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Reflecting on Media and Raising Polytheist Children 

June 1, 2017 12 comments

I am a pretty big fan of American Gods.  I read the book having come to Odin about a year beforehand.  Having worked my way through the first three episodes, and a good way into the fourth, I can say that Starz has outdone themselves with their portrayal of the book.  There is much that I think polytheists can get out of reading Neil Gaiman’s book or seeing it brought to life on the small screen.  There are aspects of the book that I hope do not make it at all into polytheist discourse, namely the central conceit of the book and show: that the gods need human beings to exist, and exist because of our faith and/or prayers.  I think placing ourselves so centrally would be a grave error.  By placing humans at the center of the universe, so to speak, the Gods are thus removed from it. 

I think that wrestling with media is something, at least as American polytheists go, is something we may have to do for quite a while.  Certainly, before we saw the Marvel Thor movies when my son was younger, I had to do a lot of work to put down firm boundaries so he did not mistake our Thor for Marvel’s.  In raising the next generation, we will encounter issues that are essentially no different than those anyone else will. How much media will we expose our kids to?  What kinds?  What will be off-limits until a certain age?

Our son Kiba has enjoyed Marvel movies and comics during most of his young life.  We have always placed the Sacred Stories and our beliefs before the depictions of Marvel, providing clear guidance on what is and is not Thor.  I think, especially for our youngest, this is important because we are providing the baseline understanding they are building for the Gods.  If we build up Thor alongside His depiction in Marvel, we are doing our Gods, our children, and future generations a disservice.  Being able to discern true signal from noise begins early.  By allowing that signal to be muddied we are allowing things into the lives of our children that should not occupy the same space.

It is not that any particular media, even if it features our Gods, is in and of itself a bad thing.  I think that media can be an excellent bridge for ideas.  For instance, ideas of animism clicked for our son when he was younger after watching My Neighbor Totoro.  We pray and offer to the treevaettir, the tree spirits, because They live here, it is Their home and They guard it.  There are landvaettir who depend on these trees as homes, as places to receive their own offerings, and so on.  The movie provided us touchstones for moving forward in his understanding of how we relate to landvaettir.

Media is not an enemy in and of itself.  D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myth remains a staple in our home of telling the stories of our Gods to younger people, providing a steady bridge from child to youth.  Rather, we need to be careful that our children do not mistake the entertainment that features our Gods, whether it is a depiction of Thor in Marvel comics or D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myth for our Gods.  That we clearly define what media, whether it is book, comic, movie, cartoon, etc. becomes the maps for the next generation is part of our responsibility.  Likewise, it is our responsibility that we exclude as much as possible from our maps the media that has no place with them.   

When I last wrote on this topic I noted then how I still have difficulty seeing Thor as a redhead because of depictions I have seen of Him growing up were always displayed with blond hair.  I am relatively lucky in that Thor was not a favorite comic character of mine growing up. No, for me that was Wolverine and Spider-Man.  Not a lot of deprogramming needed to happen when I became a Heathen, and this depiction of Thor with blond hair is one I still cannot shake.

So should I shake the imagery of Thor with blond hair?  Not necessarily.  As I have said before, if people look at the image of the Joker as a useful image to approach Loki through I do not take issue with it so long as it is quite clear they’re not worshiping the Joker, but Loki.  I think that where I run the deepest issue is when pop culture becomes a substitute for our Gods.  In other words, it would be an issue if the image of Marvel’s Thor overcame who and what Thor is, and likewise, Joker over who Loki is.  When the God is mistaken for, or taken for a media image.

I do think that media can touch our Gods.  Certainly, I felt that Gaiman and the show of his book both get really powerful, even deep aspect of Odin.  Something his character says in the show got me, something he says to Zorya Vechernyaya, is that above everything he seeks knowledge.  Fits pretty well alongside to His seeking power in my experiences of and knowledge of Him.  Likewise, the first scene we see Anubis in was very powerful for me, and it was everything I could do not to weep at the beauty I saw Him and His Work conveyed with.

It is not that I think we should cut ourselves off from all media.  I think we should be careful and discerning about how much we let it influence us.  At the end of the day comic books are meant to see just as much as books are.  I think that placing anything of our religion into a medium whose primary concern is making money first and foremost, and not on the increase of knowledge, experience, and so on of our Gods, needs to be treated with suspicion.  If we can draw connections, metaphors, and understanding of our Gods from the many sources of media about us, I think this is all to the good.  If our media, rather than our Gods, becomes the object of our worship is where the problem comes.

Media in American Gods actually is quite a good depiction of worship-as-consumption and replacing the Gods with media as the object of our worship.  If media becomes what we worship, then all that time spent in front of televisions and handheld devices replaces devotion.  It renders religion as vacuous a question as “So you wanna see Lucy’s tits?”  If religion becomes the mere process of consuming media or simply being in a place exposing ourselves to media then we’re not practicing religion, but ritualized consumption.  This is another area that I think Gaiman actually nails very, very well on the head.  For some spirits that kind of attention could easily turn into food.  It’s so seductive because that kind of passive consumption-as-doing is built into our society.  It has been for awhile, but I think I really saw it in full, naked vileness when, instead of calling Americans to do anything useful, President George W. Bush essentially called on the country to go shopping after 9/11.  Rather than, say, plant a victory garden or otherwise put that anxiety, pain, and frustration to something community-oriented and useful, the one person whose voice was supposed to call out the clearest and provide good leadership essentially said “Fall back asleep, get back to shopping.”

It’s part of why I think we need to be careful of how we depict our Gods, teach about Them, and teach discernment on whether we are praying to or offering to our Gods.  It’s why a grounding in the lore, without turning the map of that lore into territory of the Gods, is important.  It is why being clear on what our entertainment is, and what we worship is so important. We could well be feeding a spirit that has nothing to do with our Gods.  It’s not that every offering we make needs to come with tons of divination to figure out if we’re offering to the right Being.  I think, rather, that it is about keeping clean headspaces about the Gods and any media representations so we do not mistake one for the other, and seek to develop a relationship with a modern adaptation or interpretation of Them, rather than the Gods Themselves.  In regards to Ancestors, this would be like developing a relationship with Uncle Joe only through the stories his wife told, and being unwilling to relate with as his own person. 

Beyond what I have spoken about here and before, I do not have hard and fast recommendations with how we raise the next generation of polytheists.  I do know this, though: it is our responsibility to raise our children.

When he is in our presence, Sylverleaf and I are totally responsible for what Kiba gets sat in front of, or doesn’t, for what he learns or doesn’t.  How could we cede so much power to the overculture that our own kids would become beholden to those things, rather than what we teach him and how we raise him?  To raise him otherwise would be abdicating responsibility for raising our child to the overculture, which is very sick and very deeply needing to change.  The next generation cannot make those changes if we continually cut them at the knees, demanding to know why they never learned to stand.  

Night Prayers

May 15, 2017 1 comment

I place my hands on the glass table

I cleanse with breath, deep in and out

I am ready

We call to the Gods of our home

We call to the Ancestors of our home

We call to the vaettir of our home

Linked together, landvaettir chaining together road and wire

Linked together, landvaettir chaining together soil and root

Linked together through vaettir of arcing power, signal, and voice

We stand together though separate

In praise of our Holy Powers

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 1

April 28, 2017 3 comments

I want to thank my good friend, Nick, who inspired me through his post here on how networks and the self emerge. When I first began writing my response to his article I did not think it would unleash the torrent of writing it has.  So, there’s going to be at least three parts to my reaction.  The first will be a reaction to the article he cites, the second to thoughts on interconnection and the Soul Matrix inspired by the NPR article and his post, and the third will be a response to his post itself.

It got me thinking on how I relate to these things as a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist.

To go into the first part where he explores NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog article, “Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?” I can tell you that, no, neuroscience is not rediscovering anything.  Further, there is nothing adverse or knee-jerk about presupposing that the soul, or as in the Northern Tradition, parts of the soul are numinous.  If anything, I find it deeply irritating that a science blog would lead with such a clickbait headline.

Neuroscience is not really here to tell us anything in regards to spiritual experience or spiritual phenomena.  The science is not equipped to.  It can test claims and show what spiritual experience and phenomena express in terms of our reaction to them, but until and unless there is a method and way to measure, say, spiritual force or a way that science may identify the soul or soul parts, there’s not much use in this article using the word soul itself.
Now, to be sure the questions the article raises are worth thinking about.

But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

However, I see no reason to revisit the definition of the soul.  There are plenty enough words within our language to express and understand what it is that neuroscience is digging into without muddying theological or scientific waters with the understandings we have emerging from current scientific research and thought.  To abandon the notion of a soul as something other than physical is not a threat in and of itself.  My hugr, or thought, the part of my Soul Matrix that will stop upon my death because my thoughts will stop, will cease to be.  However, my hugr is not all I am.

Certainly, if we consider the the soul “as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?” then my hugr, my munr (memory) and possibly my lich, my body, would be all that I am.  It denies the other parts of the Northern Tradition and Heathen Soul Matrix.  

This boils down the soul itself to a purely materialist concept, dispensing entirely with the numenous.  It may make the concept of the soul more palatable to ‘modern’ people, but it is poor theology.  It is like saying “All I am is my cells.”  While strictly true in a physical, materialist sense, it belies the creativity with which I write, the life I lead.  “What of my mind and my individual will?” for example, is a concept poorly explained in such a system.  If indeed we have any notion that we are other than living in a mechanical, purely material universe, then this notion ignores our will, and the mind itself.  If the concept of the soul merely boils down to “You being you is merely the result of your genetics, and the way your brain is formed and wired”, then it not only neuters the understanding of the soul, it outright destroys it.  What use is the word soul at all if the meaning behind the word is rendered other than what it means?

The author of the piece goes on to think about aging and the prolonging of life through the uploading of the ‘soul’.  

Can all this be reduced to information, such as to be replicated or uploaded into other-than-you substrates? That is, can we obtain sufficient information about this brain-body map so as to replicate it in other devices, be they machines or cloned biological replicas of your body? 

These questions are among many that science fiction has explored and looked into for quite a while.  The anime classic The Ghost in the Shell explored the implications of these questions quite well, as did The Matrix. While we may not be able to do so now, soon or even in the far future, I think there are a set of powerful questions that we ought to ask, among them being “Should we?” and “What do we potentially lose in such a process?”

This would be, if technologically possible, the scientific equivalent of reincarnation, or of the long-sought redemption from the flesh — an idea that is at least as old as organized religions in the East and West

Again, this is the problem of science trying to take over ideas in religions.  If science fields want to take words or concepts from religion, or if science bloggers want to take religious concepts out of their element and try to apply them to science, then there needs to be a clear reason to do so.  The author’s assumptions only work if we accept the notion of the soul purely as a result of physical, material phenomena. Since I do not accept a purely material view of the soul, and the use of the word soul has no place in the field he’s talking about, then thinking about the soul in this manner, and reincarnation or redemption from the flesh simply does not make sense.  What he is describing is transference of consciousness from one mode of life/living to another.  There is no need to try to take the word soul, no need to grasp for religious words and concepts.  There’s plenty that work for the phenomena he wants to talk about without appropriating religious words.  

Further, he is not even accurate. The redemption of the flesh is a Christian concept because Christianity views the body as being full of, or potentially full of sin.  Transfering one’s spirit into another body would not stop such a theological view, nor would it resolve the sin the Christian is hoping to remove through accepting Christ as their Savior.

However, it becomes pretty clear to me why he is using this kind of language, and trying to twist religious language to suit these concepts, as soon as the next paragraph comes up.  

Well, depending on who you talk to, this final transcendence of human into information is either around the corner — a logical step in our evolution — or an impossibility — a mad dream of people who can’t accept the inevitability of death, the transhumanist crowd.

  Transhumanism is “The belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”  Many of its central features sound a lot like Rapture-based Christianity: there is a coming moment or series of moments where we will Transcend this flesh, but through Science rather than Jesus.  All ills can and will be cured, but instead of through faith in God, it is faith in and access to the right technology.  

Transhumanism is essentially as close to a salvation-based religion one can get while being devoid of religion.  It is a secular, generally atheist view of the world while retaining a salvation/Rapture narrative.  It is one of many secular worldviews that have emerged from Progress-based narratives, which themselves by and large have emerged out of Protestant theologies, such as Calvinism and Prosperity Gospel movements.  Writing on transhumanism and similar outlooks from my view as a polytheist would be a whole other blog post on its own, so I’ll leave critiques and thoughts on transhumanism for another post.  

As the article goes on, it talks about two initiatives that Google is developing:

Google’s company Calico states right upfront that its mission is to tackle “aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.” The company’s approach is more one of prolonging life than of uploading yourself somewhere else, but in the end the key word that unites the different approaches is information.

and

Another Google company, DeepMind, is bent on cracking AI: “Solve intelligence to make the world a better place.” Google is approaching the problem of death from both a genetic and a computational perspective. They clearly complement one another. Google is not alone, of course. There are many other companies working on similar projects and research. The race is on.

Approaching death and aging as problems to be solved, rather than simply being part of the human condition, is one that I find worrying on a number of fronts.  First among them is that I look at aging and dying as natural phenomena to be embraced among being a living being on this planet.  We already see great problems with humans interrupting the natural life cycles of animals, plants, and indeed, entire interconnected systems of life through our intervention.  In intervening in this fashion with our own makeup, assuming of course that we can advance our ability to age and stave off death at all, I really question what the consequences of such a thing will be.  

If we are seeing the impacts of ecological collapse on a number of fronts, especially getting faster and heavier since the dawn of the Industrial Age, what would be the point of prolonging human life?  We extend a human’s life, thus extending its ability to consume resources that are already dwindling to grasp at a few more years?  If we accept that the world is full of Gods and spirits, at what point do the concerns and rights of the Gods and spirits to exist override the desires of some to eternal life?

Gods and spirits die.  In the case of Gods of rivers, when the river dries up and disappears, that God could be said to have died.  Likewise, the spirit or spirits of a river.  I hold no illusions that Gods are incapable of dying and humans are indeed able to kill some of Them by our actions.  An example from my own childhood is when the woods were bulldozed behind my neighborhood.  Countless trees and plants, animals, insects, all dead to make room for more trailers.  I have no doubt a great many landvaettir were killed.  My reaction as a child to losing this place was grief, like grieving someone I lost.  Because, in essence, I had.  I had lost not only a safe place to explore, but I lost an entire world that I and my friends and brother had spent a great deal of time in.

How much pain and grief will we, as a species, need to inflict on the world’s environments to achieve the extension of aging and staving off of death?  How much pain and grief will we, as a species, be willing to accept so that we may extend our lives on and on?  The other side of this, is how few of us will be able to enjoy this at all, on base line of fairness?  Will it only be those investors in companies like Calico and DeepMind?  Will it be only the workers and shareholders?  Or will it, as is often the case with technological advancements, only in the hands of the most wealthy or rich?  

Exactly how much suffering will the rest of humanity be willing to endure so a few can enjoy an extended life?  What of our leaders, and the implications for systems of democratic government in the face of what could threaten to unbalance the ultimate leveler: death?  How many Gods and spirits are we willing to kill for a shot at a longer life?  How much of the planet are we willing to bend till breaking so a few us can live a couple of more years?

As a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen polytheist, the idea of interrupting something so fundamental as death is disturbing.  Death should be something we welcome and develop a good relationship with, not something to be conquered or overcome.  We have such a horrific relationship with death in our overculture already, with treatments to prolong the life upheld at all costs, including one’s death with dignity, and our treatment of the Dead as something to be avoided or that is ‘over there’, that this looks nothing less than a continuation of stigamtizing death and dying.  Rather than approaching our end with dignity, care, and honor, this approach of elongating our lives or seeking immortality looks quite desparate and utopian.  We’re born to life dying.  Our end happens at some point.  Far better, to my mind, that we greet death and our ends with care, dignity, and respect, than to seek out every method to elongate our existence.

For Part 2 I’ll go into how this article made me think on relationships and interdependence in a Northern Tradition and Heathen view.

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 3

April 28, 2017 1 comment

One of the joys of having Nick as a friend is that his writing and his thoughts push me, myself, to think on how I view things and how I relate to things.  As I am a polytheist, and being a polytheist also an animist, I think that there is a lot that we share in worldview and the consequences of our beliefs, even if we phrase them different or some of the minutae of our worldviews differ.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

What he refers to here as ‘my spirit’ I may think of as the lich, huge, munr, and ond, along with a few other soul parts depending on the context, such as hame and hamingja.    

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons.

I find this an interesting concept, because if this is the case there is a unification of purpose and order to the internal ‘universe’ of spirits that inhabit the body.  It also has implications for my worship of Mitochondrial Eve and Chromosomal Adam as Ancestors.  If I recognize these two as Ancestors, then it is not much of a stretch to say that my cells are each spirits in and of themselves.  I take it to mean that, in this context, that Nick is not saying that each of these cell-spirits are determinative of their own form and function on their own, but exist in a rather more restricted space than I, both in terms of their field of choices for existence, and sentience.  This does not strip them of being spirits at all; rather, that they/we are collectively ‘aimed’ towards a purpose. In the case of red blood cells, circulating oxygen so the larger spirit-driven flesh-vehicle can keep on living, and fulfill its own set of needs and influences on the world at large.  In the case of white blood cells, these spirit-driven little bits of me/us fight off infection for the same reason.  

 Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Yet, we have differentiation from Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person, and I think this is something to take note of.  I don’t necessarily think that Nick loses that point here, mind, I just want to be sure we do not mistake trees for forest.  My cells are prerequisites for the functions of my body, as are the networks of relationship between various cells, organs, etc.  Yet, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, I am not my heart metaphysically or physically.  My heart is a part of me.  I think that, though Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person overlap in the Venn diagram here, there is clear demarkation that I am not my cells, but rather, that my cells are my own and distinct from Nick’s cells and Nick’s person.  

Part of the reason I spent Part 1 of these posts exploring and taking apart Gleiser’s post, ‘Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?‘, is because I disagree with science communities or scientific writing taking over theological definitions when there is little-to-no reason to.  If we are describing the soul, let us describe the soul. If we are describing the mind, let us describe the mind.  Let us differentiate our language clearly, not because these realms never overlap, but so that we can be clear when they do, without muddying the specialized language and understanding of both.

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Meanwhile reading it made my skin crawl in a rather uncomfortable way, for reasons I described previous.  Now, the idea of the mind being embodied and the self not being an isolated property but an emergent one of the mind-body integration is essentially taken as a given in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry.  Of course identity comes out of one’s selfhood as in the godhi/gydhja, Ancestry, one’s spiritual communities, one’s actions within one’s community.  The NT and Heathen religions assume an interconnectedness as part and parcel of existence, whether it is how our huge and munr develop.  Our sense of self develops out of our various Soul Matrix parts into who we are in this incarnation.  The lich lends itself to the mind-body connection as firmly as the more ephemeral Soul Matrix parts do.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

This is where Nick starts to lose me, and I acknowledge this could simply be a matter of phrasing.  I understand the lich and huge or hugr as parts of the Soul Matrix, that ‘the soul’ as a whole in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry is made up of these souls/soul parts.  In isolation, however, the huge would not be the same without a well-functioning lich to go with it.  It is not that we are fundamentally disagreeing all that much here, except in that he is using the idea that these networks are ‘my body as well as my soul’ and that the word hugr fits this idea.  It is the singular, that these networks of individuals form a single soul that is encapsulated in word hugr that I disagree with.  It reads to me like the individuals existentent within the multiplicity of the Soul Matrix are, instead, fashioned into a singularity.  It is at odds especially in regards to what I understand is a part of the Soul Matrix, itself a collection of different parts of, or different souls themselves.  To have good hugr one must also have a good lich to go with it. Certain Soul Matrix pieces are interwoven with one another, and hugr and lich are among them. Yet, hugr is still hugr and lich still lich, and it would be a mistake to say they are one in the same when they are, in actuality, connected by individual.  

An example is hamingja, what is often referred to as group luck, power, or soul. It is what we inherit from our Ancestors, by blood, adoption, and/or spirit.  We can appreciate that many, many generations worth of souls, certainly not all of them human, went into developing this when we inherit our hamingja, but it would be a mistake, I think, to look at hamingja as a singular thing given it has so many Beings that make it up.  Yet our hamingja is also our own because we are the latest iteration of the Ancestors, so there is tension of a kind between the collective and singular, places where we certainly are differentiated, but we cannot be wholly separate, as we would not be without our past.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Absolutely, this is wonderful. As with our bodies, minds, cultures, and so on are the results of a million lives before us, and is impacted by our environment, so our spirit(s) develop from those who came before us. What is more, as with our bodies and the passing on of traits, or the passing on of how we understand the world, and/or our culture(s), we impact them and those who came before us in return.  If we fail to tell the stories, they eventually fade.  If we fail to pass on the culture, eventually it dies.  If we pass these things on, they continue to live and become part of future generations.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self.  In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

In reading Grönbech’s The Culture of the Teutons and having read quite a bit of lore on ancient German and Scandinavian societies, one of the things that continuously comes up is that these are tribal societies, and that identification of and with the tribe is part of being alive.  To be outlawed is to be dead, or something worse than dead.  Within the collective society of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tribes, it was not that the individual completely disappeared, but that all one’s decisions, all one does or is, is reflected upon because what one does affects the tribe, and likewise, the tribe affects the individuals within it. The tribe was, as in the plant example above, affected the push and pull of various decisions and needs and wants that are expressed and addressed from within the network, the network in this case being the tribe.  

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

I think it is important to discern, though, that networked tasks and networked things, in this cases leaves within a plant or bacteria within the gut, does not make the leaf the plant nor the bacteria the gut.  They are pieces of a whole that helps the whole to function, is indeed necessary for the whole to function well in their contexts.  If we agree that a leaf and the cells that make it up are each souls within souls, that the soul of the leaf is made up with the cells that make that leaf up, with each leaf itself a part of the soul of the plant, at some point the collective emerges around forms and functions.  It is at this point that the ‘leaf cells’ become leaves, and that leaves become part of the plant.  Necessary to the plant being alive and propogating, but not the plant as a whole.  The leaves emerge from the plant, and the plant from the seed.  

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

‘Collective networks’ functions well as a term if we’re just talking physical realms.  There’s a word for this in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this tapestry of networked beings in the lattice work of all reality.  It forms the ground of how we view ourselves, so that this idea is hardly alien.  This is wyrd.  Yet, unlike the networked beings and individuals described here, wyrd also takes into account spiritual impacts and phenomena.  This is one of the places where I see the Venn diagram between science and religion crossing in terms of understanding some ways of interconnectedness.  

As Haskell says;
“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself.

Given our understanding of how life began, whether looking at this through the scientific lens of the Big Bang or through wyrd and the Creation Story, with the unfolding of Creation through the emergence of Muspelheim, Nifelheim from the Ginnungagap, I’d say that networks of interrelationship are older than life itself. That the building blocks of our reality rely on series after series of things relating between one another, whether in opposition, tension, or in concert.  

 The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

Interesting.  In my exploration of ancient German and Scandinavian cultures, the fundamental unit of how we understood ourselves as people began in the plurality of tribe, clan, and/or family.  The individual tribe/clan/family members were a temporary manifestation of relationship, carrying and passing on hamingja, for instance. This understanding of ‘network’ could easily be replaced with the word ‘community’, ‘tribe’, etc.  The tribe is a plurality, and each person part of it.  We invididually exist within it, functioning separately, yet together form a collective identity and being.

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge. 

As a polytheist and animist with a particular worldview, I see that what Nick has laid out is quite well along my own lines of thought.  Where I keep getting myself hung up is in disagreements with particulars, such as considering the sum total of a soul to be all of/in this world.

So I have some questions for Nick, and I’m curious to see how he answers given what he said earlier in his post:

I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

and this later:

As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

So if you think you have a spirit, a life essence, a life force, what is it? What forms does it take?  Where did it originate from? Does it have a finite existence?  If you do not believe your spirit is at all separate from your body, does it die along with your body?  In other words, how would ghosts and spirits-after-death fit, if at all, into your cosmology?  How does this fit into Ancestor worship and/or veneration (i.e. if the spirit dies with the body why rever/worship the Ancestors)?  

Do you believe that the spirit is one piece, or that it is a whole collection of different ‘spirits’ in one body?  I’m intensely interested in your cosmology, especially because if spirit is bound to body, then if something does not have a body, then, does it not have a spirit?

If animism is concerned with life living in relationship with each other does that preclude the numinous, or less body-bound realms of things?  How does animism unfold as a, or part of, a religious point of view for you?  What does animism of a worldview include, for you?  What does it not include?

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

I am deeply curious to see how Nick would answer these things as well.  I will below.

In considering our relationships well beyond ourselves, I think we first need to think of what things are actually within our spheres of influence.  If we think of our ability to impact the world as represented by bubbles, with the further out we go having more and more reach, my bubble would be quite limited to those in my immediate surroundings, those in my family, my religious communities, and communities otherwise.  Even in how I buy and consume things, my impact as such is quite small in scale compared to a large corporation or the collective impact of the US government.  

After a while I stop considering relationships well beyond myself and the bubbles I can affect.  My relationships with those outside of certain circles gets so tenuous and abstract that the ties I have to others are miniscule.  In others they are nonexistant.  This is one of the reasons I’m not as into Big Tent Paganism as others.  It’s much like my view of being a US citizen. As with Pagans and issues particular to the communities we/they are part of, I care about the rights of all US citizens, but I’ll likely never interact with most of the folks out in California.  I certainly won’t develop or keep up meaningful relationships with them.  While my words may carry impact out there, I have only so much capacity within myself to develop meaningful relationships with those outside of my family and friends.  I only have so much time to keep the relationships I do have.  Since my energy and my attention are things that I have less and less of, between work, religious obligation, family obligations, and local community obligations, there’s not much time left over to develop deeper connections with folks outside of a couple of my bubbles where my time and attention goes.

Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

The sum total of all our technology and the natural world is deeply out of step with one another.  Our technology allows us to do amazing things, from the interconnectedness of the Internet to the generation of power so countless people have electricity, heat, and water, to beautiful pieces of art.  Yet, I see so much technology now as being obsolescense for its own sake, or to increase someone’s bottom line at the expense of great swathes of this world, Earth, animal and plant alike.  I see devices intentionally built to break. I see technology taking jobs once held by great swathes of people with nothing to replace them, leaving great stretches of this country destitute.  I see great and small bodies of earth, water, and air poisoned by oil and gas, the production of our computers and cell phones.  I see a world we will have a harder time living on and with because of the production and industries that bring up that oil and gas to burn so our electricity flows, the lights stay on, and our economies continue to be productive contributes to the very things that are rendering our planet less habitable to us. 

Looking at our cities from space I see systems that have deep need of repair, both in terms of how they function internally and how they relate to the natural world.  I see great swathes of resources going to these places; we can see the light of them in space from the photo Nick has provided.  As a whole our relationships with the Earth through cities have become fraught with taking increasing amounts of dwindling resources, whether that be water, oil, or gas.  The growth of cities has been useful in allowing us to live on less land, but we have not fixed fundamental problems with how we, especially in America, deploy ourselves in the land.  If the supply lines get cut off for 3 days LA essentially starves. Now, thankfully, there are people who are opening up places in LA and Detroit to community gardens and community agriculture.  However, we have basic problems with infrastructure that must be addressed if cities are to continue to remain viable places to live.  We operate our cities on incredibly complex, but very, very brittle systems of transport that are, increasingly, operating with less and less support for the infrastructure that makes them possible.  I have serious doubts as to how long our cities will be viable in how we have developed them.

In my own case I am developing good working relationships with my local earth, the earthvaettir, and landvaettir, vaettir otherwise, as well as the Gods and Ancestors.  I am living as a good member of my society, providing for my family and developing ways to live in better concert with the Earth.  I am doing all I can to be a living example in how I live with Her.  I am pushing my local governments and cities to do more to get off of fossil fuels and generate our own energy through less environmentally destructive mean. I encourage people to explore their own local options, especially where their impact can be felt keener and firmer.

This, I think, is a lot of where polytheism and animism meets our proverbial road in life.  In how we live our lives.  In our daily interactions with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another.  The worldviews of polytheism and animism informs how we understand ourselves in the world, how we identify within our human communities, and how we live our lives accordingly with the values we live by.  The foundations of our worldviews tells us what we consider ‘alive’ and ‘ensouled’ how we live well with all that lives and souls within us, and around us.  

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 2

April 28, 2017 Leave a comment

In thinking on Spirit, Networks, and Emergence, it has made me come once more to appreciate how fully embraced an existence predicated on interconnectivity the Northern Tradition and Heathenry are.  We are beings formed not only wholly of ourselves, but between one another.  Our sense of who we are, how we are, and what we are develops by immersion in group identity, in rejection of certain group identities, and in self-identity developed through, or in the absence of, relationships.  Without a sense of ‘us’ there is no sense of ‘I’.  This is made utterly clear in exploring the Soul Matrix.  

My lich, my body, looks and functions the way it does because of my genetic inheritance and the not-insignificant amount of time my folks spent with me in physical therapy as a young child. Had they not, I would definitely be bow-legged and far different now.  My ham, my astral double or spirit form, because of the work I have done under my Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and Elders’ guidance, as well as years of my own work.  I inherited my understanding of this form first from my Catholic background and later, from my Pagan one.  My litr, my health or blooming hue, my verve for life, I inherited from my folks and it grew well under their guidance.  It continues now under my own care.  My vili, my will, both in terms of its strength and development, was inherited through my parents, and developed throughout my life.  Mod, or mood, our emotions, are interesting in this context.  In many ways I have inherited our understanding of emotions, how I interact with them, and how I relate to them through my parents, Elders, and all of our cultures.  Of the Soul Matrix parts, I find that my relationship with and to mod is deeply affected.  For instance, the overculture of America encourages extreme stoicism or emotions like anger or rage over that of expressing annoyance, grief, pain, or horror.  I have had to work through anger being a ‘safe’ emotion vs. that of, say, openly grieving or just being disappointed.  

I directly inherited my ond, first from my mother, and then from anyone and everyone who comes into my life and shares the air with me.  I mean this both literally and religiously, as ond translates to ‘breath’.  If someone poisons my ability to gather my vitality and energies, or who is so close it is hard to breathe, that is an intrusion on my ability to live with vitality.  Likewise, those who aid in my ability to breathe well can breathe well with me.  

My hyge and munr, thought and memory respectively, rely on my abilities to build them up and keep them built up so that hyge flows into munr.  Hyge, being connected with how I think, and munr, with how I retain information, are both deeply informed by how my family processed and retained information.  As the USA is not an oral culture, much of what we do have is preserved in written records.  This is a vast difference between the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples my religion flows from, namely in that I, and most of my fellow NT and Heathen people, do not have the same cognitive processes and retention of information our Ancestors did.  Rather than dedicating memory as, say, a lawspeaker to remembering the law, or the myths and legends to be recited as a skald, we now look to books so we can access the information. What we retain from that reading is also far less than what was expected of these Ancestors.  In reconstructing and reviving our religions, the how and why we think and memorize will become more relevant.  After all, if I was the head of a household leading rites, what things were assumed that I knew how to do? 

What about being a priest or shaman?  This plays right into the ideas of worldview.  How we think of ourselves, how we relate to one another, and how we live in this world, all affect how we think and why we retain the information we do.  It adjusts our internal filters for what information is relevant, what stories we remember, and how we understand our place in things.

The godhi/gydhja portion of the Soul Matrix is perhaps the one thing of the whole Matrix that is uniquely our own.  Translating to priest or priestess, and historically relating to both priests and chieftains, the godhi/gydhja in the Soul Matrix is our full spiritual potential, the Higher Self. Our own chieftain, if you will.  However, how we come to that chieftain is entirely dependant on those in our life, and those who help us connect well with that Higher Self.  So even this portion is one that I see as very hard, if not impossible to understand, without the requisite help every other Soul Matrix part has had in coming about to us.

Fylgja are spirit guides and/or allies that may or may not be Ancestors, and can be Gods, and vaettir of various kinds, such as dvergar, trolls, jotun, etc.  Kinfylgja are spirit guides or allies as well as the collective spiritual power and wisdom of the Ancestors, respectively, requires a spiritual community.  The way I understand both terms of the Soul Matrix is that these are inherited, especially with kinfylgja, from one’s blood and spiritual forebears.  These terms really do not exist without community.  One’s spiritual outlook either bars or includes certain kinds of fylgja, and kinfylgja is utterly reliant on one’s Ancestors as to who is part of this portion of the Soul Matrix.

My maegan, my personal luck and power was gifted to me by birth, and helped to grow through the teaching and guidance I received first from my parents, and later, spiritual elders and my own self.  My hamgingja, group luck or power, likewise, was gifted to me by my folks, was helped to grow and develop through my spiritual elders, and the applications of all these things to my life in relationship with all those who are within those bonds of hamingja.    

The ve in the Soul Matrix is what Raven Kaldera refers to as “your Spooky” or innate psychic ability.  Ve relates to places that are sacred; the word is found in placenames that were held as such, and its etymology connects it right to the words for sacred and consecration.  We develop an understanding of what is sacred together as a community.  As for its meaning within the Soul Matrix, one’s innate psychic ability is inherited, and from there, it may be developed.  Wod, one’s ability to enter into altered states of consciosness or, as Kaldera puts it, “merge with Divine Consciousness”, is similar to ve, in that the innate ability is inherited and can be worked with from here.   

The final two parts of the Soul Matrix are orlog, meaning old law and relating in the Soul Matrix to our individual threads within wyrd, and wyrd itself, where we are in the overall tapestry of creation and our destiny within it.  We cannot weave our orlog or our wyrd alone.  It is an impossibility.  We inherit both of these parts of the Soul Matrix from our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and weave it within those of our community, and also weave it with those outside of them.  Every decision we make, every thing we do is woven into orlog and wyrd’s unfolding.  

With all this in mind, I’ll be heading into Part 3 and reacting to Nick’s own article. 

Yuletide Mead

November 28, 2016 2 comments

The mead brews

Slowly

Little bubbles flow up

The honey-water froths

Life begins

 

Bees’ labor

Water’s blessing

Yeast’s life

 

Kvasir’s blood

Gunnlöð’s charge

Odin’s drink

Aegir’s pride

 

 

A month and Yuletide

A gift to loved ones

 

A raised glass

A raised horn

Cheer and warmth in Winter

Affluence, Tribe, and Choice

August 12, 2016 2 comments

I was watching the end of a BookTV C-SPAN2 interview with Sebastian Junger for his book On Tribe and Homecoming.  I had been happening to be clicking through the channels looking for something to help bring me down so I could get to sleep.  However, when I clicked on the station and listened to what he said, it was like lightning in my brain:

“Affluence is a wonderful thing but the more affluent we get, the less we need to help each other.  It’s just how it works.  So the trick is, can we have it both ways?  Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?  I grew up in a suburb.  The physical layout of the suburb made it hard for communities –that community to coalesce.  It was a sprawling town where you really needed a car to get anywhere significant.  Short of banning the car, how do we return to living close-knit communities of 50 or 60 people?  It’s not happening.”

I disagree with Sebastian Junger’s statements here quite deeply, particularly his last sentence, but the whole of it bears dissecting from a polytheist, particularly a tribalist, perspective.

To start with, he asserts affluence is a wonderful thing.  The OxfordDictionaries.com defines affluence as “The state of having a great deal of money; wealth”.  I view it as a wonderful thing in being a useful thing, insofar as being able to secure one’s tribe, family, and/or self against privation, starvation, etc., and increase their ability to prosper, and empower future generations to do likewise.

Junger asks a pretty powerful question, but one that he fails, utterly, to answer himself:
“So the trick is, can we have it both ways?  Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?”

The simple answer to Junger’s question about having it both ways is yes.  How affluence in the U.S. manifests in a toxic fashion is an impediment to this, though.  He starts to get at why this is with his point on how the suburb is designed, how it makes it hard for connections, but falls short of following through on it.  The issue, to my take on this, is not the affluence or lack thereof, but how it is used, and the lens of extreme individualism in this country that makes communities very hard to form, and even harder to maintain.

The suburb is not designed in any way to be based on a system of reciprocity.  It has no connections to living systems within itself, i.e. there is no growing of food or capability to produce things of wealth otherwise.  Note when I use the word ‘wealth‘ here, I mean it in the sense of “An abundance of valuable possessions” rather than referring to money. Money is a means of carrying the value of things which produce or are, themselves, sources of wealth.  In America, we took ourselves off of the precious metals that, themselves, were recognized as wealth as a means of backing the value of our money, and took ourselves to a purely arbitrary fiat money system.  Our money system itself has the same problem as our suburbs: its connection to living systems and sources of wealth has been largely severed.

A suburb cannot mine for useful materials, nor can it grow an abundance of food to feed itself.  It has no means of trading en mass, or really of doing anything other than providing living quarters.  A homeowner may, assuming the home authority or ordinances allow, a few sources of food, but a tomato plant here or there does not an interconnected food system make.  The suburbs are wholly reliant on other sources for caring for those who live in them.  These people who live in the suburbs are often living very fractured lives from one another; the family next door could be starving, but because of the extreme individualist narratives the house right next to them would never know unless that family let them in to the situation at all.  Suburbs, and structures that operate like them, do not concern themselves with one another, only, at most, the atomized family unit.

The problem is not the affluence these places retain, in and of themselves, but the way the affluence is used to maintain the separation between people and the things they need.  It reinforces separation on a personal and communal basis.  As Junger notes, communities cannot coalesce because of how suburbs are designed.

I said Junger was asking a powerful question when he asked “Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?” because the answer very-well could be yes.  It would take concentrated effort and a reevaluation of how we live, and for what things we use our affluence.  Rather than simply taking affluence out of peoples’ hands and redesigning how society functions, which I have yet to see an example of where the system did not fail, I am suggesting something else.  Note, I am not saying socialist forms of government cannot work under this idea, since the Nordic Model is a good example of a society choosing the use their collective affluence in a pro-social fashion via taxes.  There’s plenty of opportunity for affluence while providing for the needs of one’s people.  I see this as going hand-in-hand.  However, I am approaching this as a tribalist.  As I have noted before, I have little hope of the U.S. ever adopting such an approach to our affluence until things start getting a lot worse for folks, or enough folks start working to change the over-culture of extreme individualism.

So let’s break this down to a tribal level.  How do we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain communal connections?

For one, we need to be pretty clear on how we define affluence as a community.
Is the tribe’s conception of affluence money-based or resource based?  It is my view that a resources based understanding of affluence does not play into the divisive nature that characterizes suburbs and the extreme individualism that can divide a tribe.  If we understand wealth as based in resources rather than money, how does this affect how we organize ourselves, and how can we maintain our relationship(s) with the larger society in which we live?  It is one thing to organize a society based on valuing resources as the form of wealth rather than money, but in the end, money is how things like taxes and debts get paid.  To what degree will a given tribe need to modulate their assumptions and desires to engage with resources-as-affluence on things in order to get along as a tribe, and with the larger society that they are within?

If we look at resources as affluence, then the growing and hunting of food, crafting, and forms of industry helps form the means by how a tribe supports itself and makes bonds between its members.  If money is the source of affluence, then the attainment of money is the means by which the tribe supports itself and makes bonds between members.  A mixed approach allows for the needs of the tribe to meet the demands the larger community may put on it while allowing for pleasures that a purely agricultural-based community may be unable to enjoy.  The ideal without considering the practicality of the tribal approach can fail if these things are not considered.  While I may prefer a resource-based approach to affluence, I live in America, and property taxes and forms of payment will not be accepted in the form of animal meat, vegetables, or crafted items.

What are the pleasures we most wish to secure as a community?

As with affluence, we need to be very clear on what we mean by the word ‘pleasures’, and how we wish to pursue them.  To this, I look to the second definition of pleasure: “An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment”.  How we measure and work with the concept of affluence directly determines what and how we turn over excess affluence for the events and activities that help to give us enjoyment in the first place.  If we define pleasures by the first definition, ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’, this can leave communities flitting from emotionally-fulfilling thing to thing.  That is, by pursuing the feeling of enjoyment rather than the events or activities from which we may derive enjoyment, our use of affluence beyond the basic needs will deeply affect to what end our affluence is used, and how it helps the community form cohesive relationships, and bonds of trust, friendship, love, and alliance.

How?

If we take the idea of affluence-as-money as the organizing principle of affluence, we can already see what happens: people flit from whatever media or other money-driven entertainment they can afford that gives enjoyable stimuli.  A given community is not invested in Netflix the way that content creators are, even if members of a community really enjoy a series.  Certainly, a given community is not invested in Netflix in the way that a community is with a community theater, such as the Purple Rose in Chelsea, MI.  Whereas Netflix eats away at time between members of a community, with some folks intentionally isolating themselves for multiple seasons at a time without Netflix providing a residual benefit to the community the watchers are part of, the same is not true of community theater.  While community theater may not feature A-list actors or scripts, it does feature home-grown talent, the kinds of productions that the local communities want to see, a direct stimulation to a community’s businesses, and something for the community to call ‘theirs’.  In other words, a community that values the events and activities that lead to pleasure also give rise to a whole host of benefits beyond enjoyment of the event or activity.

This is not to denigrate Netflix; such a thing would be pretty hypocritical of me, considering how much I enjoy Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and other Netflix shows.  Rather, our value of what pleasure is directly impacts my physical community in the definition of pleasures being ‘An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment’ rather than ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’.  I live in a time and place where it is far more cost-effective, easier, and less risky to my family to invest my affluence, such as it is, in a community theater.

This is also not to say that I think things like plays and musicals in community theaters are the only viable means of making events and activities from which a community may derive pleasure.  Though I am not a sports fan, there is a powerful draw to sport that a lot of Americans feel.  Rather than see us continue with the current model with NHL, NBA, and other similar sports formats which are often money-driven enterprises that take a lot out of the communities where they build their stadiums while offering paltry gains in return, I would rather we engage more directly in sport and other events that occur within our direct community and between communities actually physically adjacent to one another.  Why?  For the same reason I appreciate community theater as the vehicle for the creation of events and activities that enjoyment is derived from: the communities involved directly benefit rather than the affluence being given to an external source.  That is, the playwrights, actors, and so on that are within the community directly benefit from the affluence that is spent on the play, costumes, the theater tickets, and all the outgrowth of affluence that spreads into the community from that, such as through the local restaurants, artisans, and craftspeople.  By creating an environment where the amateur and those in training can thrive, professionals are made.

For the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this concept of feeding both the individual and the community, figuratively and literally, come from these concepts: Gebo, hamingja, and maegen.  In Gebo, gift-for-a-gift, there is an exchange that strengthens, grows, tightens the ties of hamingja, the luck and bonds of a community.  By Gebo being fulfilled through the fulfillment of obligation and doing well by one another, and through the increase of hamingja, does one’s personal luck, power, and ability to use that power, maegen, grow in turn.  This can then be used for the benefit of tribe, and the cycle of Gebo continues to feed the good growth of hamingja and maegen.

What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?
A benefit is ‘An advantage or profit gained from something’.  An advantage is ‘A condition or circumstance that puts one in a favourable or superior position’.  A profit is ‘A financial gain, especially the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something’ and is also defined as advantage and benefit. Putting this in terms of the tribe, the benefits we wish to secure a as a community are those actions and things which bring advantage to it.

The powerful thing about building up tribe is that you are not just planning for the success of your family or your generation.  You are helping to lay the foundation of success for everyone coming after you.  Everything you put your hands helps to lift burdens off of the next family, the next generation in the tribe.  Learning how to do more things in your own home, from small repair projects or through on up to making your own furniture, gives the next generation the benefit of that experience, and the end result of that product once you have made something of quality.  Heck, some families have the last names they do because their family was renowned for a trade, i.e. Coopers, Smiths, Tailors, etc.  Education and practical experience are benefits for families provided that they are resources that are used, and that are passed on.

The question of “What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?” is pretty powerful.  It asks us what things of advantage and profit do we want to actively work to bring into our community?  What skills will we need to make this happen?  What education, training, experiences, and resources will we need to make this happen?  To some degree our own experiences, skills, and abilities will inform this.  To another, this requires no small amount of discipline on a personal level, as well as a community willing and able to think in the long term.  Moreover, it takes a community willing to stick to a long-term plan if the goal is fairly ambitious.

Physical infrastructure, for instance, is fairly ambitious, and requires some good planning if we hope to pass that on.  The tribe or community would need to be able to handle physical upkeep, any financial costs including taxes (if applicable), and if a building has a special use, such as a power hub, network hub, greenhouse, and/or temple, you will need folks able to work with the special training to do the work associated with it.  Building a solid home in and of itself requires no small amounts of skills to do, even more so if a tribe/community wishes to keep things like power and the Internet as open to it as possible.  If your community can’t do the work needed to maintain it, then experts will need to be brought in from outside the community.

At some point it behooves the community to ask, then, what is a want and what truly is a need?  Will this thing, activity, etc. be a long term boon to the community, or will it take from valuable resources that the community needs to survive and thrive?  Not every benefit for a community will be need to have a physical gain to it.

Some of the greatest pieces of art have, if taken purely from a utilitarian perspective, little to offer.  One cannot eat the Gundestrup Cauldron, but it must have carried deep, powerful import for those who made it and received it.  One cannot eat art, but it suffuses our lives so deeply that it is the very means by which ideas are communicated, including this post here.  Think of the countless carved stones, such as the Einang Runestone or Eggjum Runestone.  Think of the countless carvings, amulets, burial mounds, and all the countless ways in which the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were represented, understood, and known through.  The benefits of art is that it communicates powerfully, resonantly, and can help us touch the Holy Powers, connect to deep aspects of culture, and communicate these things well beyond the generations we may know in this life.

The question of “What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?” thinking applies equally to individual families as to the communities they are part of.   What are the abilities we have gravitated to?  What skills do we possess?  What have I learned, and what am I willing and able to learn?  What are we actually able to do, or not do?  What skills, abilities, and things would we encourage others in our families and communities to help us make, or provide to us?

As with the community, this question asks us to take the long view.  I have a great many things I can do with my hands; what if, some day, I lose the use of my hands?  Can I pass the skill on to someone else?  Can I trade or encourage another to gain this skill or do that thing that I can no longer do?  What skills and abilities are essential to me?  What skills or abilities does my community rely on from me that need to be passed on?  What skills, abilities, and things that I and my family can provide are essential to my community?  These questions do not ask for self-effacement or self-abasement, but an honest appraisal of where one is, where one may be, and how one plans to work with things in the future.  It need not be a purely utilitarian view, either.  If I can no longer do work with my hands, such as leatherworking or woodworking, there are plenty of other ways I can help my community.  There are countless ways to be a member in my community and give good Gebo to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the tribe.

Sebastian Junger rather misses the point in asking if it is possible for us to have things both ways.  The planet’s answer, whether Peak Oil, climate change, or the deep income inequalities that must exist in order for the modern American way of life to exist in the first place (helping to drive the first two predicaments the more consumption is demanded for the latter) is no.  Further, modern American capitalism poses the notion of ‘we have all the toys or we have nothing’ as a way to make the shackles on our lives more willing to be borne.  This is thralldom by other means.  However, there is a healthy difference between thralldom as the ancient Heathen cultures knew it, and the wage slavery we experience today.

Note before I begin this section that I am not, for a moment, suggesting we should go back to thralldom.  I am using it to illustrate a point.  Thralldom as an institution was widely practiced by ancient Scandinavian and German peoples.  It was slavery.  I do not see it as something to be idealized, nor repeated.  I find the ways in which it differs from the yolks the middle class, working poor, and the destitute take on today via modern capitalism are useful points of comparison.

People were bought and sold like other commodities.  Some thralls and their families never knew freedom; sometimes thralldom, slavery, was inter-generational.  However, some thralls could and did buy their freedom.  Thralls could be freed, and some were.  If they chose, they could become full members of the tribe they had been sold into, or go elsewhere.  They could then marry, own land, and pass it on to their heirs.  The life of a thrall could end well, and one could make a name for themselves, and excel.

Modern capitalism gives no such comfort.  American incomes relative to cost of living have been stagnant or going down since the 1970’s.  We are required more than ever to work longer hours for less pay.  We have essential freedoms denied to thralls: freedom of travel, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to choose our representatives.  Talking about it this way, it seems there are freedoms everywhere.  What American culture is exceptionally bad at talking about is how tampered these freedoms are by whether or not you can afford to exercise them.

I used to be an employee with a home healthcare company.  We work with clients with a variety of needs.  Some require 24 hour care.  If someone does not show up to work, gets sick, etc., and I’m the only one around, I’m stuck at work.  Now, let’s say I have an election coming up and I know I want to vote.  If I am stuck at work because someone gets sick and I’m the only relief, I have a choice: potentially lose my job, face a permanent mark on my record for negligence, potential court action against myself and/or the company, or, exercise my right to vote.  This is not an uncommon scenario.

Thralls had a clear goal they could achieve: make enough money that they could then use to buy their freedom.  In the case of most Americans, we don’t even get this good of a deal.  Chris Martenson, who produced the excellent Crash Course series, calls debt a claim on future human labor. When the average American hits age 5 they’re placed into kindergarten, and for the next 12 years or so they are absolutely primed with the message that going to college will enable them to have a life, make a future for themselves.  What we are not told this entire time we’re working on reams of homework, projects, and whatever else our teachers want to throw at us, while living life in all its challenges, is that in order to make this dream of ‘making it’ come true, is that most of us will have to go into enough debt that we could probably have paid for at least half of the cost of a house, if not bought one outright.  I have worked at McDonald’s next to folks with supposedly market-ready STEM-field Master’s degrees.  The treatment teams I worked with at the home healthcare job had professionals whose loans were large enough that even if they devoted their entire yearly income to it they might only be able to pay a quarter or half of what they owed.  If they were lucky, weren’t part-time, and had some years in.

Keep in mind, these degrees are mere shots at getting a job.  One which may help pay some bills, but probably not enough to stock away for savings or a retirement.  The minimum wage jobs have not covered the cost of living in a very long time, let alone helped the working poor to provide for their families.  Americans as a whole are worse off now than the 1970’s.  We are required to work longer hours for less pay just to keep roofs over our heads, food in our mouths, clothes on our backs, and all the costs of those roofs, that food, those clothes?  They’re only getting more costly for us.

If debt is a claim on human labor, how many years of my labor are required to work to pay my debt off?  A thrall had a set amount they had to earn in order to buy their freedom.  Debt increases by a set amount of interest every year.  If I can only afford to pay some of the interest because the degree I earned through years of hard work still, years on, has not netted me a job commensurate to handle the cost of living, let alone the increasing load of debt, what hope do I have of ever getting out of debt?

What good does the freedom of travel do me if the means by which I access travel are closed to me because I cannot afford it?  What good does the freedom of speech do me if I can be fired from a job with little recourse if I demand respect from asshole customers or bosses?  What good does the freedom to vote do me if I must choose between keeping my means of income or voting?

If the means by which my future labor is claimed on is allowed to increase every year and my means of earning release from this claim are reduced each year, will I ever be able to be released from my debt?  Keep in mind that most private student loans are not discharged upon death.

From ABC News:

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if the borrower of a federal student loan dies, the loan is automatically canceled and the debt is discharged by the government. Unfortunately, private student loans do not offer the same liability protections.

In the case of federal loans my choices are to pay off the loan or die.  At least if I die the federal government will not come after my estate.  However, in the case of private loans, if I can’t pay back my debt and I die, my estate, if I can leave any, and my spouse is liable for the cost.  Oh, and family might be too if she can’t pay.  This is not something tangible like a car or a home.  This cost was on what amounts to a bet: “This might be a path to a career; good luck!”  Americans are being told from a young age this is ‘an investment in your future’ and that ‘this is the road to being able to live well’.  If the means by which my future labor is claimed increases each year while my ability to pay the cost of living and the claim on that labor decreases, the only shelter I may have from that debt is my death.

The average college student graduates with $40,000 of debt, and many of us go back and have to borrow more when that first foray into college doesn’t land us a job, or live with what job we can find.  With less people able to retire because they simply cannot afford to, the jobs many young people would be entering into cannot open up since there is less and less room to move.  I cannot tell you how many ‘entry level jobs’ I have seen that require 1-4 years of experience in the field you would be entering into.

A thrall had a better shot at taking off their chains than most Americans do at getting out of debt.

Those that choose to keep the chain of debt off their neck are probably struggling.  Over half of America is officially under the poverty line.  If we cannot afford the cost of living how can we afford anything else?  What good are freedoms if what keeps us from exercising them is privation?

Tribes offer another way.  The reliance on one another, and the ability to take care of one’s own.  The work done together that weaves strong ties to weather hardship, whereas a person alone could be doomed to privation the rest of their days, and to empower future generations.  Bonds forged between people, and from these bonds into a powerful community each person contributes to, and is supported by.

“Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?”

Yes.  For it to work, though, this must be a choice that all within the community make, and that all within it adhere to.  We can come together and be more together than alone.  We can come together and work with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another to build strong communities.  We can come together and face the challenges that would eat each of us alone together, and come out stronger for it.  We can empower one another to learn, to do what is within us to do, and to build up something greater than ourselves that we can pass on to future generations: tribes whose cultures are grounded in the Holy Powers, in respect and work for the good of the community, and for the good of each of its members.  Tribes whose cultures are grounded in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another.  We can maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society andwe can regain communal connections.  Moreover, we can, and I believe should, do more, and do better for our Holy Powers, ourselves, and future generations.

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