O Great Matronae!

O Great Matronae!  Grandmothers and Mothers of countless peoples!  O Daughters, O Childless, O Guardians!  Whose tribes range the Worlds!  Whose Voices call to us!

We hear and we return!  We hear and we seek!  We hear and we exult!
O Matronae of lands, skies, and seas!  Whose blessings pour out into all the places great and small!  Whose Ways are sought!

O Grandmothers who have kept all Their ways of wisdom, help us to know Your ways of wisdom!
O Mothers who have kept all Their ways of doing, help us to know how do well!
O Daughters who have kept the fires of youth burning, help us to burn with vigor!
O Childless who have kept Their own ways in life, help us to keep our own ways in life!
O Guardians who have kept Their vigil, help us to keep our vigils!

O Great Matronae!  You have called and we answered!  Hear our voices raised!  See and accept the offerings we give!  Hear us, and know our names!

Orthopraxy Requires Orthodoxy

An idea that I see occurring again and again in Pagan dialogue, and increasingly in polytheist dialogue, is the idea of ‘orthopraxy not orthodoxy’.

Before I go too much further, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, orthopraxy is:

“Rightness of action (as distinct from or in addition to rightness of thought); right-doing, practical righteousness; correct practice.”

While the the Oxford English Dictionary defines orthodoxy as:

Authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice

My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought.  One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought.  Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning.  I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts.  In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought.  The reverse is also true.  Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship.  Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings.  In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire.  This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.

This is not to say that I want to impose my beliefs on the whole of polytheism, but that polytheism as a whole does actually hold orthodox beliefs from which orthopraxy arises even if those beliefs are incredibly loosely defined. In other words, orthodoxy’s details differ polytheist religion to polytheist religion, but two polytheisms in comparison will have orthodoxies which are similar in general, i.e. the Gods are real, the Gods are holy/sacred, the Gods are due offerings, etc.

Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. Polytheists who have adopted the ‘orthopraxic not orthodoxic’ line in the extreme give up the understanding that there are things which polytheists need to believe in order to be polytheist. I’m not even getting into religious specifics here. There’s no need; a Kemetic orthodoxic understanding of the Gods would be different, at the least in detail if not in many overarching senses, than my own as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen.

But why am I emphasizing orthodoxy here?  It would seem I am advocating a return to a cage, one I ostensibly flew out of when I left Catholicism.  Such an idea, though, leaves orthodoxy, as well as orthopraxy, and much of religious thought that flows from them, in the realm of monotheism.  I see no reason for this to be, especially when many polytheist religions have quite a lot to say about these things, and exploring these things, rather than being purely divisive, can actually bring our communities together from within.  I do not expect a Kemetic follower to hold, much less entertain my religion’s orthodoxy any more than I would hold theirs, excepting cases where I am interacting with and worshiping Gods from their religion.

This openness to orthodoxy, though, does not mean that I accept others’ orthodoxy wholesale or even in part anymore than they need to accept mine.  Disagreements over orthodoxy and orthopraxy are, to my mind, normal, and best navigated by dialogue both between people and, especially, between people and the Gods.  Heck, my disagreement over orthopraxy or orthodoxy within my religion has little to no input on a Kemetic’s, for instance.  It’s a different story if folks outside of our religions are saying to polytheists that we need to be orthopraxic, not orthodoxic, or vice versa.  It’s one thing if we adopt these stances ourselves, and it’s a whole other when this is put on us.  Granted, I’d rather not see polytheism swing the pendulum hard toward orthopraxy and away from orthodoxy, since I don’t see them as binaries.  Rather, I see them more as complementary sides of the same coin.

Adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now.  It does not mean that we’ll suddenly adopt a theocracy from which there is no escape.  It does not mean that pluralism will disappear, either.  Plenty of historical examples exist as testaments to that.  Most polytheist religions have the understanding that there are, in addition to being quite large Gods, cosmologically speaking, many of these Gods may be understood in a local way, that is, through a particular orthodoxy on the local level.  I remember reading an article by Sannion quite a while ago referencing different Dionysian temples with different understandings of Him, different requirements for ritual purity (some very exacting if memory serves) and offerings which were well-received for one but not the other.

A firmer adoption of orthodoxy and orthopraxy does not mean we fall into one-true-wayism.  We are  a whole collection of religions, religious movements and the like between the Pagan, polytheist, and interconnected communities.  I find such a thing, given the diversity of beliefs within the polytheist religions themselves, to be nearly impossible.  Polytheism’s main stance precludes there being only one way of doing things.  I imagine the same of most Pagan groups.

There are places where I do accept a stance that puts more weight toward orthopraxy.  For instance, when I attend a ritual for the first time, I do things in an orthopraxic way, as I probably don’t have the information or the headspace for doing things in an orthodoxic way.  When I went to the Backeion at Many Gods West, I was there worshiping and praising Dionysus, reciting the prayers and making my own when I felt the call to.  What I did not do was fully adopt the Greek, Hellenic, or Thracian mindsets in regards to Him.  How could I?  I had not studied them much, had not been intitiated into the Dionysian Mysteries, and this had been the first ritual in a very long time where I had been in His Presence.  There are just some rituals I will attend where I will be an outsider to the tradition or the religion.  So long as doing so would not breach hospitality or taboo(s) on mine or the host’s parts, it’s really up to the Gods, the Ancestors, the spirits, the tradition(s), and the celebrants/ritualists whether or not it is taboo for me to attend the rite.

It seems to me much of the issue people take with the words orthodoxy and orthopraxy is in two parts:  the first is an emotional reaction to the words themselves, and the second part is in the feeling that orthodoxy and orthopraxy impose themselves rather than are a natural outgrowth of religious understanding and expression.  Words sacred and holy, those have emotional weight to them, and where sacred or holy may have positive ones, at least for those coming out of monotheist religions, orthodoxy can have some heavy negative weight to it. Even in everyday speech, orthodoxy has acquired heavy baggage of being out of touch, wrong-headed, stubborn in the face of scientific evidence, or someone whose outlook refuses to change.

With many Pagans converting from or descendants of converts from monotheist or atheist homes, it’s no wonder some have taken a heavy stance against orthodoxy.  I hear the refrain “I left (insert church, group, etc.) here to get away from dogma” and “I left (name) so I could follow my own path” often enough that I think these ideas need addressing as well.

Regardless of where one goes, if one is part of a religion there are orthodoxies, or dogmas, that are part of it.  If there are no orthodoxies or dogmas, there is no religion.  If you left a monotheist religion to avoid orthodoxy, you may as well quit religion altogether.  Non-theist religions have orthodoxy and dogma in their own measures; it is one of the defining characteristics of religion.  Religion is the bone upon which the sinew-connections of religious communities are made, and the flesh of spirituality is given form by.

Even in following one’s own path, there are often unspoken orthodoxies and orthopraxies that play into how we frame and understand our place in things, and the experiences we go through.  If one starts as a Catholic, and begins exploring outside of Catholicism, as I did, Catholicism is the initial benchmark against which all things are weighed until the benchmark outgrows its usefulness or is actively cast aside.  This helps to shape what experiences we may integrate, discount, or accept outright.  The coloring of our lenses by our worldview(s) shapes how we come to explore a new path.  Even if we, somehow, started from a totally fresh slate and began spiritual exploration, the people we might look to for guidance, physically, online, and/or in a book, and their associated orthodoxies, orthopraxies, etc. would impact our own.

This brings us to a phrase that makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it: “I’m spiritual, but not religious”.

I get the intention of this, generally speaking, but as a phrase it is wrong.  As I wrote earlier, “Religion is the bone upon which the sinew-connections of religious communities are made, and the flesh of spirituality is given form by.”  Spirituality cannot be without religion of some kind, even if one doesn’t have a name for it or doesn’t care to put it into a given identity.  Orthodoxy gives shape to orthopraxy as religion gives shape to spirituality.  Spirituality requires religion.  Orthopraxy requires orthodoxy.

This is not a one-time thing, though.  Orthodoxy and orthopraxy exist in a continuous, reciprocal relationship.  They feed one another, grow together.  Without one the other falls apart.  The orthodoxy of a given polytheist religion feeds the orthopraxy of that religion.  The practices of polytheism reinforces the thought and worldview that go into why we do what we do in the first place.  It goes on, hand in hand between ourselves and the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  If the reciprocity, the Gebo of this is kept well, this reciprocity goes on, hand-in-hand between ourselves, the Holy Powers, and the future generations of animists, polytheists, and Pagans.  By passing this on in a healthy way we ensure our communities and their relationships with the Holy Powers flourish.

Here are sources I consulted in exploring this:

Terms In and Types of Ethical Theory

Ethics: An Online Textbook, Chapter 9: Kantian Theory

The Basics of Philosophy: Ethics

The Basics of Philosophy: Deontology

Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy: Aristotle’s Conception of the Right

Question 12: Appealing to the Gods

Thank you to Freki Ingela for this question:

Are the Gods great Gods whom anyone on Earth may appeal to, or are they ancestral tribal spirits who confine themselves to looking over the descendants of northern Europe, or are they both? Or are they neither in your opinion? If so, how do understand their nature.

The Gods of the Northern Tradition are Gods I believe anyone can appeal to.  I do not hold folkish views regarding the Gods.  The peoples who worshiped these Gods (and how, what particular understanding of these Gods were prevalent and practices were done in this regard differed region to region) ranged all over the world.  They brought back people from these expeditions, merchant voyages, conquests, and raids.  They sometimes settled in the new lands, usually as colonizers.  To my understanding there is no barrier to anyone worshiping the Gods of the Northern Tradition so far as ancestry goes.  While I do believe that some of the Gods may have brought Their power into tribes of people, such as recounted in the RÍgsÞula (The Lay of Rig), as well as many of the hero stories, I do not think this is what determines if someone is holier or better than another.  I also do not believe that having bloodlines connected to people who may have worshiped the Gods of the Northern Tradition automatically makes you better suited for the Northern Tradition, especially given how many Europeans worshiped Greek and Roman Gods in many of the same places the Northern European Gods were worshiped.  Prayers for the Gods made with a good heart in the right place are good regardless of who makes them.

To understand the nature of the Gods, I usually recommend people read up as much as they can on the Gods, and then, while they are doing so, set up a shrine to the Gods and to their Disir (powerful female Dead), Väter* (powerful male Dead), and their Ancestors in general.  I’ve lived in a dorm room, so I have had to make do with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir all sharing altar space together.  When the shrine is set up, make an offering of water, if nothing else, every day.  Take at least five to fifteen minutes a day to do this, not just setting down the water, but praying at that shrine.  If you have prayers of your own, say them.  If you need inspiration, or want to use prayers from others, feel free to use prayers from my blog using the search bar, from NorthernPaganism.org’s wide variety of online shrines, Michaela’s Odin’s Gift website, Galina Krasskova’s prayers, or any others you find.   If you don’t have space or if you are in a hostile place you can leave a digital candle to one of the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir at one the NorthernPaganism.org’s shrine pages, like this one to Odin.

This is the recommended reading list I have for the Michigan Northern Tradition Study Group, with explanation of why we use them:

  1. Neolithic Shamanism by Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova
    1. Neolithic Shamanism is an experience of the Northern Tradition spirits, and only works with a handful of Gods, such as Sunna and Mani. The focus of the book is toward establishing right relationship with the Elemental Powers, the landvaettir, one’s Ancestors, and so one from the ground up.
  2. The Prose Edda by Carolyne Larrington
    1. This version of the Prose Eddas is very straightforward.  Having read both Bellows and Hollander, I agree with Galina that Hollander cuts things out with poetic license so the ‘flow’ goes according to what he wants.
  3. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera
    1. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner gives a good overview of the Northern Tradition, and has a good deal of practices such as prayers, how to use prayer beads, and what offerings are good or contraindicated for the Gods of the Northern Tradition. This book helped me deepen my religious practice.
  4. Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher
    1. Spiritual Protection is one of the best books on psychic/spiritual protection I have seen or read.  In a book market where protection is often given short shrift, this book goes to the absolute basics and is great to revisit whether you’ve been doing it for a little while, a long while, or not at all. As a word of caution I advise no one to seek to ground to any world but this one, Midgard, as even I haven’t gone and received permission yet to ground to another.
  5. Exploring the Northern Tradition by Galina Krasskova
    1. Exploring the Northern Tradition gives a good overview of the demographics of Heathenry, some ideas of varying practice and culture, and is a good guide to the differences between traditions that you may find in them.
  6. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
    1. This book gives an overview of the myths, Gods, and Goddesses. I would probably pair it with the Prose Eddas, but I also like people to dive right into the source material and make discoveries on their own, but if that style of study works better for you I don’t see a reason not to do it, particularly if the Eddas are a bit hard to work through.

Another book I would seriously recommend is Essential Asatru by Diana Paxson. It details some typical practices from both groups and personal practice.


*This is not a traditional name for the powerful male Dead.  It is German for “Fathers”.  I use it in preference of Álfar, since álfar means ‘elves’.