To hear most news and blog outfits tell it, tribal mindsets are part of the very problem which is subjecting us to such deep divides in the overculture of America and in particular Pagan communities. I would say that the exact opposite is the problem.
What do I mean by this? In the same vein that I completely disagree with folkish groups excluding people based on race or ethnicity I also disagree with the idea that any community should be open to anyone at any given time. I certainly don’t conduct my own Kindred like that. To do that would be irresponsible. You cannot just make familial relationships with anyone that happens by and expresses an interest in being Heathen. Kindreds are far, far deeper than that. These are the people you tie your orlog and Urdr/Wyrd in tight with. These are the people that rank right with your family in terms of priorities. So no, not just anyone can or should join my Kindred.
In other words, there are standards to join, and some of them are quite tangible, such as “Have you read and can you demonstrate an understanding of the lore? Have you done the work of being a Heathen and/or Northern Tradition Pagan for at least a year?” Others, such as actually getting along with current members and jelling with our structure are less tangible but no less important. Race and gender are not areas we care about. What matters to us is whether or not you believe in the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, if you worship Them, and if you mesh with the group and its beliefs.
We cannot be for everyone. Not even Heathenry itself is for everyone. Some folks will never want to worship the Heathen Holy Powers, and that is fine. Heathenry is not for you, then. Some folks will never believe that there are Gods, or that They, together with the Ancestors and vaettir, are real spiritual beings. Heathenry is not for you, then. To just accept that anyone who says that they are Heathen is Heathen is to make the terms Heathen, Heathenry, and the like meaningless. We are not just what we say we are. We are what we believe, and from those beliefs what we do, how we live our lives, and the worldview within which that life is lived.
Where I think a lot of folks in the Pagan and polytheist communities fall down is assuming that universal access to a given religion or tradition is, itself, a good. This is not something most religious communities hold as an expectation. Catholics expect anyone who is going to be an adult member of the Church to be a confirmed Catholic. Pentacostal Christians expect you to have accepted Christ as your personal savior. To put it simply, polytheist religions and Pagan religions are not for everyone. To expect they are or should be denies that there are rules and expectations that our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits hold for our comunities and for us as individuals. It denies that our own communities should develop our own codes of conduct, our own ways of living in reciprocity with our Holy Powers, or that we should decide who and how we should associate with. This is one of the ways in which cultures and religions are created, contained, and maintained as their own.
When it comes down to it, a lot of Pagan communities are actively cultivating their own cultures. Whether it is to communities linked to British Traditional Witchcraft, Dianic Wiccans and Neopagans, Feri, Neo-Wiccan groups, the myriad polytheist communities, and so on, polytheist and Pagan communities are right in the mix of defining for themselves who they are, what they believe, and what they do. The problem is that very few communities within Pagan communities are consciously engaging with an understanding of this or the implications it brings. The problems this brings goes both ways.
Z. Budapest was wrong to create an exclusionary ritual in the midst of a public multireligion gathering whose entire purpose is to bring together people across boundaries of religion, sex, gender, and so on. No matter how wrong-headed I find her gender politics or other views, as much as PantheaCon did not and does not owe her a venue, she has a right to her beliefs, and the right to gatekeep her community. Likewise, this right goes to anyone who chooses to join her. I can think folkish groups are as wrong as the day is long but in every case where I have spoken up and out against these policies, at the end of the day they are that group’s policies and not my own.
At the end of the day these people may be Pagan (in the broadest of senses) but they are not part of my Kindred or tribe. I have no obligation to accept their points of view nor an obligation to defend them. We have no ties of community, and so, no ties of hamingja or Wyrd. Insofar as they fit the criteria to be called Pagan or Heathen or what-have-you they have a right to identify in that fashion, but I hold no desire or compulsion to defend them as members of these religions. That said, it would be dishonest of me, engaging in No True Scotsman and similar fallacies, to deny that they are polytheist or Pagan. This kind of head-in-the-sand attitude is how our religious symbols have been coopted by white sipremacists, and how so many prisons have growing populations of white supremacist Heathens.
This, however, is where I will cross a proverbial line in the sand no matter the side. Since I do not count Z. Budapest and those like her among my Kindred or within my community I see no reason to go after her. Since I do not count folkish Heathens and those like them among my Kindred or within my community I see no reason to go after them. This may seem at odds with my stance here on this blog in regards to groups like Irminfolk Kindred or the AFA. Stating my disagreements with group policies, my disgust with their criteria for entry, my disdain for their politics, etc., does not prompt me to launch doxx attacks or harassment campaigns against them. I will note that in my Irminfolk article members of the group and their supporters did come into my space to hurl insults and death threats. However, I have not come into their space, either in meat space or online space to do likewise to them.
Much of my issue with the left-leaning members of the Pagan and polytheist communities has much in common with those of the right: I disagree with the tactics and many of the aims. I dislike how call-out culture, doxxing, and harassment have replaced discourse, dialogue, and disagreement. I also dislike how, unless you have seemingly signed on wholesale to one side or the other, then you’re open season. Even more open season if you do actually subscribe to one side or another.
In American political discourse I am seen as very left because I believe that trans people are valid within the QUILTBAG community, are the gender they say they are, and deserving of equal rights. I believe in basic things like healthcare being available for free at point-of-care and college being free from up-front tuition costs. In other words, I want America to join the rest of Western industrial society in the basic services our government provides its citizens. All of these things are services well within our ability to provide far cheaper and more efficiently than through for-profit models (look at healthcare costs and tuition hikes in colleges without checks on their growth) all for the good of our country. If I were to take a step back into the wider world, though, I would hardly rate as left in most of my views. I’m center, generally, maybe even center-right by more worldly standards. I believe in weapon ownership being a right while also believing you should have training in handling the weapon(s) you bear, most especially firearms. I view this as common sense, and the onus on the individual no better or worse than being licensed and insured to drive a car. I believe in freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and of the press.
I am not anti-government. I am for sensible reforms to our government, taxes, laws, and so on that will allow us to live well on this planet with one another, within our environments, and with respect to Jordh.
I recognize that our ways of doing things in American politics is in deep need of repair and reform if it is going to be able to address the predicaments of climate change, peak oil, resource depletion, and inequality before us. I recognize American politics may not be up to the task. This is not anti-American or anti-government, but a sober understanding of were we are in reflecting on our politics, economics, priorities, and where our policies in these areas are taking us. Capitalism seems bound and determined to ravage Jordh in its quest for the unequenchable thirst for ‘more’ bound up in a monetary system that must grow exponentially in order to meet the demands of our exponentially growing debt-based systems of exchange. Yet I am also in opposition to the understanding that humanity is ‘bound to progress’, as civilizations throughout time have shown us that not only is this narrative false, but that our Western civilization may just be another civilization due for a decline. I view American capitalism as being generally late-stage and doomed to failure in its state, quite possibly within my lifetime. Only massive reforms or revolutionary change in how we engage with our resources, our monetary systems, and how we treat the environment can affect the kind of change that will stop America from a full-on decline, if not dissolution. Note I am not calling for a dissolution of the government, only that I am recognizing that, between environmental policy, resource depletion, economics, and government running as usual, the USA is headed for decline if not dissolution.
When it comes to how other Pagan or polytheist groups, communities, and venues operate, I pay it very little mind unless it somehow affects me and mine. If Dunbar’s number is right, once we get out of about the 150 person range anyway, our capacity to care for anything more than that dwindles. My reason for keeping to this is twofold: One, my obligations are first to the Holy Powers, then my family, my Kindred, my tribe, my allies, and those within our communities. Two, I have limited time, energy, resources, and care to devote to the things that matter most. If you do not fall within 1, in all likelihood you will not matter to me much. I cannot pretend to care all that deeply about the 7 billion or so that I share this world with merely because we are all human. Those 7 billion or so other people will never share in my daily struggles, my life, or ever be part of my spheres of influence or world except in the most abstract of ways. I cannot relate to an abstraction. So I will not pretend to. I can relate to those who I share community with, and even though much of the discourse we engage in online can and does have ripple effects within our communities, I cannot pretend to have anything other than a largely abstract relationship with most Pagan and polytheist communities. When it comes to many of the hot-button issues that come across my Facebook, Twitter, and other social media feeds, I often will reflect as to whether a given topic is something I should spend my time on, usually with the rubric above or these questions: Is it something that affects mine or me? Is it something that needs my attention? Could my attention be better spent elsewhere? Does my tribe, family, friends, or allies require me to voice an opinion in/on this?
I have a community here in the flesh to be part of, to build up, to help, to support, to tend to. Things that get in the way of that tend to get set aside. The other side of the calculation of “Is this thing worth my time?” is the flip side of Gebo -namely, “Does this thing make itself worth my time?” Does the wider Pagan community contribute to my tribe, my Kindred, my innangard, my family, or to me? Generally speaking, no. While articles and blog posts, Facebook threads and Twitter exchanges may make me think or engage my brain in considering where I stand on things, generally speaking where I stand on things was long decided before I came into these conversations or dove into dialogues going on.
Generally, Pagan and polytheist communities I am not personally part of take far more than anything they give back. Part of this is due to a lack of coherent theology most Pagan groups have. Why? A coherent theology gives structure to a religion, and in organizing and structuring its religion, gives structure to its adherents. Without clear structures within and for understanding one’s religion, let alone one’s place in it, one’s political and/or personal proclivities become the deciding factor on what behaviors and views are correct for one’s religion and conduct. In other words, the religion and all structures change to fit individuals rather than individuals fitting a religion when theology lacks, or when religious structures are ignored or eschewed. From religious structure comes the basis for how we live in the world, and every single religion that I know of sets up in its basic foundation what right relationship with the Holy Powers, and from that with one another, looks like. When theology and resulting religious structures do not form coherent narratives, structures, or stories, I often see that non-religious elements are incorporated, whether that is from politics, science, or whatever interest the group or person holds.
Gipt fá gipt (gift for a gift in ON) exists as a given with the basic structure of Heathenry. It is in how we conduct ourselves with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and with one another in communities. It is how we understand and set up all our relationships. When someone lacks this basic understanding it becomes painfully clear how one-sided a relationship is, and unless the other party is willing to do some values-adjusting, there can be no useful relationship.
Another major stumbling block I am finding of late is that much of the Pagan and polytheist communities are mixing morals and politics in a way that is utterly toxic to discussing either subject. Morals are “Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour” and “Holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct“. It is important to note the key term here: principles. That is, “A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning.” Politics, meanwhile, are “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power” and “The principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status”. Morals and politics are two separate spheres that, when blended, can and have turned exceptionally ugly. One needs only look at the Moral Majority and the knock-on effects it has had since the 80s to see how it deeply impacted the political situations of their time, and how that movement still drives a good deal of political dialogue and situations now. Similarly, one can look to the Communist Revolution in several countries, such as the Soviet Union and China, and its destruction of religious structures, identity, etc. In a sick twist, these nations then twisted the kinds of symbolism and fervor from those often reserved for religion and into adoration for the State and its leader(s).
This is not to say religions should not hold religious morals with political outlook, or even that political/moral principles should be absent from religions. One of the two definitions above for politics is “principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status“. A given religion may be very egalitarian, with moral reasons grounded in its theology for being so; its political principles, then, are founded in egalitarianism. Likewise, a religion with a defined hierachy grounded in its theology is founded in a hierchical political view. In this relationship the morals inform the unfolding of politics rather than the other way around. I have yet to find a religion that says one must be, for instance, a registered Democrat or Republican. Many Heathens tend towards conservative agendas and candidates, yet in American politics I tend to skew left. Nowhere, as a religious grouping nor in my Kindred nor my allies are we required to be part of a political outlook or party. We hold principles from which our political values are informed and flow, but our religion does not dictate to us our politics nor do our politics dictate to us about our religion.
I see politics informing religion as utterly dangerous. Anyone who proposes mixing their religious morals with political agendas needs to only look at the Moral Majority of the 80s or the Army of God type movements in the example of Joel’s Army, The Family, and similar groups which wield disproportionate power now in the Republican Party. Look at the countless dead of the AIDS epidemic as those who suffered and died were blamed for their condition, their ‘sin’.
Today, there are calls from within Pagan and polytheist communities to unite under various political banners such as communism, anarchism, communitarianism, monarchism, primitivism, socialism, capitalism, and individualism, among others. Rather than Pagans and polytheists coming together and finding common cause in these various political views the shift has gone from “Pagans and polytheists tend to hold these political views in common” or “these groups hold these political views in common” to the implication, if not the outright statement, that to be a Pagan or polytheist (or at least a ‘good’ one) you need to subscribe to a certain worldview and/or set of politics. This is not a viewpoint limited to any one political camp; I have seen leftists, liberals, centrists, conservatives, and rightists all make similar claims. It is poisonous and dangerous because it ascribes religious authority to political theories.
It would be one thing if, say, a given polytheist community had a ruler as part of its religious makeup. Those who chose to be part and remain in that religious kingdom would still retain their political rights and freedoms, even should they choose to subsume them beneath this ruler. If all must be free to choose their own way religiously and politically then this freedom must continue to be held even if it means that a person willingly gives power over themselves to another person. Many Protestant churches operate in just such a fashion with de facto kings, we just know them as pastors, reverends, or bishops, operating within variously-sized kingdoms. Examples of famous figures would be Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and Joyce Meyer. The Catholic Church and its various offshoots have never dropped their own hierarchy, with church leaders at varying times wielding different amounts of temporal authority over the centuries.
Some might say this is splitting hairs and any talk of people making religious kingdoms or the like are engaging in religious politics. They would be right, but the implication that this difference is unimportant is a wrong one. Any tribalist Pagan or polytheist group operates under the assumption of a religion having political roles. I have said many times here and elsewhere that Mimirsbrunnr Kindred operates under a tribal worldview and organization. I am the godhi of the Kindred. In this tribe I am the chieftain and its head priest. I am trusted by the community with the power invested in me as a chieftain and a priest. I am leader of the community and the Kindred’s representative to the Gods under the authority of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and under the consent of those part of Mimirsbrunnr Kindred. Should the Kindred decide to do so without me, the Kindred could disband at any point in time. In doing so we accept the consequences for doing so to any Holy Powers or fellow community members they have made in regards to oaths, promises, and so on. Ties of hamginja and megin are not easily broken, so anyone choosing to go this route thinks not only of themselves, but of the whole group collectively and each member individually. This is also true in regards to our regular choice to stay as an active Kindred. We choose each and every day we remain to tie our hamginja and megin tight, to live in good community with one another, in good Gebo with our Holy Powers and with one another. Our morality informs our political structure and how we conduct ourselves within and without the sphere of our own Kindred.
This understanding that religions engage in the political sphere in both the worldview and structure of the religion, as well as its intersections with larger society, does not stop with tribalists in Heathenry with polytheist and animist spiritual worldviews together with chief or similarly-organized group structures, nor Catholics with canon law and heavy hierarchical structures with Supreme Pontiff being among the Pope’s titles in Catholicism. Any religious group that comes together has a spiritual worldview from which its organizational and political worldviews (which may or may not be exclusive from one another) are derived. Whether the structural model for how leadership, decision-making, and other necessary aspects of organization are made is egalitarian, strictly hierarchical, or some other way, the foundation and structure of organization are in the foundation of the religion.
Folks are utterly right in this sense that it is impossible to separate politics from any thing because politics feeds into and touches all things since it is how we organize ourselves and our societies. On the other hand I would argue that if, as a polytheist, your aims are not for the worship, reverence, and living in relationship with the Holy Powers first, but rather for the attainment of some end that benefits humans or human society for its own sake then you are engaging in some form of politics. This is easy enough to see with Christians who are called on to leave the jugment of souls up to God and to take care of the poor, yet worship in megachurches while members of their own congregations face death penniless. This is easily seen when those same communities provide so little support for mothers and children within their communities while going on about how abortion needs to be stopped. Political activism and political organization, restructuring, etc., may be borne out of one’s religious convictions and calling, but we need to be cleaner and clearer when one is one and one is the other.
This seems to be less clear for folks when looking at the left. In part this is because the left is far less organized and codified than a lot of the right is. The left tends to have a problem with hyper-specialized language, the priding of obscure and/or academic minutae in both the forming of and keeping of left-oriented political communities and thought, and being far less accessible to the average person as a result. A favorite saying among many left and left-leaning folks is that it is not their job to educate, while in direct contrast the right and right-leaning folks produce pamphlets and media that easily and effectively educate others on their ideas, aims, structure, and goals. Where there may be differences in the details of structure, most right-leaning and right-wing religious groups follow top-down hierarchical models almost exclusively with cis heterosexual men in leadership positions. Because it is better organized and has been covered better, both by mainstream media and by what Pagan and polytheist media there is, I would argue that the right in general is far easier to see, and so, its excesses far easier to diagnose right now. Because many of the positions of the left are those many in Pagan and polytheist communities at least sympathize with if not actively embrace, there is less focus on groups being founded in left-oriented politics and philosophy. When leftists are calling for people in Pagan and polytheist religions to tear down or remove hierarchies from their organization they may not only be attacking organizational and political structures of a religious community. They may indeed be attacking a community’s religious worldview or structure that holds certain positions needing to be fufilled. Certainly a tribalist Heathen group needs a godhi or gydhja to lead it, if for no other reason than to fulfill the tribe’s need for a ritual specialist.
I am not a communist, Marxist, or anarchist. I find that Marxist and anarchist philosophies engage in no small amount of thought stopping in their engagement, whether it is the supposed Worker’s Uprising Marx believed was coming, or any number of utopian fantasies where the common people take over and all ends in mutually beneficial distribution of resources and labor. I have little hope such atheist salvific fantasies will come to light, and little hope that even stepping stones to more equitable distribution of wealth such as Universal Basic Income will ever come to the USA’s shores. Anarchism on its own is so bogged down in infighting, minutae, and ways of organizing (or resisting organization) that I find it hard enough to talk about in any meaningful sense, let alone engage with any of the particular sets of philosophies the different ‘camps’ engage in.
My general impression of anarchy is similar to that of communism: both have good critiques of the shortcomings of capitalism, especially modern/late capitalism, but both are utterly inept at providing workable solutions to the problems and predicaments they identify. Between the infighting I have been privy to from each group of communities and to the inability to organize people, let alone build solid foundations of community, I have no hope any of the camps of these two political philosophies will ever gain a foothold or provide useful ways forward to tackle the predicaments ahead of us. Further, both sets of these communities are generally atheist, and directly opposed to many of the major things I believe in as a Heathen, including my Holy Powers as real Beings worthy of worship, and the Heathen tribalism that is my worldview.
It is worth pointing out that I started writing this post in August of 2018 and it has gone through at least eleven revisions in that time. As I came back to it in the time since, I reflected on the things that I have written, and that have grabbed my interests in the fifteen years I have been a Pagan, about twelve of which now I’ve been a Heathen. Something I keep coming back to again and again is foundation.
Understand that I was a devout Catholic when I converted. I firmly believed in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Nicean Creed was not a mouthed thing to me; it was the organizing principle of my life. I went to church and took Communion. Prayer was (and is) a vital, powerful part of my life, as were mystical experiences as a Catholic. My faith community was not lacking in many of the regards that I have heard or read for why folks become Pagan. I was called by Gods that I could not ignore as I had when I was a young teenager, and I finally made a firm break with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit first, and then the Catholic Church.
I gave up salvation. Let me empasize that: I walked away from the Savior first, and the salvation His sacrifice offered me. I was choosing to walk into the fires of Hell when I walked away from that relationship. I was walking into the arms of my Gods, yes, specificially first into Brighid’s at the time, but understand what a leap of faith that is for a person raised in and firmly committed to the Catholic Church. I walked away from everything I knew because my body, my heart, my soul was being called by Someone Else; it turned out over the course of time to be a lot of Someone Elses. I walked away from the church I had attended since I was a kid, giving up fellowship with the hundreds of people who I had shared Holy Communion, devotion to God, devotion to Christ, and devotion to the Holy Spirit with. I gave up my relationship with the support of the Church itself and the billion or so members it has throughout the world. I was very conscious my choice could, and almost did, cost me my relationship with my family.
I walked towards the Gods because They called me. Who and what I am, the course of my life, all of it was changed because of who and what They called me to be. With all that I have given up, risked, and done to be a polytheist, a Heathen, a Pagan, it should be of little wonder that I believe, strongly and fiercely, that our communities need to be strong in our theology and theological convictions, orthodoxy, and the actions and work that come from them, orthopraxy. Understand then that when people attack the idea of theology, religion, polytheism, or say we should “set aside” our theology or the structures, hierarchy, and so on that follow on from them, or when the idea of worshiping Gods, Ancestors, vaettir or Gebo and reciprocity itself is attacked, you are attacking the very worldview polytheists live. In doing that, you are attacking us as polytheists. The foundation of my life and that of my coreligionists is bound up in this worldview and our place within it.
People will ask, sometimes horrified, if this worldview and foundation takes place prior to human concerns. It has to. One’s culture, one’s religion, one’s worldview is the very foundation of how one relates to everything. This is as true of polytheists as it is of atheists, as true of naturalists and humanists as it is of Platonists and Stoics.
If one’s culture, one’s religion, and one’s worldview is the foundation of how we relate to everything, then it follows we need to build and maintain solid foundations for our communities and their worldviews. We have people becoming polytheists who need that foundation. We have second and third generation polytheists coming up now who are living within these worldviews and who will build on these foundations. We cannot build these up if we are constantly ripping them up or modifying them for political expediency, whims, or convenience. I would see polytheists build for our communities, whatever their size, what we are called to by the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to build. I would see polytheists build for the needs to meet these callings and the needs of the communities themselves. Whether we are before our altars and shrines alone, or gathered in hearths, Kindreds, tribes, or other groups, whatever our organization I would have us build and grow like Yggdrasil: deep roots, able to weather storms, with plenty of space for all the Beings under and above Its branches.
The overculture of America is divided, as are Pagan communities, but this is not inherently a bad thing. Monocultures suffocate pluralism, ossify and become brittle. America’s overculture is grappling with a few monocultures coming under pressure from within and without. Certainly so is America’s Pagan overculture. It is not unlike someone planting a forest of a single tree. Tribal mindsets are healthy growths from different trees rooted in different soils. This tree is not less of a tree for not being that one. We do not need to draw from the same roots to share the forest.