) They inhabit/interact with, and with/to us.  In other words, that second definition I just pointed out above.

Hierarchy within polytheism in relation to a given God’s society, such as the Aesir, is bound up with the first definition: “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority”.  Odin is the chieftain of the Aesir, as is Frigga.  More to the point, She keeps the keys to Asgard, and can deny Him entry, and has.  There are rules dictating the conduct of a chieftain and there are consequences to breaking those rules, and Odin paid that price.  There’s also the authority one wields and hierarchy of power considerations when one is within a God or Goddess’ place, such as Freya’s field Folkvanger or Frigga’s hall Fensalir.

This understanding in the Northern Tradition applies with regard to ourselves in our homes.  In my home visitors and I are in relation as guest and host which brings with it certain obligations as guest and as host.  Otherwise, we relate as cohabitants.  In either case, a guest and host both have rights, as do cohabitants, and there are rules of conduct we obey in these roles.  What hierarchy I enforce or is enforced as a host with what authority, when and how, is determined by if you are a new guest that does/does not understand these rules, or if you are part of the religion and understand these things well.  I might be more forgiving of someone new to my home who violates a small guest obligation whereas I may cleave deeper to tradition with people who are part of the Northern Tradition and have (or should have) this understanding.  Each Northern Tradition house may have different hierarchies and rules for their home.  When entering someone’s home for the first time I will usually ask for a rundown of any obligations that are placed upon me as a guest, rules of the house, and other things I am obligated to ask by being a member of the Northern Tradition.  If a rule of the house would violate an oath or a taboo and the host is unwilling or especially unable to accommodate me, I leave.  This is respectful of the host as the host, and myself as the guest, and it respects the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I hold that oath or taboo with.

Several writers, both of blogs and comments, have noted that the current atmosphere in polytheist discourse is fostering hard-lining.  I am in agreement with Dver on Rhyd’s post here, that it mostly has to do with having to contrast ourselves in regards to other religious paths, and atheists.  The us vs them atmosphere is one in which clear dividing lines were laid down, and as differences between folks on different parts of the political spectrum started putting down deeper lines, these too became more hard-line as the two sides have begun defining themselves not as themselves, but in opposition to one another.  Again, I see these things as natural outgrowths rather than things to be avoided.  I would like them to be minded and acknowledged where and when we can.

How our personal politics plays into our religious expression is a highly personal thing even if we can say a few things across the board as polytheists.  It is also highly personal in relationship with our Gods.  Relating this to some of the current discussions that have gone around the polytheists and their communityies lately, I find that casting aspersion on those who offer bullets to the Morrigan is as unconscionable as casting aspersion on those who offer their bodies on the front lines of protest as an offering.

Where I see things are getting lost is when polytheists on one side say ‘But protesting is not offering water or bread and these distinctions are important’ and the other says ‘How can you say that my offering is not worthy?’ when the critique (however well or poorly it was made or received) was meant to include protests as a form of offering, but not at the exclusion of offerings of food and water.  Another aspect of this is that some of us simply do not have the time or cannot afford, at the expense of other obligations, to show up for a protest.  We cannot offer that pound of flesh because our families would suffer.  That does not make my offering of work to feed my family and buy a bottle of mead bought with that work less than one who spent those same eight hours protesting.  They are different and mean different things to our Holy Powers.  Further, they’re what we are capable of giving.

On the other side of this, especially in regards to the bullets-as-offerings, I find that folks are rather missing the point of offering bullets to Gods of war.

Let me take this from my own experience: I wanted to learn how to hunt, and appealed to Skaði for help in this.  Over the years I picked up a good traditional longbow with a hefty draw weight for relatively cheap from a friend who taught me how to use it.  A dear friend of mine (who I consider family) offered to teach me how to hunt.  I paid good money for the bow and arrows from my friend, and picked up other supplies down the road when my family-friend was getting ready to take me hunting.  I bought bales of hay to shoot at.  I prayed to the landvaettir when setting up the targets for their permission, and when I felt I received it, set them up.  I prayed to the landvaettir every time I started practice, and prayed to the spirit of the bow and the arrows, and to Skaði Herself.  Every shot I made I offered to Skaði.  Every frustrating miss, every on-target hit.  I have developed to the point where I have been able to hit the hay bale with every shot at the maximum range where I could expect to hit a deer with a traditional longbow.  These offerings are offerings of strain, anger, and skill.  Had I been able to get a deer, She and the landvaettir would have been getting offerings from the body of the deer.  The deer itself would have gotten offerings as well, and had it given permission or made its desire for this know, I would have crafted its bones and/or antlers into ritual objects, and/or given it a home in my house and made it regular offerings.

The dedication to learning how to shoot my bow, and the skill that I gained by training with the bow is not unlike those who train with the gun.  If my bow was the best way of defending myself or my family I would use it to kill a human being.  One person may be practicing with a gun to go to war, another to hunt, and another for self-defense.  I see these as in keeping with Skaði.  From what little I know of The Morrigan, this is in keeping with Her nature as a Goddess of sovereignty and war.  So too, I understand my offerings of arrows to Skaði are similar if not the same as another person offering The Morrigan bullets.

The difference is the geopolitical backdrop right now.  Arrows have been used for war, and are drenched in the blood of untold billions of lives.  The only reason they are not under the same microscope right now as bullets in regards to offerings is they’re not used by the US and other militaries.  Machetes are a a symbol of the Orisha Ogún, are tools for construction, navigation, harvesting, and are weapons of war and massacre in their own measure, and yet they receive none of the ire from the left reserved for bullets despite this.  This is why folks on the opposite side of this issue will levy charges of racism at those (predominantly) on the left in regards to this issue, among other ones in regards to slaughter and sacrifice.  It seems as though the religions of the African Diaspora, African Traditional Religions, Hinduism, and others with weapons like these as symbols and/or as part of offerings are currently being used in massacres and genocide are given a ‘pass’ for ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’.

What else are we to understand when those on the left say that ritual sacrifice is primitive, brutish, less evolved and the like, only levying this charge at polytheists but not, generally, at Santeros, Hindus, or at Jews or Muslims for their own ritual slaughters?  Even when consistently charged across the board, the charges of ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’ are still steeped in colonialism and capitalist ideology of what is a ‘right’ relationship with the animals we eat: that of consumers rather than in relationship with them, even, or especially, when they are part of our meals.  This insertion of the consumer as the ‘right’ or ‘most right’ relationship with our food is a denial of a reciprocal relationship with our food.  This assertion is unacceptable to all the polytheist religions that I know of, whether one is vegetarian or not, because this actively denies our lives are utterly dependent on other lives, and also denies much, if not all of the dignity of the lives that are taken so we may live.  It denies that our interdependence on their lives relegating the Beings we eat as ‘the consumed’ alone, and in so doing, denies recognition of their full Being, and reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir which have given Their lives so we are able to live.

These ideas of relationships, reciprocity, and obligations are a fairly central in polytheism and animism, whether or not one’s thoughts on the matter are in regard to priests, priesthood, shamans, and other spiritual specialists from polytheist religions.  A friend of Rhyd Wildermuth said “if your relationship to a god is one where you ‘must’ do something for them or else, or you must do so because a priest told you that is what you must do, you are confusing a god with the government, Capitalism, or your parents”.

This understanding of ‘must’, of obligation and duty, is rather central to how polytheism operates.  Gebo, *ghosti, and other understandings of reciprocity fall under this understanding of ‘must’ in terms of how oneself, guests, strangers, and others are treated, what the obligations between kin are within the religion(s), and so on.  Obligation and duty are part of the basic skeleton of religious language, and it is through this understanding of the meaning of obligation and duty within our lives that we come to understand how to relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in the first place, which ones we would be best suited or called to in forging relationships, and which we should or must avoid.  Does that mean that we can refuse to participate in these obligations and duties, ignore taboos, and so on?  Certainly, but there are consequences for failing to live up to our part of a given relationship.

Priests serve a duty to the communities they serve, even if initially the only communities they serve are those of the Holy Powers.  In terms of human/Holy Power interactions, priests often serve a hierarchical role in polytheist religions because they are people who have dedicated time, energy, skill, and other aspects of their life, if not the whole of it, in service to the Gods.  Not everyone has the inclination, desire, aptitude, or ability to do so.  It is not that priests are inherently better than non-priests or that they are to be the sole source of authority on the Gods, but that they, ideally, have proven themselves trustworthy to their community, and are reckoned by other means, such as training, initiation, public recognition, and so on.  So yes, they are spiritual authorities, but they are one among many.

Those of us who cross over between spiritual specialist categories, as I do, having been called to service in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry as both a priest and a shaman, try to make it fairly clear where one role begins and the other ends.  Is there bleedover?  Sure, but I need to be able to point to something and say ‘this is priest work’ and ‘this is shaman work’, and ‘this is where they can mix’.  This means that discernment and determining what situation I should be wearing which hat, or if I am a good fit at all for the situation at hand, is quite important.  Again, this relates back to the person/people trusting me as an authority in the religion, that I carry that authority with integrity, and acting within the hierarchy I am part of in how things should be carried out as a priest, a shaman, and when it is/is not appropriate to mix the two, when it is not appropriate for me to be involved, and/or pass it on to someone else.

Understanding the roles of authority, hierarchy, rhetoric, and the clear understanding of our relationships with one another are, in my view, only part of spiritually mature religious groups.  Outwardly recognizing and affirming how we interact with one another and in what ways is part of how we respect each other and the spaces we are in.  This is a key piece to developing better, consistently constructive dialogue and bridge-building.  Respecting one another means I do not come into another’s space, say their ways are wrong and insist they should reform their religion to formalize or eliminate their lineages, hierarchy, and sacrifice.  It’s not my place because it isn’t my community.  Disagreement on powerful things such as authority, hierarchy, beliefs, and so on are one thing, but insistence on everyone towing the same line is quite another.  Likewise, it is rude for folks who disagree with formal sources of authority, hierarchy and/or sacrifice (including not only sacrifice of animals, but also food, liquids, of the self, service, and so on) to come into polytheist spaces where these are expectations, obligations, and ways of relating to the Holy Powers that are part of respect and worship in the religions that observe them. If you are not called to gather in community or to honor the Holy Powers in this way, far be it from me or anyone else to gainsay Them, but at least do me the respect that the selfsame Gods we may worship may call me to things you may not wish to do.

As I have said several times here on this show, the problem with painting with too broad a brush is it misses the nuances, colors, and textures of other brushes.  I may say things about polytheism on a broad basis, and folks are fully within their rights to disagree with me, even vehemently.  Gods know there are things I have in my own right, sacrifice and offerings being among the topics I have butted heads with others on.  There are a lot of polytheist religions, formal and informal, organized and individual.  Even within the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, we certainly don’t agree on everything.  As a tribalist Northern Tradition polytheist and Heathen, what my concern comes down to at the end of the day is those who share my personal community, my Kindred or tribe, and the places where we intersect with others.  It isn’t that the larger polytheist communities aren’t of concern to me, (otherwise why write or comment on this at all?) but that by putting my words out there would, I hope, be part of constructive dialogue around these things.  I would also hope that all these words would be taken in the context that I cannot, and will not speak for all polytheists.  I do want my voice listened to, and to be part of the Polytheist Movement and general polytheist dialogue, but I recognize my voice is one among a great many.

We do not need to agree on much, save being hospitable in one another’s spaces, acting with respect as both guest and host, and when disagreements arise, and Gods’ know they will, doing our best not to assume the worst of one another.

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Why Animism and Polytheism are Radical Religions in Capitalist Societies

July 23, 2015 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the documentary, Žižek states:

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

Polytheism’s radicalization within capitalist and capitalist-leaning countries is present because it holds sacred what capitalism finds disposable; any social or legal contracts capitalism makes is easily shredded or ignored for the convenience of the movement of capital and the allocation of wealth.  Any piece of land is a bargaining chip or dollar amount, rather than possessing intrinsic value.  Honor and Gebo in regard’s to one’s word in capitalism is a matter of calculating loss or gain. This poisonous destruction of honor and Gebo can occur in government and private companies alike, as the calculating in this case is very similar. Look at how easy it is for a State to shed its duties to its people through earned retirement benefits, such as pensions.   Look at how easy it was for Detroit to cut so much from the bottom line of fixed-income workers, people who had given 20, 30 years to the city.  So quick as a document is signed, those things are cut.  Look at how easy it is for public lands to be sold to Graymont, 10,000 acres with at least a hundred years of ‘ownership’ are gained with barely a review, and a weak protest from the DNR.  So too with companies like BP, Exxon, and their ilk, who poison the land and balk when their money is demanded for the places they have destroyed in their exploration, mining, and refining processes.  They are hardly an exception, what with the clamoring of all these companies eager for what resources they can get their hands on, contributing little to nothing to the society that they take their tax incentives, resources, and cheap employment from.  Enbridge Energy, despite its excesses of capital and intentional risks it has taken with Michigan’s environment and accordingly the health of its citizens, and its failures to protect the Kalamazoo River, is still not sharing the risk assessment for the pipeline under the Mackinaw Bridge.  It is still pushing for the 60 year old pipeline to continue carrying oil despite the age of the pipeline, its track record, and the concerns of those of us who live near it, or whose waters will become poisoned when it leaks or breaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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