Summary Rune Hjárnø Rasmussen and Jósúa Hróðgeir Rood join us to talk about their project to revive the Year of Aun in 2023, a once every eight years cycle of extra renewal and celebration that was once a legal requirement of ancient Norse practice! It has a mythic story of good vs. bad action, and […]AGF 89 – The Year of Aun
This is an old post from December 1st, 2018 that has been lingering in my drafts folder. Seemed a good time to upload it.
Digging deep into the climate science or studies on the fossil fuel industries is fine and all, but doing that does not address the situations that have lead us to make the very choices driving both of these predicaments. Something I have gleaned from years of reading up on both predicaments and watching responses to the challenges they raise is that each and every time a presenter finishes speaking on climate change or peak oil is that the story we tell ourselves needs to change. It continuously comes back to this. It does not matter how compelling the science is, it does not matter how detailed the arguments are. If you cannot tell a story the audience is lost.
Many peak oil folks who have given lectures will talk about a moment where someone, especially in the Q&A section, will say something about a technological fix to peak oil and hold up their cell phone as if it provided proof. Some seem to use the phone as a talisman against the notion that we cannot just ‘tech our way’ out of the problem. We have told ourselves that we are so clever and so good at using technology that we just have to design a new gadget to fix the situation.
Like a lot of things, folks recognizing climate change and peak oil as predicaments needs to be worked through through the stories we are raised on. The myth of progress is a big hurdle in most folks’ imagination. There are those who are utterly convinced that, even if the world encounters deep climate change that ‘they will figure something out’. A nebulous they, sometimes filled in by a technocrat or a scientist, an inventor or an investor; whoever the person is, they serve a messianic function. For Christians who either do not wish to deal with or actively deny climate change and similar predicaments, Revelations and the Apocalypse are comforts in that no matter how bad it gets, there is an end and it will be in God’s glory and Christ’s victory. For techno-futurists ‘The Singularity’, ‘Ascension’ and similar ideas fulfill a similar religious/spiritual/psychological impulse.
It is deeply uncomfortable for anyone in our American society to question the myth of progress because so much of the edifice of our modern understanding of who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going is built on it. The basic narrative of the myth of progress is that as time goes on everything will improve over time. Time in this myth is linear, assuming that things become more just, technology get better, knowledge improves, the economy grows, and that peoples livelihoods get better over time.
The opposite is also true in the myth of progress. As the myth is linear, its assumption is that things get better as time goes on. When it looks backward to the past it frames the past as being where things were progressively more ignorant, stupid, horrible and destitute the further back in time you go. The present in this myth is treated as the best things have been, and the future as being even better as a matter of course. It follows very similar lines of thought to the old notion of a hierarchy of religion because the central premise in that narrative was taken up into the myth of progress. The hierarchy of religion (or evolution of religion as it also has been known) is we started in an ignorant state of polytheism and animism religiously and tribal societies organizationally. It then states that we ‘grew’ into better states with monotheism religiously, empires and kingdoms organizationally. Now, it treats us as having ‘become better’ as we are. Monotheist dominance places itself at the top of this hierarchy, while more recently atheists often places atheism as the new crown in the myth religiously. Politically, superpower nations and global power structures like the UN and EU, are placed as the top of the hierarchy.
Both the myth of progress and the hierarchy of religion’s two-pronged approach defends itself by positing anyone who is other than monotheist or atheist is ignorant, backward, and against modern society, and that anyone who believes in any other organization model outside of national and global power structures we have now is seeking to plunge us back into times of want and privation. The myth has staying power for two reasons: the first being that its main source of strength is in a powerful call to the betterment of humanity’s lot through engagement with its myth, and the second being that it holds a great deal of social cache over peoples’ heads who disagree with it. In truth it is little different than Christians in the conversion periods of polytheist Germany, England, and similar with a carrot and stick. The carrot being if you wanted to trade with Christians your leader or your merchants had to be baptized Christian. The stick being if you wanted to stay heathen then they would slaughter you till you gave in or you were all dead.
Bound up with the myth of progress is that capitalism as it exists is always going to improve and is the best economic system. It states each movement forward in time will obviously, as it has brought ‘progress’ to religion and organization, will bring that selfsame ‘progress’ to the economy. As with religion, it treats looking back to other forms of economic systems that worked in the past, eg gift economies, small-scale interdependent communities, etc as harmful, ignorant, or being against prosperity, health, or the good of the humanity. Anyone who has paid attention, either to the history of economics or to the last thirty years of economic ups and downs in this country will see that money and wealth and the attendant power of both have concentrated in fewer hands while the cost of living increases for everyone. Meanwhile the majority of people in this country having falling wage levels to meet this increasing cost of living. That is, assuming you have a wage and aren’t in the so-called gig economy or bound up in contractual work.
Our entire money system is based on fiat currency that is borrowed into existence at interest. As this debt increases so too does our money supply. As this debt increases the overall ability of that money to do work goes down. There is no way, in the end, to pay our debts because there will never be enough money to pay them. The money system cannot improve over time for anyone but the most rich because anyone trying to save money (such as through a savings account) is losing money by keeping their money in the system. Retirement as a concept is vanishing for all but the most rich. With booms and busts occuring about every 5-10 years most people whose do have retirements are now predominantly bound to the stock market through 401ks, 457s, and similar market investments. Pensions and retirements were crushed in the last economic downturn in breathtaking numbers. Given the cycle of boom/bust, those who have some kind of retirement account could lose some, most, or all of what they have invested in the economy.
It is not anti-capitalist to say that things cannot continue as they are. It is self-evident to anyone paying attention that the myth of progress we have been told is not comporting with what reality is. Yet, having written all of that, I have not told a story. I have given you, the reader a great deal of information. If I reject the myth of progress and see the predicaments of climate change and peak oil will require us to tell new stories, what new stories do I tell? How?
I tell stories that come from my heart. I tell the stories of my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. I tell of how my Holy Powers have inspired me through their myths. I tell of how the Gods are working with us to face these predicaments, how my Ancestors faced predicaments in the past, like the Great Depression, how the vaettir ally with us when we do well by Them. I tell of how the Holy Powers are encouraging us to live better in harmony with Them. I tell of how we develop new ways of relating to our Holy Powers as we develop our approaches to these predicaents. I tell of what I find exciting about a world where we address climate change and peak oil on a local level. I share what I am most looking forward to doing to address the predicament we face as a community, of what things will need to be done so we can be more resilient in the face of the predicaments coming to bear. I inspire, speaking of how we will rise to the ocassion in the face of our country doing nothing on the national stage to address the perils facing us.
We tell stories of the animals we want to raise, and the plants we want to grow. We tell of the things we want to make, whether it is cheese or cloth, chairs or tools. We bring our stories into each thing we put our hands to; rather than a chair from a store, it is a chair I put together after learning how to do it. The tools are not merely tools, our things not merely things; they are sources of interconnection between one another. We weave the stories around the closeness of community we want to foster, and the sacred ways that will tie us all together as communities, Kindreds, clans, and groups, families, and individuals.
We are living stories. Embodied stories. Bound up and woven with our Gods, our Ancestors, our vaettir, and one another. We not only talk about how we are living in Urðr with all things, we live in that understanding consciously. Whether I am telling the Creation Story of Fire and Ice coming together so the rivers flowed and life could flourish or I am telling the story of how I made this bottle of mead, I am not only telling that story but bringing it to being again with each telling.
This is one of my living stories:
Not long ago our Ancestors dug into Jörð and brought up the Dead. Our Ancestors could not recognize the Dead, not then, but the Ancestors did recognize Power. At first it was by little bits; they used Fire, and burnt the Dead. Then the Ancestos saw the Power of the heat the Dead carried in Them allowed us to do more than we ever could by the horse, oxen, or our own hands. Generations passed. We dug and looked for more Dead, and found Them everywhere beneath our feet. We burnt the Dead for heat and for light. We were burning so much Dead there was less and less in the ground. Some said “We need to burn more!” and so they burnt more.
There were others that said “The Dead need to stay in the ground!” They had come to see that the Air, the Water, the Earth, and even the Fire Itself were being so abused by all the burning of the Dead that they could not live on Jörð and carry on this way. They could not say “You are our Mother!” and be so cruel to Her. They could not say “We need to burn more!” They could not honor the Gods right when they did not honor the Goddess on which they live. They could not honor the Ancestors as they fed the Dead into their fires to feed their want for heat and light. They could not honor the vaettir as they disrespected the Beings they shared the Worlds with. So, they resolved to change, and they asked their Gods, their Ancestors, and their vaettir to help them.
Some were told to stay where they were and work hand in hand with their neighbors, some for the first time. Some were told to move to the country and live as their old Ancestors had. Others were told to move to the city and work with those already there. Some were given set paths to follow, and some were given a field of choices. Each had their Work to do, and it was no more and no less important because it was given to them to do by the Holy Ones.
Each did the Work given to them. As each person did the Work others would see this. Each person who lived well on Jörð gave courage to another to live well on Her. Each person who did their Work gave courage to another to find their Work and to do it well.
They came to live in right relationship with Jörð. When Jörð swelled with heat and water they knew what to do because the Work had taught them how to understand Her and to prepare for these times. When the air went sharp and the ice came, they knew what to do because the Work had taught Them how to understand Her and prepare for these times. They were able to care for their people because they learned from Jörð how to live upon Her, with Her. They were able to live well upon Her because they listened to Her and did well by Her. They listened to the vaettir and became good neighbors, good relatives with Them once again. Generation on generation came and lived well because the Ancestors had taken the time to listen to the Earthmother, and worked to live in right relationship with Her.
After reviewing responses to Developing Polytheist Myths I felt a whole new post digging into the ideas I fleshed out there would be of use.
The focus of that post was to say that we need to be open to the Holy Powers revealing myths to us in a variety of ways, including as part of the natural landscape, or in experiences persuant to natural features like rivers, waterfalls, etc. I was trying to get that across in the Shining Lake Grove example and in the exploration of the idea of their being a potential Odin-of Michigan. What I am not saying is that we should make new myths for our Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir. Rather, we should be open to Their stories unfolding to or within us, whether through direct revelation, and/or in experience in relationship with Them.
Personal devotion, as well as going through the work of developing discernment for both laypeople and spiritual specialist alike is part and parcel of this work. Good devotion is rooted in orthopraxy and orthodoxy, both of which inform and work with each other in lived relationships with the Holy Powers. If, as I have put forward again and again that lore is the map and not the territory, it makes sense that for our own experiences of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bring more details to that map.
PSVL made a good number of points that I want to expand on:
I agree. The stories of encountering our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in a place are revelations. Each time we tell the Creation Story, or one of the stories, the myths, of our Holy Powers, it is enlivened in that the story is lived through the experience of storyteller telling the story, the listener in hearing the story, and in the reaffirmation of cosmogeny/cosmology between the storyteller, listener, and the Holy Powers from Whom the story was received. New myths that result from the revelation of our Holy Powers to us also affirm cosmology, and in these revelations our relationships with Them as part of that cosmology. New myths reaffirm how the Holy Powers may relate to individuals and to our communities as wholes. There is not an ‘overriding’ in my understanding of this, but a deepening of relationships with the Holy Powers. It takes what mythology was left to us and brings it into lived myths that inform our religions, our lives, our worldview.
PSVL went on:
It’s a subtle difference, and one that gets very tricky to discuss, because for some people that can then easily lead to an even more ossified sense of myth, and–perhaps even worse–scripture and even potential literalism and bibliolatry in the way that such has occurred in certain other religions (sometimes in a more benign form…I’d say evangelical fundamentalist biblical literalism is far more pernicious and horrific in its implications than the Sikhs regarding the Shri Guru Adi Granth Sahib as a living entity and continuous guru, or Jewish people burying old Torah scrolls and dancing with them on Simchat Torah, etc.); however, that need not be the case. If we understand that there is a separation between any given myth, or even mytheme, and a text as an instantiation of such, then there’d be less problem…
Whether generally pernicious or generally beneficent, it is important that polytheism not engage in ossifying its myths and mythologies so that experience is only ever allowed in reification of what has come before. Polytheist religions need have a firm foundation while being open to a variety of experiences and understandings, including potential divergence. There is a need to be open to new expriences, including revelations while retaining the grounds of the myths the polytheist religions are built on. This ground of myths includes how the myths unfold, and includes where they unfolded before coming into our hands. It is a call to be firmly grounded in what has come before and is part of our current relationships with the Holy Powers while also being open to these relationships taking on differing forms given where we live and the desires of our Holy Powers possibly having changed since our religious Ancestors worshiped and lived in relationship with Them.
Ossification of myth is dangerous as it limits contact and interaction with the Holy Powers to the past. Note that this is not an attack on traditions. Rather, in order for a tradition to flourish it needs to be lived. In polytheism divination and revelation are two ways in which the Holy Powers engage in active dialogue and relationship with us. To cut out revelation and/or divination and thus, the new myths that can result, denies the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir active hands in our relationship. It relegates our relationship to historicity, history being the sole arbiter of a lived relationship with the Holy Powers rather than being part of the 3-legged stool mentioned in the last post.
This goes along with PSVL’s point in regards to the difference between myth and mythology:
In my experience many polytheists are reflecting on mythology and not engaging with myth. That is, for some polytheists what we have is not part of a lived cosmology but rather something abstract or “out there” being reflected on. If the myths are not informing lived relationships then the myths have already ossified or are ossifying into mythologies. When myths are not lived they become things to be studied and looked at, but no longer informing living, vibrant cosmologies. It leaves the realm of our lived polytheist religions and enters religious studies, history, anthropology, and so on.
Melas the Hellene had this to say:
The modern world as it stands is full of troublesome shifts and turns (some are not mistaken to call it also polluted to degree) that myth making about the Gods would only weaken the core and the original myths.
The modern world is full of troublesome shifts, but to see that all the modern world is polluted and somehow the past was not is engaging in some pretty fiercely rose-tinted glasses. Yes, there is much in the way to restoring and revitalizing our religious communities. However, what I think is a solid stumbling block to this is that personal devotion, experiences, and unfolding of relationships are often sidelined either for some nebulous idea of what is approved in the lore that remains to us, or that we lack capacity in some degree so we cannot or should not enter into new territory with our Holy Powers.
Seeing as how myths involve Gods, and sometimes Ancestors and spirits, i.e. The Volsunga Saga and Odin, and Athena with Heracles in His Twelve Labors, I would say that unless we are intentionally editing our myths rather than receiving them, we ought not aim for any kind of thing with our myths. Rather, we should receive our experiences that bring us to potentially new myths, and bring them fully and faithfully to our communities. From there we can work with discernment to determine if these are myths that are now part of our understanding of the Holy Powers. We live in the modern world. We ought to be able to find resonance with at least some of our Holy Powers within it.
Melas goes on:
One exception to this is mythical reconstruction, as for example with the Celtic tradition, where many myths are lacking; this task would be best left to a council of well-informed and well represented preisthood who can serve the Gods in question properly. In general, preserving and worshipping the Gods is what we need, and if there’s a desire to engage further, new hymns and festivals are safer and better than myths. Now, this precaution would not be needed with human/heroic myths, where the brave and renowned deeds of great ancestors among men and women would be remembered. Two important points in my opinion should be mentioned here: 1) these myths should not be the work of a particular individual (otherwise it becomes history) but rather the collective product of a community 2) the myth should be at first oral and unwritten for an extended period of time (perhaps at least a few generations, otherwise it becomes history again) in which case it would organically develop and then, if worthy, both Gods and men will allow it to survive and pass into myth. These two points are meant to protect the elevated status that a myth ought to have, rather than expose them to human ambition. Thus much I have to say for the time being.
While a council of spiritual specialists may be ideal, for a lot of communities that is where that notion will start and end. We have few spiritual specialists, let alone enough in community with one another that would be able to effectively make a council. There’s also questions of certain spiritual specialists having the ability or skillset to effectively serve on such a council. The encouragement of dialogue and discernment is the encouragement to working on these things within our community, as these issues are already being made manifest within our communities whether or not they are ready for them.
Melas’ point in the creation of festivals does not make sense to me. If a God reveals a new myth to me, I would dishonor Him to merely make a new festival or hymn rather than teach the new myth. Making a new festival in reaction to a revelation strikes me more as intentionally modifying myths to suit our needs than it does to communicate what the God has given to me to communicate faithfully. This holds the same to his views on how myths should be incorporated. If my God gives me a myth to share, whatever the medium that God gives me to give to others is the one I use. My desires, views, etc are secondary to faithfully carrying out the Work of sharing the myth.
Many polytheist communities need to incorporate new myths not only because there is a lack of primary/secondary sources, as Melas notes, but also because this is something already in progress in a variety of polytheist communities. We’re not getting out in front of anything. Rather, wrote the previous post and this one because these experiences are already happening to folks and to whole communities. Far better for us to develop discernment and means of incorprating these new myths than to dismiss them out of hand or relegate them to less than the experiences our forebears had.
He goes on later in the comments to say:
I am going to split up b) into sections to better tackle it.
b) To continue the point above, you give an interesting example about Odin in Michigan. I’m sorry to say that Michigan’s local/regional cultus as well as its natural landscape have nothing to do with Odin, but everything to do with the indigenous Gods that were once there, until they were supplanted by colonialism.
Michigan’s local/regional cultus as well as its natural landscape have everything to do with Odin. How we understand Him through our locally-based experiences colors our understanding and the unfolding of His relationships with us in our lives and in our community. If we understand that the Icelandic myths were influenced by the local environment, i.e. the Creation Story with Fire and Ice reflecting the landscapse of Iceland as much as the experience and understanding of the Creation Story itself, then it makes sense that our experiences of the Holy Powers and our relationships with Them are influenced by our environment as well.
There is nothing to back up the assertion Melas makes here that regional cultus has nothing to do with Odin. I am a Heathen and therefore worship Heathen Gods. When I interact with my Ancestors, I do so as a Heathen. When I worship the landvaettir I do as a Heathen. Heathenry is my primary locus. I am a polytheist worshiping many Gods from many places, and while I worship Greek Gods in Their way and Egyptian in Theirs, the way live my life is primarily carried out through being Heathen and through that Heathen worldview.
I am not a Native American of Michigan. I can firmly believe that the Manidou are as real and powerful and so on as my own Gods but I cannot approach any of these Holy Powers through, for instance, an Ojibwe or Potowatami lens. To do otherwise is colonialism. In this case, colonizing the Native peoples’ traditions and ways of relationships with their own Holy Powers. Now if, as I have been shown with some Holy Powers there are good ways of interacting, i.e. offerings, prayers, etc. by those who are Native that is one thing. However, not being Native, not raised in the Native cultures, I cannot approach things as a Native. I must approach them as a Heathen or be lying to myself and all the Holy Powers, including the Manidou and local spirits. Even in approaching the Native spirits, big or small, I come to these as a Heathen. I have to -I cannot come to these vaettir as Native. If I am taught how to interact with Them in a manner best suited to them, again, this is one thing, and where I can it is just good reciprocity to learn. That said, there’s a lot of forgotten Gods, Ancestors, and spirits for whom my approach works and works well.
I wouldn’t implicate Zeus into where I live in America in order to feel better about myself while knowing that doing so is in effect replacing and not acknowledging a God that was native here. Again, we should have a divine centered approach. Where the Gods were born and where they have always lived, that is there divine home and mythical landscape. Bringing my Zeus and your Odin arbitrarily into the local cultus of America literally makes them patrons of colonialism. The same coule be said of all intrusions on indigenous land (tribal or modern) but we all know the case is especially severe with the native Americans.
For Heathens here in Michigan understanding and relating to our Holy Powers, developing myth and understanding of Them must be done through the Heathen worldview in the environment here in Michigan. To do so is not to implicate Odin over a Manidou or spirit, but to understand that Odin is Odin and that Manidou is a Manidou, and that being distinct from one another and being a Heathen first and foremost my cultus goes to Him. If I am lucky enough to be introduced to Manidou and other Native spirits and introduced in how to respectfully engage in relationship with Them then approaching Them in the manner prescribed is important, as it is both respectful and the right thing to do.
Having a divine-centered approach means that understanding some things are not for me as much as it means respecting where I am. Some relationships with some spirits are closed to me, whether due to the Gods I worship, my Ancestors, or the vaettir with whom Iam aligned. It would be colonialist of me to assume I can or should engage with the local land spirits or the Manidou in the same was a Native. To assume that I have a right to that kind of relationship, to the sacred ways of the Native peoples, or that the Native spirits even want that kind of relationship with me is a colonialist attitude.
What kind of myth making will be used to justify Zeus or Odin intervening in non-indigenous land? The forgotten native Gods who have been torn away long for justice and for a return, and they don’t need foreign companionship or replacements to achieve that.
I do not see my Gods as ‘replacements’. Rather, my Gods are just that: my Gods. I am not Native, was not raised in Native ways, and rather than appropriate Native practices and religions I am doing what I am called to do: to worship my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in my community’s ways. I do not know what Native Gods need or desire until They make this known to me. I would not presume to tell Them or Their Peoples what They need, desire, or call us to do.
c) Concerning the authority of communities to make myths, I’m not very sure if we should use that term where lore is much more applicable. From what is known about ancient Greeks and their myths, myths are very old (150+ years) and the only way for communities to develop them (however the means) is after such a long period.
I think there may be a point missing in this conversation in regards to the establishment of myths. Namely, in that someone had to have an experience that informed how the myth came to be. Perhaps a poet had an ecstatic experience and was given a new myth to tell from a God or family of Gods. Perhaps an ordeal was undertaken by a village of people and a unique experience of salvation or pain was inflicted on the village by a Holy Power. There is some kind of foundational story in which the Holy Powers impact a person and/or a community, and from there comes the myth.
Melas is talking specifically from his viewpoint of a Greek polytheist, as he has mentioned, what he considers a traditionalist perspective. It could be this is a key point he and I are talking past each other. Compare, for instance, the sources of Heathen lore; we don’t have the volume or the depth of primary sources or secondary ones. Consider also the archaeological finds that have been powerful in filling in a number of areas for Greek polytheists of many stripes that Heathenry yet lacks.
d) I never said that oral mythology is totally resistant to human ambition (your word “intervention” I wouldn’t use). My point was oral mythology was far more resistant because it necessitates collective participation and transmission, unlike writing.
Here Melas is correct and I agree that oral histories tend to be incredibly accurate both to the content of the story and in the integrity of the story/stories due to the various factors in communicating them, not the least including amazing feats of memorization, taboos, and respect for the sacred nature of storytelling.
I don’t understand why the need to use the word ‘blame’. If His works are correct, in keeping with good relationships with the Holy Powers, and oracles and various omens were in keeping with that (see the earlier points I have made on discernment) what would it matter if they waited five minutes after receiving his teachings or 150 years? To me this an arbitrary number that seems to pride time as an arbiter of relationships with the Holy Powers and the passing on of Their myths, teachings, stories, etc., rather than good relationships with the Holy Powers.
f) The few extant sources on the Germanic myths do not suggest that those ancient myths originally developed also out of a few individual sources. They were rather a collective tradition that had the misfortune (and good fortune) to be transmitted by a few surviving works.
My point in hammering on individuals so much is not that the collective does not matter, but that individuals at some point had to have had experiences of the Holy Powers, and had the wisdom and ability to communicate this to future generations. An entire village could have had experiences with a Holy Power and yet, the way that the story is passed on, that it becomes a living myth, is through the storyteller or storytellers. Moreover, each telling of a myth is in some way, shape, or form, reengaging that myth.
In this understanding each time I tell the Creation Story I am, with the help of the Holy Powers and my own abilities as a storyteller, bringing to life each moment of that myth. Storytelling, aka mythtelling, and relating myth to others is a powerful and sacred act. It is dangerous because, in the case of Creation Stories, you are at once telling the living myth of how the Universe and all things came to be and still operate. It is orienting the understanding of those humans listening and living in the telling our place with the Holy Powers, how we are to act rightly, what our place is in the cosmos.
These myths, these powerful and holy stories are how we come to understand and know our Gods, our Ancestors, and our spirits. To tell a myth poorly, whether to misspeak or to get something totally wrong can throw the people out of good relationship with the Holy Powers. To tell a myth well is to lay a good foundation for generations to come. If we receive myths, then we need to relate them and teach them well, that we lay a good foundation for those generations coming after us.
I love audiobooks, particularly The Great Courses series. They get my gears turning, and sometimes provide inspiration and fodder for ideas I explore here. In listening to Great Mythologies of the World, Chapter 2, I ran across an excellent statement that got me thinking on the role of myths in modern polytheism:
We tend to think of myths as springing fully formed into specific cultures, and most of us think of the ancient Greek myths, as well, Greek. But the Greeks drew heavily from their predecessors and neighbors just as later cultures, especially the Romans, would draw from them. Because of this it is best to think of mythologies as living entities, always on the move, shapeshifting as they pass from culture to culture.
This last sentence is especially important in the context of modern polytheism. It is not enough that we have good translations of our sources for the religions we are reviving. We need new myths to carry us, and those who come after us, forward. We can build on what is there, and I firmly believe we should. The Greeks certainly did not wrap up writing myths after Homer, Hesiod, or Orpheus wrote. There is no reason for us to, either.
What I am proposing is both incredibly powerful and dangerous. Powerful, because we are making deep ties with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and likely tying these myths right into where we live as every ancient polytheist culture and tribe did. It is also incredibly dangerous because it can lead people and communities straight into territory where power playing, delusions, lies, and aggrandizement can wrench myth-making from its holy roots.
I firmly believe that consciously engaging in and acknowledging the making of myths is part and parcel of the future of polytheist religions. We know from following various Holy Powers and Their stories through history that sometimes They accrue stories through a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it is because They tell a poet to write down their stories. Other times a writer collects Their stories into a book. Other times They gain Their stories through absorbing or syncretizing with other Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits, and/or each Others’ stories. Any time someone says “I had x encounter with y God and this is what happened” they are engaging in living myth-making. We should not shy away from any of these. We need to actively embrace all of these ways of engaging with, and developing our myths with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.
How do we embrace it? We engage in direct experience of the Holy Powers. We write down ours and others’ experiences. We embrace new experiences of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that are rooted in our communities, what lore we can trust, and engage the informed discernment available to us in our communities. We meet our Holy Powers where we are, and we go on pilgrimages when we are called. We involve our Holy Powers in our everyday lives, and acknowledge and thank and note when They come through for us, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. To do this, we need to develop better language across the board for doing that. To do this, we need to develop good discernment based in our communities, and not leave that responsibility up to academics unconnected to our communities. We need to be proactive in working to develop standards within our communities for what is accepted and what is rejected to become part of the mythologies.
I use the word gnosis to describe personal experience of the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits. I do not tend to use the term UPG or Unverified Personal Gnosis that frequents reconstructionist circles because the term is often used dismissively or insultingly, and I have never seen its opposite, VPG or Verified Personal Gnosis, used in online conversation. There is plenty of writing on what UPG is and virtually nothing on what is VPG. PCPG, or Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis is a term I sometimes use to get it across to folks that many people, usually in separate communities, had similar experiences with a given Holy Power. A simple example of this is offering strawberries to Freya. It is something a lot of people have offered to Her well before seeing it written down, and it still surprises some folks who do run into their gnosis written down in books today. A year or two ago, either at MI Paganfest or ConVocation, I ran into a person who had no knowledge this was a generally-accepted understanding of Freya, and was shocked that people around her were nodding their heads and saying “Sounds right.”
My dear friend and Brother Jim Stovall uses a phrase that I hope is on the mind and lips of everyone interested in developing the mythology and our relationships with the Holy Powers: spiritual accounting. He laid out the idea of spiritual accounting in an episode of the Jaguar and the Owl. Jim likens spiritual accounting to a three-legged stool, with the first leg being what stories and myths are already present, and what source writings, archaeology, linguistics, mythology, anthropology, and other sciences has to tell us. The second leg is divination. The third leg is experience accounting. He has gone so far as to set up an Excel spreadsheet of experiences he has had with given Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits for how reliable They are, what was asked, and what resulted. His discernment accounts for the understanding that spirits do lie, and we may misinterpret the meaning of a message, or it may be more or less deep than we understand it to be.
If we are to have spiritual accounting for our living mythology, then our first leg needs to first be grounded in what we do know. We need to understand what it is the lore, archaeology, and other academic fields we have available to us have to say, and what the limits of those fields are. We also need a solid foundation in our religion(s) and tradition(s) as they exist. With a basis in what has come before and is now, we can be discerning about what becomes part of the corpus of the myths we carry into the future.
The second leg, divination, requires expertise in the work. It requires the willingness to understand we may not have understood or reified our experiences accurately. A given experience may have just been for us. A given experience may need context we do not have yet, or inspiration for a poet, or another experience to tie it into the mythologies we have before us. Divination requires us to consider that what is most important is that we seek the answer and report what we find without flinching, whether it confirms or denies the entry of experiences into the corpus of myths.
The third leg, experience accounting, is to be honest, truthful, and unflinching in our assessment of our signal clarity with the Holy Powers. It is to be clear in what our understanding was at the time a message was received, how it was understood, and how it was accounted for. It is to engage in active discernment with the Holy Powers we worship, and realize that sometimes information is given to us not because it may be completely truthful, but useful. It is not as if our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, or vaettir are not given to subterfuge, lying, misleading, or misdirection. These are part of powerful mythologies, such as the Rescue of Idunna or Thor’s battle of riddles and wits with Alsvin. The point of experience accounting is to see where pitfalls in our communications lie, to see where the Holy Powers may not be honest or forthright with us, and to understand that what we experience and/or receive may give us many windows to understand what does become part of the corpus of myths.
When I use a term like corpus of myths, the image of a great weathered book might sping to mind. That belies the understanding that, until relatively recently in time, most understood their myths orally. It is not my intent that only the written word becomes part of a corpus of myths. Some parts of myths and the practices that come from them should never be written down, such as a myth involved in a secret initiation. Some parts may be useful to write down, as with the previous example, so that those who qualify for an initiation have to know the right phrase, deeper meaning of a piece of mythology, and/or have taken in a key lesson from a myth before approaching to be initiated. Some parts of myths should be as accessible as possible, such as Creation Stories, stories of the Gods, Ancestors, heroes, spirits, etc. that give insight into Them, lessons for us, and/or how we are to relate to Them.
Developing myths, even ones that seem to clash with each other or with the previous sources, may be seen in terms of how mythologies have unfolded in living polytheist cultures. There are many Creation Stories out there, and having more than one Creator God or Goddess has never fazed me. I have space for Odin and Ptah among the Creator Gods. I have space for the four Creation Stories of Kemet and the Creation Story detailed in the Völuspá. I also recognize in the same blow that I am dealing with stories delivered through a variety of hands. Rather than seeing many Creation Stories as wrong, or only one right and the rest mistaken, I see each Story expressing its truth, its understanding, its worldview of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.
None of the stories as academia has handed them to us have anything to do with the construction of our religions. We have had to do that ourselves. Academics not of our communities are first and foremost concerned with academia and what each story tells us, has to say, and informs us of, what each story may hint at, and where the limits are in relation to their field of study. What differs us significantly here is that we seek to understand cosmogeny and cosmology so we may understand and live well within the worldview given to us by the cosmogeny and cosmology. Through understanding that worldview well we seek to live in right relationship our Holy Powers.
Developing myths is a process of developing theology. Myths provides the basis to understanding what our Gods are, what They do, Their place in the cosmos, our relationships to and with Them, and what offerings may be accepted by Them. Myths tell us who are Ancestors are, who and what we relate to as Ancestors, what our place as mortal Beings are in the cosmos, what offerings the Ancestors may accept, and what our relationships with Them should look like. Myths shows to us who the spirits are, what our relationships with Them are, Their varied places in the cosmos, what our relationships are, and what offerings They may accept. Again, mythology is not just the Creation Stories.
Myths are found as much in small things as great. The small myths may detail what offerings a God likes, and perhaps why. Stories written down, stories passed down, folklore, and personal experiences all may be part of mythology. A myth may be entirely wrapped up with a locale, such as Dionysus Laphystius with Mount Laphystus in Bœotia. Likewise, a part of mythology may relate to a Holy Power in respect to functions the God has dominion over or functions with/in, such as Lenœus, a name of Dionysus relating to His dominion over and function with the wine press.
For those identifying Athena as a Goddess of a war college like West Point or Athena as being a Goddess of libraries, this too is part of developing a God’s mythology. Where we find our Holy Powers and why, building up not only correspondences but understandings as to why a given Holy Power may look at a place as holy or one They have affinity for, places our understanding of our Holy Powers not only in the past, but in the immediate, the now. Looking for our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits in our modern landscapes is resacralizing our world, providing points of contact between ourselves and the Holy Powers. It also provides us unique opportunities to connect with Them in was our Ancestors may not have.
Shining Lakes Grove, an ADF grove, shows this work in practice quite clearly in their worship of Ana, the name they were given by the Goddess that is the Huron River in Ann Arbor, MI. Per their work within An Bruane they developed links with the Gods particular to their Grove and within the land they work and worship on. Were I to begin work with Ana, I would likely refer to their work and ask them questions on how to develop a good relationship with Her. After all, they have been doing this work well over twenty years. Likewise, they have developed a unique relationship with the land spirits and the Native American Gods that have called this land home.
In my recent post, Twice-Born, PSVL said:
Excellent work here! I love the series of Goddesses in the middle…that really adds a lot to this myth.
It was never my intention to add anything to the myth. I was inspired by the God to write a poem for Him telling His story. Yet, here I was adding to His myths. Every poem can build up the layers of meaning and understanding around a Holy Power, put new light to the old stories, and bring new stories into being. Writing mythology, whether through prose or poetry, is an act of co-creation with the Holy Powers. Far better for us to enter into this powerful and sacred relationship with care and clarity than to deny the connection this work forges between us and the Holy Powers.
Whether in brief or at length, each story written, each story told, each poem written, each poem spoken, each song sung, each one made for Them all build up our relationships with the Holy Powers. To be sure, not every bit of writing, poetry, or song is meant to build up myths, but all potentially may. We cannot leave our corpus of myths to the past or that is all we will engage with or understand.
Let us teach the myths that are the foundations of our religions and our communities in those conscious and sacred ways. Let us work to develop our myths with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in sacred ways, with care and devotion. Let us work to teach all of our myths consciously and thoughtfully, in sacred ways that honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, that bring us, individually and communally, into sacred and good relationships with Them.
The God caught Himself in the mirror and stood in awe
Absorbed, never thinking
That behind Him stalked His killers
Torn limb from limb
Body boiled, limbs roasted
The wine stained eyes fell from His mirror
Rolled up to His Father, whose wrath blazed
The furious bolt crashed
Dead fell the feasters
Dead fell the God-hungry
Living fell the beating heart of Lenaeus
Taken up by Athena it was blessed with knowing
Taken up by Demeter it was blessed with vitality
Taken up by Rhea it was blessed with purification
Taken up by Zeus it was blessed with power
Devoured by Semele, Dimetor came forth
The ivy-haired God shone forth
Twice-born of Semele learned again
To crawl, to step, to walk, to dance, to sing, to rave, to fight
He took up His gifts and power in glory
His sword felled every foe before Him
His thyrsus struck frenzy into His followers
His grapes crossed the world and brought wine to all peoples
His wine poured and dythrambic verse fell in power from His mouth
His ivy marked His paths and ways for worshipers and pilgrims
To follow Him where He would lead
O Zagreus Dimetor, O Reborn One! You show us the Ways!
O Isodaetes, You give free that we may give!
O Mighty Dragon, Your jaws have torn the foe!
Trying to grasp the ineffable
With fumbling hands and tongue
Reaching, stretching, trying
To bring the mind to order
The soul-deep to expression
The innermost understanding to bare expression
Stripped of majesty, shorn of glory
Dirt lying on the tongue, begging for water
O, the skin is dry!
Fill me, let me give water or wine
Give me words, give me words, give me words!
To express, to adulate, to bring You closer
To bring some part of You near
To drink and quench my thirst
To give and quench others’ thirst
To speak and share the stories
To create again and again
with each telling
The Worlds, Your births, Your deaths
Create and destroy and inspire and sacralize
Break and build and love and lose
Enliven and ensoul and enshrine and edify
Fill and free and craft and cleave
Let a billion tongues be sated by the waters of Your stories
a billion throats raised in song and word
a billion eyes enthralled by plays and stories
a billion ears entranced by hymns and teachings
For all Your stories and songs are precious
and all are the teachings tellings in their turn
holy, powerful, sacred
Let them be told and told again
Let them be sung and sung again
Passed on and on
That even those without an ear for music or a tongue for tales
may know You each in their own turn
and pass on in their way this knowing
I sat in the dark with my son after night prayers, and a question came to me.
I asked him: “Do you have any questions about the Gods?”
His answer: “Who is Sif?”
It kind of surprised me; his question was not “What are the Gods?” or “Why is such-and-such this way?”. He wanted to get to know the Gods we prayed to.
It has been awhile since we had read the stories or talked deeply about the Gods. So, when he asked the question I did something that came naturally: I told a story. I told him She is a Goddess, the wife of Thor, and we call to Her, thanking Her for Her generosity in the night prayer. He asked why She was a Goddess of generosity, and I slipped into the story of how She kept Her composure when Loki burst into the hall, and still offered Him mead, as told in the Lokasenna. He asked me why she would have been angry at Loki. I told my son of how Loki had slain the doorman and insulted the Gods in Aegir’s hall, something one was not supposed to do. He then asked why She would be angry with Loki. So, I told him of how Sif’s hair had been cut by Loki before this, and still, She offered Loki to calm Himself and join the Gods in Aegir’s Hall. He smiled, and he understood. We worship Her, as well as Loki because They are our Gods. They are not perfect; They are powerful, beautiful, mischievous, and so much more. I saw my son’s face light up and crack into a grin as he asked what happened when Thor found out Loki had cut His wife’s hair. He asked me smaller questions as the story went on, and it changed how I told the story.
He asked “Did Thor want to hurt Him? What did Loki do?” So I told of how Loki went down to the Dvergar and asked them to make Him a head of golden hair for Sif, hair that lived as Her had, and yet was made of gold. His eyes lit up, still smiling, and he asked if Loki had been punished by the Aesir for what He did to Sif. No, son, Loki made amends with Sif, giving Her that golden hair. Thor may have wanted to, but Loki was not hurt; He had done as He promised, and made amends.
He came to know many Gods better tonight, not just Sif. Did I tell him the whole story, of how Loki also convinced the sons of Ivaldi to make Skiðblaðnir and Gungnir? No, it was not important at the moment. He has heard the full story before, we’ve read it together. I did emphasize how important the gifts Loki won were, how His mouth was sewn shut because Loki had wagered His head and lost. That is the power of storytelling: we have to decide what to emphasize, what to put aside when we tell it, so it speaks to our listeners. It does not make these two holy items, or their gifting to the Gods any less important. It does not make Loki wagering His head less. The telling of this part of the story would have lessened the impact of the story between Loki and Sif in this moment, and gotten before the point I wanted to make to my son: Loki made amends. That when one makes amends one should not be punished further.
Our stories have to live from our lips and hearts to the ears and hearts of others. If our stories do not live in us, what worth is there in telling them?
I have been pondering this question for a while now. Where do we start when we are new to a path? Do we dive into worshiping the Gods? Should we?
I start at the Beginning. A very good place to start. Now that I’ve gotten my obligatory homage to Sound of Music out of my head…
I start with the Creation Story. I start with where everything began, how it came to be, and I let the listener make up their mind how they wish to interpret it. The point is, is that the Story is told. We, eventually, are placed within the Story. Without the cosmological understanding of how and why the Universe came to be, and where we fit in, what point is there in going on to the Gods? If you do not understand how you relate to the Gods it is hard to begin to understand Them, much less worship Them, in anything like a proper context, or understanding.
Even if we do not understand the stories of creating the Worlds, the plants, animals, insects, etc., as literally true as-written, we can understand it on a level that transcends literalism, being true in its own way. In the Norse Creation Story the first two Elements are Fire and Ice, Surt the Black being the First Being followed by Ymir. Without going exhaustively through the text I can already tell some basic things: Fire and Ice are the Prime motivators of all life that follow, and all things began in the Void, the Ginnungagap. They come into being naturally, needing no external force, or at least, no external force(s) that are remarked upon in the Story. That, in and of itself, is important. The Gods are not above or beyond the bounds of ‘what must be’ or ‘what is’ or ‘what is to come’ (Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld). They are, as much as They might be representatives, controllers, and/or arbiters of ‘what must be’, ‘what is’, and ‘what is to come’, in various fashion, part of Creation. Nearly every Creation Story I can think of starts in darkness of some kind, some kind of nothingness. So we come from what was not, becoming what is, and following into what is to come. All things are bound in Wyrd in this way.
I start with teaching the belief that the Gods and spirits are real, that our Ancestors live on in Death in a spiritual form even if They reincarnate, and that there are spirits all around us in many forms.
When new to a path I encourage people to ask questions, and then again, I encourage questions when one is well-seasoned on a path. There can never be enough questions. Even at ten years of being a Pagan I still have questions. So ask, and do research. Explore. Keep researching. I have been a Pagan 10 years and I am still, and I pray, will always, be learning new things.
I asked if we should dive into worshiping the Gods. I think that if you can you should. The same with praying to the Ancestors and spirits, especially the land spirits of where you live. If you can stand before an altar, a tree, a rock, and/or an image and offer words, a cup of water, a small candle, or a ‘hello’ just to start, do it. Do it even if you’re not 100% sure that the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits are real.
Sometimes the best prayers are simple. The purpose of prayer is to thank, ask questions, and/or make a request of a God/dess, Ancestors, and/or spirit, Sometimes learning a prayer, such as Sigdrifa’s Prayer, is both an offering unto itself in addition to being a beautiful prayer. Images on on your computer work well for visualizing the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and lighting a digital candle is fine as an offering in my book. I used to live in a dorm room, and when I started I had 8 salt crystals in a small glass bottle and prayed on my dorm room floor. I started worshiping the Gods after doing a little bit of research and a single lesson. My relationships have changed fairly dramatically, but I learned how to worship the Gods, by-and-large, by worshiping Them. I learned how to worship the Gods by refusing to not ask questions. To explore, and to screw up.
However you can, start. However you can, keep it up. Do the best you can wherever you can. Learn as much as you can, read all the stories of your Gods that you can get your hands on. Learn all you can about your Ancestors, if you are able. Learn about the spirits from your tradition(s), and especially from the locals if you know any. Network, if you are able to and it is safe to do so. Cultivate the relationships between yourself, the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and communities around you however you can. Know that you might not get clear answers from Them, that many who have worshiped the Gods their whole lives don’t always receive clear answers if they do get one. Sometimes, maybe every time, you get silence in response to your prayers, and that is okay. There are going to be down days, up days, days where your faith in your path, Gods, Ancestors, spirits, life itself, etc. is going to be challenged, and shaken; there may be days where your faith is blown clear out of the water, or raised up so high you’ll wonder how it was ever down. However you can just keep walking. Ultimately the relationship is between you, the Gods, the Ancestors, and the spirits.
This is just the start.
Words of love whispered at dusk
as night come rolling in
A voice in morning stillness sung
Piercing in reddened mist
Runes carved deep in the long tree trunk
Atop a horse head sits
Crossed out foe’s name with ink so fresh
The line is thin and slick
Like knives cutting into flesh
and ropes hung lingering long
The power of words carries on
in story, spell, and song
In words the power is still keenly felt
and fiercely is set free
So beware upon whom you turn your voice
in love or hating, speak
In our words our power holds clear
in friendship, ire, and oath
With it we may weave our Wyrd
and with them fulfill our troth
Yet our words may bring doom
Upon us or enemy
To our wrongs it may bind us fast
or in rightness set us free
So take care when you carve or sing, call or mutter low
Before you proceed all your words and works
And linger long after you go
I am a Seeker
a month of writing to You
and I still do not know You
Your Presence is calm
Your Voice is gentle most times
Yet, I still do not know You
I do not know You as a Mother
not truly, though I can feel Your sadness
for Sons torn by rage and pain
I do not know You as a Wife
not truly, though I have seen Your cave
and toiling, emptying the great bowl
I do not know You as a Goddess
not truly, though I hail Your Name
and praise Your gifts
How could I know You?
I praise Your Name as true as any of the Gods I worship
How could I know You?
I pour out offerings and gift to You, sure as any of the Gods I hail
How could I know You?
I have held Your bowl in offering, and had but a taste of Your Work and pain
How could I know You?
There is so much more than story or word or song or dance or life could tell
How could I know You?
I pray, I offer, I sing, I dance, I play, I do
I do know You
If any mortal can know a Goddess
Who has blessed their life
Who has sat, waiting, for the mortal to comprehend
Who has held the ones I love as they weep
Who has stood by me when I thought I had few friends
Who spoke for me
Who touches my hands
Who speaks in my ear
Who despite all, remains