So, I wrote this awhile back and completely blanked on posting it. Part 1 is here.
If there are outward ways of acknowledging the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that are commonly accepted, it then follows that an absence of these can be an indicator of one’s devotion to Them. In the case of a lack of offerings, a lack of hospitality may be seen. If certain prayers, rituals, ritual actions, dietary observances, etc., are expected by one’s culture, Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, then to go without those would also be lacking in hospitality, possibly breaking ritual taboos, and/or hurting the spiritual power of the person, and/or their group(s). Such an act may (and I imagine probably will) hurt one’s relationship with a God or Goddess, Ancestor(s), and/or spirits.
Even with the less human of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits I work with, starting here with baselines of “I do not know you, but I hope this offering is acceptable” at least showed I was making an effort to come to understand Them, even if They had me offer or do something (or in some cases nothing but open my ears) later on. I do what I can to meet the Beings who interact with me on Their own terms; it is respectful and Gebo in my regard to do so. In my experience, in turn, if They wish to have a relationship with me, They try as best as They can to use words, images, sounds, smells, concepts etc. as I can use and/or understand. It is entirely possible with some Beings that They may have a learning curve in kind to us as much as we to Them. Not all Gods are omniscient. Indeed, most of the Gods I have worshiped or interacted with are not omniscient. Sometimes They may well need you to talk to Them or interact with Them in some fashion for Them to know what is going on.
In the end we are navigating relationships, and to seek perfection here is counterproductive. If apologies or amends need to be made along the way, if these Gods, Ancestors, and spirits mean so much to us, we should be willing to meet Them if They are reasonable, and negotiate if not. We should also be willing to be flexible in our understanding of what is reasonable in kind; what may seem a hardship to us may have been expected on a regular basis by Them. If we can develop good relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, then surely we can develop ways to deepen these relationships while giving Gebo and remembering to allow Gebo to come to us in kind. Screwing up happens. Being a responsible person means owning up to one’s mistakes, and where possible, rectifying them.
I would say that a lot, if not all of these things apply to the Gods as guidelines even when the Gods, some Ancestors, and spirits are less human-focused, human-centric, or just plain not like humans at all. Respect, good offerings, hospitality, all of these are baseline in any relationship even if the attitudes and mores regarding what these things are change. I find this especially true if you are going into a place that is definitely a God, Ancestor, or spirit’s place, such as a sacred grove, a graveyard, a mountain, or the like. Hospitality is even more important when you are in another’s home or place.
The only way that I have found to get better at understanding what one should do in a relationship is to ask questions, and then to do it where one can, and bargain or accept one’s limitations and work at them, where one cannot. Even as a godatheow I generally still have the option of asking my Father for options, of negotiating in respect when I believe I am being asked too much. It is up to me to ask for these options, however, and I certainly don’t expect other people to be offered the same paths, options, or consequences (good or ill) as I am. However, for the work of good relationship building and engagement with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits you do not need to be a spiritual specialist; you merely need to be open and dedicated to doing the work necessary to forge and keep these good relationships.
In the Northern Tradition the communities we are part of, allied to, and so on, share and build hamingja, group luck or power. If everyone is living in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestor, spirits, and one another, we are doing well. If not, our hamingja suffers, and so will each person in turn for it. This puts taking responsibility to a different level, in that you are not only responsible to yourself, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, but to those around you. Even a solitary practitioner might have hamingja, since all but the most reclusive of hermits belong to a community of some kind.
This does not mean that ethical consideration for fellow humans stops at the question ‘who is in my in-crowd’, but those people do, generally speaking, carry more weight in one’s life. Practically as well as in many other ways, our families carry a great deal of weight even if we physically leave where our families live. The human communities we engage in, whether via friendship, association, fellowship, etc. all leave marks on our lives great and small. When someone in our personal communities asks for help we are more apt to give it, and vice versa. They are given more ethical consideration, in the end, because their impact and presence in our lives is much more immediate.
In much the same way, the Gods I have active engagement with are the Gods Whom I most care for in regards to my ethics. Do I care about treating the Gods I come across in a ritual well? Of course, and this links back to the earlier points about hospitality. That hospitality is informed by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirit I worship and engage with on a daily basis. For daily considerations and many, if not most of my life choices the Gods I am closest to and worship are the Gods Whose relationships matter most to me, my family, and my communities. So, Their impact and Presence in my life has more pull on it. The same with Ancestors and spirits.
I care about the Earth as a whole. The landvaettir of any place I visit or pass through deserve respect, if not veneration and worship. However, relating to the whole world is damned near impossible for me. I have never been to a desert, for instance. I can relate to it in a kind of detached way, see it as valuable, and believe they should be protected, that the deserts have landvaettir as well, but it is quite another thing to know the desert(s) and Their spirits. I can imagine or be shown how beautiful the deserts can be…from a camera, but to go there and experience it is wholly different. My ethical engagement, then, is limited with the desert and associated spirits as compared to my local landvaettir.
Polytheist ethics and ethical consideration extends to the communities we are part of, to the living, to the Dead, the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, communities, and the ecosystems in which one lives, among many other places. These ethics also extend into the larger world, in places I may never visit. I use less oil when and where I can because I acknowledge the Earth as a living Being. As much as I can, I try to make my negative impact upon this world, through teaching, purchasing, and any way I can find, to be reduced. No decision is made in isolation or without impact upon another. Even if one is entirely reclusive, there are still the landvaettir and one’s local ecosystem to consider in one’s choices. The local landvaettir may include the Dead who live in the soil the landvaettir are made of, the natives of the land we live on now. It may be that the two are totally separate Beings and need separate consideration. I can think of no place where we humans are not sitting, standing, and living on the bones of those who came before us. In this recognition respect and actions that back up that respect go hand in hand.
These ethical considerations need not be jarringly huge, either. I pray to the landvaettir and make offerings before I set up my tent at Michigan Paganfest, where I have helped tend the Sacred Fire the last three years. I pay this respect to the landvaettir because it is not my land.
Then again, an ethical consideration may be jarringly huge in its impact, in the mindset that follows from it, and in the way one lives their life. Even though our modern notions of property ownership may say otherwise, if I own land, even so it will not be my land. It cannot be; the land is Its Own. I may be allowed to live on it, my family, and generations after may be allowed to live on it, but the land is Its Own, and we humans may be part of It, or part of the landvaettir some day but we are not It Itself. I may partner with the land, treat it well, till it, harvest from it, raise animals on it, bury my dead in it, and feel close to It, but I am not the land. This does not mean I do not belong to the land, but that the land does not belong to me. It was here before I was, and will be long after I am dead. I can no more outright own It than I can own Jörð.
When we light the Sacred Fire there are prayers and offerings made to Fire Itself, to the Gods of Fire, to the spirits of Fire, to the wood, to the landvaettir, Ancestors, and other spirits. The Gods, Ancestors, and spirits all deserve our respect, especially the Fire Itself since the Sacred Fire is the heart of the festival for three days it is on. We keep it day and night; to do otherwise is to extinguish the heart of the festival, and to insult the Fire, the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we have asked to be with us in Its heat and light, to sit with us by it and to speak with us when They will. To extinguish It on purpose before it is time is to break our word that we will do all we can to keep It lit throughout the weekend. To throw litter in It is to treat the Sacred Fire as a garbage disposal, which is inhospitable to the communities the Fire represents, and inhospitable to the Fire Itself. To speak disrespectfully of the Fire is an insult to It and the community whose Fire It keeps as we keep It. To treat the heart of the festival, the spirit of Fire Itself, the particular Fire spirit that is the Fire with disrespect, is insulting to the Fire Itself, to each person connected to the Fire, to those who form the community that the Fire is the heart of, and to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and so on that have been called by and to the Sacred Fire. As with people, Fire too can be worked with when insulted, and amends can be made, but it is far easier and more respectful to not have to rectify insults and problems in the first place.
I will continue these thoughts on Ethics and Animism in Polytheism in Part 3.