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On Ritual Praxis -Hearth Cultus

October 21, 2018 1 comment

In the Beginning to Worship post I asserted that polytheisms the world over are first based in the home. This is referred to as engaging in hearth cultus and are often contrasted with state or communal cultus. The word cultus itself relates to “care, labor, cultivation, culture; worship, reverence”. The root of this word in Proto-Indo European, *kwel-, relates to “revolve, move around; sojourn, dwell”. The hearth cultus and temple cultus, then, are places where culture and religion come around to live and be cultivated, and are among the centers where worship and reverence take place.

Because a hearth cultus forms the heart of polytheist religions, it must have the backing of a solid worldview as to what the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are, and what and how these Holy Powers are offered to, the hearth’s relationship with the Holy Powers, and how the hearth relates to the cosmology of the religion. Sacred space within the home is established through the acts of cleansing a hearth and setting up a vé, a sacred place for the Holy Powers, whether it is on a physical hearth such as a mantle, the only dresser in a dorm room, or in the heart of a home on an altar. Hearth cultus is engaged in the hearth in both formal and informal worship, and in engaging in divination to determine offerings, questions related to development of personal and hearth cultus, and communication between the Holy Powers and the hearth. All come together in the establishment, carrying out of, and passing on of a hearth cultus.

The center of the home has switched a bit for modern America. In the interim since actual hearths and their fires were the center of the home, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually, the role of the hearth has been split in most modern American homes between the living room and the kitchen/dining room. The living room tends to be where we enjoy one another’s company, socialize, engage in festivities like Yule gift-giving or New Year’s celebrations, and play. The kitchen/dining room is where we prepare our daily meals and eat, talk about our day, and spend a good deal of time together as a family. When the table is cleared sometimes we use this space to do homework, pay bills, play boardgames, or engage in feasting festivals like Thanksgiving or one of our harvest holidays, i.e. the Haustblot. It is unlikely any two hearths look alike for cultural/religious reasons or for the physical layout and needs of a given hearth. Still, most share commonalities of function for the hearth and its members.

The Microcosm and the Macrocosm

A given hearth’s sacred space is both its own space and a reflection of how a hearth relates to its cosmology. This is why a firm understanding of worldview and sacred stories is needed for any polytheist’s development, let alone any cultus. How we relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of our cosmologies are important questions because it forms the core of who we are and why we do what we do. The worldview of the hearth is how the hearth is formed to begin with, how the members conduct themselves within the hearth, and how the vé of a hearth are made and maintained.

In setting up a hearth some questions need to be answered. Many of these questions were asked back in the post On Ritual Praxis -Beginning to Worship and serve as guides going forward.

The first question of any hearth is: What is a hearth’s place cosmologically, both in terms of representation of the larger cosmos and in terms of on-the-ground worship, reverence, and life for those who gather around it? How do members of a hearth relate to Fire Itself? How do the members of a hearth relate to Gods of the hearth? All of these are powerful questions, as each is intimately related to the kind of place the hearth itself occupies in the heart of a given home.

What Holy Powers are worshiped, revered, and called to in a hearth and how its cultus is shaped depends on how these questions are answered:

What are the Holy Powers and how do we relate to Them? Are there certain directions that are sacred to a given Holy Power, and if so, what are they? What Holy Powers belong in or to the hearth vé? How does the religion relate to Fire and Holy Powers of Fire? Are there established ways to light Sacred Fires within the religion? Are there Holy Powers that should not occupy the same spaces or be close to one another? Should some Holy Powers occupy certain places in a hearth not on the vé at the heart of a hearth, but in some other place such as above the stove, near the front door, near a source of running water, etc.? Are there specific ways each family member relates to the hearth and its keeping?

How the hearth and any vé besides the hearth itself are made and maintained depends on these:

What are the vé or equivalent sacred spaces in the religion? Are there traditional methods in existing sources as to how they are erected, or will new traditions around constructing one need to be made? Does the making of a vé differ whether it is an altar, shrine, hearthfire, and/or mantle? What are the right ways to treat the places where vé are kept? What offerings are good for making in vé? If a vé is at the heart of a hearth, such as above a fireplace or stove, or in the living room or kitchen, does it hold a special place for the family and in the culture/religion of the hearth? If so, what role does a given hearth member take on in relation to the vé?

These are how my own hearth answers these questions.

What a Hearth Is

The hearth is the heart of a family, or writ larger, a Kindred, tribe, or other similarly organized community group. It is where cleansing and purification begins, whether through Fire Itself or through the lives of sacred herbs such as Großmutter Una. It is where sacrifice takes place such as through the offering of Grandmother Mugwort or other burnt offerings, offerings of food which are consumed by the hearth fire or made outside, or where sacrifices and/or tools to make sacrifices are made sacred for their work.

The hearth is placed in an enclosure of Earth, whether it is outside in my family’s sacred grove firepit or in my Kindred main meeting home in a fireplace. The lighting of the Fire brings to mind the sparks that melted Nifelheim, and so, made our lives possible by allowing Ymir and Auðhumla to move about. The lighting of the Fire is also one made in honor of our Ancestors. Once kindled, the hearthfire is the boundless energy of Fire given bounds by Ice, in this case the entropy that occurs as heat and light is given off in the burning of fuel, and contained by Earth in which the Fire is housed and whose fuel Fire burns. Water results from the Ice melted and pushes to the surface of the burning log/Tree, and wisps of smoke from the log and any offered herbs continue the sacred burning of Fire Itself and Air from the smoke of the log and/or herbs. Each Fire is related to Muspelheim and each log to every tree, so we engage in the cycle of Fire that burns the Earth from which we come so that heat and light can warm us and shine on us, take in our offerings, and take up our prayers to the Holy Powers, including Fire Itself and each individual Firevaettr that comes to rest in our hearth.

So, each hearth made and each hearthfire lit is a living recreation of the Creation Story. Each hearthfire lit is itself connected with the First Fire and is a vaettr, a spirit, unto Itself. Each log burned is itself an offering of the Earth and we give offerings to Fire, Earth, and every other element involved in its lighting. In the midst of all this, a hearthfire is also a signal of cleansed, holy space to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and an invitation for all of us to come closer.

Personal and Sacred

Hearth cults are diverse, whether due to personal relationships a hearth has with its Holy Powers, the land one lives on, or any number of personal factors. A hearth cultus for a lone college student living on campus will look utterly different from that of a family on several acres of land. This diversity should be embraced.

Having been on both sides of this, restrictions can abound for college students that don’t exist for folks in a home. A prohibition against candles will mean that, instead of turning to a lighter or matches, one will probably turn to LED candles to represent the glow of a hearthfire. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; after all, electricity is a form of Fire. Some folks live in homes where size restrictions means that at most LED or tea lights will be the only sources of fire beyond, perhaps, the stove. Whatever the location of a hearth’s vé, the place will need to be undisturbed by animals and respected by those who will be in its presence. If the vé needs to be temporary, only pulled out when actual ritual is going on, then its holding place should be one held in sacred regard.

What matters for a vé is not the size of it, but that it is a place of good and sacred contact between a Heathen and their Gods. Even if the container for one’s hearthfire is a small tin, containing only an image of the Holy Power(s), a tea light, some matches and a small bowl for offerings, this will be enough so long as the Holy Powers are pleased and the cultus can be carried out with reverence. When I first became a Pagan I had a vial with five salt crystals to represent the Five Elements in my rituals. My altars grew from these small beginnings into the altars over time seen here, here and here. My mobile vé for conventions tends to be my collection of prayer cards, an offering vessel, and maybe a few representations of the Holy Powers otherwise. What matters it that you have the means to cleanse the vé, make some kind of offering, and have a container for the vé itself. This is where the map of lore meets the territory of being for Heathens. We bring forward as much as we can, learn as much as we can, and it is here, in hearth cultus, where we put all of this into lived relationship with our Holy Powers.

Making a Hearth

Cosmology, including what directions are sacred and why, what Beings related to the hearth, Fire, etc., need to be known in order for a hearth to become established. A hearth is the culmination of the macro and the micro of a cosmology, the welcoming in of Holy Powers, and establishment of sacred space. Without understanding why it is important to establish a hearth, what establishing a hearth itself means, or the importance of cosmology, myth, and how we relate to the Holy Powers, especially Fire Itself in the creation of a hearth, there is no structure for establishing a hearth nor how to do it. Without these bones there is no point to a hearth, no sacred direction to place it or space one may make it. Without the foundation there is no point to making a hearth. Without meaning behind it, then, there is no hearth.

A hearth is the central sacred space of a home.  For many of us, having a physical hearth is an impossibility.  So how do we bring in the hearth for hearth cultus without a fireplace?  Candles are one way, whether they are burnable or LED.

Are there traditional methods we can see in how to erect a hearth? We can look at how the ancient cultures Heathens erected their homes, and what information remains to us from how their own hearths were established. Most of the information useful to this goal will not be blatantly stated. Given that most of what is available to us in lore is relevant to rulers, not the average ancient Norse, Anglo-Saxon, etc, and given the sources are mostly for skalds and poets to read aloud or for instruction, much of the establishment of modern hearth culture will need to be derived from what we can find for the hints at mindset and worldview in the sources, and from there our own intuition and interactions with the Holy Powers.  A simple example is the centrality of the hearth from lore and archaeology. What remains to us is acknowledgement that the path of the Sun was sacred, and so East is a good candidate for a vé to face or be placed in.

As with a great many things, where lore and archaeology tell us little or hint at things, modern Heathens will need to make our best guesses, do divination, and be willing to correct ourselves when new information rises.  Likewise, the practical needs of any given space will need to be taken into account as well.  Even though the East is a good candidate for a vé to face in, my family’s Gods’ altar stands in the North before the only window in the room.  This table has the best space so our Gods’ representations and offerings are not crowding one another and best fits in front of the window.

Since we do not own the home we are living in and our altars are all upstairs, our vé hold primary places for us in the family, namely our bedrooms.  Were we to be living on our own I imagine the different vé we worship at would be spread over the home.  The Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we hold the closest cultus to might be in a central vé, such as above a literal hearth on a mantle, or on an altar in the center of the living room.  The making of a vé does differ, as a literal hearth at the center of our home would invite variations of ritual that our current set up does not.  If our vé were on a mantle we might not have an altar cloth, or if we did it might be made of very different materials such as pelts/fur and/or heavier cloths.  Our current Gods’ vé is adorned with different colored cotton cloths marking the different seasons.  Sometimes we change our Ancestor vé cloth colors as well to mark the seasons.  We have small heat-resistant stands for when we burn candles, incense, reykr, or offerings.  Given we are in bedrooms and the smoke alarms are very touchy we do not tend to light candles or burn much in the way of offerings or reykr.   This would this change with having a hearthfire, and so would the care of the ashes.  Living on our own, we might collect the ashes of the hearthfire to use in crafting sacred things, such as soaps for cleansing or in leatherwork for fur removal.

Our hearth cultus centers around the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we are closest to.  For each of us that differs with our individual relationships, but for both our family and our Kindred it is Oðin, Frigg, Freya, Freyr, Gerða, Loki, Angrboða, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Mimir, and Hela for the Heathen/Northern Tradition Gods.  Other Gods of our family hearth are Brighid, Bres, Lykeios, Lupa, Bast, and Anubis.  For our Ancestors we give cultus not only to our blood Ancestors, but also to the Ancestors of our lineages, such as the spiritworkers who came before me, and to those who have inspired me over the years such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Among the vaettir we hold cultus for are the landvaettir and housevaettir.  Each of us also tends our own personal vé to different Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  We engage in our hearth cultus daily, including night prayers and offerings at the hearth, and at the dinner table with meal prayers.  We also occasionally share in ritual celebration of different holy days around our hearth, or with the Kindred around its hearth.

An Example of Daily Hearth Cultus

My family’s daily hearth cultus tends to be quite simple. Most of our hearth rites are some variation on this:

  1. Begin by cleansing.
    1. Most nights we do this by deep breathing three times, expelling the dross of the day out of ourselves and away from the vé, and breathing in good, clean air so we concentrate on the prayers and offerings we are going to make. If we have had a particularly hard day, if we are in a time of powerful transition (such as after a funeral or during a holy tide), if a ritual calls for it, or if it just seems time to, I make a Sacred Fire with Großmutter Una, making reykr over all of us, and the vé. We may pass a lit candle in a similar fashion to working with Grandmother Mugwort, or work with both Fire and Großmutter Una together, passing them over the vé once or three times in a clockwise fashion around the altar. The number 3 is one we recognize as holy, and clockwise works with the turning of Sunna’s journey and the seasons She helps to bring.
    2. Cleansing by Reykr
      1. Make a prayer thanking the Fire, a simple one such as “Hail Eldest Ancestor!” or, a more elaborate one like “Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Hail Firevaettir! Hail Eldest Ancestor! Ves ðu heil!”
      2. Lay down the herb to be burned, in this case Mugwort. Make a prayer of thanks, simple like “Hail Großmutter Una!” or “Thank You for Your gift, Großmutter Una, that cleanses us and brings our prayers to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir!”
      3. Light the match, lighter, or strike the flint and steel. Waft the smoke around once, or three time around yourself, any attendants, and the altar and its contents. If there are items you would like the Holy Powers to bless, waft Them through the smoke before doing this so the item comes into the vé cleansed.
  2. Make prayers.
    1. Most of our prayers are fairly short and to the point. We have a Night Prayer we follow, which is a rote prayer my wife and I developed for our many Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It serves two purposes, the first being is a unifying prayer of thanks for all the gifts our Holy Powers give us throughout our lives, and it also helps our children to come to know the Gods through at least one attribute that They gift to us, and to be thankful for it. We take this time to give any other prayers, whether thanks to Thor for protecting us in the latest thunderstorm, or to Frigg for peace in our home.
    2. Prayers at the Vé
      1. Following the format of our Night Prayers, you could use the simple formula of “Thank You <Holy Power> for <Blessing/Gift/Function>! Hail <Holy Power!>”, for example “Thank You Freyr and Gerða for the World around us!” Another form of prayer would be to gather at least three heiti for a Holy Power you are close to, have fondness for, or are trying to get to know, and pray in a format like this: “Hail Oðinn, the Inspirer! Hail Alföðr, the All-Father! Hail Rúnatýr, God of the Runes! I seek to know You better!”
  3. Make offerings.
    1. It is not enough for us to only pray. We exist in a flowing relationship with our Holy Powers, receiving and giving good Gebo, gipt fa gipt, or gift for a gift. Given we have several altars we dedicate one day to each group of Holy Powers, the first to our Gods, the next to our Ancestors, and the third to our vaettir. Each God has some kind of vessel in front of Them. Our mainstay offering is water. We also make special offerings, such as whiskey, mead, coffee, or food. If we make a special offering that could spoil before our next round of offerings, we respectfully dispose of it in the sink if it is liquid, giving a prayer to the God it is for and a thanks for Their blessings. If the offering is food or herbs we do not burn at the altar, we place it outside in our sacred grove’s Yggdrasil representation, or wait until a Sacred Fire to burn it. We count food offerings among our special ones because we live on the second floor of a shared home and respectfully disposing of the food offerings as described above once the Holy Powers are done with them is harder to do, especially since most of our offerings are made and disposed of at night.
    2. Making Offerings
      1. As our usual offerings are water, herbs, and on occasion stick incense, I will use these as examples.
    3. For Water Offerings
      1. Since our worldview is polytheist steeped in animism, we recognize the Elements Themselves as part of our Ancestry. In recognizing this we thank the Elements Themselves and the vaettir Who we are offering to the Holy Powers. We might offer a prayer like “Hail Water, Elder Ancestor! Hail Watervaettr! We thank You for the gift of Your body, that we offer to the Holy Powers!” Good offerings to give in turn to Water and the watervaettir would be care for our sources of water, prayers of thanks and recognition of all that these Holy Powers bless. Honoring Water and the watervaettir are other sources of good Gebo in our daily conduct with water, including conserving and care for water sources we rely on and/or come across.
    4. For Burnt Herb and Incense Offerings
      1. Follow the structure above in the Cleansing by Reykr section 1, and in 2, change the language to reflect an offering is being given. Something like “Hail Grandmother Una! Thank You for the gift of Your body in offering to our Holy Powers!” or “Hail Mugwort! Hail to You for being our offering! Holy Powers, we offer this Gebo to You!” or “Hail Holy Powers, we make this offering of Mugwort in gipt fa gipt with You!” When addressing the Holy Powers directly, simply saying “Hail <Holy Power>!” or “This offering is for You, <Holy Power>!” or “I make this offering for You, <Holy Power>!” can be enough.
  4. Divination and Follow Up Work
    1. If divination has been called for, whether due to some accident like dropping an offering or knocking over an idol, divination having been requested earlier, or just a prompting from intuition, we usually do it here after prayers and offerings. Some folks regularly practice divination as part of their daily work in heart cultus. I generally do not, since much of our daily cultus takes place at night not long before I have to go to work and I haven’t gotten the message or intuition to incorporate this. Your needs as a hearth and your ability for/access to divination will be the best guide here.

Maintaining Hearth Cultus

The first step to maintaining a hearth cultus once it has been established is to care for the vé physically and spiritually. Cleaning the space regularly, including the disposal of offerings and changing out cloths, and keeping the icons of the Holy Powers clean promotes mindfulness and reverence for the place it holds in a hearth. The next step is to make prayers, offerings, and to do whatever other daily work needs doing at the hearth regularly.

If the vé is in a fireplace then the cleaning of it serves a practical function in keeping the chimney clear of debris and in good working order. This idea is equally true whether the vé is a fireplace, a mantle, a desk, or even a mini altar-tin.  Since the practical is part of the spiritual work, understanding the hearth and the process of cleaning the hearth from a cosmological standpoint makes the work take on deeper meaning. In setting up the vé you are asking the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to help you make an ordered Sacred Space.

The fireplace is no longer just a fireplace; it becomes the hearth, the spiritual heart of the home. The mantle, the desk, the tin is no longer just a mantle, desk, or tin.  In cleaning the vé, the hearth being the micro to the cosmos’ macro, you are helping to bring cleansing and order to this cosmos. It is the where you develop contact with the Holy Powers, worshiping Them and making offerings. As your hearth cultus goes on it may grow or shrink, (or in the case of tins maybe you will make/collect more) and so may the qualities it comes to represent and the meaning the place holds in your home and religious life. No matter your source of Fire for the vé, whatever you put into the Fire or set with It needs to be safely burnt.  Treating the Fire with utmost care is paramount. Every Fire is connected in our understanding, whether the smallest match, the electricity in an LED, or the largest star, and as the hearthfire itself represents Fire Itself, the care each Firevaettr is given should reflect on that relationship.

Whether it is five minutes a day, a half an hour or longer, many times a day, or as we do, cycling prayers and offerings different days of the week, the point here is to maintain a regular practice of devotional work and care for the hearth. Integrating the hearth into one’s life and keep it at the heart may be a struggle for many folks who have never grown up with this. Regular engagement with the hearth physically and spiritually will help this become part of one’s life. Keeping it front and center in one’s home centers the Holy Powers around which the hearth is based, and right along with it, the cosmology and its worldview.

The hearth is one’s cosmos in miniature even if one doesn’t have all the representations of the Holy Powers yet. As I wrote earlier, there was a time when all I had was five salt crystals no bigger than my pinky nail. Now, my family has statues for some Gods and representations for others. Some folks may find they cannot get or afford statues of the Gods. We have statues of Odin, Frigg, Freya, Freyr, and Thor by Paul Borda of Dryad Designs that we bought from different Pagan/Pagan-friendly stores. For Gerða we have a corn dolly with a rake in Her hand we found at a thrift store. Loki, Angrboda, and Sigyn’s representations are a slat of red fox skin for Loki, a badger claw for Sigyn, and wolf fur for Angrboda, each representation gifted to us. Sometimes the Holy Powers are looking for different ways for us to come into Their representations because the representation has something to say or it exposes us to worshiping Them in a new way. Sometimes a representation is what we happen to have at the time; during Many Gods West I had to leave a lot of representations and spiritual tools at home and ended up printing off pictures of the Gods for the event altar and my own.  At the end of the day, use what works to connect your hearth with the Gods.

If one’s hearth cultus is mainly in the kitchen your relationship with the cultus may change, and the Holy Powers one worships there, calls to first, or maintains the boundaries during prayer, offerings, and ritual. One might start a ritual in the fireplace by first calling on the Gods of Fire and then Gods of the Hearth, Hearthkeeping, and/or the Home. A ritual in a hearth’s vé located in the kitchen may do it the other way around, first calling on Gods of the Home and then Fire Gods, as the set up and priorities for the hearth may differ from a fireplace’s hearth.  One’s way of offering might change from Fire being the primary element into which offerings are made to Water.  One’s focus of the hearth cultus might be on the Wells rather than Fire, since the main tools one practically uses in this space shifts from containing and maintaining Fire centrally to containing and maintaining Water.  It does not mean that Fire’s importance is lost, only that the focus of the hearth cultus shifts.

For our family, our relationships with the Gods of family, social order come ahead of Fire given we generally do not work with Fire as much in our daily rites.  We involve Fire when we light candles, turn on the light for night prayers, or sit down to a meal, but the centrality that would be there were our vé on a hearthfire or on a mantle is not present.  Something that was suggested to me by my dear friend and Brother, Jim, is that since the namesake of our Kindred comes from Mimir and the Well of Wisdom, and that so many of our offerings and work involve water and water-based offerings, that while Fire Itself is still recognized as the First Ancestor, that Water, the Well, and honoring Mimir takes priority.  Our family is still working this out with our Holy Powers.

Understanding the role of Fire as central to the hearth does not change, nor does it shift the cosmological importance of Fire.  Without Fire we do not see, our altars are not illuminated, our food goes uncooked, our reykr cannot smoke.  What does change is how we relate to these Holy Powers and how these relationships unfold in our vé.  The cosmogenic unfolding from Fire and Ice meeting still is a powerful source of understanding, one that informs how the Waters that are more central to our familial hearth come about.  The Gods of our home will still be central to our hearth cultus even if Mimir and the Well of Wisdom are honored ahead of Them.  The fixed points of cosmogeny and cosmology do not change, only our points of relating to Them and the place they hold in our rites with the Holy Powers.

Differentiating Hearth Cultus Rites from Other Rites

What differentiates hearth cultus rites from many other polytheist and Pagan rituals is the general lack of altered states of consciousness and its focus on devotional worship and reverence. There is no ulterior goal or motive in daily hearth cultus. You’re worshiping and revering the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of your hearth. That is its goal and its focus.

When I was doing the #30DaysofMagick challenges I set the times I did my work with the Runes apart from my hearth cultus work. Not only did this keep my focus on the rites at hand, it also kept my family’s focus since we do hearth ritual as a family and I am the only one among us that does Runework. In keeping the rites separate I kept the kind of ritual focus needed for good hearth cultus in its place, and Rune work in its own. I do have a daily devotional rite I do with Runatyr and the Runevaettir, but again, that is separate from my hearth cultus because that is personal cultus and work I hold with Runatyr and the Runevaettir. Because neither my wife nor our children have initiated into doing Runework that buffer also protects them from collecting obligation or entanglement with Them beyond my family’s already existing ties.

I differentiate hearth cultus from other rites in the use of altered states since, broadly speaking, the focus of the rites which use altered states are generally to another end beyond devotion, worship, offering, and prayer. Altered states like deep trance work tend to operate as uncontrolled liminal spaces even if they are guided. Unlike a hearth rite, in which there are very clear steps, a focus, and end steps in a methodical way, once one enters into even an altered state, let alone contact with a Holy Power in an altered state, the directions one can go with it are many. There may be spiritual work one needs to do, initiation work to prepare for, or, the raw and intense experience of just being in a Holy Power’s Presence among the possibilities.

Gathering Around the Hearth

Hearth cultus can be engaged in by anyone regardless of aptitude for altered states, magical work, initiation, or experience. Its focus, steps, goals, and means to achieve them are clear and accessible to everyone. Many other rites require some kind of ongoing study and/or engagement with Holy Powers and spiritual forces, such as one’s hamr or önd. Some rites will require initiation and others will require exclusive focus on a goal other than worship or reverence.

The heart of polytheism is in hearth cultus. Through hearth cultus we come to worship, pray to, offer to, and know our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping hearth cultus accessible to everyone keeps our religions, traditions, and communities alive, vibrant, and engaged. Through hearth cultus anyone can begin, continue, and deepen relationships with the Holy Powers. We bring our traditions from the maps of lore, linguistics, and archaeology into the lived experience of worship, reverence, and engagement. Our worldview is lived through hearth cultus. Through it, our relationships with the Holy Powers is strengthened and enlivened individually and communally. With hearth cultus our religions are not mere abstractions, a collection of holidays or ideas. Through hearth cultus we pass on these ways of life to each generation. With hearth cultus being at the heart of our cultures and our religions, they are part of our lives, immanent for each of us and connective between us. Here, in each of our hearths, our ways of life are made and lived in good relationships with the Holy Powers and ourselves.

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On Ritual Praxis -Divination

July 1, 2018 1 comment

Before digging into hearth cultus it occured to me that writing on divination first would be ideal. Given how often I referenced its use in previous posts and how much it is coming up in the hearth cultus section as I write it, divination needs some exploration. This post will dig into what divination is, divination’s place in Heathenry and the Northern Tradition, some simple methods of how to perform it, and how to put divination into practice.

Divination is a form of active engagement, of ongoing conversations and development of relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is how we come to know the will of the Holy Powers in a given matter, how we affirm whether an offering is acceptable or not, and how we should proceed at times in our lives. In this, we are not altogether different from the ancient cultures we relate to.

The way that modern divination is done spans a gamut of arts and techniques, among them sortilege, omens, dreams, trance states, meditation, and the use of books, poems, and songs. Again, as with ancient polytheist cultures, we are not so different here. Ancient polytheist cultures engaged in all of these things and more, including some divination methods our modern societies would find illegal.

What information we have indicates that, according to Tacitus, ancient German cultures had many ways of divining, including using twigs and/or strips of wood marked with signs, cups and dice, and divination by omens such as how a sacred horse raced. Ancient Icelandic cultures would have used what was called a blotspann or sacrifice chip among their forms of divination. Scholars are uncertain as to whether this indicates that either ancient German or Icelandic cultures used Runes in divination. For at least the ancient Icelandics there was also spá, a form of ritual prophesy. It is unknown if Tacitus’ sources point to spá being performed by women in ancient German society, though in both cultures women were renowned for their arts of prophecy and magic. Dr. Jackson Crawford gives an excellent, brief overview of this here.

Ancient cultures valued divination for the same reason we do, and performed them for the same reasons. Whether or not our modern divination methods match theirs, what I believe to be more important is that it works. In this, I set aside whether or not reading the Runes is historically attested. What matters for my Kindred and I is that it works. Likewise, tarot may have started as a card game but the use of games for divination is historically attested to, namely in terms of cups and dice as mentioned above. Again, in the end, we use what works.

The Place of Divination

A member of the Kindred asked a powerful question: if we have the Nornir who weave Wyrd, then what is the point of acting? If all things have their stories written in the web of Wyrd then isn’t doing one thing vs another pointless? My response was that we are weaving Wyrd along with all the other threads in the warp and weft of Wyrd together, including with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Divination directed towards the future gives us a look at how the threads are coming together, and gives us information that we might act in anticipation of, or in reaction to those threads. Divination directed to our Holy Powers invites conversation with Them, giving Them a way for us to hear Their response. Divination directed to ourselves gives us insight into how our Wyrd may be weaving, its direction, or how we can act to better the way we weave.

Rather than in a singular place, divination sits at many crossroads. In crafting a rite, divination can provide guidance on how it is to be done. Before a ritual, divination may guide us in the selection of offerings for a Holy Power. During a ritual, divination may instruct those gathered as to the acceptance of an offering. After a ritual, divination may guide those gathered to the next steps to deepen a relationship with the Holy Powers. On and on, divination provides ongoing conversation and interaction with the Holy Powers.

It is important to note we humans are not the only ones who do divination. It is noteworthy that in the lore our Gods also divine. In taking up divination a Rune reader is not only following Odin in His journey in taking up the Runes, but also in His work as a diviner. Likewise, we are also taking up following our human Ancestors who divined. Divination’s function, cosmologically, keys us into the active weavings of Wyrd. It indicates where we may move the threads in our power to affect change, and it may show us some of the effect that change can make.

Divination does not replace our need to know what is ours to know. Lore and archaeology are maps, not territories, but they can give us indications on what roads to take. It would be foolish to take a road trip without checking the maps, developing familiarity with the route, and planning for stops and needs along the way. Before one does a rite to a Holy Power, getting to know that Holy Power is paramount. Before one asks a question before a life event, possessing as much information as one can is paramount. When asking a question in divination phrasing the question carefully, and really getting to the heart of what you want and/or need to know is paramount.

The place of divination is to help us live our religions well. It helps us to know the will of the Holy Powers. When we are stuck, it can help us find a way forward, or what to do.

Divination engages us in active communication with our Holy Powers. Its place is to help us develop, keep, and further our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, as divination provides some of the places we can hear Them the clearest on these things. It helps us to do our best in weaving Wyrd together with our Holy Powers. Divination helps us to establish and keep right relationship with the Holy Powers. Divination’s place is at the crossroads of our lives, the events within our communities, and our relationships, communally and individually, with the Holy Powers. Divination’s places lies in all the between spaces where we can seek guidance if we just reach out and work with it.

Learning is Doing

There is an Estonian proverb: “The work will teach you how to do it.”

Divination is a form of work whose expertise cannot be taught out of a book. Divination is a profession of study and especially experience. As divination is a profession learned by doing, the best way to begin to do divination is to start small. Far better to start small, say with a Rune or card pulled a week, or starting with small-impact questions from friends before a big question comes.

In regards to Rune divination, knowing the Rune Poems, the Havamal, and what other lore and archaeology we have that tells us about Them is useful to have and know, but this is where scholarship leaves off and the work of religion begins. None of the Rune Poems, the Havamal, or our other sources of lore are religious texts and should not be treated as such. I keep referencing them as guideposts because that is what they are. How we relate to the Runes and divination, however much these are informed by the past, are a largely modern phenomenon and there is no problem in that.

It is controversial in many Heathen circles to suggest that folks read the Runes, to recommend modern Heathens’ books on working with the Runes and doing divination and/or magic with the Runes. As I mentioned above we have only suggestions in our sources that the ancient Germans read Runes for divination, and so anything we have extracted from this and other sources are based on people’s own exploration of the resources and with the Runes Themselves. The books I recommend are Runes: Theory and Practice by Galina Krasskova, and Taking Up the Runes by Diana Paxson. Both are books I have worked through and would recommend for those looking to get into working with the Runes.

No matter which divination system(s) one goes with, it takes time to develop competency and expertise. In time, even with relatively simple binary divination systems, i.e. yes/no, one can get a lot of information depending on how a question or series of questions are phrased. Certain divination systems may be able to be used at any point, whereas others may be restricted to certain settings for their usefulness, i.e. outdoor omens like the flight of birds. Certain divination systems may be tabooed for a diviner to be used only in certain rituals, or a divination tool may be dedicated to a single Holy Power, whereas other diviners may have free and open use for all the tools in their toolkit. What makes the difference is how each person walks their path, what taboos and tools become used during that walk, and if the diviner continues to develop their expertise.

Divination Systems Other than the Runes

Not everyone uses the Runes, and not everyone will find use in working with the Runes in divination. Going into all the ways one could learn to divine within a Heathen worldview would, I imagine, be a book unto itself. Rather than go through such an exhaustive process I am going to list three divination methods a Heathen might adopt that do not involve the Runes.

Dice

In reading Tacitus’ Germania it is noted that the Germans took their games of dice seriously, so much so that they would bet their freedom on the roll of a die. With contests such as horse-racing with sacred horses, and the nearby peoples actively practicing forms of astralogomancy, it is not a long stretch to imagine that dice could have held a similar place in German culture. In any case, simple dice divination can give quite a lot of information with the throw a single die.

Even ascribing simple meaning to the dice, such as odds being “Yes” and evens being “No” can yield a good deal of information if good questions are asked. Another method of dice-throwing may be having an individual meaning given to each number or pips on the die, such as a 6-sided die having the following:

1 = “Yes”

2 = “Unfavorable”

3 = “Neutral/Maybe”

4 = “Reconsider the subject/question”

5 = “Favorable”

6 = “No.”

It may be worth considering adopting a system besides the usual 1d6 and look at different dice, such as the 10-sided die in regards to representing the Nine Worlds. 0 could represent Yggdrasil Itself or Wyrd, with 1-9 representing each of the Nine Worlds. Questions would be asked, with relevant information coming out depending on which World, or if Yggdrasil/Wyrd is drawn, a second roll is made with the attributes of the World the die lands on being especially impactful or auspicious.

Dropping Stones

As with dice a great deal of information can be learned in a short amount of time by using dropping stones to divine. Tacitus’ Germania states that wood chips with “signs” marked on them were thrown onto a white cloth for divination. While this may work, one may also want to throw onto a printed image, such as a map of Yggdrasil or onto a cloth with words sewn, embroidered, or printed on it.

One method I have been taught that works well is a three stone divination which has a Yes stone, a No stone, and an indicator stone. These three stones are dropped onto bare dirt or onto a mat blessed for use in divination. It is simple, straightforward, and effective, and a great deal of information can be gained by being careful with a question, or series of questions.

Seeking an Omen

To seek an omen is to seek a phenomena of “Prophetic significance.” Seeking an omen has a long history with a lot of branching paths that can be taken. Among the long list of historical forms are looking at the flight of birds, astronomical events, disjointed chatter from a crowd forming a word or series of words or, as noted in Germania, the racing of sacred horses and noting the winner.

Of the ways we have explored so far, seeking an omen is the most subjective of them. As this is the case, seeking an omen needs to be specific enough that a sign can be accurately discerned. So, asking for an omen of a flight of birds may be far too broad, particularly if one has lots of birds in the area. If one is looking at the flight of birds then looking for a specific kind of bird associated with the God, Ancestor, or vaettr in question is ideal, and noting which way they are flying. While we could look at birds flying east as a good sign, as that is the direction of the rising sun, the meaning of each direction may depend on where one lives. If one lives near a body of water then a flock of specific birds flying towards or over those waters can carry different signficance than those flying towards. So, to an extent the usefulness of seeking an omen is dependent on how developed the symbol set one is working with, what lore one associates with a given sort of omen seeking, and how one integrates the knowledges one has about the subject of the omen, the object or being the omen is contingent on, and one’s expertise at discerning whether or not an omen has occured. As with the previous divination skills, I recommend starting small and working up to larger questions.

Ways to Divine with the Runes

If you are going to work with the Runes for divination then get to know as much about Them as possible. Do your research; read the Rune Poems, look at what the archaeology and lore in general has to say on Them. Look at what modern Runeworkers and diviners say about working with the Runes, and compare your understanding to theirs. It is important to point out that not every Northern Tradition Pagan or Heathen will work with the Runes, and not every one who does Runework does so to divine. The examples I have laid out here are just some of the ways in which the Runes can convey information or divination can be done with Them.

Drawing a Rune

Perhaps the simplest way to divine is drawing a single Rune out of a bag in response to a question, and exploring the answer with the knowledge and experience one has with that Rune. This method is deceptively simple. After all, the Runes represent and are a sound, a letter, and an extended meaning to the ancient Heathen cultures that They com from. There is a deep well of information that can be gathered out of a single Rune being drawn in response to a question if the person has the knowledge and understanding to get it and use it.

Drawing or dropping a series of Runes

This would be placing one or many Runes into a preset pattern with designated meanings. One method I have used is a simple North/South reading style, with the extreme North being representative of Niflheim and negative/slowing/death, while the South being representative of Muspelheim and positive/quickening/life. This is because the further North you go the colder it is, the colder it is the higher your chance of dying. The southlands of many of the ancient Heathen cultures were places where, even in the harsher climes, it was easier to grow food and raise animals. There are many nuances I found with this divination system, some of which comes from finding Runes associated with the opposite element in the two poles, or thinking on what a given Rune might mean if it is in the North vs the South.

Dropping Sticks

This takes its cue right from Germania. The method may be either an appropriate number of sticks are marked with the Runes and dropped on a white sheet to see which turn up, or unmarked sticks are dropped on a white mat and it is seen if any Runes are seen in their pattern. Either way, the effect is rather random and the answer may be quite direct or hidden, depending on if the Runes are clear or not.

Seeking a Rune Omen

This method of divination engages with the Runes directly. Generally, when I am looking for a Rune omen I will make a small prayer to Runatýr (Odin’s heiti meaning God of the Runes) and the Runevaettir. Then, I do some cleansing work, and keep my eyes peeled for something that forms a Rune. Perhaps it will be a walk in the park and fallen branches form a Rune, or a fallen branch takes on the form of Fehu or Ansuz, both of which have happened to me when I was seeking an omen.

As with seeking an omen in general, this is more intuitive and requires you to know what you are looking for. Something that may be useful for discernment is asking the Runes to show you an omen three times. As with the previous example, the placement of the Rune, what the Rune is ‘made of’, i.e. branches, shadows, flight of animals, etc. may have its own part to play in your interpretation of the message.

For example: if I asked a question like “What is the next step?” and the shape of Uruz is the answer on the ground after I have picked up trash in a park, it may be strength is required in service to the goal or for the next step at hand. If the branch came from an oak tree, perhaps I need to seek out Thor and see if He has requests of me. If a birch tree, perhaps speak with or make offerings to Frigga. The oak may also mean finding strength in deep roots of service with community, or the birch may mean that service to those healing long term. Again, as before, context and one’s knowledge of the Runes, and the mediums the Runes come in, can profoundly affect the interpretation of the omen. Double checking the omen with other forms of divination would not hurt, particuarly if you are unsure.

Engaging in Divination

Since divination is an engaged conversation between the Holy Powers and us, I approach each divination session as I do ritual. This ritual discipline orders your internal headspace, orienting it towards the divination at hand, centering it as an engagement with the Holy Powers, and entering into a sacred headspace. This is the format I will generally follow:

Step 1: Cleanse the space and those present for the session.

Step 2: Make prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to engage in conversation.

Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.

Step 4: Do the divination.

Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.

A Sample Rune Divination Ritual

This ritual is designed for a one-on-one divination rite, and should be able to be formatted to whatever the situation calls for, whether it is a group ritual or at the end of a rite to see if an offering was accepted. As with other rituals, I will modify as the Holy Powers and venue require. If I am doing divination in an open space where fires are unresitricted, I will likely work with fire to cleanse. Where fires are restricted I may work with water, song, and/or Runes to cleanse a space.

I begin by making the Fire Prayer before I light a candle: “Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail to Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Ves ðu heil Eldest Ancestor!”

I then pass the candle flame over the divination area, saying “Thank you for cleansing this space, Holy One.” I repeat this prayer for myself, the client, and over the divination tool(s) and any sacred items present. Generally I pass the flame three times in a clockwise circle over whatever it is I am cleansing.

I will then make offerings appropriate to the Holy Powers present. In the case of a Rune reading I generally make offerings of whiskey, vodka, and/or clean water. Other offerings I have made include food, coffee, and mugwort.

I then make prayers to the Holy Powers of the divination ritual. If it is a Rune divination session I pray to Runatýr and the Runevaettir:

“Hail Runatýr! Hail Runevaettir! Hail Disir! Hail Väter! Hail Ancestors all! Hail to the Holy Ones! Hail to the Holy Ones! Hail to the Holy Ones!” I will usually repeat “Hail to the Holy Ones!” as a mantra in 3s, 6s, or 9s, until I am in a semi-trance or full trance headspace.

Then I will address the Holy Powers and ask Them for me to divine well. “Hail Runatýr! Hail Runevaettir! Help me to know well, to speak clearly and true!”

Even if the client has already made the question known to me I still ask them to repeat it, usually three times. This serves two functions. One, is if the question needs clarification or refinement we can do it before the question is ‘locked in’. Two, is that the querant understands the question they are asking and is accepting responsibility for the answer.

I will then engage in divination itself and as the answers come up and as need arises I may repreat the steps above to reestablish good headspace, the sacred space, the making of new offerings, and the introduction of new questions.

Once the divination session is over then prayers are made the Holy Powers asked to be present. In this case:

“Thank You Runatýr! Thank You Runevaettir! Thank you for providing us [answers/wisdom/insight/etc.]! Hail Ancestors! Hail to the Holy Ones! Thank You for being present, for helping us to find [answers/wisdom/insight/etc.]! Ves ðu heil!”

The Sacred space and all people and items within it are cleansed with the fire of the candle. “Thank you, Eldest Ancestor, for cleansing us within and without. Thank You to the Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Thank You Loki! Thank You Glut! Thank You Logi! Thank You Surt! Thank You Sinmora! Ves ðu heil!”

I will then make prayers to the assembled Holy Powers otherwise, saying “Thank You Runatýr! Thank You Runevaettir! Thank You Disir! Thank you Väter! Thank You Ancestors all! Thank You Holy Ones! Thank You for this time to divine, to know Your messages, to experience Your wisdom. We make these offerings in Gebo!” Then the offerings are usually taken to a holy tree representing Yggdrasil, and laid down there.

Divination is Change in Action

Divination is change in action because divination opens ourselves, and our communities to Wyrd’s weaving. It is direct engagement with weaving Wyrd itself. We can come into better or worse alignment in right relationship with our Holy Powers. Done well, engaging in divination enters us into a better co-creation of Wyrd, of ties of hamingja with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.

Divination is engagement with our Holy Powers. Just by engaging in it divination will cause change. Incorporating the results of divination session, whether a ritual unto itself or as part of a ritual, requires us to be open to change and challenge. More to the point, it reqires us to be committed to action in accordance with the message divination gives us. This can be quite challenging, especially with a divination result that upends one’s life. This can also be quite easy, especially if good relationship with the Gods is consistently being sought and maintained. The change could be something minor, but important, such as confirming the wine you intuited the Gods might like is actually deeply appreciated. From that comes change: you trust your intuition and dialogue with the Gods deeper, and can gain a more refined sense of our intuition in this way over time and experience with this small, disciplined work. The change coul be something major, such as undertaking an initiation, sacred journey, or letting go of a dream you had your heart set on seeing through.

Divination is part and parcel of ongoing dialogue with the Holy Powers. It has the power to utterly change how our rituals are structured, how we engages with the Holy Powers, our relationships with one another, and how we live in this world. It has the power to bring insight and wisdom if done well, and if done poorly, a lack of good connection to the Holy Powers and confusion where there should be clarity. Even for seemingly minor things, divination is a holy rite of engagement and needs to be respected for the powerful place it holds not only in our own religions, but for anyone of any religion that seeks it.

As with worship, divination is understood and expressed in doing it well. As with worship, the work of divination is in doing it. As written previously: “Divination is done to establish and/or confirm that rituals, offerings, and so on are done well in accordance with the Holy Powers.” With worship, divination is the foundation of polytheism. It informs how we may live in good reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is how the foundation of worship may be formed and maintained, in what ways it grows and changes, and what we do to establish and maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers.

With this understanding of worship and divination we can now turn to hearth culture.

On Ritual Praxis -Beginning to Worship

April 7, 2018 2 comments

How do we begin to worship our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits? What are the bare bones needed to start a Northern Tradition or Heathen ritual practice?

While I will be going over things like roles and responsibilities in later posts, I wanted to go over how to begin to worship. Often, folks just starting out new to polytheism or Heathenry itself want some bare bones on which to base their religious life. Perhaps they are just starting to come to understand themselves as polytheists, or they have attended a workshop and found they want to dig into Heathenry. Looking in from the outside many find “the religion with homework” has a barrier to entry they do not have the ability, resources, and/or time to handle. It is my hope these posts ease folks into engaging with the religion.

Polytheisms around the world are based in the home, generally referred to as hearth cultures or as holding a hearth cultus. Hearth culture historically was where the bulk of polytheist religious life was lived, and still is the majority of where polytheist religion is expressed. This post will provide the necessary ground before we address the subject of hearth culture and cultus itself, which will be in a following post.

From here on, for those looking to this post for some guidance, I will assume an agreement to the basic orthodoxies of polytheism:

That the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits (collectively the Holy Powers) are real, worthy of worship, worthy of good ritual, and worthy of good offerings. That there are right and wrong ways to do ritual for Them and to offer to Them. That what constitutes a good ritual or offering may be cultural in scope and/or individual to each God, Ancestor, and spirit. That divination is done to establish and/or confirm that rituals, offerings, and so on are done well in accordance with the Holy Powers.

The Beginning of the Beginning: Preparing Sacred Space

The making of a Sacred Space is the first step to inviting the Holy Powers into our lives. Part and parcel of making that Sacred Space is making ourselves ready for it. By cleansing ourselves we become clean for, receptive to, and ready for interaction with the Holy Powers in a good state of being. Cleansing serves to bring oneself into alignment with the Sacred space, drive out unwelcome spirits, removing/releasing the dross we have accumulated over the day, and being a good host/guest. The reason I use the term host/guest is because we physically host the Holy Powers in our home during a ritual and/or on an altar, but once the space is made Sacred it is Theirs.

Once we are ready for the Holy Powers we can make the space ready for Them. There might be some physical preparation, such as cleaning, setting up the space prior to a rite, crafting/buying/harvesting sacred items for the Sacred Space, or if erecting an altar, putting it together. Without getting too far afield, each of these things themselves could involve or be a ritual unto themselves. Once any physical preparation is done, we can then purify ourselves and the area, and then make the Sacred Space.

A Sample Purification Rite

Either start with the Sacred Space clear of all but the essentials for the purification rite or with the Sacred Space populated by all things needing to be purified. All that is needed is a fire-proof container, something to set the container on that can safely absorb heat, matches, and some mugwort. Mugwort is the Eldest herb in the Northern Tradition, and a cleansing one, among Her many attributes. This is not called smudging. We recan (Old English) or reykr (Old Norse), purifying a place with smoke. This can also be adapted to Mugwort in water, called hreinsa (rinse in Old Norse) or wæsc (wash in Old English), modifying the Fire Prayer to one addressing Water.

I begin with a prayer to Mugwort, Grossmutter (Grandmother) Una:

“Hail Grossmutter Una, thank you for the gift of Your body that we may cleanse ourselves and this place, that our prayers may reach the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.” With each pinch, generally three or nine, I say “Hail Grossmutter Una.”

Before lighting the match I begin with the Fire Prayer:

“Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail to Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Ves ðu heil!” I then light the match and encourage Grossmutter Una to smolder, usually adding at least three to nine breaths as an offering of myself to Her and to encourage the smoke.

I then thank Grossmutter Una and the Eldest Ancestor for cleansing myself and anyone else present, wafting the smoke over me/us from the top of the head to the feet, passing my/our feet through the smoke and then back up to the top of the head.

If I had the Sacred Space set up previous to lighting the Fire, I then pass the smoke over the assembled items, and for those items that can be passed through the smoke I then do so. If the Sacred Space is clear of all icons, sacred tools, etc. then I pass them through the smoke and place them where they need to go.

Making Sacred Space

A Sacred Space is one set apart from the usual, a place of contact between the Holy Powers and Their worshipers. A Sacred Space can be as old as a mountain or as new as a space you just set up for the Holy Powers on a halved log. What matters is that it is a place that is set apart, for however long, for the Holy Powers. When we talk about making Sacred Space a lot of folks are talking about temporary places in the grand scheme of things. Until we start passing along hofs (temples) and bu (farmsteads/farmhouses) to our children and/or Kindreds/groups, most of us are not setting up intergenerational structures.

I will generally follow the format below for most of my rituals, in this case when setting up a ve, regardless of where it is. Unless fire and/or smoke are forbidden, or would be a problem for an attedant’s health, I will generally work with the Fire Cleansing as above.

Step 1: Cleanse the space and the people as in the example above.

Step 2: Prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to help make and inhabit the ve.

Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.

Step 4: Do the ritual.

Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.

An Example of Creating Sacred Space

The example I lay out here can be used for any vé (sacred place), whether it is one’s home altars, a hörgr (outdoor shrine made of, or on, rocks/boulders), or the creation of Sacred Space for divination. Like all of the examples here, it is intended to be adapted to one’s needs, especially if tradition requires it or divination has brought up considerations to be mindful of. In this example we are asking a tree that has given its blessing through divination to become a place of offering and ritual, a physical representation of Yggdrasil.

What is needed for this rite is the same equipment for the cleansing rite above, and in addition a horn or cup for an offering of mead, water, juice, etc. and any other offerings as appropriate to the rite. Perhaps the tree wants to be adorned with some kind of ornamentation indicating its holy status, such as ribbons or representations of the Nine Worlds to hang on its branches. Whatever the ornamentation it needs to not harm the tree and be able to withstand the local weather.

First we cleanse using the example above. Once ourselves and the tree are cleansed with mugwort, we approach the tree. A prayer of invitation is said:

“Hail landvaettir! Thank you for letting us be here in this place. Hail treevaettr! We are here to ask you to become a ve, a holy place where we may give our offerings. A place where we may give worship and honor to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Become our Yggdrasil, become our holy tree, and we will honor you and give you offerings. Hail to you!”

The offerings are then laid, usually at or on the roots of the tree. I will generally bow after the offerings are laid down.

Any ornamentation to be put on the tree is brought forward. In this example we will say the tree will be adorned with representations of the Nine Worlds.

“Hail holy Tree! We mark you as Yggdrasil, placing these Nine Worlds in your branches as Yggdrasil carries the Nine Worlds! Carry Them in strength and power! Ves heil!”

Once the Worlds are attached to the new World Tree, nine offerings symbolizing the Worlds are laid down with three draught of the mead offered at the roots of the Tree. Divination may be done at this point in time to double check the offerings are well received, and to make more if needed. If everything is cleared, continue on.

“Hail holy Tree! Thank you for your Presence, for becoming our Yggdrassil! Thank you for allowing us to offer at your roots, to do ritual beneath your branches. Ves heil!”

On Ritual, Mindset, and Expression of Worldview

So far I have dedicated most of this post to writing on the setting up and care of space than I have to actual worship. This is because setting up a space to worship and beginning to worship is more than merely setting the right mood, making the right prayers, and laying down the right offerings. It is about the entire mindset that goes into doing ritual right and well.

When we engage in ritual we are engaging in some very basic understanding and expression of how existence itself works. We cleanse because coming to ritual physically and spiritually clean to the Holy Powers is both respectful and in keeping with our place as host to Them. We set up our ve as separate, holy, apart from mundane existence because treating our holy places as we would some place mundane is contrary to what our ve are, and the place they are to keep in our lives. To treat a holy place as a mundane one is disrespectful and wrong. In the case of the Tree representing Yggdrasil how we treat it is how we treat Yggdrasil. In this case, it is the place where we make offerings, do ritual, and come to interact with our Holy Powers. It is where the Nine Worlds and us can come together in a holy place to meet, grow, experience once another, and more.

Setting up a ve right and well is ordering the cosmos in miniature. When we light a fire, whether from flint and steel, a match, lighter, we are reaching back to the First Fire, the Eldest Ancestor, and through those ties we bring It forward into our present while still understanding that each individual Fire is a vaettr unto Itself. When a tree becomes a World Tree, it is the anchor point of that part of the cosmos both in terms of our rituals and in terms of our mythopoetic reality. So, each Fire lit, each tree that becomes Yggdrasil is both a Being unto Itself, a point we reach back to and which is brought forth that also, in the same way, brings us to It and back to It. The tree is a tree, of course, and simultaneously it is Yggdrasil! The Sacred Fire is a fire, of course, and simultaenously it is the Eldest Ancestor. We are us ourselves, and yet, we are the Ancestors and an Ancestor in the making, ourselves.

We exist together in these holy places, these between places, and what we do here reverberates through Wyrd with more force because we are not merely interacting with our world in mundane ways. When we go into ritual we are interacting with our understanding of reality, the Holy Powers, and all the rest behind it, at present, and before it. Our holy places stand apart from the mundane not because mundane reality is horrible or less-than. They stand apart because not every place can or should hold this important place for our Holy Powers, our religion, our communities, and ourselves. We need to give space so our mindset is right, so that what follows from that mindset is right. We need to give space s that what is marked, understood, and is holy remains holy.

Worship and Some of Its Forms

Worship is an act of reverence and/or devotion to a God, Goddess, Ancestors, and/or vaettr, a spirit. Acts of worship can be prayers, offerings, sacrifice, celebration, festivals, devotional service, and praise.

How we worship takes a number of forms, some relating back to ancient practice. Some of the best detailed rites of worship are the practice of blot, blood sacrifice. These are well attested to in the old sources, and tended to occur in the context of festivals and periods of celebration, though they also occured during times of crisis, conflict, and war. During the ritual, the sacrificial animal is generally butchered for consumption by the community with some offerings of flesh and blood to the Holy Powers are made. The blood having been hallowed by the Holy Powers and the sacrifice, is sprinkled on the ve and those assembled with a hlaut-tein (blood twig) as a blessing and/or cleansing, depending on the context of the rite.

Another term has come into use in modern Heathenry, that of faining (related to Old English fægan and Old Norse feginn), words which all relate to glad and gladness. Faining, then, is the act of pleasing the Holy Powers or making Them glad. Faining, then, is any rite in which the offerings are any other than blood sacrifice. So, a ritual in which an offering of bread is made to one’s landvaettir is a faining just as a ritual in which an offering of first fruits from one’s garden or orchard is.

Symbel or sumbel is another well-attested form of ritual in which drinks are shared between a gathered people, usually in anticipation of a conflict or in celebration of victory. Toasts, oaths, boasts, and honorings are made over the drink and the drink is passed around to be drunk by the attendants, making it a powerful ritual that ties the celebrants together while also making the toasts, oaths, boasts and honorings public. Worship that occurs in the context of a sumbel can be as simple as “Hail Thor!” or as complex as telling a story of how one gained a victory by the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir and thanking Them. The sumbel tends to be done in at least three rounds, with the Gods’ round going first, the Ancestors next, and then any boasts, oaths, and so on in the third and following rounds.

Depending on the context the worship is taking place in, it may be very structured, or informal. Blot, faining, and sumbel tend to be very formal because there are clear steps involved for a good ritual as well as roles for people to take up that require training and active mindulness of ritual protocol, such as the sacrificial priest in a blot, the cup bearer in a sumbel, or a diviner in any rite. These rites have requirements within them for ritual cleanliness, tend to be communal events with roles and responsibilities for the ritual specialists and laypeople alike, with consequences for the whole community whether it goes right or wrong. Blot can be done strictly within a family context or even an individual one should the need be there. Yet, the need for training and ability to do blot right and well remains.

Regardless of formal or informal worship, the ties of a community matter in terms of each household performing their rituals rightly by the Holy Powers, honoring their oaths, and doing right by the community. Many, if not most forms of worship are not very formal at all. Addressing of the Gods, even as simple as “Hail Freya!” over a poured cup of water is a form of worship as it is both reverential towards Her and is a good offering. What makes it worship rather than a saying of words and pouring of water into a cup is the attitude and mindset of reverence and devotion that precedes, and comes into actualization, through the act of worship.

An Example of Worship in a Faining Ritual

These are the steps I follow in making a faining ritual:

Step 1: Cleanse the space and the people.

Step 2: Prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to the ve and ritual.

Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.

Step 4: Do the ritual, in this case a ritual of prayer and offering.

Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.

In this example the faining ritual is one wholly dedicated to Thor. The altar will have a hammer on it consecrated to Thor, and a carved statue depicting Him, with a representation of a cart and two goats as they are symbols of His. For offerings there will be a horn for Him full of good beer and a plate of bread, cooked meat, and vegetables.

The space and people will be cleansed using the previous Fire Cleansing example above. To invite Thor a prayer like this may be used:

“Great Thor, Who wields Mjolnir, Who brings the blessed rains! Who teaches us the value of our hands and protects us! Hail to You! Please, come to us and be here as we offer and pray to You.”

Each of the offerings are lifted up, circling the horn sunwise over His statue three times, placing the plate before His statue, and putting any other offerings before Him. Bowing, genuflecting, and showing similar kinds of reverence are as each offering is laid down as one’s body and space allows.

At this point praise for Thor’s blessings in one’s life might come to mind, like a tornado passing by one’s home. The praise prayer may go like this:

“Thank You Thor, for protecting my family and I yesterday. Thank You for shielding me with Your Hammer and driving the tornado from my home. Thank You for protecting all of us who share this home, and who offer to You in it.” At this point the horn is lifted and a hearty “Hail Thor!” offered.

If anyone else has prayers, praise, or offerings to make, this is the time to make it. Otherwise, do divination, be sure the prayers, offerings, and praise were well-received, and should everything be well, continue on to the end of the ritual.

I usually take care of any offerings prior to the end of ritual, incorporating the final offerings and prayers at the offering site. Once the offerings are laid down in the ve, a prayer like this may be made:

“Thank You, Thor, for seeing us, for coming to us as we honor and praise You. Thank You Thor, for Your blessings upon us. Ves heil! Hail Thor!”

Informal Worship

Informal worship does not necessarily mean without ritual or without structure. For most of my informal worship I will have made some kind of cleansing during the day, even if it was just a shower with some meditation work. Informal worship may follow a ritual format but be more easy-going or conversational, such as a shared mug of coffee in the morning and a conversation with a Holy Power. Something like:

“Hail Disir! Hail Vater! Hail Ancestors! I bring this coffee to share and speak with you.” The rest of ritual may be conversational, but the formal invitation is made with a cup of coffee (or more) laid down for these Ancestors as an offering of worship, praise, and thanks for Them.

The point of informal worship is it does not have to be deeply structured or done at one’s ve, and more than anything it is connective with the Holy Powers. It may take place only in one’s heart and mind, such as with meditation on a particular God or Ancestor. It may take place at the gym as an offering to the Holy Powers one honors with the sweat of one’s work. It may take place in a park in silence or a full-throated song. Informal worship can take place with spontaneous inspiration to leave an offering while on a walk, a prayer while in the hospital with a friend, or doing a craft. While formal rituals and worship occupy certain parts of our lives, informal rituals and worship can occupy any part of our lives.

Most of the prayers and poetry I have written are informal worship. Some were inspired after an some event in my life, others were inspired by reading a passage in a book, others I was asked to write by a Holy Power, others were part of a request or exchange from other polytheists, and others I wrote as an offering just because I wanted to. What matters is that the mindset I was in was geared toward doing poetry that honored the Holy Powers and that what was produced did that.

Taking this approach to our world at large most any action can become a form of worship, a form of connection with our Holy Powers. I offer upkeep of the home to Frigga as She is the Keeper of the Keys and keeping our space as clean and tidy as we can is an offering to Her. I offer time in the gym to my Ancestors because that work honors the body They gifted me with. I offer cleaning up the parks I visit to the landvaettir of those places.

These actions do not replace giving phyiscal offerings. Offerings of service are one of many expressions of worship and devotion to the Holy Powers. Offerings of physical things, offerings of service, and sacrificial offerings are different to one another, and a given God, Ancestor, or vaettr may be more receptive or desiring of one form of offering to the other. Figuring that out comes down to doing divination and listening to the Holy Powers when we are doing the work of worship and offering.

The work of worship then, is found in doing it. One can do all the divination one wants, but unless one is offering then nothing is being offered, and unless one is doing the service, nothing is being done. The expression of our religion is not merely in thinking about things, but in the doing of things.

With this foundation laid we can dig into divination and hearth culture.

On Being a Tribalist Heathen

June 9, 2016 6 comments

Something I have been reading quite a bit is the use of the word ‘tribal’ as a derogatory term, especially in online places and discussions on Heathenry.  Mostly, it is being used as it appears in the Oxford Dictionaries’ second definition “The behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group” rather than its first: “The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.”  The word ‘tribe’ is not without its issues; tribe was a word used by colonialists to describe the indigenous cultures they saw, as the definition for ‘tribe’ notes.  That said, most people understand what you mean when you say a tribe, whether one is using it in the first or second definition.  Some folks use the word tribe when describing their indigenous communities, others do not.  It is still used to describe some indigenous groups, such as Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.  They define tribe as “a group of people organized through kinship or family relationships.”

As a Heathen, tribe, tribal, tribalism, and tribalist as terms carry meanings more in line with the first definition and with how the Piaute Indian Tribe of Utah uses it.  I would at least like to get some dialogue started on why that is, and why I use ‘tribal’, ‘tribalist’, and ‘tribalism’ as terms to describe my understanding, and living of Heathenry.

Many of the cultures I take as inspiration and much of my understanding of my religious path were organized into what is usually referred to as tribal groups.  The Suebi or Suevi, for instance, were a recognized tribal group that was itself known to be made up of smaller tribes.  This was first recognized in what writings we have from Julius Caesar, and later Tacitus and Pliny.  Funny enough, like a lot of indigenous groups, the name Suebi may mean something to the effect of “people” or “we, ourselves”.

What Tribal Heathenry means

Tribalist Heathenry means that you worship the Gods of Northern Europe, England, France, Iceland, etc., your Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits), and that you care for and about those in your group, your tribe, first.  It means that those you count as within your walls, in your innangard/innangarðr, are within your society.  Those who are utgard/útangarðr, are outside of them.  This does not mean that those who are utgard are without meaning or not considered when looking at the impacts of a decision, but you do not owe loyalty to them as you do to those in your innangard, and they generally have far less impact and say in your life.  Rather, they are guests when they are within your walls, and given the amount of writing that exists on how hosts and guests are to treat each other, are important, but not in the same way as those who are part of your people.

There is another side to this besides the human interaction level, though.  Those one brings into their innangard, or who are brought into another’s, tie their Wyrd together far tighter than those who are utgard to one another.  We tie our hamingja, our group luck, into one another’s.  Me keeping my word is far more important for those who are within my innangard, particularly with important things like big promises to those within the community, or oaths to the Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir, because it directly impacts their hamingja, and through this it can affect their maegen, or personal power.

 

Tribalist Heathenry as it applies to my life

Friends are within my innangard, and acquaintances are utgard.  Allies are within my innangard and those without alliance to me are utgard.

This means that those I care for, am loyal to, responsible to and for those I have deep personal and/or community connections with, whether they are family by blood or choice, friends, or allies, are first priorities in my life.  Note that the way I am using the word friend does not have a thing to do with Facebook definitions of ‘friends’.  When I call someone Brother, Sister, or a term of endearment meaning equivalently the same thing gender-neutrally, such as friend, these mean very specific things to me.  The same goes with the term ally.  I have very clear lines of distinction, then, between friends and acquaintances.

If I count you as part of my tribe, family, a friend, or among my allies, generally speaking, I would take a bullet for you and, in equal measure, I would use such means to protect or save you.  This means that while I count myself as part of the Heathen communities, the communities I am not a member of mean less to me both socially and spiritually speaking than the ones I am part of.  This understanding of things is how I allocate my time and resources, and to whom I owe loyalty and make spiritual ties with.  This is discernment in action.

 

Reviving tribal community and reviving tribal worldviews

I am a tribalist, a universalist, and a reconstructionist-derived Heathen.  Being a tribalist means that I care for those within my innangard.  Being a universalist means that I believe that anyone regardless of ancestral background can come to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of Heathen religion.  Being reconstructionist-derived in regards to archaeology and the texts regarding Heathen Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir means that I respect that these things can teach us information on and give some understanding of our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, practices and beliefs that have survived the conversion periods are incomplete.  It means that I recognize some practices are unsuited or impractical to reviving a religion and culture for where and when we are, or that we simply lack the information necessary to do so, and I am willing to innovate with the help and guidance of the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir and community where needed or called.

In reviving tribal community and tribal worldview associated with Heathen paths, what I am seeking is to revive the concept of the tribe itself within a polytheist Heathen context, and the attendant worldview which informs it with those in my innangard.   I do this by referencing and revitalizing the concepts that are essential to this, and where this is not possible to follow what old ways we do know about, we communicate with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir and with one another to innovate and adapt what we can to work with us in this time and place.

Tribalist Heathenry as I understand and live it cannot be revived in full from where ancient Heathen cultures were prior to conversion or destruction of the cultures and folkways.  There is simply too much time between us and the Ancestors from which these ideas, structure, and worldviews spring.  In other words, the maps of archaeology and texts are useful to a point until we recognize it is outdated or no longer referencing the territory before us.

Given the diversity of religious/cultural paths within Heathenry, I do not expect our Michiganian Northern Tradition and Heathen tribalist religion or culture to look like another’s, even those that may be located in the same State.  I would expect our religious calendar to look different, especially from, say, a Texan tribalist Heathen’s religious calendar.  A given tribe’s worship of Gods might be very specific, i.e. only worshiping Anglo-Saxon Gods, whereas we worship Gods from a variety of culture backgrounds.  A given Heathen tribalist or their tribe may only worship the Aesir and/or Vanir, whereas mine worships the Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar.

It is my hope this post is a gateway to more conversation, not a stopping point.  I encourage folks to post in the comments, to write their own posts exploring this, to talk with friends, family, kindred, and talk with their Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  I encourage us to deepen the dialogue around these things, so that our communities grow, and keep growing, strong, healthy, and well.

Dancing

April 26, 2016 5 comments

The road rushes past

My cigar glows in my hand

The rainvaettir come down, a billion upon billion rattling dancers

The road, the car, all full of the sound of Their feet

 

The road rushes past and I see it

The first lightning bolt of the season here

Arc through the sky, behind the clouds

A silhouetted dancer

Whose drumming partner pounds and the sky shakes

 

Tendrils of smoke out the window and up to you all

The Thunderbird People

The rainvaettir

The stormvaettir

The Jotuns of storms

The Spirit of Storms

Odin

Thor

 

I call to you and say your names as Midgard fills with stomps with billions of feet

As the skies split with the fury of dancers and beating of wings

As the wind shakes and the clouds let loose the crowds

As the drumming thunderers crash and clash

The Worlds are alive and here

The Worlds are alive and there

and I am thankful to bear witness

On Polytheism, Rhetoric, and Politics

March 17, 2016 10 comments

Politics and polytheism is not a conflation.  Rather, the one’s involvement with the other is an outgrowth of being human.  Politics is defined by the OxfordDictionaries.com as “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power”.  What we are seeing stretch out across the blogs, Facebook, and in personal interactions is not a bad thing, in my view.  It is absolutely necessary.  Polytheist communities need to figure out our politics, the rhetoric we employ, the authorities we trust and empower, and what hierarchies we are engaged in and will be choosing to build up.

Rhetoric is “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”.  It is how we speak, how we help our ideas to become known, and to become accepted.  As with politics, to do this well takes training, whether self-study or through mentors, teachers, and the like.  Rhetoric forms the foundation of how our religions informs us through the worldview it espouses and the place in which it sets us.  Politics is part of the rhetoric, rather than being able to separated from it.  When we talk of religious communities, there is rhetoric in that phrase alone, as much as what comes out of the community and its members.

The difference between those who are members of a religion and those who help to shape the core rhetoric is not a moral idea, but one of spheres of influence.  In other words, hierarchy.  You do not need to be named as a leader to be a leading voice that drives the rhetoric of a movement, any more than being the head of a religion actually means that you will drive the rhetoric of that religion.  This comes down to authority.

Authority is defined as “The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience“ and “The power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something”, and with regards to people, is “A person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert”.  Hierarchy is defined as “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority” and “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”

You may actively oppose the entire notion of leaders and still be a leader.  You may actively try to cultivate leadership and never be reckoned a leader.  Authority, then, is something given to a leader whether that leader is a willing one or not.  Authority is not always gained by consent.  In some cases authority invested in certain people is a given, such as an employee’s relationship with their supervisor in being employed by a major corporation, or being a Catholic and holding the Roman Catholic Church as the spiritual authority of the religion.  Authority in academia is invested in those who have positions within the field that are respected by those who have put the time and experience into the field and treat one another as peers.  In other cases, authority is taken up by a despot and enforced through the use of power.  Sometimes authority is seized upon by a person giving or being viewed as giving voice, such as in populist politics, to the energies, emotions, and feel of a given group of people.  Sometimes authority is relegated to an ‘us’ rather than a singular person, such as in consensus-building endeavors.  However it is made, relegated, maintained, taken or given, authority plays a part in communities.

In polytheism we have many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  Whether or not these Beings have authority over us as humans depends on your religion, its worldview, cosmology, these Beings and Their relationships to the religion itself, that religion’s worldview, Their placement(s)/function(s)/etc. within the cosmology, Their relationships with one another, the understanding of relationship between ourselves and the Holy Powers, and finally, potentially, your personal relationship with Them.

What is unmistakable in polytheism is that there is hierarchy and authority as part of these religions.  Hierarchy is part of polytheism because of the basis of discernment that polytheism as a word describes: “The belief in or worship of more than one god“.  If you are worshipping a God, then you are not the God being worshipped.  You are not the Gods, then.  On a baseline there must be a hierarchy within polytheism as there are Gods and not-Gods, those who are believed in or worshipped and those who are believing and worshipping.  To deny this is to deny the basic understanding, definition, and relationships that polytheism requires for a polytheist to be a polytheist.  It may not be a hard or inflexible hierarchy in every instance of it, but hierarchy is there nonetheless.

There is authority in polytheism because the cosmology is ordered in a certain fashion by and/or from many Power(s), and/or Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  For instance, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, Wyrd is the authority which governs the existence of all things so that the Gods Themselves are bound up in it.  Odin is the authority which created Midgard in the first place in the Creation Story of the Northern Tradition.  He did it by exercising authority and power, and destroying the hierarchy that came before Him, that of His Grandfather Ymir’s reign.  He replaced the hierarchy of Ymir with His own.  He was given authority over the Aesir as chief by the Aesir who followed Him with this act into the formation of Asgard.  In this, He was also bound by the rules of the Aesir as chief, and was bound to the authority of the rules of Their tribe which bound Them together as Aesir.

The basic rhetoric of the Northern Tradition is that hierarchy and authority are found in many places, and in, of, or by relationship.  The different Worlds are held in authority by certain Gods: Surt in Muspelheim, Freyr in Alfheim, and Hela in Helheim, for instance.   Hierarchy is not merely how how a society orders itself.  There is actually hierarchy in nature, but it is not the first definition that this is found in, but the second.  That is, “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”.  What is important to a rabbit is different than what is important to a wolf.  Who is important to that rabbit or wolf is likewise relative.  Threat vs. non-threat, food vs. not-food, pack/burrow vs. outside the pack/burrow.  Animals use discernment, and with discernment hierarchies are created.  The complexity of these classifications and their import into deeper topics aside, separating ourselves off from animals in this understanding is actually a big part of the problem I have with many of these criticisms because they are anthropocentric.

Hierarchy within polytheism does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or individual spirits are less important than the Gods, but that each Being’s importance is relative.  Relative to what?  The cosmology, one another, the World(s) They inhabit/interact with, and with/to us.  In other words, that second definition I just pointed out above.

Hierarchy within polytheism in relation to a given God’s society, such as the Aesir, is bound up with the first definition: “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority”.  Odin is the chieftain of the Aesir, as is Frigga.  More to the point, She keeps the keys to Asgard, and can deny Him entry, and has.  There are rules dictating the conduct of a chieftain and there are consequences to breaking those rules, and Odin paid that price.  There’s also the authority one wields and hierarchy of power considerations when one is within a God or Goddess’ place, such as Freya’s field Folkvanger or Frigga’s hall Fensalir.

This understanding in the Northern Tradition applies with regard to ourselves in our homes.  In my home visitors and I are in relation as guest and host which brings with it certain obligations as guest and as host.  Otherwise, we relate as cohabitants.  In either case, a guest and host both have rights, as do cohabitants, and there are rules of conduct we obey in these roles.  What hierarchy I enforce or is enforced as a host with what authority, when and how, is determined by if you are a new guest that does/does not understand these rules, or if you are part of the religion and understand these things well.  I might be more forgiving of someone new to my home who violates a small guest obligation whereas I may cleave deeper to tradition with people who are part of the Northern Tradition and have (or should have) this understanding.  Each Northern Tradition house may have different hierarchies and rules for their home.  When entering someone’s home for the first time I will usually ask for a rundown of any obligations that are placed upon me as a guest, rules of the house, and other things I am obligated to ask by being a member of the Northern Tradition.  If a rule of the house would violate an oath or a taboo and the host is unwilling or especially unable to accommodate me, I leave.  This is respectful of the host as the host, and myself as the guest, and it respects the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I hold that oath or taboo with.

Several writers, both of blogs and comments, have noted that the current atmosphere in polytheist discourse is fostering hard-lining.  I am in agreement with Dver on Rhyd’s post here, that it mostly has to do with having to contrast ourselves in regards to other religious paths, and atheists.  The us vs them atmosphere is one in which clear dividing lines were laid down, and as differences between folks on different parts of the political spectrum started putting down deeper lines, these too became more hard-line as the two sides have begun defining themselves not as themselves, but in opposition to one another.  Again, I see these things as natural outgrowths rather than things to be avoided.  I would like them to be minded and acknowledged where and when we can.

How our personal politics plays into our religious expression is a highly personal thing even if we can say a few things across the board as polytheists.  It is also highly personal in relationship with our Gods.  Relating this to some of the current discussions that have gone around the polytheists and their communityies lately, I find that casting aspersion on those who offer bullets to the Morrigan is as unconscionable as casting aspersion on those who offer their bodies on the front lines of protest as an offering.

Where I see things are getting lost is when polytheists on one side say ‘But protesting is not offering water or bread and these distinctions are important’ and the other says ‘How can you say that my offering is not worthy?’ when the critique (however well or poorly it was made or received) was meant to include protests as a form of offering, but not at the exclusion of offerings of food and water.  Another aspect of this is that some of us simply do not have the time or cannot afford, at the expense of other obligations, to show up for a protest.  We cannot offer that pound of flesh because our families would suffer.  That does not make my offering of work to feed my family and buy a bottle of mead bought with that work less than one who spent those same eight hours protesting.  They are different and mean different things to our Holy Powers.  Further, they’re what we are capable of giving.

On the other side of this, especially in regards to the bullets-as-offerings, I find that folks are rather missing the point of offering bullets to Gods of war.

Let me take this from my own experience: I wanted to learn how to hunt, and appealed to Skaði for help in this.  Over the years I picked up a good traditional longbow with a hefty draw weight for relatively cheap from a friend who taught me how to use it.  A dear friend of mine (who I consider family) offered to teach me how to hunt.  I paid good money for the bow and arrows from my friend, and picked up other supplies down the road when my family-friend was getting ready to take me hunting.  I bought bales of hay to shoot at.  I prayed to the landvaettir when setting up the targets for their permission, and when I felt I received it, set them up.  I prayed to the landvaettir every time I started practice, and prayed to the spirit of the bow and the arrows, and to Skaði Herself.  Every shot I made I offered to Skaði.  Every frustrating miss, every on-target hit.  I have developed to the point where I have been able to hit the hay bale with every shot at the maximum range where I could expect to hit a deer with a traditional longbow.  These offerings are offerings of strain, anger, and skill.  Had I been able to get a deer, She and the landvaettir would have been getting offerings from the body of the deer.  The deer itself would have gotten offerings as well, and had it given permission or made its desire for this know, I would have crafted its bones and/or antlers into ritual objects, and/or given it a home in my house and made it regular offerings.

The dedication to learning how to shoot my bow, and the skill that I gained by training with the bow is not unlike those who train with the gun.  If my bow was the best way of defending myself or my family I would use it to kill a human being.  One person may be practicing with a gun to go to war, another to hunt, and another for self-defense.  I see these as in keeping with Skaði.  From what little I know of The Morrigan, this is in keeping with Her nature as a Goddess of sovereignty and war.  So too, I understand my offerings of arrows to Skaði are similar if not the same as another person offering The Morrigan bullets.

The difference is the geopolitical backdrop right now.  Arrows have been used for war, and are drenched in the blood of untold billions of lives.  The only reason they are not under the same microscope right now as bullets in regards to offerings is they’re not used by the US and other militaries.  Machetes are a a symbol of the Orisha Ogún, are tools for construction, navigation, harvesting, and are weapons of war and massacre in their own measure, and yet they receive none of the ire from the left reserved for bullets despite this.  This is why folks on the opposite side of this issue will levy charges of racism at those (predominantly) on the left in regards to this issue, among other ones in regards to slaughter and sacrifice.  It seems as though the religions of the African Diaspora, African Traditional Religions, Hinduism, and others with weapons like these as symbols and/or as part of offerings are currently being used in massacres and genocide are given a ‘pass’ for ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’.

What else are we to understand when those on the left say that ritual sacrifice is primitive, brutish, less evolved and the like, only levying this charge at polytheists but not, generally, at Santeros, Hindus, or at Jews or Muslims for their own ritual slaughters?  Even when consistently charged across the board, the charges of ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’ are still steeped in colonialism and capitalist ideology of what is a ‘right’ relationship with the animals we eat: that of consumers rather than in relationship with them, even, or especially, when they are part of our meals.  This insertion of the consumer as the ‘right’ or ‘most right’ relationship with our food is a denial of a reciprocal relationship with our food.  This assertion is unacceptable to all the polytheist religions that I know of, whether one is vegetarian or not, because this actively denies our lives are utterly dependent on other lives, and also denies much, if not all of the dignity of the lives that are taken so we may live.  It denies that our interdependence on their lives relegating the Beings we eat as ‘the consumed’ alone, and in so doing, denies recognition of their full Being, and reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir which have given Their lives so we are able to live.

These ideas of relationships, reciprocity, and obligations are a fairly central in polytheism and animism, whether or not one’s thoughts on the matter are in regard to priests, priesthood, shamans, and other spiritual specialists from polytheist religions.  A friend of Rhyd Wildermuth said “if your relationship to a god is one where you ‘must’ do something for them or else, or you must do so because a priest told you that is what you must do, you are confusing a god with the government, Capitalism, or your parents”.

This understanding of ‘must’, of obligation and duty, is rather central to how polytheism operates.  Gebo, *ghosti, and other understandings of reciprocity fall under this understanding of ‘must’ in terms of how oneself, guests, strangers, and others are treated, what the obligations between kin are within the religion(s), and so on.  Obligation and duty are part of the basic skeleton of religious language, and it is through this understanding of the meaning of obligation and duty within our lives that we come to understand how to relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in the first place, which ones we would be best suited or called to in forging relationships, and which we should or must avoid.  Does that mean that we can refuse to participate in these obligations and duties, ignore taboos, and so on?  Certainly, but there are consequences for failing to live up to our part of a given relationship.

Priests serve a duty to the communities they serve, even if initially the only communities they serve are those of the Holy Powers.  In terms of human/Holy Power interactions, priests often serve a hierarchical role in polytheist religions because they are people who have dedicated time, energy, skill, and other aspects of their life, if not the whole of it, in service to the Gods.  Not everyone has the inclination, desire, aptitude, or ability to do so.  It is not that priests are inherently better than non-priests or that they are to be the sole source of authority on the Gods, but that they, ideally, have proven themselves trustworthy to their community, and are reckoned by other means, such as training, initiation, public recognition, and so on.  So yes, they are spiritual authorities, but they are one among many.

Those of us who cross over between spiritual specialist categories, as I do, having been called to service in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry as both a priest and a shaman, try to make it fairly clear where one role begins and the other ends.  Is there bleedover?  Sure, but I need to be able to point to something and say ‘this is priest work’ and ‘this is shaman work’, and ‘this is where they can mix’.  This means that discernment and determining what situation I should be wearing which hat, or if I am a good fit at all for the situation at hand, is quite important.  Again, this relates back to the person/people trusting me as an authority in the religion, that I carry that authority with integrity, and acting within the hierarchy I am part of in how things should be carried out as a priest, a shaman, and when it is/is not appropriate to mix the two, when it is not appropriate for me to be involved, and/or pass it on to someone else.

Understanding the roles of authority, hierarchy, rhetoric, and the clear understanding of our relationships with one another are, in my view, only part of spiritually mature religious groups.  Outwardly recognizing and affirming how we interact with one another and in what ways is part of how we respect each other and the spaces we are in.  This is a key piece to developing better, consistently constructive dialogue and bridge-building.  Respecting one another means I do not come into another’s space, say their ways are wrong and insist they should reform their religion to formalize or eliminate their lineages, hierarchy, and sacrifice.  It’s not my place because it isn’t my community.  Disagreement on powerful things such as authority, hierarchy, beliefs, and so on are one thing, but insistence on everyone towing the same line is quite another.  Likewise, it is rude for folks who disagree with formal sources of authority, hierarchy and/or sacrifice (including not only sacrifice of animals, but also food, liquids, of the self, service, and so on) to come into polytheist spaces where these are expectations, obligations, and ways of relating to the Holy Powers that are part of respect and worship in the religions that observe them. If you are not called to gather in community or to honor the Holy Powers in this way, far be it from me or anyone else to gainsay Them, but at least do me the respect that the selfsame Gods we may worship may call me to things you may not wish to do.

As I have said several times here on this show, the problem with painting with too broad a brush is it misses the nuances, colors, and textures of other brushes.  I may say things about polytheism on a broad basis, and folks are fully within their rights to disagree with me, even vehemently.  Gods know there are things I have in my own right, sacrifice and offerings being among the topics I have butted heads with others on.  There are a lot of polytheist religions, formal and informal, organized and individual.  Even within the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, we certainly don’t agree on everything.  As a tribalist Northern Tradition polytheist and Heathen, what my concern comes down to at the end of the day is those who share my personal community, my Kindred or tribe, and the places where we intersect with others.  It isn’t that the larger polytheist communities aren’t of concern to me, (otherwise why write or comment on this at all?) but that by putting my words out there would, I hope, be part of constructive dialogue around these things.  I would also hope that all these words would be taken in the context that I cannot, and will not speak for all polytheists.  I do want my voice listened to, and to be part of the Polytheist Movement and general polytheist dialogue, but I recognize my voice is one among a great many.

We do not need to agree on much, save being hospitable in one another’s spaces, acting with respect as both guest and host, and when disagreements arise, and Gods’ know they will, doing our best not to assume the worst of one another.

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part -Critiques

February 4, 2016 8 comments

My post here is written in response to critiques I am reading of folks in the peak oil community, and are several responses in one to common points I have seen brought up on Facebook and Tumblr today in relation to this post.

One way or another the capitalist/industrial model is, by how it is deployed in the landscape and how capitalism is interwoven with mass industrialism, doomed to failure. Both are running up against hard limits on a finite planet. The simple fact is sooner or later peak oil will hit. Climate change is happening right now.  There is nothing on this planet that can replace what oil does for us. Not coal, not natural gas, not any of the systems of electricity production such as solar or wind, and certainly not nuclear. There is no infrastructure in place on a national scale ready to bear the weight of all the needs United States citizens have now, let alone need to keep that infrastructure operating far into the future. Neither system of economy or production has the ability to address the hard limits being placed on them, whether one looks at the limits to growth in an infinite-money paradigm as capitalism has right now, or the ‘technology can solve all our ills’ on the other.

I absolutely agree this needn’t be an all-or-nothing deal, but technologism, much like critiques of scientism, is part of the central critique of folks like JMG and myself. If capitalism fails, with the way it is interwoven into the technology industries, it will take many, if not most of the technology industries with it. Technologies by themselves cannot allow us to live on if we continue to use the technologies we have in the ways we are right now, especially as dependent as it is on the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in order for them to be viable in the first place.

The idea of ‘seize the means of production’ sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, not because I think capitalism is invincible or that we could not actually seize them, but because I cannot see how seizing the means of production actually will help anything if all the feedstocks for, say, my diabetes medication, fall right along with the production of the meds themselves.  How many means of production can we realistically seize and kept running? I don’t see how ‘seizing the means of production’ will actually help anything, either as a narrative, nor do I see a practical application of this idea. Unless folks who want to seize the means of production can also seize provide upkeep for the means by which production is maintained and kept running in the first place, and can keep the people fed who do the maintaining and producing, and so on, there’s little point in my mind of engaging with the idea.

If we look at the ‘seizing the means of production’ from socialist countries or Marxist literature, this may be a good model to start with, but it runs into the same problems sooner or later. These are finite resources and we have no plans for what to do when they run low enough where the cost to produce goods and services exceeds the ability of the resource to provide energy and/or end product(s). Once a given thing, whether oil, natural gas, neodymium, etc., hits peak and begins decline nothing we do to extract, refine, or design more effectively will stop the decline of the availability of the resource. The hard limits problem must be dealt with, or anything proposed ignores the outcome of diminishing resources and at the end of the day is not realistic.

Technology is not a monolith. A stone arrow is a piece and product of technology as much as a smart phone is. Both requires certain resources, skills, and time to fashion. There are technologies which require significant investment of resources in order to make viable. If the neodymium mines which allow our hard drives to be built start running out of neodymium, 90% of which are located in China, how would we seize the means of production in order to keep our computers’ hard drives, and all the things that rely on good, working computer systems to function? This is my issue with these kinds of narratives. The baseline resources required to pull this idea off actually belong to someone else, and are only viable so long as production and refinement of these resources is able to maintained at a certain level.

As I said in Part One of this series:

“This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live? Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death. If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do? My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then. It is about answering this question on a practical basis. If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live? Well, in the short term the answer is no. However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically. I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis. I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent. So, I won’t. ”

If anyone here read any of JMG’s books or watched his talks on this subject, I would think it would very quickly put to bed the notion that he thinks this is some kind of utopia. It won’t be. There will be suffering, whether it is because people refuse to come together and put what technology they can put theirs hand to into use, or because they refuse to understand and/or act until the hard limits of reality come knocking, or because communities do not do the hard work to prepare for peak oil and climate change now.

The Long Descent is not some fantasy I want to have happen. I’ve looked at what evidence is out there, what I understand lies before us, and accept that I may well die because the means of producing the metformin, insulin, and other medications that keep me alive will cease to be viable economically or technologically because of resource depletion.

I am not telling people to reject technology, nor do I believe others who I identify with the peak oil and permaculture crowd such as JMG are. I am saying we need to understand the limits to growth, especially within the paradigms technology operates, and what these things allow to occur without significant personal investment for other means of making and operating the technology we rely on. I do not understand JMG to be saying that we should simply accept out of hand the suffering that is coming.

What I do understand is that peak oil and climate change are real, occurring right now, and there are things we can still do to prepare for it, and things that are beyond our reach.

As I have written about this previously, I don’t think top-down approaches will allow us to survive climate change or peak oil. I do not put much stock in theories and ideas which do not have a practical application. Much of my issue with much of the Marxist, anarchist, and other ideas currently out in the public sphere right now, is that there is no one saying “This is how to practically apply these ideas”. I can look at JMG and those of his ilk and see the solutions in action. I can do them myself. More to the point, I am enacting the changes in my life and learning the skills that will allow my family and I have a good chance at surviving peak oil and climate change. It is entirely possible I haven’t run across places, books, and other resources where anarchist and Marxist ideas on how to address climate change and peak oil are being applied. There are overlaps between folks in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, and other communities in the peak oil and permaculture communities, but I have yet to see this as centrally addressed in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist communities, as in the peak oil and permaculture communities.

One of the things that gets hurled around in some of the posts I have been reading is how privileged it is for folks to be talking about looking for alternatives to factory-produced medicines and the like, which require great amounts of resources. I’ve actually taken time to respond to the notion of my diabetes killing me because of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.  I have also noted on this blog and elsewhere, that I make an hourly rate just above minimum wage, and I qualify for Medicaid.  To me, looking for and engaging with alternatives to mass-produced medicines is as much part of the overall idea of surviving and thriving in a powered-down future as growing my own food is.

I’ll be honest: I’m getting tired, damned tired, of privilege being used as a club and thought-stopper when there are folks, like myself, with these diseases and issues who are working through the understanding of “Yes, I may well die from lack of access to medicines I need”.  There are folks like myself who, knowing this, recognize that climate change and peak oil need to be addressed, and that a powerful response to them is to build community ties, personal and communal skills while developing human-scale technology on the ground level to deal with these challenges as much as we can.

I recognize that I may not survive if, say trade or the medical industries that produce my medicines are hard-hit by peak oil or climate change.  That’s not the fault of green activists, permaculturists, transition town communities, or the like.  As I have said before, there’s not a lot any of us can really do about it.  Like it or not, the means of getting these medications will become harder and harder as peak oil and climate change continue.  This is not a call to ‘revert’ or go to a primitivist lifestyle, though that may be the answer for some, but to take what technologies we have right now, and do all we can to prepare for a future where these things are hard to access, if not cut off from us. This is not a zero-sum game, and it does us and our descendants no good if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality.

Capitalism, technology, and science are not monolithic, and are not untouchable.  We live in a world where the ability to pour massive amounts of money and resources into projects that do not further the survival of our species is being left behind.  We need to look at whether or not certain ways of using our resources are actually worth our time. This is not anti-science nor is it anti-technology, though in many ways it may be anti-capitalist. What it is, at the end of the day, is the use of discernment.

The process of coming to grips with peak oil and climate change, and how we live in this world becomes even more important to the animist and polytheist. Our world, and all of the things within it, carry the potentiality, if not the actuality, of being Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The working with and/or caring for the Beings around us, treating them all as Beings, including what we usually think of as ‘resources’, is a dynamic shift in thought. Look at oil as the distilled essence of the lich of the Dead which comprise it, and your relationship to this object which permeates our lives takes on new meaning. Look at Fire Itself as the Eldest Ancestor, and your relationship with all things Fire, whether the fire that burns the coal, natural gas, etc. that heats one’s home or powers one’s electronics, or that enables us to travel by bus, takes on a new dynamic.

We never stopped relying on all these Beings. What we have done is find new ways for them to inhabit our lives, and use more of the bodies of the Dead and the Earth than we ever have before.  What Westerners especially have done is taken and demanded more from the landvaettir than They have hope of giving while maintaining Their own homes.

Technologies, for all the ills we have wrought with many of them, are not our enemy. Using our knowledge of and expertise in technologies is part of how we can address climate change and peak oil.

I think that this person’s concerns need to be addressed directly, as I have seen variations of this come up.  I do want them to know I’m not picking on them personally.

This kind of anarchic tribalism mentality growing in, let’s be real, mostly English-language-dominant radical & occult circles, is seriously troubling to me. Part of the problem is, as you said, lack of consideration for all the horrific suffering that medical technologies and research either keep just behind the door or completely shut out. Anti-establishment thinkers in North America, the UK, and the European-dominated Antipodes have lived with the unacknowledged benefits of vaccinations, advanced sanitation, and disability aids for so long that I honestly think we don’t comprehend anymore that our life spans of 80+ years borne out in relative ease are because. Of. Science. Not natural immunity. Influenza anyone??? Yes let’s develop this the “““natural”““ way by letting viral infections wipe out 1/3 of our national populations every 30 years or so, GREAT PLAN.

Medical technology and therapies have given rise to immense advances in healthcare, no doubt.  I don’t think, though, that there is a lack of consideration for suffering.  We simply don’t have answers.  If oil becomes cost-prohibitive, as it will in a peak oil future and Long Descent, then very basic questions come up in regards to developing and maintaining medical infrastructure. How will we transport medicine?  What will the containers the medicine comes in be?  What kinds of medicines will be able to survive in such a future?  There are a myriad of questions, and very few good answers come to mind.  Sure, we can hang to what infrastructure we have for awhile, and maybe it could last a generation or two.  If we’re careful, the infrastructure we have, or better yet, develop, could last even longer, but that would require we start doing that now.

Here’s the truth though: the only reason a vast majority of folks are alive is because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, and a climate that allows regular food/medicine production, trade, and storage.  It isn’t a pleasant truth, but it is the truth.  Without the infrastructure, from roads to bridges, from trade networks to universities that do the research for a lot of the medical products in the first place, the only thing that keeps a lot of folks alive are the same fossil fuels that are polluting the environment and causing CO2 levels to rise.

Not everyone will get out of this alive.  Actually, a good number of us will die, or our descendants will because of the effects of peak oil and/or climate change.  No human gets out of life alive, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat The Long Descent as a Vale of Tears either, because it needn’t be that way.

By the way, when The Collapse happens, say goodbye to literally everyone in your little clan with a hereditary predisposition and / or environmental exposure to cancers that weren’t classed as surefire killers before.

This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous.  Not everyone with genetic predispositions develops a given disease or disorder.  Peak oil and climate change by themselves aren’t going to increase the cancer rates.

Corporate greed and pollution did its damage to your locale and your body’s cells long before you became politicized over it. You can’t undo that no matter how many animals / plants you “naturally” harvest & prepare yourself.

This is true of chemicals like lead, but this is not true of all cancers or diseases.  This is why most of the literature I have seen on the subject deals in probabilities rather than certainties. There are ways foods can reduce the impact of lead, noted by Michigan Radio here, and the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services here.  There are people seeking to reduce the impact of lead in communities hit by the Flint lead poisoning by getting good, fresh foods into the hands of Flint kids.  It isn’t a total fix, but it will at least help mitigate the damage.  This person is right, in that sometimes the impacts are out of our control, but once we understand these factors that are involved, that means that what remains is within our hands to work with.

That’s another blind spot, the idea that literally the day after you start back-to-nature living, you are magically (pun very much intended) cut off & protected from the ongoing damage caused by ill-used & unregulated technologies.

This actually isn’t a blind spot that I see in these circles except in all but the most naive. For example, when I talked about the plans I and my fellows had, the Strawbale Studio folks actively warned against the idea that living as they do would magically fix all the problems.  The idea that back-to-nature and living off the land can occur in our cities and towns is an idea that has taken root in permaculture, urban gardening, and natural building communities.  The tiny house movement has, in part, exploded because of the need for small, developed parts of land within cities.

If people abandon towns & cities en masse for the idyllic countryside, unmaintained lead pipes will poison waters & wreck ecosystems downstream for decades, if not centuries. The Pacific Garbage Patch will still be there, and oceanic fish will still build up particulate plastic in their bodies long after our grandchildren grow old. If we go off science & technology cold turkey, we will only be less equipped to deal with the fallout from the Industrial Age frenzy & late-capitalist lawless exploitation.

Because we are human we will never ‘go off of science and technology cold turkey’.  What is happening and will continue to happen as the Long Descent goes on, is that the technologies that require great amounts of energy to operate that are required for our complex societies to keep chugging along will get harder to come by, and thus, more expensive.  The sciences that requires great inputs of energy and material may keep on getting funding, but we thought that by now we’d be on Mars.  The NASA manned space program is pretty-much dead.  Maybe Space X, Boeing, and others will pick up the slack, but again, the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) of these missions will come into question as time goes on.

There will be a point at which the cost-benefit analysis will tell us there’s only so much we can afford to put towards getting this resource, like oil, or that material, like copper, and still break even, let alone make surplus of the resource or material, or a profit off the sale of them.  There’s a reason folks are relearning and reskilling for a powered-down economy, and it is not because we don’t like our laptops, phones, and other modern conveniences.  It is because these things require energy and materials that are getting increasingly rare to build and maintain.

The lead pipes are already breaking down.  The ecosystems are being poisoned right now. We can only do so much to stop this, especially with the major infrastructure systems unable or refusing to address these issues head-on.  Lack of regulations are not the only problem.  Collusion and cooperation between private businesses and government agencies is as well.  The MI Department of Environmental Quality stepped aside when Graymont sought 10,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula for development of a limestone mine.  The MI DEQ failed, or intentionally did not stop the poisoning of Flint citizens.  Citizens are left with few means by which to stop such things when our representatives and state workers step aside, or intentionally stop doing their job for us, the people.  It actually makes sense, for those who can afford to, to get the hell away from all of this infrastructure which is falling apart inside folks’ communities and homes.

I think part of the reason this “run away into the woods” reaction is so strong in the previously mentioned demographics is that we’re so used to having that choice. And still having some power to curtail the consequence of that choice. Don’t like your 9-to-5 city life, dominated by glowing screens and pointless work for the benefit of companies you resent? Form an “intentional community” and keep out the technophiles & corporate shills. And coincidentally the lower class neighbors who can’t afford to build an eco-friendly straw-bale home 2 hours’ drive from town on 3-day weekends they don’t have.

This is the other part of a lot of permaculture, transition town, and similar efforts though: staying where you live, stick it out, and make something of your home.  For some, going to the country is their answer.  For some folks, and I include myself here, I won’t make it in a city.  I’ve never lived in one for longer than a few years in my life, I don’t much care to visit them, and I don’t feel right in them.  Some folks thrive in cities, and that’s why they live there.  I don’t think the back-to-land movement, permaculture, transition town, gardening, and other folks have an all-or-nothing mindset as a whole.  Some folks do, like myself, because we’re just not suited to city living.  Some folks are all about city living and couldn’t see themselves living in the country.  Neither of these approaches are bad in and of themselves.

I lived in Flint for a few years, and I really, really didn’t like it.  Flint itself was not a bad place to live.  I just did not get city living and felt really out of place.

The downside to city living is that unless the infrastructure is in place, food access, recycling and reuse, and energy production are big issues.  Add to this aging infrastructure that struggles just to have basic maintenance because of budget cuts, and the pressure gets even harder.  Cities and towns can compound the issues because of how close everything is, but then, transportation between people can be a lot easier because its a matter of walking, biking, or taking a bus, whereas living in the country or even suburbs in America requires a car and all the attendant costs.

There are downsides to country living, but I find myself feeling better out here, and this is where I would prefer to live.  I don’t deal well with the compact spaces, the alleys, all of the noise of a city.  The city spirits are nice enough to me when I visit, but after getting lost in Ann Arbor a few times and making plenty of offerings to Her just to find my damned car, it’s safe to say this isn’t the place for me.

But another part of it is, I think, the sheer density of despair that we’ve grown up with. At least, this is my experience, and my internal struggle regarding the current state of science & tech as commodities under global capitalism: this system has deeply entrenched itself in my country. You only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine, materials tech, and automated services if you can pay for them. Human life is a utility, and will be cut off without a second thought if you get too behind on your bills. And that’s if you were born into one of the categories of people the ruling party WANTS to survive. The rest are consigned to ghettos and the prison-industrial system.

I understand how you only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine very well, especially when I didn’t have insurance and had to buy, or ask my folks to buy, for my insulin out of pocket.  Holy fucking shit.  I need this medicine to live and it costs $260-$470 per vial, and that vial might last a month.  Survival being a function of what you can afford is baked into how we survive.  It isn’t a specific evil of capitalism, though how capitalism sharpens that knife on the bones of the poor is especially egregious and vile.

My culture has already imagined dozens of future-Earth settings for entertainment purposes where the capability to live comfortably and to improve one’s basic living is actually a universal right, in deed & not just in words. We have the means to achieve that before I breathe my last breath on this Earth. But I won’t see that world, or be able to give it to my successors, because an oligarchy of national figureheads and business leaders have decided they want to win this ridiculous numbers game that is capitalism, which has tied itself to all human activities in order to effect a stranglehold on humanizing endeavors.

This assumes a top-down structure that would be able to stay intact for future generations, though, and I’m not sure that is going to be the case, or could be even if everyone did get on board with universal healthcare.  What makes socialism work, just as much as capitalism and communism, and any other modern mass societal organizations that I am missing here, is the cheap abundant fuel to make all of the programs, companies, and so on able to work in the first place.  The assumption that we would have the means to provide such a future is in deep doubt where I am standing.  This is also why, while I am a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I doubt we will have such a future.

There’s a deep despair in my own mind and likely the minds of a lot of comrades who see tech companies colluding with fascist governing bodies to spy on political dissidents & community leaders, or to remotely slaughter brown & black civilians of other nations because they’re on the wrong side of a war over toxic fuel for outmoded machinery. It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them. Our media is bent on national distraction & playing all sides against each other, another abuse of communications science that’s become background knowledge taken as given by most Americans I know under the age of 50.

I want to touch on this part in particular: “It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them.”

We cannot beat them at their own game.  This is why I, and those in my family, alliances, clan, and tribe, are looking at going off-the-grid as soon as I can as much as I can.  They have less control over me the less control I give them.  This is why we need to reweave local industries with locally produced goods.  If we’re not beholden to giant corporations for the wool for our looms, then the power to produce them lies in our hands.  If we’re not beholden to conglomerates of companies for the foods we need to live, the power lies in our hands.  The more we empower our own the less power we give to them. Its full effects may not be seen within our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for.  A given community member may not see the full impact of a community garden on their community before they die, but that does not mean these roots are not worth planting.

We’re constantly reinforced in the belief that with technology comes commodification – if you can fly or drive an oil drill or fracking rig there, you can exploit anyplace to ruination for profit. We don’t get widespread coverage on, to give a recent example from the Paris climate talks, other countries in the Americas approaching 50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources. The rest of the world outside of the villains given top billing in the U.N. are actually taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously, are both curtailing and evolving their technological sectors to mitigate harms perpetrated mainly by the Big 8. One can’t help but foster the impression that if we could just… just kinda sorta blast ourselves back into the Stone Age, the absence of the U.S.’s corporate-funded political maneuvering alone would leave so much more room for positive change.

I think that fostering the impression that ‘if we could blast ourselves back to the Stone Age then the US’s corporate-funded maneuvering would leave room for positive change’ is another form of delusion.  Countries like Japan, Brazil, and China, a few among many, snow the reality of things as we do.  China’s markets are coming unraveled, and yet the nationalist spin machine can’t twist the message hard enough that progress and good things are yet to come, even as the industrial economy takes a huge beating.  Brazil’s energy production is, in no small part, made possible because of massive damming operations which destroy indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and threaten the Amazon Rainforest Itself.

The problem with the sentence here, “50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources”, is that it belies what is actually going on.  It isn’t 50% or more of their energy needs being met, it is 50% or more of their electricity needs being met.  The cars still require 7 gallons of oil per tire, the roads still require diesel to power the equipment and make the materials that makes and maintains roads, lighting, signage, and so on.  Actual costs of maintaining many ‘clean energy’ grids are actually quite environmentally destructive, and they’re stopgaps at best. When our usual methods of getting cheap abundant fossil fuels are moot, what then?  We’re largely no longer dependent on what was called conventional reserves, like the big oil fields that were in Pennsylvania and Texas and sustained us through our own production peak in the 1970s.  The Bakken shale oil fields started being tapped at high rates because they were positive in cost-benefit analysis when oil prices were high.  At $25 or so a barrel of crude oil, that evaporates.  There are only a handful of shale oil, tight oil, and other similar plays that even make sense to exploit, and the EROEI is relatively small compared to historical levels.  Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, and related fields of technology are not new.  They just were less expensive than other options for a little while.  The only way a lot of companies are making any money in the fracking business is leasing, and it’s a matter of time before this glut dies a horrible death in a bubble/bust not unlike the housing market.

We’re going to go to a time where less cheap, abundant energy and less convenient material goods are the norm. The questions that arise from this understanding, then, are:  When we will get there?  How will we get there?  Will it be voluntary?  What actions can I and my community take now to prepare?

Technology makes dissent & better world-building possible – Twitter and Tor relays are among the best tools of anti-establishment & radical organizers. The Internet is the only reason many of us know what goes on in other countries, what progress others are making with science & conscientiously deployed technologies, while we wax faux-nostalgic about “simpler” lives.

I cannot wax nostalgic about a time I’ve never known.  If anything, folks like me get accused of being romantics, Luddites, and similar things.  As I said before, technology is not a monolith, and I think we need to be more clear about what kinds of technology we are talking about.  Food-oriented technology such as those used in GMOs’ processes are different from other food technology and distinct from mechanical technology like combines, and permaculture techniques that use earth movers are using different technologies.  Natural builders using axes, chisels, snap lines, and rules for roundwood timber framing are using different technologies as well.

With the resignation of four top executives, Twitter may well be going away, and that needs to be watched since so much activism is done on its platform.  What kind of technologies will be called on to replace it, and if it will have the ability to do the work for activism Twitter did, will be a hard question needing answering.  Part of Twitter’s success has been that it is accessible by non-activists, who can spread the word through the media conglomerates attached to it.

Winamp Internet TV streaming is how I found out about peak oil in the first place, and I do a lot of research online. Computer technology is how I do a lot of communication, and I include my phone in that technology camp since my phone operates more like a computer with phone functionality than a straightforward phone.  I would mourn the loss of such technology, but I also understand that living with it less is becoming more and more a survival skill as cell phone companies cut back on maintenance, and State and local money is less inclined towards basic infrastructure.  It’s part of why I am working on retraining my handwriting skills, which, especially compared to my typing skills, are atrocious.

What enables utopian-monolithic understandings of ‘Technology’, especially ‘green future’, medical, computer and communications-based ones, are the myth of progress.  It’s a very nice image, but it is a poor map of a very beleaguered territory.

And as much as the nihilist in me would love to see the total collapse of bloated Western wealth machines & all their tech & infrastructure, I cannot in good conscience wish for, work magic towards, or participate in radical subcultures that turn away from the misery and death such a collapse would unleash primarily on people who were only captive to this system, not its architects.

I think that if a given person’s morality calls for this that is fine, but I hope that they, and the others who contribute to the ongoing conversation, understand that it no longer matters what our wishes are in this regard.  Sooner or later the fuel will cost more than we can put towards pumping it out of the ground.  Saudi Arabia is looking to sell off parts of its nationalized oil company, and it is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia has been doing more and more offshore drilling.  That is incredibly expensive, environmentally dangerous, and should push people to take note.

Sooner or later the resources for production will cost more than we can put toward extracting it out of the ground.  Copper mines are a great example of this and Chris Martenson explores this idea pretty well in this video.  This is keenly seen in places like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, which is 2.5 miles across and 0.75 deep.  It’s a strip mine, the largest copper mine in the United States, and the deepest in the world, producing 0.2% ore concentration.  This means that, per 500 pounds of ore, you only get a single pound of copper.  This is simply unsustainable.  No, really, go look at the environmental damage in the Wikipedia article that the damn thing does to its surroundings.  Think on what Martenson says in the video above: look at how much energy and how many resources we are pouring into getting such little amounts of copper in return.  How long can we continue to justify these expenses?

It no longer matters if you are working towards dismantling the system.  The system is falling apart.  What is of utmost importance, in my view, is working towards building up communities that will last during and beyond the Long Descent.  Rather than staying tied to such a system, I am trying to mitigate the damage it will do to my tribe, my clan, my family, and my allies.  I cannot hope to save everyone, and I can only do what is within my quite limited capability to do.  Whatever I can do, though, is worth it.

This Greek proverb is part of the vision I hold for the future:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

We cannot do everything, but there is no reason for us not to do all that we can.

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