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Reflecting on Two Articles on a Post-Christian Future

January 2, 2019 5 comments

Manny Tejeda-Moreno wrote an article, “Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response” for The Wild Hunt, responding to a New York Times op-ed “The Return of Paganism”, an article written by Ross Douthat.  Rather than dig through both articles, I found things within Tejeda-Moreno’s article I felt were worth responding to. Tejeda-Moreno’s response to Douthat highlights things that I felt were worth exploring, as I have seen Pagan and polytheist communities struggle through the fourteen years I have on-and-off called myself a Pagan and have been a polytheist.

It is pretty clear Ross Douthat is not a part of any modern Pagan religion, and he has been an op-ed writer for several years. I am not shocked Tejeda-Moreno is dissatisfied with the article. Over the course of his life Douthat has been a Pentecostal and a Catholic and was educated at Harvard. He is not only writing from outside our communities essentially about us, as Tejeda-Moreno clearly points out, he is doing so poorly informed.

His lamentations that there may be more witches than members of the United Church of Christ should be evidence enough that he is mourning or at least ill at ease in the post-Christian future he sees on the horizon. I find this notion at odds, though, with those exercising levers of power and in the majority. The most prominent and numerous members in US society are some flavor of monotheist, predominantly Christian. Those who are not Christians in positions of power, such as political or academic settings, are often agnostic or atheist. All tend to default to some variation of ‘hierarchy of religion’ in which one’s personal flavor (Christian, atheist, or agnostic) is the summit of the hierarchy. Pagan and polytheist religions are often derided for their belief in ‘demons/delusions’, ‘outmoded ideas’, ‘dead gods’, and the like, treated more as curiosities than anything worthy of regard either in academia or in interfaith settings.

I echo Tejeda-Moreno’s disappointment with Douthat’s assertion that Paganism is “some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.” Modern Pagan religions are neither that organized nor that well-developed. Even if we were, intellectualism or rationalism is not the main philosophy of a good number of Pagans or polytheists.  We certainly do not have the numbers for civic cultus, nor the structures which would make it relevant so far as I can see.

In the first place, modern Pagan religions do not even internally agree on what Paganism itself is. The term is so nebulous as to be unwieldy, effectively ending in some vague sense of ‘not Christian’. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are polytheist, believing in and worshiping many Gods. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are atheist, believing that there are no Gods and worship nothing. Saying anything accurate when even basic and essential matters of theology are disagreed upon internal to specific religions within Paganism is almost impossible. For instance: Are Wiccans theist? If so, which Wiccans, if any, are theist and which, if any, are atheist?

Then there comes issues of who gets to decide who gets to be called Wiccan in the first place. Gatekeeping, who gets to do it, and who has the right to gatekeep specific Pagan religions are a series of ongoing issues in many Pagan and polytheist religions. Without these basic methods of organization decided, it matters little whether one says “Wiccans are theist” or “Wiccans are atheist” because the ground upon which the matter would rest shifts dependent on the practitioner and not the identifier itself.  The reason I go over words and their meanings so often in my posts is because of this ongoing problem.  There is a consistent need to reinforce what words mean because the language in Pagan communities is inconsistently applied and used.  I can get more to the core of what I am by using the word polytheist rather than Pagan because, where Pagan is a very mushy word, polytheist says what it is right on the tin.

I have a bone to pick with Tejeda-Moreno, and that is the same bone I have with everyone and anyone who uses the term ‘organized religion’ without including our own religions.  The term organized religion means what it says, “A structured system of faith or worship” though most associate it with monotheist religions.  Every single religion is organized or it is not a religion.  Were Tejeda-Moreno to have written something like “Christian religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” or “Monotheist religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” there would be less issue from me.  It’s still an over-generalization of centuries of history, but it would be more accurate than to just hand Christianity and other monotheist religions the phrase organized religion.

Further, setting up Paganism and organized religions as being against one another is nonsensical.  The “continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings” regardless of which religion it is in question, and Paganism is no more immune to this than Catholicism is.  Indeed, it is also true that “Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred” is equally applicable to the Pagan and polytheist communities.  Arguably, it is something that most faith communities engage in rather than the work of their religions’ callings.

The failure here is that Douthat fails to recognize that people should be free to believe in a religion that offers them meaning without ridicule.

I do not think that he fails to understand this so much as it is in his Catholic view that there are true and good religions and those that are not.  It’s also his mistake in assuming that we Pagans and polytheists only conceive as Gods belonging to Creation, and not able to be both immanent and transcendent, or one or the other.  His agreements with Steven Smith’s assessment of things rests on shaky ground as Smith commits pantheists and atheists to his view without even so much as bringing in contemporary Pagan or polytheist authors to his article while mischaracterizing those same religious movements.  In it, he ignores the lived religions of Pagans and polytheists and misses what immanent as well as transcendent Gods, Ancestors, and spirits do to the weltanschauung of the religions and people who believe in Them and worship Them.

Tejeda-Moreno continues:

He avoids a basic reality, as well: individuals are not turning away from organized religion. They are turning toward something that has meaning for them. It may be praxis, or it may be dogma; whatever the reason, they are invoking the fundamental human rights of thought, belief, and religion. Complaining about them as sinful distortions, or implying a divine force is preparing to act in retribution, is using fear in service of patriarchal oppression.

Again, I think Douthat isn’t avoiding a basic reality, but couching in terms familiar to himself and his religion.  Douthat’s point is made here in that regard, and it is a good one:

These descriptions are debatable, but suppose Smith is right. Is the combination of intellectual pantheism and a this-world-focused civil religion enough to declare the rebirth of paganism as a faith unto itself, rather than just a cultural tendency within a still-Christian order?

It seems to me that the answer is not quite, because this new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

Douthat goes on to say:

However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.

He’s not wrong in his assessment here.  One of the major appeals in Pagan and polytheist religions is that we have living relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that in some way invite us to share in co-creating with Them.  We are invited to appreciate the beauty of our Holy Powers, the Worlds we inhabit, and so much more. Our Holy Powers occupy many places simultaneously that we can appreciate on multiple levels, including that of devotion, aesthetic, beauty, joy, and more.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers at our altars and in our statues.  We build relationships with Them in places They hold in high regard.  We build relationships with Them in sacred places in nature or our cities.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers when we bear jewelry or tattoos of Their forms, symbols or Names.  We build relationships with Them when we lay down offerings at a tree, look out to the Sun’s or Moon’s rise, feel Them in the breeze.  We build relationships with Them in the grip of writing a poem, knitting a blanket, or making a piece of art.

Douthat goes on with ill-conceived generalized histrionics that are wrong, namely in regards to ancient Roman elites.  Polytheism, not pantheism was the norm.  He is also forming his argument on shaky foundations for what it would take to form a living pagan religion under his view:

To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

His point here is wrong.  Pagans and polytheists do not need pantheists or outside civil religionists.  We have our own philosophers, and for those who wish to engage in civil religions there are ample examples to follow.  We need not partner with pantheists or civil religionists to create a fully realized cult of the immanent divine because we possess all the tools, ability, and functions to do so within our own religions.  We already have everything Douthat is pointing out here.

Likewise, Tejeda-Moreno is wrong.

Whether we are discussing Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan, individuals are not turning away from organized faiths; they are turning toward something more meaningful to them. Pagans are re-wilding their faith interactions to the immanent and the spiritual, and few things are more dangerous to what is “organized” than what is “wild”.

Individuals are turning away from monotheist religions, not organized ones.  They are turning towards something more meaningful to them, that is true, but it is not something that is not organized, only organized in a different fashion.  We are re-wilding our religions insofar as our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanently intertwined with the development of our religions.  What most who are coming into “Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan” are coming into is one where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanent and transcendent, not bound by us, our morality, our politics, or our views.  The Gods are the Gods, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The Ancestors are the Ancestors, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The spirits are the spirits, Their own, and we do not control Them.

It is not us who are re-wilding our religions.  If our religions are wild it is because the Holy Powers are not in our control.  We talk with our Holy Powers, we seek Their guidance, and whether through divination, omens, inspiration, or other means They make Their desires and wills known.  This does not mean we have no bearing on our religion.  We do, because it is in relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that our religions are woven.  We can disagree with our Holy Powers, negotiate, ask, work with Them to different ends.  We can also agree with our Holy Powers, obey, negotiate, ask, do the work we are given.  We can have times where it is hard to know what They want, times where our lives are fallow, times where we are sure of what They want, and times where our lives are so full we are fit to burst.  These are lived relationships.

Ultimately, Mr. Douthat argues that the promises of Paganism are vacant. The rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect: “I don’t know how many of the witches who publicly hexed Brett Kavanaugh really expected it to work,” he writes. The same sentiment could be shared for those followers of the Christian god who prayed for hurricanes to turn away from the United States toward Mexico.

I think that this is fair on both sides.  So long as we are not living solid in our relationships with the Holy Powers, then I agree that “all the rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect”.  Without prayers bound in meaning, in relationship with our Holy Powers, they are merely words.  Perhaps the only effect they can carry is offense or disinterest. Without rituals made in relationship with our Holy Powers with clarity, discipline, and skill, it is so much empty action.  Without magic rooted in our worldviews crafted with discipline, and skill, again, it is empty action.

Rather than seeing, as Tejeda-Moreno does, that Douthat feels entitled to an explanation from Pagans and polytheists, I see that Douthat has fear of what we may bring to the table:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

I agree with Tejeda-Moreno that Douthat “avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma” which, for monotheists is that they are not “living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love.”  I also think it is more complex than Tejeda-Moreno’s conclusion.  The problem with monotheist religions and philosophies derived from them is they seek to eliminate all others.  Those who espouse arguments like the ‘evolution of religion’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ wants its particular religion (or lack thereof) to get to the top so it can install its hegemony over all the others beneath it.  Paganism is not the boogeyman here, but neither is hypocrisy.

What is sitting in the background of monotheist religions is that when any attains power it then seeks to crush or convert any other religion.  Calls to the faithful to evangelize, to destroy the Pagans, to convert the masses of the world are still being made.  As Douthat says:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

What Douthat is afraid of is that we are going to be living in a post-Christian world and takes explicit comfort that a successor is not fully-formed to it yet.  After all, look at what the Christians did to the non-believers.  Why wouldn’t a Christian, having an understanding of the kinds of destruction such things brought, not be afraid of such things being brought down on them?  What Douthat and monotheists like him are afraid of is not just irrelevance, but that non-monotheist religions will make inroads, take up different power in different ways, and offer better futures than the one they’ve had the last two thousand or so years to build.  Their hegemony is slipping bit by bit, year by year.  They fear the loss of power.  They are afraid the futures we face without the hegemony of their religions and philosophies on our necks.  They are afraid of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

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Loki is Not Trump (Neither is Odin)

November 25, 2018 20 comments

Surprising no one, I did not care for Karl E.H. Seigfried’s recent Wild Hunt article on Loki.

From the start of the article he sets up a divide, stating:

For a thousand years, poets and scholars have seen Loki as a troubling figure who brings harm to the community of which he is a part. Today, there are many lovers of Norse mythology and practitioners of Pagan religions who view him as a positive figure, and even one deserving of veneration and worship.

His dividing line here is an appeal to authority and an appeal to tradition. He then goes on later to say:

At times, his most devoted worship seems to shade into a form of mono- or henotheism. I have met practitioners whose devotion to Loki and disdain for the other Norse gods seems quite far removed from a diverse polytheism.

So many strawfolks already set up. It is what makes his next statement seem so disingenuous.

There is no reason to challenge the importance that Loki has for so many people around the world, whether it manifests in pop culture fandom or intense religious devotion.

Except that is exactly what he does. He does the same thing when he quotes Tolkien’s dislike of allegory and then proceeds to dive whole-hog into one of his own in four parts, connecting Trump and Loki. He states that his writing is one of applicability, in line with Tolkien, rather than an allegory.

Trump is not Loki or Odin. The way the Seigfried tries to hook the narratives he has built around Trump into Loki is hamfisted at best, and lazy at worst. He builds up his defenses in pieces prior to the four part attack on Trump and Loki, namely in saying:

I do not believe that we should reconstruct every aspect of ancient worldviews situated in a time and place of normalized slavery, entrenched homophobia, and celebrated violence. I do not believe that it is even possible to reconstruct the detailed internal worldviews of a plurality of peoples who left behind no second-level theological discourse.

then:

That said, I am bothered by approaches to myth that brush aside any elements of ancient sources that readers don’t like or find problematic as “Christian influenced.” Academics and practitioners alike are guilty of this rhetorical turn

and then:

Again, I do not deny the personal meaning that many find in Loki. I simply can’t follow them to a place where the sources of our knowledge are read in ways that sometimes seem parallel to conspiracy theorist readings of today’s news stories.

He states that we cannot reconstruct the worldview of ancient Heathen cultures due to a lack of resources and then casts doubt on readings of the texts in which Loki is looked at in a positive light, connecting these readings of myth to conspiracy theories. Without applying prudence to reading what myths and legends we do have we are doing ourselves and those who follow us a disservice. Understanding as best as we can that Snorri had biases both from his Christian upbringing and the influence of Classical literature available to him and applying them to a reading of his sources means we are engaging in discernment, discernment we would be reasonable to assume whether we are reading a source on ancient Scandinavian/German myths, a translation, or modern retellings that can carry the biases of the original scribes or translators.

Painting Trump as Loki in this way brings Loki down to Trump’s level as a human. Loki is not human. He is part of the Aesir and a Jotun. He is a Being worthy of worship and reverence. Trump, being neither part of my ancestry nor of any cultus I pay homage to, is not. Casting one’s views of Trump in Loki’s mythological light obfuscates the myth, and one could accuse Seigfried of no small amount of cherry-picking in his mythologizing.

Calling the first section “Objectifier of women”, Seigfried did not include in his first of the four parts casting Trump and Loki togther that Thjazi instigates the means by which he extracts the oath from Loki to bring him Idunna. It is little wonder that Loki does not mention it to the Aesir until They come to Him. The last time something went wrong the Aesir threaten to torture or kill Loki unless He fixed the issue at hand, such as the giant working on Asgard’s walls almost winning the wager of the Sun and Moon as well as Freya’s hand in marriage. Loki pushed for the Jotun to be allowed to work with his horse Svaldilfari, so the Gods put the blame on Him and threatened to torture and kill Him if He did not fix the situation. They do the same when They figure out He lured away Idunna and is why They are aging due to Her no longer harvesting the apples that keep Them young. Not only does Loki fix the situation, returning Idunna to the Aesir at great risk to Himself, He helps the Aesir eliminate Thjazi’s threat when the Jotun is burnt at the walls, and gain Skadi as an ally by making Her laugh. In each situation where He is threatened with torture and death He more than makes up for His shortcomings, perceived or not, gaining the Gods great gifts and allies.

Loki is not objectifying Idunna. Both Loki and Idunna are used by Thjazi when he extracts Loki’s oath, and while She is in Thjazi’s hands. She is part of the Aesir, and They need Her service of keeping the fruit that keeps the Gods young. So, Her rescuer brings Her back. It’s a poor myth to start with in comparing Loki to Trump. It seems to me that Seigfried shaved off every edge in Loki’s favor in order for to try to make this myth fit his Trump-shaped hole. Having read through his article more than a few times, it seems he did so with every myth he refers to.

I am obviously biased in the favor of both Odin and Loki, but it is not my point here to pretend like neither God did not do horrible things in the myths we have. Rather, my objections lie in applying Trump to Loki. Trump is Trump, Loki is Loki, and Odin is Odin.

We can take lessons from our myths without mythologizing our politicians. It is an ugly precedent to set. We have enough issues with mythologized history, such as Thanksgiving being taught in schools as though it was a dinner to which Natives and the Pilgrims sat down respectfully across from one another as equals, or that Washington ‘could not tell a lie’. Painting Lincoln as ‘the Great Liberator’ while ignoring that he was the one who ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota who were captured fighting back against the settlers that had broken treaties with them after enduring privation and starvation. That great lie, Manifest Destiny. We have enough obfuscation in the way of reading about history that we do not have need of more of it by conflating our religions’ myths with our modern political realities, especially as poorly as Karl E.H. Seigried does here.

It certainly does not provide more understanding to President Trump’s life, election, and administration to frame political and economic realities in the same realm as myths either by allegory or by applicability of mythological stories. If you want to understand how candidate Trump rose to power and won the election you need to look at, among many things, economics, politics, and history. To my mind it would certainly be more enlightening to understand President Trump’s election into the Oval Office through the lens of history via Spengler, Toynbee, or through similar lenses looking at bigger arcs in history, and how paradigms change through economic, political, and social pressures.

Skepticism and eyes raise when Christians point to a politician and apply the label of Antichrist. I think one of our own doing the same with Trump and crying “Loki!” should receive the same response.

On Níðhöggr

November 19, 2018 6 comments

A while back I was asked to share my understanding of Níðhöggr by a fellow Heathen. Vikings of Bjornstad lists the meaning for Níðhöggr’s name as ‘Malice Striker’. The first section of the compound name, níð, is related to malice, insult, and strife. The second is related to beheading, striking, blows, or chops. Not much survives on this dragon/serpent survives from the lore. Among the places to look for Níðhöggr are in the Prose Edda, both in Gylfaginning and Skaldskarpamal, and in the Poetic Edda Grimnismal and the Voluspa. While the lore refers to Níðhöggr as male, my interactions with Níðhöggr have leant me to understanding the dragon as female.

I relate to Her as a God of Rot and Death, and a God of the Gravemound as well, especially seeing interlinks between the rotting of death and the eating of poison. My family’s compost heap is dedicated to Hela and to Níðhöggr, as we see Níðhögg as eating the poison of Yggdrasil and the making of it into the healthy new earth that is renewed. The gravemound takes in the Dead and the new growth results within it, holding the power of the sacred items deposited within it and the new growth above.

Most of my understanding and beliefs regarding Níðhöggr is from direct experience of seeing Her and interacting with Her. When I was saw Her, She was chewing the corpses of the Dead, taking the poison of Their lives, Their misdeeds. She does the same with the root of Yggdrasil She chews on, not to damage it, but to prevent poison that is collected in Helheim and the Nastrond from killing It.

A powerful insight of dragon symbolism, at least in terms of how I see it in Norse/Germanic/Scandinavian culture/myth is that part of their destructive nature is what they sit on. In Fafnir’s case it is his bed of gold and the greed associated with it. In Níðhöggr’s case She is lying in the midst of traitors, oathbreakers, and is sitting with the rot and poison of Yggdrasil’s root. She chews on the traitors, oathbreakers, and outlaws, as well as the root of Yggdrasil. One of the passages in the Voluspa says She sucks the blood of the slain. I see Her doing similar, chewing and sucking on the poison in the root of Yggdrasil, removing the rot so it stays healthy. It also explains why Her/His hall is the Hall of Serpents dripping poison because that is Níðhöggr’s environment. My fellow Heathen likened it to a poison dart frog, and I think that’s a fair reading of Her too.

It is telling that the only time She emerges in myth is during Ragnarok and She isn’t destroyed, but takes up roost again beneath the ground. I find Her very purifying, as She has been in the midst of all that rot, poison, and uncleanliness, and yet, She has not lost Herself to it. She engages with this Work before and after Ragnarok. She is rejuvenating and dangerous, the Chewer of Corpses and Warder against Poison. As outlaws and traitors were among the worst one could be, and both were put into the utgard of society, I see Her as a boundary-keeper since She gives these dangerous and vile Dead a place to go to be contained, chewed, composted so they do not harm the community or rest of Yggrasil. She is the God that chews the rot beneath the Tree, rejuvenating both the root and the soil in which Yggdrasil’s root rest; necessary and holy.

Reflecting on Doki Doki Literature Club, Servitors, Egregores, and Vaettir

November 12, 2018 Leave a comment

My thoughts today are in great part being spurred on by the visual novel game Doki Doki Literature Club. If you have not played it, I heavily recommend doing so unless you are easily disturbed. It has content warnings in the startup of the game for a reason. A fair warning: from here on in I will probably be discussing spoilers. I heavily recommend you play the game before reading this post, since the guts of it came after watching Let’s Plays of this game.

Note: I began writing this months ago and it has sat in my Drafts folder for awhile, mostly finished. I finally got around to putting some finishing touches on it, and I may come back to this idea sometime later.

Read more…

100 Years

November 11, 2018 Leave a comment

100 years since the signing of the Armistice.

100 years of silence and bells.

100 years since the end of World War 1.

The years that made our world what it is. The years that changed so much, that shaped so much. How to approach such a day?

With solemnity. With gratitude. With honoring. With remembering.

To the Warrior and Military Dead who sacrificed all they had to give.

To the Warriors and Military personnel who gave all they had to give.

To the families who never saw their loved ones again.

To the families that did.

To the lands that still bear countless scars of trenches and powder, artillery and countless bullets and the blood of all the Dead.

100 years and so many lives have passed that a great forgetting is coming over the nations.

We honor in remembering. In remembering the Dead live.

78. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.

Havamol, translated by Henry Adam Bellows

Some resources:

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Blueprint for Armgageddon

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI

BBC Four: The First World War

BBC 26 Part Documentary on World War 1

Thinking on Polytheism and Media

November 11, 2018 7 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the Grandfather Fire

September 11, 2018 1 comment

Around the Grandfather Fire is a podcast that James Stovall and I host that explores topics ranging from shamanism to animism, polytheism to interests we hold outside of them but relevant to our spiritual interests and lives.

So far we have four shows done with more to come. Because we are no longer limited by air time or topic we can dig into the meat of different ideas, issues, and views we discuss. It also gives us more time to really get into good conversation with our guests.

Around three years ago we were co-hosts on a podcast and live internet radio show called The Jaguar and the Owl. The format was restricted more or less to shamanism and related fields in we only had an hour in which to record and did it live for most of the last two years of our broadcasting. It was a good time. Over time, between the restrictions of time to record, the demands of life increasing, and the format itself becoming hard to work shows into, we eventually had to let go of the show. Since things have come back together and the fire was lit for us to sit around, Jim and I came back together and made the new podcast.

Around the Grandfather Fire allows us to expand our content in both time and depth, something we had talked about wistfully at varying times on our older show. The app we use also allows us to interact with our listeners and guests. With the Anchor app we are hosting the content on listeners can send us voice messages that we can then integrate into the show.

So, if you have thoughts you want to share with us or you want us to explore, questions you want to ask, or guests you want us to interview, use the Anchor app, or email Jim at James at thewanderingowl.com or I at my email Sarenth at gmail.com.

Places to find Around the Grandfather Fire:

Anchor

Facebook

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We can also be found on iTunes, Podcast Addict, and, of course, the Anchor app.

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