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.