So now I am inspired to do a month of devotional poetry and song for Gefjon. I am counting the two prayers I last posted for the start of this project. This is the prayer I wrote for Her yesterday. I will have another prayer for Her later today.
Charming of the Plow Prayer to Gefjon
If any know how to Charm the Plow, it is You
If any know the work of claiming land, it is You
If any know the work of tilling the darkness of Jörð, it is You
If any know how to carefully cultivate the grove, it is You
If any know the work of bringing in a hearty harvest, it is You
If any know the work of a well hewn hall, it is You
If any know the work of a healthy hof, it is You
If any know the sacred work of the gyðja’s charge, it is You
Broken lines run through many animist and polytheist religions. In some places, those lines are fairly stark. In others, the division between what was and where we are is sometimes bridged by practices and beliefs based in the old ways. At least for Americans, most of us are completely divorced from even the lived folk ways and folklore that remained with pir Ancestors due to successive generations assimilating, by force or choice, into monotheist and then US culture. We lost connections to where our Ancestors came from, their language, and their ways along with it.
I was never taught any folklore or folkways from Germany, England, Ireland from our family. No songs, no stories, no practices, and only a few recipes collected from family members. I was taught a smattering of German words. There was nothing left by the time I was being raised. I was raised a Catholic, which at least taught me virtues of regular prayer, piety, an appreciation of the Ancestors that came before me, and an appreciation of ritual. Still, by the time I was being raised every vestige of any animist or polytheist inkling had been wiped out of my family.
So, when I felt the call from my Gods, I did what anyone would do in this situation: I read about Them. As I read about Them and learned how to make offerings, and what kind of offerings specific Gods might like, I started to do prayers, to make offerings, and learned how to divine so I could better understand Them. I had to reforge links with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir through trial and error. Only after a few years of being a Northern Tradition and Heathen did I finally have an Elder to look up to, ask questions, and seek guidance from, and it dramatically changed my life. She had done the same in her own turn before me, and I benefited from that. There was so much I was able to grasp and explore because I had help in filtering things through a sift of experience, someone with the ability to separate ice cream from bullshit. It helped me to grow in the religion, and it helped me to better understand myself, the Holy Powers, and my place in things. While we are having to work with a broken lineage to our ancient, polytheist past, having Elders and co-religionists to rely on now helps to ease the burden of the journey.
I do not believe we would struggle as much in terms of basic dialogue, understanding, walking these paths, or learning about and from our Holy Powers if our lineages were still intact. What is facing many animist and polytheist religions now is how to navigate these lines of separation.
I see these as issues that directly relate to most polytheisms having broken lineages, and being actively addressed now:
- A basic lack of familiarity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of a given tradition. Not everyone needs to know every God or Goddess, but there are more than a few Gods who often get short shrift when, because of cosmological function, community function, or relationship with everyday life, They ought to be better known. For instance, Gerda.
- A basic lack of familiarity, understanding of, and engagement with religious protocol. Things like the implications of the guest/host relationship factor really big into polytheist religion, and it ought to have more of an impact on how we frame our relationships given how these ideas influenced and continue to influence, when they are known, the lives of those who engage in reciprocity and guest/host relations in a way that is respectful to both and upholding of reciprocity between them.
- A basic lack of familiarity with ritual purity. These don’t have to be elaborate. These can be simple things, like washing the hands and face before offerings, or taking a shower before holy day celebrations.
- A basic lack of piety. The very bedrock of how we engage with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir need not be all bowed heads and uttering long prayers, though for some that may be the expectation and it is on the worshiper to fulfill it. A basic lack of piety means that even reverence at a shrine is not tended to. Things like the offering cups are cleaned on a regular basis, or you don’t just offer when you want something; you maintain a good relationship with a God, Ancestors, or vaettir. It would be like inviting Grandma over, not having cleaned or even prepared a meal for her after not seeing for a year to hit her up for cash.
- A basic lack of understanding core principles of a polytheist path, such as the aforementioned reciprocity, guest rights/host rights, where one’s place is cosmologically and in relationship with the Holy Powers.
There’s so much more, but on a baseline we would have these things taught to us and modeled for us as a matter of course as part of being in polytheist societies.
Since our Ancestors did not stay the course, whether by sword, torture, starvation, and/or their choice of conversion, we can only speculate so far as to what they would have done.
Reconstructing and reviving the animist/polytheist religions requires us to do what we can as we can to revive, reconstruct, and/or revitalize the religions and cultures we are engaged in with the help and/or direction of the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. Where there are unbridgeable gaps in knowledge, we ask Them to help us fill in the holes, to create a whole, healthy religion and spiritual understanding in which They are tightly wound. There are several factors worth thinking on in how we reconstruct, revitalize, and/or renew these religions. A good overview of this, written by Caer, and exploring the ideas of antiquity and modernity in the context of these conversations can be found here. One of the major factors being considered by a lot of folks is on modernity, and whether it is a help or hindrance to this. I am firmly of the view that modernity is a deep hindrance to understanding and embracing a polytheist worldview.
Looking at life and the world now, there is little room for my Gods. Where would I look for my Gods in modernity when so much of it is built on the bones of sacred places and their worshipers? Where would I look for my Ancestors ways’ in this world when the holy sites of the old countries these cultures hailed from (now often tourist attractions/traps) have to be fought for just so they aren’t paved over or removed? Where would I look in modernity for the vaettir when companies gleefully bulldoze 10,000 acres of old growth forest just for 100 years of unfettered limestone mining?
Modernity demands my silence in one hand and pretty looking shackles in the other. It promises to spare me from direct shackles that others bear on my behalf so that my computer can be built, the electricity runs, the Internet and all the various apparatus that keeps it afloat keep on running. It’s colonialism by other means, with all the ‘externalities’ bought and paid for with the blood, sweat, tears, misery, and lives of other people. Part of my work in service to the Gods is to sever that cycle when and wherever I can. Modernity is a poor substitute for a religious teacher.
Polytheist religion informed by ancient cultures which were based in Europe is not synonymous with modernity’s Eurocentrism. Rather than encourage such a mindset, if we were to pay close attention to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and live in better concert with Them, it would be quite a revolutionary act. It would discard the largely Eurocentric-based and upheld myth of evolution which placed Christianity, then later atheism or agnosticism at the top of the proverbial heap. It would discard the notion that animist, polytheist, and similar religions were backward, misguided, or that what was found within these religions was something better relegated to a bygone period.
Animist and polytheist religions generally embrace living with and within a world we inhabit with our Holy Powers, where their considerations are taken into account. To my mind this is part of piety and reciprocity. It is a powerful, subversive, and revolutionary thing to regard a stream, lake, piece of land, one’s home, or wherever one goes to be full of spirits, and potentially a home to the Gods and/or Ancestors in addition to the vaettir who call that place home, or ARE that place. It is no small thing to consider that the rights of such a place to be free from damage is part of the rights of the land itself as the land itself is a vaettr (spirit) and/or collection of vaettir (spirits), or it may Itself be a God or many Gods. It also demands that our religions live in the now, and not be ossified in the past, bound only to what the lore, or what archaeology can tell us. Most reconstructionists will tell you this is generally what happens in reconstruction anyhow. It’s a methodology for how to take in and work with information, rather than a religious model itself.
I had to tackle this head-on when I became a priest of Anubis. There was no temple structure. I was learning from someone outside Kemetic orders, traditions, etc., and all I had to go on was what they taught, and my ongoing spiritual work and communication with Anpu when they left my life. There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel that goes on in modern Pagan, animist and polytheist religions, at least in America, because infrastructure is so lacking, very often all we have are books to look to. If you are lucky enough to have a local community, you may have one or two folks somewhere in your wheelhouse who want to do ritual with you. If not, it’s a loner’s game.
What I do not mean to say is that infrastructure, hierarchy, etc. is the only way for polytheists to do things moving forward. Some folks simply don’t work well within such things, and that is fine. For others, belonging to a hierarchy is actually at odds with their path for religious reasons, such as a taboo, what role(s) they may serve within a community, etc.
For a lot of folks, though, there’s a deep desire to have functioning communities. Some people would like these with temples, structures, community events, festivals and celebrations, and so on. This requires some kind of hierarchy to organize and to keep going. At the very least if one is part of a polytheist religion where the heart of the culture stops and starts in the home, a hearth culture, someone needs to teach the other family members the religion, and/or help keep devotional work, offerings, and so on, on a regular basis. At the other end of the spectrum, a full-on temple could require things like dedicated temple staff who are the only ones to care for the icons of the Gods within an inner sanctum, with some staff dedicated either on a full-time, part time and/or volunteer basis to do maintenance and care for the temple. While more hearth culture forms of animism and polytheism may not require much in the way of financial support, more complex and elaborate forms like the temple complex example above, absolutely do.
Each animist and polytheist in each animist and polytheist religion will be affected by these choices, and it will affect how future generations receive and understand their religion and culture. In repairing our broken lines, we have to ask ourselves which lines we are able to repair now, which ways we accept may not be reparable, and what new lines we will make with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. How these broken lines are worked with, repaired, or made new will determine what religions future generations inherit, contribute to, and pass on, or whether future generations receive a grounding in the religions to begin with.
This is a reflection on a post written by Keen, titled On Pagan Clergy, Layfolk, and the Struggle for Selfhood. Some of what I have written here will be pulled from comments going back and forth with Keen on the article, and some will be from my thoughts since then.
As I was reading this post I found myself struggling a bit. I get why Keen is writing what they are, and agree that clergy need to be part of the solution, especially because in the hierarchy of things, we’re placed higher on the queue than others are for the reasons they mention in the post.
Part of what I do in my own group is consistently remind folks they all have things to contribute, things worthy of hearing, and that the measure of what makes a prayer or offering good is whether the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir like and accept it. I also make a point of emphasizing that I do not and cannot know everything. I actually really like it when I can hand part of a lesson or ritual over to someone else. It takes me out of the facilitation role, even if for a few minutes, and into the experiential one. It doesn’t mean hierarchy disappear, per se, but it does mean that everyone knows they’ve got stake in this group.
The problems seen as within hierarchy stems more from that our society has deeply dysfunctional relationships with hierarchy than that hierarchy itself is a source of problems. Many of the ways that hierarchy functions, such as the reciprocity between folks in a hierarchy, the complimenting of responsibilities that should help build up folks within a hierarchy, etc., are completely out of whack in our country. Would-be Congressional representatives ignore the needs and desires of their constituents to the point where it blase now to say that legalized corruption has a death grip on our political processes. The societal contract between States and workers is so shredded that it is an expectation in some cases that the pensions promised will be ‘negotiated’ or legislated out of existence so the younger folks can have a hope at a job just a bit above what would keep them out of poverty. Bosses of all kinds hold the fact that employees need to make a living (read: provide for basic needs like food and shelter) above their head, exploiting their labor for personal and company gains in some of the worst ways. Officers wield immense power over whether a person lives or dies, and the justice system actively works to shield those who, were they in a different walk of life or profession, from facing responsibility for their abuses of power. These, though, are societal problems and not issues of hierarchy itself. Hierarchy and roles are not abuses of hierarchy and roles.
Roles are important, and I think part of the issue that has emerged quite a bit is that there are a lot of roles lacking in modern polytheist religion. There are folks, like myself, who the Gods snap up and say “come do this thing!” and we go and spend time and a lot of hard knocks learning how to do it, whether it is priest work, spirit work, becoming a priest, becoming a shaman, starting a group, or what-have-you. Then there are folks who don’t get snapped up, and the communities around them have little to nothing for them to do, whether that is the communities around them form before they’ve gotten these lessons, or there are just not enough interested folks in this or that direction to form one, a million reasons.
A given person may have no desire or ability to lead, so while they might have a great knowledge base, they have no personal reason to put their name out there. Another might have been badly burned and is still in recovery from the last time they put themselves out there. Another may simply not know where to start.
In some cases, there is active backlash against establishing or established hierarchy, which can be an impediment to community building. I dig established hierarchies and find it important to know where I am in a pecking order, even if there is no pecking order, so at least I know if I am among a group of peers or there is someone I should be looking up to for cohesion. Part of why I was able to get so much done alongside my fellows when I worked for a nonprofit for 3 years was because each of us knew our role and responsibility and had established protocol for working together. How things were decided on, such as program design and budgeting, was a matter of everyone knowing Robert’s Rules of Order. This allowed us to know how to propose ideas, how to deny them, how to debate the merits of a given proposal, and how to present to one another in a way that communicated clearly and effectively.
“it is no wonder that the layperson’s reaction to this anxiety, this threat against their sense of selfhood and their relationship with the Gods and spirits, is to try to become clergy themselves”
and their last point:
“keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.”
are other points where I was finding some struggle.
In the ancient polytheist cultures I have studied, there were roles for folks that made sense according to the religion, culture, and societal mores of the time. Part of the issues I think we are seeing are for the reasons I noted above, and because most modern Pagan religions and polytheist religions do not have them yet, or have actively dispensed with hierarchies. Rather than being a completely useful device for getting people engaged in a religion, I see that this flattens the field so that people feel like they need to be everything at once. However, there was a reason one consulted an oracle and not, say, the local baker. Their skills were not honed in the area of oracular work, divination, etc. even if they may have had the knack for it, especially to the degree of a full-time (or even part-time) diviner. That did not mean the baker was not necessary. Far from it. It meant the skillset of the baker was different from that of the diviner. I’m also not saying the baker could not be the diviner, like somehow laborious jobs might make a person less fit for divination, I’m just using it for example’s sake.
My issue is that it seems there’s quite a lot of pressure put on clergy, spiritual specialists, etc., to take this weight off of other people. As I am someone who doesn’t see hierarchy as an impediment, but a potential boon, part of how I view this is that the religious leaders, specialists, etc., regardless of the size of those they are leading, should be empowering folks to live full, active religious lives, just as they should be living full, active religious lives. The particulars of that life will differ according to responsibilities to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, the same with regard to one’s duties to community, family, other obligations, etc. I think this weight need to be removed both by the leadership and by the laity.
I also recognize that there are certain places in which, as a spiritual specialist with a highly active religious life, I simply will not be able to have folks able to empathize as well with me. My wife, Sylverleaf, is one such person. She is not a spiritual specialist, is not a leader, and is very closed from a spiritual input standpoint. She’s just as polytheist as I am, just as good as I am, and is very comfortable being laity. Sometimes I have to take a good deal more time to explain why I feel I need to do this or that, i.e. I need to do something because I have gotten ‘flash traffic’ from a God or Goddess I serve, or an Ancestor or vaettir wants something, and will help me with this or that in exchange. She may not understand how I am getting the information, but she is supportive both in the sense that she helps me do what needs to get done, and that she also will ask direct questions that may help me reevaluate or think deeper on a given request. On a few occasions, her help has had me go back to the negotiating board.
Likewise, I do not empathize as well with folks who do not have very active religious lives because I have seldom had one. When Sylverleaf gets ‘flash traffic’, though, it’s rather unmistakable, so with her there’s often not a large sussing out period, certainly not as much as with me. Part of what I do for her is help to keep a regular offering schedule and help set aside time for prayers. I grew up Catholic, so regular prayers and ritual times are something I am used to, whereas she grew up in a mostly atheist household, and it is harder for her to remember to do things regularly.
So, I think that laity and spiritual specialists and leaders can be helpmeets for each other, but it takes negotiating these relationships to a better degree than has been done. I certainly don’t hope to have all the answers, but I hope I am adding something useful to the dialogue around these things.
They asked me to elaborate on these points:
“I know that there is always talk of what kinds of relationship “styles” are possible to have with a Power, but rarely does that translate into a wider discussion of community relationships, with the Gods and spirits being considered part of the community ecosystem, you might say.
Might you have thoughts about that?”
Roles, in my experience, are trickier in online space. I mean, the thing with physical groups in proximity is that yeah, you can walk a way, but there is more on the line. These are people you share physical space with, folks you might have eaten with, and you might have had guest rights with them in their home. It’s more vulnerable, or a ‘closer’ kind of vulnerable in my view, and so, it is also has the possibility of being more intimate.
Relationship styles with the Holy Powers can have community-wide impact, but then again, we’re back to what constitutes a community. My relationship with Odin is easy to ignore online, relatively speaking, since all it takes is clicking that little ‘x’ in the top right of the screen if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, thinks it is loony, etc. and doesn’t want to bother writing a rebuttal to what I have said. Beliefs, information, all of it is easier to ignore or amplify online because of the way a lot of social media works, and increasingly (especially automatic or database-created) Search Engine Optimization that can allow for more of an echo chamber. Whether your community is mostly/entirely online, or mostly/entirely based in a physical community changes the dynamics of how the relationships can unfold, where one may hold the primacy of one’s own experience, how validation can help shape one’s religious experiences and understanding, and a number of other factors I could spend several posts going into.
Religious communities help to establish boundaries around our understanding of, and relationships with the Holy Powers. The looser these ties are the easier it can be to dispense with ill advice, but the same is true with good advice that may be uncomfortable or hard to take. The ties we retain online are different than those we hold in physical spaces, and I am not one to say online relationships are wrong or fake.
I maintain a good number of my relationships, including with a good number of my fellow polytheists, online. Talking with one of these friends on Facebook is all well and good, but meeting them at Many Gods West, sitting down to dinner with them, and enjoying their physical company, and dialogue, is quite a different thing. Even meeting with some of these folks on Skype is still not the same as meeting in physical space. Having done ritual online in different programs such as Second Life, and through the medium of Skype, there are different dynamics going on, and there is a sense of ‘being there’ but also not ‘being there’ that is utterly different from worshiping with folks in physical space.
Community relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir can be greatly affected if someone is in a powerful personal relationship with a/the Holy Powers. Close, powerful community relationships can also greatly affect our relationships with the Holy Powers as well. My entire life is engaged in the worldview of a polytheist, and my powerful personal relationship with Odin, the taboos He and various Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir have put on me, echo in ways big and small throughout my relationships. Folks who are close to me know about my food taboos, for instance, and so meals may be in part shaped by (or my bringing food) my taboos. In this regard it is not very different in terms of impact from my diabetes: folks who know I have it will try to have food I can eat even if the main course is carb intensive. They’ll let me know what’s on the menu ahead of time so I know to adjust my diet or if I need to get something else, I can.
What I just described is guest/host Gebo relations, reciprocity, gift-for-a-gift between guest and host. These factor pretty heavily into the various animist and polytheist religions and traditions, so while it may seem simple on the outside, these considerations get heavier in terms of spiritual weight and moral impact when one is an animist/polytheist than such things would be for someone who does not have such spiritual conditions around guest rights, host rights, and reciprocity between guest and host.
This has deeper impacts in terms of who I will and will not interact with. For instance, if I know that a group will be present that is actively hostile towards Loki, unless I am directly ordered to by Odin, I will not attend.
When it is brought up for serious discussion, as opposed to just being berated or sneered at, the subject of what function a godspouse would serve comes up. I would say that godspouses can, and actually do serve community functions, but how that comes about is entirely a result of how they and the Holy Power(s) negotiate the relationship, what form(s) it takes, if it has any impact on their community/communities, and so on. Basically, I am trying really hard not to gainsay the Gods here. Because I could say something general like “Godspouses are here to connect in a powerful, vulnerable, intimate way, and through this, bring to light different aspects of their God/dess and offer an understanding of their God/dess to others through that connection.”
I could also say that godspouses are a manifestation of a relationship with someone we humans can relate to here in Midgard, and through the godspouse we could come to a deeper rapport with a given Holy Power. I think that each godspouse may or may not have a mission or purpose of this kind to fulfill. It needn’t even be that kind of mission or purpose. A given Holy Power may simply desire companionship from a human for the duration of their life. It may be that a Holy Power wishes to manifest its Presence through this companionship and make Themselves known through this relationship. This person may simply be special to Them and has assented to a lifelong relationship. It may be an expectation a culture places on certain cultus-holders or it may be a way of beginning a new cultus entirely.
In my view, though, very few powerful spiritual relationships are only about a simple connection, though I do not deny they could be. After all, I’m not a godspouse, and I wouldn’t speak on behalf of them when I’ve neither the experience nor the calling to be one. I can only speculate from the outside.
When it comes to folks like myself, called to spiritual specialist positions, leadership, and the like, the religious stances I take and the spiritual relationships I have, the alliances I forge, all of them interplay with one another. Hamingja, the interconnected luck of a community, means that I not only need to be very careful in fulfilling my obligations, but also to be mindful that any alliances, relationships, and so on that I start can affect the luck of those within my innangard (those within my gard, or inner circle), for good or ill. The relationship dynamics of those who are in one’s innangard, then, take on powerful new meanings. So if I screw up on a taboo, like the guest/host dynamic above, for instance, that can have repercussions for others in my innangard, and even those not as close, like some of my blood family who don’t share space with me and I haven’t seen in a long, long time.
When folks really tease out the implications of the world being full of Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, how we treat the Holy Powers and where we are in the hierarchy in relationship with and to Them become very important pretty quick. If I am living next to a stream that feeds my crops it is in my best interests to have a good relationship with the God/vaettr (depending on how It identifies and your relationship with/to It) of that stream. In my view, I am a guest on the land I live on. Many of the landvaettir and the Gods of this land were here long before I was, and will be long after I am dead. Certainly the old landvaettir can hold more sway than the younger by dint of experience, power, spheres of influence, etc. The oak growing on our property has a permanence here should it live well that I will not, and even when it dies, it is not ‘separate’ from the land, so much as the individual tree has died and its individuality may remain or fade, much like myself in relationship to the communities around me, when I die. Perhaps, like the tree, my persona will live on, be communicable in some fashion. Maybe certain soul parts like the liche will stick around with some or all of my persona intact to receive offerings, dispense advice, or chit-chat. Maybe I will become part of the landvaettir after awhile where I am buried, or immediately on being placed in a mound. Same with a blade of grass. I think this is not something I can fully answer, because each life and death is its own unfolding in wyrd, and how those strands interweave is part of the pattern, and I can only see so much. Also, I’m not Hela, Odin, or any other God or Goddess who holds/hosts an afterlife.
It is a humbling feeling to understand the grass, the dirt, all the crawling things beneath your feet has as much if not more right to be there than you. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re automatically subservient to Them any more than They to us, but it is a recognition of where we are in the web of things, and where we stand in terms of our circles of influence, and power to affect change and wyrd. So, to me, hierarchy takes on a kind of immediacy in understanding where we are in the scheme of things, who holds what power over/to do/to act when and where, and what spheres of influence we carry or are affected by. In some ways I am quite powerful in comparison to the stream; I can divert its flow, utterly destroy it with a machine, or mold its banks so they irrigate the way I see fit. If I angered the stream God/vaettr/vaettir by changing it in a way it did not want, it could respond by not giving up the water I need to water my crops, flood my crops, or drown me if I went to swim in it. Questions of consent and partnership are part of the equation here if the world around us has moral and spiritual weight not just for them, but for us as well. Making sure we get our due is also important, but I tend to emphasize the Holy Powers getting Theirs since our society does a hell of a lot of taking without much, if any, giving back.
This worldview and the resulting understanding, idea, morals, and so on trickle out, from the concept of Gebo, hamginja, innangard, utgard (those outside one’s personal circle; outside the gard or wall), one’s place in the hierarchies of Beings and where one is in relationship to the Holy Powers.
Being an animist and/or polytheist comes with taking on a powerful worldview, or set of worldviews, and all that results from it. This worldview shapes and affects ones’ relationships with the land one lives on, the company one keeps, and the way one conducts their life. It can affect what one eats, one’s calling in life, and what paths can open up in a given person’s lifetime. Equally so, it can determine what paths close, what ways are best to avoid, and provide direction when one is confused on where to go. The worldview of animist or polytheist religion(s) hold within it an understanding of hierarchy, where one is in relationship to all Beings. An animist/polytheist worldview affects how one understand the Holy Powers, how one forms relationships with Them and maintains them, and where they may find expression in one’s life. These things unfold, helping us to weave our wyrd with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and is woven throughout our lives, relationships, and communities when they are not only thought on and considered, but actively lived.
When I wrote my posts Orthopraxy Requires Orthodoxy and Reviving Religions vs. Reviving Cultures, I was happy with the discourse that followed. I’m glad that people wrote about why they agreed and disagreed with my points. I didn’t realize at first that Jön Upsal had wrote several posts following onto my reply to him in the Reviving post.
Jön raises a good point in that I am speaking from the perspective more as a separatist polytheist and less as a mainstream Pagan. I am writing from this perspective for a few reasons:
My personal worldview, religion, etc. consists of Heathenry from an animist and polytheist point of view. At least from my interactions with Pagans lately, the most theist response I get is either duotheism or an ill defined theism that allows for the Gods but also calls them archetypes or thoughtforms, sometimes in the same breath. This doesn’t sit well with me at all, and it’s really not my view, nor how I live my life. So, while I may be related to mainstream Paganism by being both Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, I find myself less readily able to relate to mainstream Paganism as I’m coming into contact with it.
Now, in regards to the model that Jön links to in his rebuttal to the Reviving post, titled Freedom of Conscience, he is absolutely right that I view the model as being the one that gives rise to animist and polytheist belief, that gives rise to the actions that are the expression of those beliefs. The Oxford English Dictionary defines worship as:
The feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity:the worship of God
Without believing that a God is worthy of reverence and adoration, and that the God is, in some way real, of what import is the reverence and adoration of that God? This is not merely a personal question, but also a question of group belief and practice. For some groups this will simply not matter, a subject I went over in the Reviving post. Jön responded to this as well, and it will be covered later.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, it’s not my job to screen people theologically if they have shown up to a public ceremony, which is why I was talking in regards to the sumbel being something I do with people that I know are on a similar theological level with me, both because of the regard I have for such a ceremony, and how the ceremony itself affects those who partake in it. This is a ceremony, at least in how I partake in it, that I have very firm views on. These are firm in no small regard given the oath-taking that can occur during it.
What I find interesting is that in every example I have been provided, by both Jön and in the Reddit threads I found my blog was being discussed in, I feel the main point I was making has been reinforced, that orthopraxy comes from orthodoxy, rather than the other way around. To be clear on this, I’m quoting Jön’s post:
A thought experiment
That said, I submit the following thought experiment as a way to explain why an insistence on orthodoxy, that is, “right belief” is simply impossible on a practical level.
Imagine two self-identified Heathens, Einar and Eirik. Both are members of an Asatru tribe, both attend a Yule gathering. Both have many friends in the tribe, and bow their heads respectfully during the blót to Freyr while they are sprinkled with blood, both sit at high places at the sumbel, both give gifts in hall, and both make beautiful and impassioned toasts in honor of Freyr, their ancestors, and their host.
One of them believes the Gods have a real existence outside of ourselves, and one of them believes the Gods are merely mythological archetypes.
Which is which?
Unless you can answer me that question, then I submit that the answer doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t care. It’s impossible to police, as long as the non-believers take my advice from a week ago and simply go with the flow, as it were. That’s apparently what they’re interested in, supposedly.
Regardless of whether Einar or Eirik is the polytheist or atheist, they are both drinking from the same spring if they are from the same tribe. The right thought informs the right action, the right thought and action being decided upon by the group, and not by either Einar or Eirik. The right thought here is respect during the sumbel and giving the Gods and whomever has the cup/horn their full attention and respect. What I find interesting is that in this example, both make impassioned toasts, but neither one is said to actively make an oath before the Gods, which is one of the sticking points in my own example. This is also where I get into the part where we talk about groups oriented around culture and those oriented around religion, and Jon’s point here:
I don’t have to understand their position to understand that they might well have a reason. I’m not their judge. So when Sarenth says something like this:
Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense.
I have to hold myself back from yelling at the screen, “it doesn’t make sense to you, but it might make sense to them!“
He’s right, it doesn’t need to make sense to me. However, there is a big difference between having empathy for another person, and accepting their view as being as valid as my own. In this regard, I do not accept atheism as being part of religious Heathenry for reasons I’ve made before. Also, my point in the quote he is making is that holiness and sacredness at terms are tied into the Gods and the cosmologies They are part of. I am speaking in terms of theology as well as etymology in this post of mine he quoted, which was a more overarching look into why atheists claiming use of words like ‘holy’, ‘sacred’, and so on do not make sense. Keeping in mind as well, that in my Reviving post, I was making a lot of “I” and “my” statements. I was speaking from and to my own experiences, beliefs, etc. If a given Heathen group fully accepts atheist members, that’s their choice, and I welcome them to it.
This is also where I get into the difference between a living culture and reviving a religion. My tack is in reviving the religion first and the culture following on from that, given that the overculture where I live is generally WASP, and that building up Heathen culture without it roots in the religious worldview and practice seems totally at odds in my mind with the revival of the culture to begin with. From his writing, it seems that Jön is rejecting that, or taking the opposite view.
That said, this point is another one where I think he is making my case for me:
Orthopraxy stems from tradition and custom.
Okay, but what informs tradition and custom? Right thought, right action. How so?
Two ways, by looking at the meanings of the words tradition and custom, and the example he provides:
OED defines tradition as:
The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.
A doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures, in particular.
OED defines custom as:
A traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.
As to Jön’s example, here in terms of blót:
And how can we tell? One of the elements of blót is the taking of auguries and omens to see whether the offering has been accepted.
Not all of us have the benefit of Gods talking in our ears all the time, after all… Does your kindred or tribe or whatever harbor respectful unbeliever practitioners within its midst? If that really was something the Gods didn’t want, it would be reflected in the luck of the tribe. I’ve never heard of a systematic study being done, of course, but I would think if that did happen, the circumstantial evidence would quickly make the situation clear.
So following this train of thought we can:
-Have offerings accepted or rejected.
-Have trained ways and means to discern if the offering has been accepted accessible to spiritual specialists and/or the whole tribe.
-The Gods can let us know when They are displeased with an offering and we can act accordingly and respectfully to correct wrongs or errors when They make these things known.
-The Gods can and do affect the luck of the tribe, and the luck of the tribe is worth protecting.
The concern over the luck of the tribe being affected is again, first grounded in right thought. Protecting the luck of the tribe is a desired thing, and can be affected by the Gods. The right action of doing the blót well follows from the right thought that in order to do well by the Gods, increase the tribe’s good luck, and ensure the protection of the tribe’s luck before the Gods, one does what is respectful and honorable to/for the Gods. Otherwise, what would be the point in worrying about the Gods, the luck of the tribe, or making good offerings and the like?
But they should be shunned and cast out not for their beliefs, but for their actions.
Again, if your group is a Heathen culture group rather than a Heathen religious group, I would agree. If yours is a Heathen religious group that accepts atheists among its ranks, again, that is your choice to make. It’s not one that I agree with, but then, I’m not part of your tribe/group/etc. I also agree in the case of public gatherings and rituals. For much of his post, I’m not actually in active disagreement with Jön at all.
I have to admit that when I read his post on Reviving culture vs. Religion, I laughed out loud at the Syrio Forel meme. Yes, I agree, that today I’m not working on reviving the culture, at least as-a-whole. I’m working on reviving the roots of the culture, specifically religious ones.
I counter that a polytheist religious group includes culture as well by definition, and a re-creation of the ancient mindset that accompanied it, because ancient culture and religion were inseparable.
Mind you, I’m not actively disagreeing with what he is saying here. This is certainly my own case and that of the group I help to run. I also agree that ancient culture and religion were inseparable. It’s my hope that we can have that again. It is my hope that we can someday have tribes again, and I’m all for anyone who wants to come and adopt the culture to do so. Unfortunately, as it is right now, we’re still in the process of bringing back roots from religious worldviews that were largely laid down or only adopted into wholly other worldviews, worldviews that had animosity towards believing in Gods, magic, and the like. So I’m looking at this from a revival from the bottom approach, whereas, if I’m reading him right, Jön is adopting an all-of-the-tree approach.
So I thank Jön Upsal for providing some food for thought.
The fact of the matter is, that almost no one I disagree with will ever come into contact with me. So why am I raising these issues at all? Why write about holiness, the sacred, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc. for a larger polytheist audience?
I am a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, which means that I support anyone coming to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir into the Northern Tradition and Heathenry regardless of background, and that, on-the-whole, I’m more concerned with what happens to my little group of people and my little corner of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. My hamingja, and much of my personal concerns, are tied up with these people who are family to me. That doesn’t mean that the wider Northern Tradition, Heathen, and polytheist communities don’t mean anything to me, but they are lower on the list, and most of them are not in my innangarð.
Yet, everything I write about here has come up in some fashion, whether it has been in working with folks who come for work, divination, or questions, interacting with folks at conventions, students, etc. In some part I’m writing here so that there are polytheists out here saying “This is how I see it, and this is why this makes sense to me.” or “I disagree with this, and this is why.” I would rather there not be an illusion of conformity or acceptance of an idea when there is not, especially when it is something I have had to talk about time and again with non-Pagans and Pagans alike, i.e. not all Odin-worshipers are racist, not all Pagans believe x, y, or z, there are some concrete beliefs to being a polytheist, and so on.
When I get into more heated discussions with folks in the larger Pagan communities, I do this in no small part because I am a Northern Tradition Pagan and a Heathen, and feel that my views and that of my co-religionists need to be presented. This feeling is pronounced because I am a priest and shaman. This means as much as I am a boundary crosser and an ambassador, helping folks to connect with our Gods, their Ancestors, and the vaettir, it is also my duty to present my religions straightforward, and present defense of the religion if needed, being a boundary keeper.
The questions of “Can’t the Gods defend Themselves? Can’t They make Their displeasure known?” eventually do come up and need to be tackled.
Sure. Our Gods are not helpless by any stretch, but that puts the full responsibility of keeping our traditions on the Gods, and not, as it should be, on ourselves. It’s not about the Gods being able to defend this or that concept. It is about the duty being on us, as worshipers, spiritual specialists, and laypeople, to engage in our religion in a way that is respectful, and keep our religious boundaries, communities, terminology, and connected ideas healthy.
I work with the idea of a teacup frequently as a container of ideas, the tea being the meaning of things and the teacup the word itself as a container of meaning. The Gods I will liken to the kettle, water, and the leaves/herbs, the source of the tea itself. They are poured into the teapot of religion to brew and be held, a defined form that gives the ability to transfer this meaning a bit more safe from being burned, yet still keep warmth, which we pour into our cups. Some folks go right for the kettle and fill their cup right then and there. You still get tea, but eventually, if you’re going to drink tea without burning yourself, it goes into a cup or you wait for the kettle to cool so you can drink straight from it.
I don’t imagine I will ever agree with the idea, let alone the acceptance of atheist Paganism in the Pagan community, but really, that’s not my call to make. I’m not the Circle Police or the Pagan Police. As much as people deride folks like Galina Krasskova, Tess Dawson, Sannion, and myself as part of the Piety Posse, do you folks honestly think I have any pull with folks who do not believe in Gods or theistic Pagans who accept atheist Pagan theological views as just as valid as their own? I speak out because I feel the need to speak out, but I hold no illusions that my words hold any more sway than what others give them. I certainly can’t stop you, but I also do not have to accept your views. I hold the view of a polytheist, one in which the Gods are real, have agency and Being, and are not constructs/archetypes/etc. of human un/consciousness. There’s nothing in atheism for me to find in common ground, religiously speaking. We can meet at any number of other points, but I very-much doubt this is a place where we will find common ground, as the very grounding of our views is different in very powerful ways. Further, any attempt by an atheist to co-opt religious language out of its meanings will not further dialogue with me at all.
I find myself on the opposite side of folks like John Halstead and B.T. Newburg more and more in no small part because the aesthetics of the religious communities I have called home for the last 11 years are being sought out by atheist Pagans, but not the substance. The language which identifies me as a person within a set of religious communities and/or within a communal identity is being intentionally separated from the primary means by which that identifier is constructed: religious identity with concrete meaning in regards to belief in and worship of Gods.
My views are not simply matters of disagreement, but really, they are matters of course. The course of logic that constructs my religious identity flows from the creation story of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, flows from the cosmology, and flows from the Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen worldview, the worldview I live within. These things are essential to the construction of the identity I have as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen. When the meaning of words like sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and so on are affected, the meaning of my identifiers and associated communities are affected. It’s about more than just me, though: these are part and parcel of how any religious community defines itself. So not only am I personally invested to see that sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and other words with religious meaning stay invested with that meaning, and how that plays out in my own life, I am also invested in how these words stay invested with meaning within my religious community, and how these words come to define and structure things within the Northern Tradition and Heathen communities.
Here is where I stand: as a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, I have primary concern for the those within my innangarð, but that does not mean I ignore the things or people who are utgarð to my personal or more wider communities. While my hamingja is not tied with those outside of my innangarð, it would be a disservice to the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, and my personal communities within them, to not speak out on the things I have. It would be a disservice to fellow polytheists, too. I hold the traditions I am within, as does everyone who is within these traditions. Each person needs to decide for themselves whether it is incumbent on them to speak up, out, or to hold silence. For myself, given the roles of shaman and priest that I serve in my communities, as an ambassador, boundary-crosser, and boundary-keeper, I find myself being called to speak more often than I am to be silent.
I sit with the Dead as They weep and wail
I sit with the Dead in silence
I sit with the Dead who died solemn and serene
I sit with the Dead by violence
I sit with the Dead before grave and ground
I sit with the Dead by monuments
I sit with the Dead alone and aloof
I sit with the Dead in alliance
Holiness and Sacredness are Rooted Words: A Reply to John Halstead’s I Hold These Things to be Sacred
For clarity and to keep things as orderly as I can, I will be responding line by line to John Halstead’s post on Patheos, I Hold These Things To Be Sacred: A Reply to Sarenth Odinsson.
I intentionally avoided using names in my piece, Holiness is Rootedness, because I wasn’t talking specifically about one atheist Pagan or another. My entire point is in the first paragraph.
“In order to have a sense of what is holy, one must have ideas and concepts related to holiness. In order for these ideas and concepts to be related to holiness, it must have roots in a religion, a theological framework, in which holiness as a concept is able to take root. If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness just as there is no profanity or things lacking in that consecration. “
If you have no theological framework then there is no theology to explain what is or is not holy. If you have no theological framework to discern what holiness is, its qualities and characteristics, then you have no concept of holiness to draw upon. Atheism’s main characteristics are that there are no Gods, and most of the atheist lines in regards to religious thought and phenomena directly state that there is no such thing as a God, Goddess, Supreme Being, etc. Most, though certainly not all forms of atheism, reject religious cosmology. I find it odd that pointing this out is cause to offend someone who identifies as an atheist, though my article was certainly not aimed solely at Mr. Halstead.
You can say all you like that you believe that things are sacred or holy, but those words carry absolutely no theological or philosophical weight when you say them because you don’t actually believe in the Beings nor the cosmologies that imbue them with that weight to begin with.
“So, you know that feeling theists get when atheists tell them their gods are imaginary? I think I’m feeling something similar. Something like, “How dare you!”
Here’s what Odinsson says:
“If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness …”
“An atheist framework is one in which there is no God or Goddess, and thus, no sacred. One may hold things reverently, that is, with deep respect, but without a religious framework that very concept that one may hold anything as holy has no basis. An atheist claiming to hold something as holy is a person claiming something to which one has no right …””
I was pointing out what I had thought was patently obvious. I find it odd that Halstead is having such an emotional response when he has flat-out stated he does not believe in Gods. It would follow that there is no existent concept of holiness, as there is no theology in which holiness may take any kind of root. Keep in mind when I write Holy Power or Holy Powers, I include the Ancestors and vaettir, or spirits, in this. I don’t think that animists lack a conception of the holy, as in order to be an animist there is some sort of cosmology present, and accordingly, a way to establish things like what is sacred/not sacred.
“Atheism cannot be invested in this understanding as it has no basis for holiness and the sacred, as atheism denies both on their face by its very outlook. Atheism denies that Gods exist, and in so doing, denies the cosmology They are rooted within. The notion of holiness within an atheist context, therefore, cannot exist.”
Now, I’ve never really gotten along with Odinsson. (I think he was the same person who once threatened to punch me if he saw me at Pantheacon.) But I don’t think it should be only atheist Pagans or non-theistic Pagans who are upset by what he is saying here. Odinsson is saying if you don’t believe in the gods, then nothing is sacred or holy to you. Implied in this is the statement there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the gods.
Nothing sacred in the world but the gods?!
Wow! I would have a hard time imaging a less “pagan” statement than that.
I am not the person who threatened to punch Halstead if I saw him at Pantheacon. I’ve never been to Pantheacon, and given the extreme amount of travel I would have to do and time off I would have to take right before ConVocation here in Michigan, I have no interest in doing so.
Note here that Halstead actually does not refute my points here, or anywhere in this post. He quotes me, but misses the point entirely. There is no implication that there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the Gods. It is not surprising to me that he misses this point, as Halstead has no conception of holiness himself, and I imagine is probably not familiar with Northern Tradition or Heathen cosmologies. To be quick, the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are holy. The Gods and Elements Themselves are among our Ancestors. Many of the Gods directly made vaettir, i.e. Odin and His Brothers formed the Dvergar from maggots burrowing into the flesh of Ymir. Many Gods are part of the vaettir of this and other Worlds, and vice versa. For instance, landvaettir may be seen as being part of Jörð’s Body/Being, Jörð being one of several Earth Goddesses within Heathenry. Some vaettir have ascended into being or have become seen as being Gods unto Themselves, and some Gods have descended into being or have been seen as being vaettir unto Themselves. There are methods within the Northern Tradition by which an area may be made to be sacred, or that sacredness may be inborn to a place, such as a grove, or a prepared ritual area, altar, and so on.
There is something deeply disturbing, I think, about a paganism which cannot find the holy or the sacred in the earth or in another person.
Certainly, but that is not my position here, nor was it. I view Jörð, the Earth Goddess, as a holy Being. Do I view all the Earth as sacred? No, as I do not find CAFOs sacred, nor do I find the floating garbage that chokes the oceans sacred. Those, I find profane. Wrong. Unholy.
Are all people sacred? No. All people are bound together in Wyrd, but that merely makes you part of reality, not an inherently sacred person. It doesn’t mean people are valueless either, but sacredness actually means something in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Namely, that a thing, Being, place, etc. is dedicated to, belongs to, is consecrated by, or is devoted to the Holy Powers. This is why an altar is a sacred thing, a grove where rituals are performed, or a single tree representing Yggdrasil itself is regarded as sacred. These things are devoted and dedicated to the Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors and/or vaettir) of the Northern Tradition and/or Heathenry. They are sacred.
As for myself, I hold these things to be sacred and holy: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships.
They are not just things that I hold “reverently” or with “deep respect”; they are holy and sacred.
He says he regards these things as sacred, but without any of these things being involved with, dedicated to, devoted to, or consecrated to Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir, what are these words worth? Without the necessary relationship inherent in a cosmology, in which one relates to all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships, and so on, saying something is sacred or holy are empty words. Claiming one holds something sacred or holy without any requisite theology to back these words up is intellectually sloppy or dishonest.
“Holiness is rootedness,” says Odinsson. My religion is rooted. It is rooted in these things: Life, Matter, Relationship.
How can Halstead claim his religion is rooted when the soil of the Holy Powers is denied?
Indeed, how can Halstead claim to be religious whatsoever when he denies any of the requisite things for which religion itself functions: namely, to provide a framework for and means by which people may establish relationships with, interact with, revere, understand, and worship the Holy Powers? All these things Halstead claims his religion is rooted in has no meaning without an actual theology in which the sacred matters, and so long as the sacred is, in actuality, absent from his worldview and thus, any religion he would lay claim to, all these words are empty.