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Theological Concepts, Language, and Means of Relation in Polytheism

March 18, 2016 16 comments

This is not the only place I have seen this view, but it does a good job of compartmentalizing a lot of the more extended posts in this vein that I have seen on Facebook, blogs, and essays.  I am not quoting this person to pick on them, but the quote below highlights a lot of the trends I am seeing from the folks who are in the similar mindsets.

“Karina B. Heart
Theological concepts consistently fail to define, contain or express my beliefs or my embodied ecstatic expression of them. I reject orthodoxy. I reject the idea that people need priests to mediate the divine/spiritual for them as this effectively denies the spiritual sovereignty of the individual–placing them at the mercy of the priestly caste. We’ve had about enough of that, haven’t we?
Let’s break the binaries. Let’s deconstruct the habituated, limiting, egoic mindset that upholds paradigms of subject-ruler, petitioner-priest, human-divine, servant-master. Just because it’s “how it’s always been done” (in Western culture) does not mean it’s how it always will be done.
The Masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.“

It is a mistake to name the priest the master when, especially for the priests, the masters are the Gods Themselves. Theological concepts exist as definitions, containers, and means of expressing meaning and understanding, and are not always equal to the task. Not every cup holds the same volume of water well, and not every cup is equal to the task of holding good, hot coffee.  It is little wonder theological language has to change, to go into poetry. We do not dispense with cups because they cannot all hold coffee, and so too do I view the language we use, theology included.

Having priests does not deny anyone spiritual sovereignty. Priests cannot take your sovereignty.  If they have sovereignty over you, you have given it to them.  Having priests as mediators is a requirement from some Gods. Some people are called to doing priest work for their Gods and others are not. If it comes from the Gods, the master, then by what right does anyone have to dismantle what They have put into place?

Do you understand the function of a priest?  Not all of them are mediators.  You’re probably thinking of Catholic, Anglican, and other Christian priests.  Yet, even this is not a very well-developed understanding of their role.  Do they operate as gateways to the Holy Spirit contained within the Host (in terms of Catholicism)?  Yes, because the Catholic Church has standards for how a parishioner is to believe and act in order to be an accepted member of the Catholic Church.

Priests act as gateways, as safeguards, for the Mysteries of their religion, and for the good functioning of their religious communities.  Many priests are called to only this, while others are called to become clergy (which may, and in my view, generally is, a different set of skills entire), and others are called to make offerings on behalf of their community to the Gods, and little else.  None of these takes away the ability of an individual to pray to their God(s), nor to offer, nor to do something for their Gods.  None of these takes away the ability of an individual to be called to something utterly outside the wheelhouses of the priests of a religion.

Is it that you don’t understand what a God is?  A God is part of the cosmological order in some fashion, and is in it in such a way as to be integral to it, whether we’re talking about a God of the harvest for a small community, a Goddess who IS the whole world, a God that IS or CONTAINS the Universe, to a God of the hinges on doors.  The Worlds are full of Gods.

Some of these Gods have no priests, and in these cases, the worries over priests are completely unfounded.  A lot of the priests that are out there will not, and may never be for you given these attitudes, because not only would you never accept them as a religious leader, you would actively denigrate the role they have within the community, and so, would likely not belong to it in the first place.  If you did you would be in active, continuous conflict with that religion and the leaders of it, which also would make little sense for you to take part in.

Orthodoxy may not be of use to you, but it is required to be part of many polytheist religions.  If this is unacceptable to you, fine, but don’t come gate-crashing into polytheists communities where it is, or into polytheism in general, and demand we should all accept this and work towards this end.

If you do not want a religion with priests then do not join a religion with priests.  Likewise, do not  come into others’ spaces and stomp and stamp and scream about oppression when these are people doing the work of their Gods and communities.

You want to break binaries?  Fine, but there are some binaries that I don’t think should be broken, and will stand against it in every case.  For instance, there is hierarchy in polytheism because we humans didn’t make this world.  The World is a God, a Goddess, and many Gods, and a God is the World, and the World is full of Gods.  The Goddess of a Well is a Goddess of that well. I am not that God, and neither are you.  It’s a simple hierarchy, one which I did not choose, but is there nonetheless.  A simple binary that goes with it is God and not-God.  This is not a binary I think should be broken (nor do I truly believe it can) because it would render the relationship of differentiated individuals that exist between Gods and mortals nonsensical.

If you want to deconstruct the habituated, limiting, egoic mindsets that uphold paradigms of subject-ruler?  I think you would be better served to simply not serve the Gods for whom these paradigms are ones They Themselves have and still uphold.  You don’t want a petitioner-priest relationship with others in your religious community?  Don’t join ones that have them.

Not every mindset that upholds the paradigm of subject-ruler does so through ego.  Some of us have come into these mindsets because we were called to them by our Gods just as others were called to reject them by their Gods.  Ascribing ego in the negative to those of us who hold these mindsets is insulting, rude, and also denies that we may come to these conclusions based on reason, thought, personal exploration, revelation, or experience of having gone other routes.

If you want to be part of a religious community where there isn’t a divide between human and divine?  Well…I think you would be hard-pressed then, most religions have the central belief in and worship of a God or group of Gods.  The exceptions to these rules would be religions which are non-theist.  It certainly isn’t polytheism.

It is assumed the Master’s house should be dismantled, and that the Master is human. Rather, I see in this narrative the Master are the Gods. I think it is the human house that needs the work.  A lot of it.  I wish folks would get on with it, regardless of how they do so, and leave the house of the Gods alone.

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Opening Prayer for Episode 43 of The Jaguar and the Owl

August 20, 2015 1 comment

I wrote this prayer for the opening of Episode 43 for The Jaguar and the Owl.  For PSVL’s recap of the episode, look here.
The Jaguar and the Owl can be found here.
Episode 43 can be found here.

Kvasir’s blood builds | within the poet’s mouth
Bursts forth with praise | to sky, soil, and sea
Gushes forth with foam | a font of Mimir’s well
Poured out upon the Tree

Surt’s Gift builds warm | within the stone heart
Blesses lodge with smoke | to sky, soil, and sea
Carries the recels | as Muspel’s hearth
Pours smoke out upon the Tree

The wolf-priest comes | a wineskin in hand
Whose words travel far | over sky, soil, and sea
Let all heed their cup | Kvasir’s blood travels long
To be poured upon the Tree

Leadership and Priesthood Part 2: Skillsets

February 18, 2014 2 comments

I was recently reading a piece on io9 “The Real Reason Why Techies Are the New Yuppies”, and it occurred to me as I was reading in the comments that there is a parallel here. Not being alive any earlier than the 1980s, and not officially part of Paganism/polytheism until 2004, I cannot speak on what Paganism or polytheism was like. I am wholly a product of the early 2000s in regards to my religious development as a polytheist. The parallel that struck me was actually in the comments section in reference to a person having computer use and literacy as a skillset. They had a far easier time navigating things like the Obamacare website, versus a person who was not as computer literate. The person with the skillset took about 5 minutes to find the relevant information, whereas his housekeeper was sobbing after 3 hours of trying to get the damned thing to work. This, to me, brought something to light.

A lot of spiritual specialists are working with wholly different skillsets oriented towards different things than most people. We are often wired different for our jobs by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we serve. Many of our initiations serve in this capacity to alter our spiritual form, functions, etc. to the task at hand. For some this makes a certain skillset far easier, and for others, nothing changes aside from getting the go-ahead from the Holy Powers in question to do a thing or perform a service. Even if we are not altered by the Holy Powers for the task at hand, our skillsets develop in differing ways, and so, it may appear that we’re really awesome all around from the outside, when really we might be hyper-specializing in a few areas.

So for some of us, to use an example, entering trance or meditative states is a whole hell of a lot easier than someone else. This can (and often is) simply a matter of “I have had x number of years doing/working on this”. Other times it is a matter of “I am, for whatever reason, wired to have these experiences easier” and others “I was rewired to have these experiences easier”. There’s tons of reasons for this, but at the end of the day it makes little difference in terms of my worth as a person, religious, spiritual, or otherwise. Spiritual practice is, like a great many other arts and disciplines, something that has to be worked at to develop the capacity to do it, and do it well. The ability to use a computer well, likewise, does not make me better as a human being compared to a person who does not. It merely means that my skillsets are in areas that are immediately useful to the task at hand. I cannot do carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or other forms of trade skills (though I would like to learn, even on an amateur level) but that does not make me less of a person. I am absolutely at a loss with cars; if it sounds weird, I trust someone who is better experienced with my car. So while I am a piss-poor mechanic I am not a piss-poor human. A mechanic expecting me to be on hir level in regards to car repair would be like me expecting a person wholly new to polytheism to be on my level in regards to shamanism or priest work. It’s not realistic, and not what I expect of others any more than my mechanic expects me to have his working knowledge of my car.

Much like my mechanic expects me to do baseline maintenance though, I think that it is wholly fine for spiritual specialists to have expectations of the people who come to us for help. Some of the first questions I ask anyone who comes to me are: “Do you have an altar/shrine to your Dead?” “What Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and/or spirits do you worship and/or have relationships with?” and “Do you do daily devotional work?” and “Do you do daily personal work like grounding, centering, cleansing, shielding, etc.?” For me, these questions are no different than my mechanic asking me “What is the make and model of the car?”, “When was the oil changed?”, “What have the sounds/experiences been in driving the car?”, and similar questions. He’s not being a jerk by asking me these baseline questions, he is being thorough. Because his skillset is in a different place than mine, he has to ask the basic questions before getting to the meat of what might be wrong with my car. I am being very general, but even so, some of these questions come up even when the problem is something specific, i.e. my door won’t go back up and the motor for the window makes a clicking sound.

The comment in the article also made me think of the privilege involved in developing these skillsets, and the privilege these skillsets can bring. To be able to develop some of these skillsets, you have to have certain things, among them a computer or at least disposable income for car/bus fare (i.e. library trips), books or materials. To be able to have access to good resources, and/or a good teacher so you can develop these skillsets is another privilege. To have good training or teachings passed on to you, to be able to afford the various things that make such training, education, and making it to rituals and events to have experiences made possible for oneself is privilege. Once you develop skillsets as a spiritual specialist there may be things that you are simply better at due to the training, the hard work, and/or experiences, as in getting into trance mentioned above. It does not make you inherently better, but it does mean that there are opportunities in terms of training, resources, and experiences that may be available to you that are not available to the average person.

I have had powerful religious experiences throughout my life, first as a Christian and then, as a Pagan. I find it harder to teach someone to connect to the Holy Powers who does not or cannot connect as readily because of this. I haven’t, in general, had to work as hard as others to experience the Presence of the Holy Powers. I do not understand what it is like to go through life with an absence of the Holy Powers being readily in one’s life in a recognizable way. This is a huge blind spot for me when I teach people. It is not like I sit down every time I meditate or sit and pray at a shrine and have a ‘kaboom!’ reaction (read: peak spiritual experience)…but I also look at my experiences and understand why folks might be skeptical of them, to say the least.

I recognize that my experiences are not average, nor that they should have to be. I also recognize that my skillset is different, not better, than others. There are a good deal of skillsets I would like to have, among them, gardening, and ecologically sound building skills, i.e. making cob, strawbale, and similar structures. I have a lot of focus in my life to upper-head type of things, like psychology and theology. Yet, when it comes to things like gardening vegetables, which to a gardener would probably be really simple, like the housekeeper in the comment I get overwhelmed by all the options and data. So, I ask questions of friends who have green thumbs. Do I want results like they get? Of course, but to expect at the start to have plants that grow as well as theirs is probably unrealistic without help. I don’t know much about growing vegetables. Dad has shown me how to do simple gardening, from tilling to planting to watering cycles. Before he gave his help my plants were withering and some died because I did not understand them well enough on my own. I am nothing like a master at this; I am lucky that the aloe plants we keep are so hardy. I have not managed to keep any other plants of mine alive inside the house.

This reminds me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that comes around my Facebook feed now and again: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” If I judged my gardening by Master Gardeners then I would continuously feel like a failure. Context for understanding where the quality of a skillset should be is pretty important.

Skillsets within religion are important. For some religions, understanding the text of the religion may or may not be important. Singing may be important to religious rites and services. There are too many individual instances to list here. Religion is more than a value system, or system of beliefs. It is lived. It is the way in which one conducts themselves in the world, understands their place, and relates to everything. With religious and spiritual engagement devotional work is a must. Religion requires certain skillsets to develop to be done well. While belief is not, to a great many polytheists, as important as worship and right relationship, the ground of these two things is in acknowledgment of the Holy Powers as real and worthy of worship. It is a given, not altogether different from a fish being surrounded by water.

So if there is a baseline set of skillsets for a polytheist, what are they?

There will, I imagine, be different emphases depending on the Gods and Goddesses one worships, Ancestors, spirits, one’s tradition(s), and individual group(s) within those traditions. Rather than write a list full of caveats and exceptions, here are some ideas of general skills to develop:

  • Develop and maintain relationships. Have or be willing to develop a working relationship with your Holy Powers, whether this is the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. This does not need to be a do-all end-all kind of devotion with every minute given over to your Gods, it just needs to be consistent. Even 5-15 minutes of prayer, song, or something where you directly engage with the Holy Powers a day is good.
  • Reciprocity. Have or be willing to develop or engage in a regular system of offerings, even if all you can afford is tap water. Take out the tap water after a full day on the altar, or, if you cannot because people in your home are hostile to your religion, respectfully flush the water or pour it out in a sink. Another option would be to put the offering in a bottle of water, collecting the offerings in the bottle each day, and taking it out to a river, lake, or a tree nearby.
  • Ask questions. I know of no Holy Powers that expected me to know or understand everything all at once. I am still learning about my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If you have people you can contact, use them. If you are in luck and have a community that works with or worships the Holy Powers you are interested in learning about, so much the better.
  • Research. If you have a license to drive a car, you sunk some time into understanding how the car starts, runs, and operates. The Holy Powers deserve just as much, if not more consideration. If nothing else, ask for a recommended reading list. Some texts that would be useful to deepening an understanding of the Holy Powers may be on free websites, like Sacred-Texts.com, the Gutenberg Project, or similar public offerings.
  • Dedication. Do the work. Whatever it is, whether it is research offerings, prayers, meditation, gardening, cleaning, etc.
  • Ask for help. If you are stuck, if you do not understand something, or if you need or want more help even after asking for help, ask for help. As with ‘ask questions’, I don’t want people to not understand what is expected of them by a tradition or to have to reinvent the wheel, or repeat mistakes I or others have made.
  • Double or triple check. If something feels off, maybe it is. It is always better to be sure than to be wobbly on where you are planting your feet.
  • Simple divination. This can be throwing stones, dice, coins, or something small and simple that costs little to nothing in terms of money. While not everyone may have a knack for divination, a really simple yes/no divination style can be very helpful in answering questions, especially when you are stuck.
  • Decolonize your life. A lot of Western ideas are intertwined with Christianity, and many of the sources, including many pieces of lore, are heavily influenced if not corrupted by the scholars who wrote them down. Many scholars themselves have and still do go back and forth over how Christianity, i.e. in the Norse myths, influenced what was recointerrded, and what is genuine religion, holdovers, mixed tradition, and so on from the original peoples being written about. Clean engagement with the Holy Powers will require this, especially since many of our Gods do not fit well within modern Western paradigms of acceptability. Even speaking about the Gods as real Beings unto Themselves is met with derision in much of society, and untangling that from our minds, thoughts, and words is hard work. It requires us to be careful of the words we use, the ways in which we approach our Gods, and even the ways in which we approach the lore available to us. Treating Loki as the Norse Satan, for instance, is a holdover from Christianity. I am not saying you have to like Loki, or believe His actions/reactions are good, but putting Him where Satan was, especially if you are a convert from Christianity, belies the complex relationships the Gods have, and how important He is, given how intertwined He is with almost every myth we have. It also will interfere with how you understand the other Gods, as Loki is often a traveling companion to Thor, Odin, and other Gods.

Skillsets do not have to be developed in isolation either. You can develop skills while also doing devotional work, for instance. These are just a few ideas, but they are the main ones I can think of right now. It may be that you are or develop a craft, and making origami boats for Njord is devotional work for you. Researching your genealogy, and then including the Ancestors you find can be a powerful piece of devotional work. Gardening and tending your land, or a community garden can be a devotional activity involving your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping your home would be a good offering not only to your Ancestors, but to Gods and spirits that are part of or have domain/dominion in the home, i.e. Frigga, Hestia, and houesvaettir, among a great many. While it will not, in my view, replace a daily offering of water or a weekly offering of food, finding ways to incorporate your Holy Powers in your life provides more ways of connection, dedication, and devotion.

To borrow a word from Rhyd Wildermuth, this process is re-enchanting the world around you, suffusing it with the understanding and active acknowledgment that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can be connected with anywhere, and the world itself, wherever you are, is holy and a potential place for the sacred. This is good work wherever one is in their life, whatever their relationship is to the Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, spirits, or communities. Our skillsets will not look the same, nor should they. I would hope that as polytheists we could agree that the basics of devotional work, dedication, and right relationship with our Gods would be among the common ones. This does not require one be a spiritual specialist. The main requirement is that each of us is willing to do the work that each of us can do, each of us in our own time, space, and ability in accordance with our tradition(s) if any, and the will of our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits.

Leadership and Priesthood Part 1: Leadership vs. Priesthood

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I have been a Pagan for 10 years, and in that time I have seen very few groups in which priests were not also the leaders of whatever group they were part of. This can be done, and done well. I am part of groups that are very well run and well taken care of by their priests.

Some time ago I went into the difference between what a shaman and a priest are. This is how I defined a priest then, and this is how I still view a priest:

“A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods. When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion. A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity. A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.”

Since this post I have felt the need to put more emphasis on the notion that a priest serves their Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits) first and foremost. That the priest’s first duty, within polytheism as I understand it, practice, and experience it, is service to the Gods. This may have absolutely nothing to do with one’s human community/communities. Much of my work with Anpu, as I noted in the article “Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest”, has nothing to do with living people. Much of my service to Him is to help the Dead. In the last seven or so years I have not done a single public ritual with anyone in regards to Him, yet He still counts me as His priest and others have come to me asking for help with Him. I serve Him, and I serve Him in the ways He asks me, and on behalf of Him with other people where called.

Being a priest does not, by default, make me the leader, or even a leader outside of certain circumstances. It makes me a priest. So if I am making the point that priests are not necessarily leaders, then what are leaders?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”. A leader is someone who may be a trailblazer, just as they might be someone modeling good values, just as they might be the head of a group. The focus of a leader, at the end of the day, is on people first and foremost. They are about the people they lead. A volunteer coordinator is a leader just as a head of the local Kuwanis Club is a leader. Often a leadership position is in service to other people. Contrast this what I have written above in regards to being a priest, and there is a stark contrast: the leader is about the people, and the priest is about the Gods. Their actions are geared towards their focus.

If you are a priest you might be a leader, just by default in a situation like a ritual. You might be the only leader(s), as many groups are lead by priests. However, I think that the onus of leadership is something that ought to be more shared. It is a lot to ask of a person to keep a personal cultus with Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, in addition to possibly holding rituals for a group, making offerings, and holding a job, and lead a group on top of all the other things required to make a group function well. The list of demands grows if your group is official with the government at all, or if you have a busy ritual schedule. That is a lot on one person, or even two people.

Some people are able to do all of this and keep their group running well. I think, though, that we would have more effective priests and groups in general if this was an option and not a necessity. Note: I am not saying every priest who is in this situation should give up their leadership roles.  From where I stand that is a lot of weight on a person’s shoulders. If they choose to, this is where the priest, especially if they are in or have been put in a leadership role, needs to be willing to speak up, set boundaries, and especially to delegate responsibilities and trust people to fulfill/look after them. In turn, those they trust with the leadership and various responsibilities need to follow through on their obligations and promises.

I saw this at work very effectively as a Catholic. There are councils set up to help the priests do their work, i.e. pastoral councils, financial councils and the like, so that the priests can focus on doing their mission: serving their God and in turn, their congregation. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be laid to make this work well for polytheists, but if we want to have dedicated priests, temples, and the like, some amount of hierarchy, organization, and heavy lifting will need doing. A council format allows for concerned folks to get together and pull their weight together, vote on ideas, and make things happen with a core membership that then goes out into the community and gets things done. In the Catholic Church they work with the priest hand-in-hand to make sure that what is needed is taking care of so the priest does not have to worry about the lights getting turned off or what they are going to do about needed work on the church. This is an effective model that works. Granted, the Catholic Church itself kicks in much-needed money so the wheels are greased. Yet, I believe this council model can effectively work so that our communities can make the amenities, like temples, charities, communities, public ritual space, and so on, that I have heard so many wish for. A priest alone trying to do all of this, pull of this together, would have a very, very hard time.

Why is now is a good time to think about this, and separate priests from large amounts of leadership responsibilities? Because we are coming into a time where we may have the people to do so. There are second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation polytheists, Pagans, and those of like mind who are coming into the world. I would like to see effective foundations laid for them all. Part of this, I see, is defining who and what we are, as-is the need to build lasting groups, buildings, and so on for them to inherit. Not everyone is a priest, nor should the notion that ‘everyone is their own priest’ mean that priests, themselves, and all the skillsets required to be an effective one, get put by the wayside.

More on skillsets in the next post.

A Response to Sam Webster’s Ancestor Worship and Dealing With the Dead

October 11, 2013 3 comments

Sometimes reading through posts on peoples’ blogs, I get inspiration to write. Sometimes it is in addition to what they’ve written, and sometimes it is a rebuttal. Sometimes the post inspires me to write on some aspect of my own life, religion, etc. Sometimes it is not much more than an extended “Hell yeah!”

I read through Mr. Webster’s article. What I found did not so much challenge me as trouble me, as he says he is acting as a Pagan pastor. Particularly since Ancestor work, worship, and veneration are parts of the foundation of the Northern Tradition, I, accordingly, view the Ancestors as part and parcel of the life one leads.  As a shaman, priest, and Ancestor worker within this Tradition I find the attitudes Mr. Webster presents towards the Ancestors in the writing concerning.

Ancestor worship has become a popular topic in the Pagan community, but it is worth noting that it is not universal, or necessarily normative. It can also lead to some problems. . .

Not every Pagan will regularly worship Ancestors but I have yet to hear of any Pagan not at the least worshiping, venerating, and/or remembering their Ancestors, at the very least, on or around October 31st.  

Ancestor worship can be worship of one’s blood, spiritual, adopted, chosen, lineage, and/or inspirational Ancestors. He notes that there are Asian and African lineage-based Ancestor worshipers that know their lineage and where it comes from. I’m not sure what he is trying to make a point of here, excepting that perhaps they can trace their lineage back to where it originated, or some point in antiquity to where records fail or become irrelevant. The problem with painting with as broad a brush as Mr. Webster does, is that he already is showing inaccuracies and he has only started to stroke the canvas.  Mr. Webster notes that “This is a degree of specificity we have yet to achieve,” and yet, I can point to my own Elders, and a great many Wiccans can point to their own lineages. I view this knowledge as a good. I can point to who trained me and how, where this and that idea developed, and provide due reverence for them when they have passed on, while still improving upon the lessons they gave me, and passing on those lessons to the next generation. I find no issue with honoring ones Elders as part of the Ancestors provided those Elders are actually dead. 

In his next section he makes the point that not everyone works with the Dead.  He is absolutely wrong.  Every one of us will die, and we all know or will come to know someone who dies. Whether or not the religion itself acknowledges it, and engenders a positive relationship with the Dead, is an entirely different story. I know that I am picking on semantics here, but if you are going to be a pastor, and an effective communicator as one, the language you use to describe things matters. I’m not saying one must be perfect, but his connection of the Golden Dawn with what may be one of the very few exceptions to the rule of working with the Dead does not effectively make his case or tie it into the main theme he is writing about in this piece, especially in regards to Pagans as a whole. He notes that the Golden Dawn developed during ‘the great age of Spiritualism’ and made strides to divide itself against the practice of mediumship, favoring scrying, and that it actively discouraged contact with the Dead. This is because the main thought of those in the Golden Dawn at the time is that what they would “speak to would not be the blessed and intelligent soul, usually” and were “thought by those Victorians to be reincarnating or possibly passed on to their reward, and so not available for conversation”.

So the main way of viewing the Dead from the Golden Dawn’s perspective, according to Mr. Webster, is that ‘They are dead and we would not want to have conversation with them anyhow even if they were able to be contacted.”  

What he says next is both mystifying and boggling to me, as a priest who worships and works with Anpu, aka Anubis. He says that “I generally give no thought to ancestors or even lineage”. This, despite being “a priest of Hermes and Hekate”. It seems he serves a particular role, basically to help the Dead find Their way so They are not lost. He notes that to talk to them “would not occur to me.” It makes no sense to me that someone who works with the Dead would not seek out and cultivate a connection with their own Dead.

Perhaps that is just the work that Hermes and Hecate want him to do and no more. I do not worship either God or Goddess regularly nor have enough regular contact with Them to make a judgment. I am not a priest that works within that culture. Perhaps one who does would have a better understanding and be able to make one.

That all said, I deeply disagree with the next paragraph where he says “ those Dead whom folks are invoking and making offering to might better be considered the Honored Dead or Mighty Dead”. No.

If my Great-Grandpa Datema comes and talks to me it is probably just Great-Grandpa Datema. He is one of my notable Dead, both because I have a name for him, and he has a story that I know, told to me by my grandparents and by him, of how he immigrated to America as World War I was going on. He is one of the Väter (the German word for Fathers that I use rather than alfar, as that word, while sometimes denoting powerful male Ancestors in the lore, it also means elf) as he is one of the great roots that were laid down in my families when he came here to America. He isn’t especially powerful in terms of raw strength, but he has the wisdom from where he came from, and the lessons of how hard it can be to live between two places. By the time he died, Great-Grandpa had lost most of his ability to speak and write in Dutch, and by turns, also did not speak or write terribly great English, either. Yet his wisdom, support, and love for his children is a powerful force in its own right and so I honor him as one of my Väter. Perhaps this is a difference in culture, but I view all the Ancestors as worthy of my communication, as potential helpmeets rather than just calling on the Might Dead, Honored Dead, Heroes, etc. It may be that one of my less notable Dead, or Dead for whom I do not have a name, will have the key that opens up the path before me, or gives me what I need to face a challenge, rather than one of the Might, Honored, etc. Dead.

What he goes into next is his own work and view. Ancestors, to my mind, can imply biological connection but can also imply everything, such as adoption and lineage, that I noted above. I think he insults his own lineages and Ancestors when he calls those who empower or inspire him from the past just ‘the Past’. Especially since he takes refuge in what I see as something those Ancestors, and other Ancestors, are directly involved in. The fact that he has the gall to refer to his Ancestors as a set of resources, as just part of ‘the Past’, as he puts it, is…well, insulting.

His last concern (please note I don’t think he has laid out his concerns thus far effectively or with solid reasoning) is “that folks are performing practices such as seasonal rituals ‘because their ancestors did them’. Seriously? How is that in this day and age meaningful motivation?”

Granted, if I lived in a climate that was totally unlike my Ancestors’, i.e. I lived in Phoenix and celebrated a harvest during the dry season, I could see his point. The objection he has unravels pretty quick given where I live.  From what I have been told by those who have visited and lived in Germany, Michigan does tend to have very German-like weather and harvest patterns. So, a lot of Northern Tradition holidays would be fine being repeated in roughly the same times over here because they fit into the general scheme of our own weather and harvesting, minding that a lot of the celebration of holidays were based on local reckoning, such as moon phases, harvest times for local farmers, omens and the like.  It would not be impossible or even unwieldy to do many of the celebrations my Ancestors may have done in ancient Germany. Yes, we live in modern times, and I would not expect my military, or my militia to hang prisoners of war. My Ancestors were practical. If it worked, They used it. If it would no longer be acceptable to do something I am sure there would be other ways found, invented, or inspired to.

I find myself rankled at his use of ‘the Past’. The Ancestors are not just ‘the Past’, per se; They were, and are, in some sense, People. They lived. Practicing at least some of the things in the ways our Ancestors did them can give us understanding of how and why. It is like archaeologists who learn how to knap flint; the process of learning how is as important to understanding the questions of how and why, and related questions to them as well, such as “Why this style of arrowhead?”, “Why this method of holding the stone?”, or “Why this flaking style?”. It is as, if not more important than the answers received at the end result of making the arrowhead, knife, carving, etc. By not trying to make these connections, rather than degenerate our rituals, we degenerate our relationship with the Ancestors and become more lazy. The Ancestors’ ways of doing things were frequently challenging, labor intensive, or required a lot of input from many people to be effective. Sometimes spiritual value is lost when we are not asked, or demanded, to put effort in. There is spiritual value in doing things the old way, such as making a Sacred Fire by hand, having experienced this. Our focus for almost every ritual, in my view, should be on the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and doing right by Them. I believe that for us to have the power that Mr. Webster believes we should have for our rites, it is absolutely necessary for us to do the hard work, personally and communally, that They require whether or not our Ancestors did it this way or that traditionally/according to the lore.

In the end, I did not feel that Mr. Webster made any firm points. It felt rather like he was merely railing against the notion that the Ancestors deserve honor, regular communication, and proper respect. I am an animist and polytheist operating out of a reconstructionist-derived view, and as such, believe that the lore and archeology are jumping off points. The Ancestors’ ways may not all work for the times we are in now, but for those practices that we can translate into modern times, I feel very deeply that we should. There is much wisdom that the Ancestors, as well as the Gods, and spirits can teach us if we would just listen, and especially, do the work. Out of anything that rankles me it seems that this article rails against the work that is needed to effectively communicate with the Ancestors and to bring Their Wisdom into the modern times to be shared with all who would hear and do the Work. 

Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest

April 18, 2013 7 comments

Another question from Valiel Elantári:

What difference do you make between “shaman” and “priest” ?

I had defined a shaman in Question 9 as ‘an intercessor between humanity and the Worlds of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.’  A priest may be that as well.  Where I see a marked difference is the kind of relationship a priest has vs. what a shaman has in their community.  A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods.  When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion.  A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity.  A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.

Some of the Work of a priest I do see as dovetailing with the Work of a shaman.  There can be very direct parallels between the two jobs’ requirements.  Both, for instance, need people to be spiritually clean, firm in their religious foundations, knowledgeable in their cosmology and in particular the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits they work with and/or worship.  Depending on the needs of the community, the two jobs may place requirements on the shoulders of a priest and a shaman that are similar, if not the same, such as blessing a newly birthed baby, weddings, fields before or after planting, etc.  The requirements of a priest may be wildly divergent priest to priest, tradition to tradition, the same with shamans, so saying anything across the board means somewhere I am getting something wrong.  The palette has too many colors for me to accurately paint with a select few.

In my own work as a priest and a shaman, my work as Odin’s priest is different from being a shaman in that He may ask me to deliver messages on His behalf as a priest whereas in my role as a shaman I may be asked to do a ritual action instead.  In a way, it seems to me I am engaged more in action serving Him as a shaman than I am as a priest, in which I tend to act more in the role of a passive message-passer.  Then again, as I am both, sometimes the two blend together in terms of my service to Him.  So the only thing I can say for certain here, is that I serve Him as He asks or demands of me.

In my Work as a priest of Anubis this is a bit markedly different from my service as Odin’s priest.  For one, Anubis demands very little of my time nowadays, but I can feel Him starting to really come back to the fore now that I have a new altar to the Dead, rather than, say, just the Military Dead or my Ancestors.  For another, Anubis’ requirement have been to offer Him offerings on occasion, but nothing like the dedication of Ancient Egyptian temple priests.  I have a small statue of Him that I feed offerings to, put water before, and occasionally bathe in similar fashion to how temple priests might have done.  However, that is more or less the extent of my historically-based practice.  Much of my work with Anubis is pure UPG, and when He calls upon me to help a Lost Dead or to deliver a message on a spirit’s behalf on His behalf, I do, and my services are rendered, and I go on my way.  My service to Anubis is more haphazard and as He needs me then I imagine other priests might serve, i.e. those who have permanent temple space.  Some of my Work with Him dovetails well with the Work I do for Odin, for instance, the consistent cleaning, grounding, and centering rituals.  Keeping myself clean, as well as keeping the altars clean, are part and parcel of my Work with Him.  So too, making sure the altar to the Dead is kept well, that offerings are laid out.  I must also be sure that the Dead are not insulted or treated ill in rituals, another place where my Work as a shaman dovetails with my priest Work.

In this way, priests, as with shamans, are intercessors in that those who come to us will learn that there are certain rites to be observed, and taboos to be avoided.  One taboo I have as a shaman is that whenever I do for another I must in some way, shape, or form, have Gebo from the other party.  Another, in my role as Anubis’ priest, is that I must not let the Dead be insulted or poorly treated.  It is on me to establish what requirements and taboos there are to working with these spirits, especially the person in question is coming to me for help or training.  That is part of the Work of any intercessor: you are, in some way, shape, or form, establishing and reestablishing the proper boundaries of and engaging in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  For those who know them, you are reinforcing the boundaries of and encouraging engagement in right relationship.

I think this hits on another aspect of the difference between being a shaman and being a priest.  As a shaman I am often required to traverse boundaries, whether my own personal ones, or in journey work, or in transgressing some unspoken cultural boundary, i.e. Ancestor worship.  A shaman is often a boundary crosser, may be an ambassador of some kind to other communities including other Worlds, and puts hirself at risk so they, their community, and the relationships they hold can flourish.  A priest is often one who reinforces the boundaries, who stays within the boundaries and teaches from that place of power on how to live well, to live in right relationship, and establish communities in the teachings from their God(s) or Goddess(es).

To put it another way: a shaman often must journey to the útgarð for their Work whereas a priest’s main place and Work is done in the innangarð.

 

Question 9: My Path to Shamanism

April 17, 2013 11 comments

I have received another question, this one from Valiel Elantári:

I wonder if you would be open to publicly explain your path : how do you define “shaman” ? how did “it” “happen” to you ? How did you realise you were one, when did you decided to use the word?

I define shaman as an intercessor between humanity and the Worlds of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  Given that the Northern Tradition has no appropriate word, the word shaman is the best I have that quickly, and as accurately as possible, sums up what I do.  Shamanism is not a religion; it is something that is done and lived.  It is not picked up for a weekend, it is a calling that one is bound to for the course of one’s life.  I did not come to using the word lightly, and fought against using it for a long while.

I worked with Anubis for about three years before I came to Odin.  During this time I was involved in doing quite a bit of ceremonial magic, and was very happy with the neat, detailed rituals I practiced.  My Work was going well, when one day Anubis came to me when I was worshiping at His altar.  He told me it was time for me to work with Odin, and to pick up the threads of the rest of my Work.  Anubis did not give me very many directions, only that I would be following Odin primarily now, and that while I would still have Work by Him, our relationship was now firmly on the backburner, especially compared to the demands He knew Odin would make of me and my time.

Odin gave a simple introduction and told me it was time I followed Him, to do the Work of becoming His priest.  He told me that I had taken long enough and had Work to catch up on.  So I began to research what I could of Odin.  I read digital copies of the Eddas when and where I could, and looked at what resources I had about me.  It was not long after that initial contact, and a month or so of research, that He told me I was to be a shaman.

I balked at the idea.  I couldn’t be a shaman.  Yet, whenever I went to pray or to give offerings, there He was, at some point demanding that I start getting serious about following the path.  I had only started officially worshiping Him but a month before; how could He call me to shamanism so soon?  Yet, He did.  I could not ignore it.

Eventually I was worn down by Odin, but I asked and pleaded for a word other than shaman.  I knew it was not from my culture, but borrowed from the Evenks and had found its way into common use.  Still, it was the one word I had that described what Odin was setting before me, what I was to become.  At His insistence, and after much worry, doubt, and second-guessing, I finally bowed to His wish.  I now use it to describe my path, my Work, and myself.  Shortly after accepting this path I began to find Raven Kaldera’s books that had started coming out on Northern Tradition shamanism.  Things began to click very well for me alongside Odin’s lessons with what I found in the pages of Raven’s books.

In the beginning Odin’s instruction for me was a lot about learning to work with the landvaettir and beginning to work with my Ancestors.  A lot of it was low-key, small rituals, much of it rolling off my tongue before a small altar in my dorm room.  It was establishing a small, but regular practice of prayer and offerings.  Since then my practice has expanded, but it grew from the roots of working with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

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