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From Maleck Odinsson comes this topic:
“Difference and variety among spiritual specialists. Not everyone is, can, or should be an expert in every area. Generalists exist certainly, but even generalists have weak and strong areas. Could you perhaps talk about various kinds of spiritual specialty, figuring out where you stand, etc?”
There is an amazing variety of spiritual specialists out there, and depending on your religion, communities, and culture(s), there are a lot of ways to figure out and occupy various nieches. I am going to contrast with some varities of ways people first find themselves becoming a spiritual specialist and ways that a given path might bring a person to that job, and then I will tackle ways we can look at how we can figure out where we stand.
Note: This categorizing does not speak to the credentials, ability, etc a given person may hold. A person formally recognized as a priest by a Heathen group may have poor skills in priestcraft just as a person who is entirely spirit-taught and initiated by the Ginnreginn they serve may excel. A person brought into a spiritual specialist role by contract may be uninterested in pursuing the work once a contract is up whereas someone who has come into the work through experimentation may increase their abilities throughout the course of their life. An additional complexity to all this is that a person may be introduced to spiritual specialist work in a combination of these ways. I may have missed a way of introduction here that is specific to a path. For this post we are talking very generally and out of my experience as a Heathen and prior to that as a Kemetic polytheist. If folks want me to dig into specifics I am willing to do that, but it will need to wait a month as this took me several days to write.
Introductions to Spiritual Specialist Work
This is a person who has been formally trained and/or initiated as a spiritual specialist by another human or human group. Even within a broad category such as priest, this can take on a lot of different meanings depending on what is meant by a give spiritual specialist area or discipline. For instance, seiðr.
What a seiðworker’s function in modern Heathenry is matters a great deal on the dynamics of a given Heathen group, the training they receive, and any initiation work they may undergo. Some folks begin calling themselves a seiðworker/seiðkona/seiðmaðr/seiðmann/etc immediately on interest in the vocation whereas others only do so after extensive training, recognition from a group and/or formal initiation by a group. Generally, a person within a group only calls themselves a spiritual specialist once they have gone through the training and initiations, if there are any, as laid down by a given group.
What differentiates this path greatly from one brought to a person by the Ginnreginn is that the person’s training and initiation(s) are first engaged/invited to by the person or their group. Any training and initiation are decided on by/with heavy input from Elders or otherwise qualified members of that group. This is not to say the Ginnreginn are not at the center of these spiritual specialists’ lives or have no say, just that the decision to bring a person into the work/teachings is mitigated by humans and not the Ginnreginn alone.
Holy Powers-Initiated Training/Instruction/Initiation
This is where the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir, the Ginnreginn or Mighty/Holy Powers, bring a person into training, instruction, and/or initiation. It is direct experience of these Beings that starts a person on the path to being a spiritual specialist, that informs their training, and/or serves to initiate them into the work rather than being mitigated by human beings, such as by initiating into a line of seiðworkers in a specific tribe. This would be things like Óðinn coming out of the relative blue in a vision and bringing you along the path you need to walk with Him to learn the Runes or Freyja grabbing you up in a freeform journey meditation to learn seiðr. It should be noted that you do not inherently have less freedom or ability to say no to such things. You still maintain your sovereignty, and any agreements you are asked to enter into should be carefully considered.
Fucking around and finding out is how some folks get brought into being a Pagan, let alone being a spiritual specialist. Maybe you saw a cool idea for a ritual in a book and tried it out to see if you could replicate the results. Perhaps you decided to stop into the local group’s dedicatory ritual to the An Morrighan and you didn’t step back when prompted. Whatever the case is, you tried something out and not only did it work, it now helps to inform your path -assuming it has not outright become it.
A formal agreement reached between at least two entities to achieve an end. In this case there is a formal agreement between the person being brought into spiritual specialist work and those introducing/training/initiating them in it. This could be a contract with a working group, a mentor, and/or the Ginnreginn that have contracted with them to that end. Perhaps there are certain things you need to do prior to restrictions in the agreement to be lifted, eg a training period of a year and a day or better has to be completed before you can call yourself the spiritual specialist’s term, eg seiðmaðr/seiðkona/etc. Perhaps you have a limited time of expectancy for performing the role of a spiritual specialist. One way that I have read this can occur in the ordinary existence of a group is that some Wiccan covens rotate the role of high priestess.
All of these ways are merely what will get you in the proverbial door. Perhaps an experiment brought you to a realization that a given God was calling you to service. You wanted to honor that calling and found a group to help you in this. The group itself does not do training itself, and they are a group of peers that provides a support network. So what results is folks engaging in a lot of spiritual contact mutually support each other through their own journeys. Around Grandfather Fire’s Discord server works a lot like this for those inclined to spirit work and callings.
What is next really depends on what specific spiritual specialty you are being called to. In a general case there needs to be a grounding in the lore and religious community surrounding the spiritual work, and ongoing spiritual discipline that supports the accomplishment of the spiritual specialist work. So, for a modern Rýnstr (Runester aka Runeworker), this would first be grounded in the ongoing basic exoteric work of being a Heathen. This would include regular cleansing before ritual, making good prayers and offerings, and living life in a well-balanced way the same as any other Heathen. From there the training of a Rýnstr would include a study grounded in both the literature and archaeological resources on the Runes, and ongoing spiritual connecting and working with the Runes Themselves.
Sometimes figuring out what your strong suits are is to just try things out. Within my experience of Heathen spiritwork you will not know if you are good at something until you experiment with it. Even so, sometimes you have to try more than a few techniques before you find one you click with, and then take the ones that work for you and really work with them awhile before you can truly call yourself skilled at them. Alongside all of that if you are serving within a religion/religious tradition you have to undergo training in order to be considered competent within a religious tradition, and continue to provide service within that tradition. It is not enough for me to have done a good Rune reading once, as though a capstone is enough to continue to use the title of vaettirvirkr (spiritsworker), goði, Rýnstr, seiðmaðr, and so on. There is no resting on laurels to being a competent spiritual specialist. With all of that being said, let us dig into some general descriptions for polytheist spiritual specialists.
Kinds of Spiritual Specialists
Someone who does work for the spirits.
Their work can range from communicating to divining, engaging in spirit travel to do work in one the Worlds, to maintaining a public shrine space so contact can be made between the spirits and people. Often a spiritworker serves as the connection point between spirits and people within their community. A spiritworker often serves as a kind of cross between the roles on this list, especially when other kinds of spiritual specialists are not available.
Someone who serves a God or group of Gods in the maintenance of Their cultus.
This notion of a priest is markedly different from what monotheists understand a priest to be, as a priest in modern Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc serve congregations and not only in the cultus of their God. By contrast, a polytheist priest’s main role is in the cultus they give to their God(s) first, and then, if this is part of their duties, to those who seek to connect with the God in the shrine/sacred space. Some priests may simply serve a God with no outward community involvement whatsoever, maintaining personal shrines, including daily prayers and offerings for the God.
Someone who serves a polytheist community as a spiritual guide.
Clergy are often what folks think of when they think of ‘priestly’ duties, however, I find this is a completely separate set of skills. A skilled priest may be excellent at giving prayers and offerings to a God while being lousy at providing spiritual guidance or spiritual counseling. This is a clergyperson’s main focus. They seek to bridge the gaps between the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and their worshipers and help maintain good relationships. Where a priest serves a cultus role a clergy serves a communal one.
Someone who serves a community by doing divination.
This person may perform only one kind of divination service, or may be pushed to learn a variety of divination styles. They serve a vital function in helping community members discern messages, taboos, initiation rituals, and various life events as they are called on. Where a spiritworker serves as a connection point, a priest serves the cultus of a God, Ancestor, or spirits, and a clergyperson serves a community in spiritual guidance, a diviner’s service is helping to establish and maintain communication. Divination is, in my experience at the time of this writing, one of the most common skills across polytheist communities for both specialists and non-specialists. I do not expect this trend to go away. Now that polytheist communities are getting sufficiently large and specialties are have been emerging, diviners are emerging as their own specialty.
Someone who performs sacrifice to the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.
This person is trained in and performs sacrifice according to best practice and what is required of their particular religion. While most will see the word sacrifice and think blood sacrifice, and while this can certainly part of this specialty, it is not the only form this can take. A sacrificer may be someone who tends a garden full of herbs, flowers, and other plants whose main reason for being grown is that they will be made into offerings. A sacrificer takes the risk of a poor sacrifice on themselves and performs this service on behalf of a person, community, etc. They may do this to help ease an angry spirit, help heal a group of Ancestors, or to please a God at a seasonal rite. Because sacrifice is still looked down upon by the overculture and a good understanding of what sacrifice is and with regard to blood sacrifice, how to do it safely and well is not understood by most polytheists, it is one of the most taboo and misunderstood specialties here.
Someone who engages with magic and the spiritual fabric of reality.
Given the pervasiveness with which witches dominate the Pagan communities it might seem to be odd that this is noted as a spiritual specialty within polytheism. A common denominator I find with operants, whether the word is witch, sorcerer, magician, is that this person engages with magic in some way and the underlying nature of reality through it. This is, historically and increasingly in modern polytheism, not something commonly done. Most polytheists engage in exoteric practice and either do very little in the way of magic, or focus on specific practices such as protection.
In Heathenry there are a large number of things to call operants, among them seiðworkers. Some folks would call Rýnstrar (Runeworkers) operants, and others would call them spiritworkers. I tend towards the latter, but they still fit the bill here. While not every operant does their specialty for trade, some do, and this is a practice well-founded in history. Some operants work with spirits in various ways whereas others work on their own, though I find this latter operant fairly rare in polytheist circles.
Someone whose primary vocation in life is oriented around and dedicated to a disciplined devotional service to a God, Ancestor, spirit, or group of these.
Monastics may come from any walk of life. Their discipline may be oriented around extreme aesceticism, simple-living as a hermit, or living alongside others in whatever community they find themselves in for whom their monasticism is the focus of their life. They may have taken specific vows with a fellowship, such as The Maetreum of Cybele or the Gnostic Celtic Church’s Hermitage of the Heart, among other groups, or are independent. Whatever else, their day begins and ends with devotion to the Being(s) they have dedicated their time, life, and/or work to.
Someone who tells the stories of the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and/or communities.
Storytellers are those who keep and tell stories, particularly sacred and important stories. Storytellers do more than merely memorize stories, though this certainly is part of it. They also relate the stories they hold, whether through written prose or poetry, through oration, song, dance, gesture, play, or crafts. Storytelling is literally an embodied story whether that comes through a tapestry, song, recitation, or a three-act play. Some storytellers may be given new myths, new legends, new stories to share, whereas some storytellers’ duty is only to pass on what they were given.
Figuring Out Where You Stand
Have these descriptions spoken to you? Stirred something within you? If so, explore that. What feelings does it bring up? What images or sounds? What stereotypes do you have about the specialist type you are exploring? What do you want to do? How? Once you have explored these things, it is time to think about some of the general, baelines requirements of being a spiritual specialist.
In order to be a spiritual specialist you first have to be spiritual. This notion that you can just take on a role like seiðworker without any groundwork having been done, no prior spiritual experience or outlook, is not only irresponsible, it is flat dangerous to anyone you might serve in that capacity. In order to be a polytheist spiritual specialist you need to have a clear, grounded rootedness in a polytheist religion. This includes a belief in the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits as real Beings unto Themselves, and a lived relationship with Them. The roots of rootedness are in reciprocity, respect, and ritual.
Ideally you will have several years in the religion prior to being called or pursuing to some kind of role. However, my own experience with the Gods is that sometimes they take you up for work fairly quick. Rootedness, however much time you have in the religion, serves to ground you, to make sure you know what you are doing, that you know why you are doing it, and what it means. Rootedness also gives you community, in whatever capacity you are able to be part of one, and hopefully a community of Elders, peers, and others who you can call on when you need help, advice, or comradery.
Learning and Work
This is an ongoing process. Learning is not just studying books or oriented around academic learning. It may include that, but if all you are doing is looking at academic texts you are likely not doing the work of your spiritual specialty. Study should inform what you are doing, and it should feed into the work that you learn through. The other side is doing the work of being a spiritual specialist. You have to learn the requirements of the spiritual specialist role you are looking at, to know if you can effectively fulfill that role, and if you decide to take it on, to do the requisite learning so you fulfill it well. Any of the spiritual specialies listed above will require you to do ongoing work. This study and work should unfold hand-in-hand so that you learn what you are good at and reinforce that, and show where you need to improve and to work on that.
One of the key skills needed to do any spiritual specialist work effectively. Working off of the previous requirements, discernment needs rootedness to be able to discern chaff from wheat, and learning so the discernment one has is informed instead of prejudicial, ignorant, or incorrectly applied. Discernment is informed by both study and by experience, both your own and that of others. This is part of why Elders and peers are so valuable -you do not need all the answers nor the experiences.
There are much more specific requirements as we dig into polytheist religions, specific paths of learning and work within them, and the direction a given spiritual specialist may take. This is beyond the very general scope of this post.
I expect that as time goes on the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits will call folks to different ways and needs within the communities will cause change to how spiritual specialists work within a given religion or religious tradition. As time goes on perhaps each will have their own dedicated spiritual specialists so that a Heathen looking to see if their plan to engage with a Heathen sacrificer is okayed through divination with a Heathen diviner. Perhaps not, and we will have a similar pattern to what we do today, with spiritual specialists fulfilling a lot of roles at once within their own particular communities and between them as well. It is quite possible we will have a blend of these depending on location, the polytheist religion in question, the spiritual specialist type, and trends within the overculture and our specific ones.
Discussion and/or Divination
Figuring out where you stand include both discussion and divination. Depending on how you started this journey it might include more of one or the other as the deciding factor for entering into the work of becoming a spiritual specialist.
As I wrote above, you always retain your sovereignty, and so, your ability to say no to entering into the work. You also retain your sovereignty and ability to say no to the work once you are involved in it. Once begun you may have consequences for walking away from it depending on any oaths you take, where you are in a community with that choice, and the relationships you have made in that journey.
Whether in discussion with an Elder, mentor, or peer, or sitting down to divination, I find these questions to be some of the most useful to figuring out where you stand.
What are the boundaries of this work? What am I willing to do? What am I not willing to do?
Is this a spiritual specialty, topic, and/or skill I need to know? If so, how much knowledge and experience do I need to have to fulfill my obligations as a spiritual specialist with this specialty, topic, and/or skill?
Am I suited to this spiritual specialty by temperament, training, and/or calling?
Am I willing to commit to this work fully? What obligations, taboos, training, initiation, and other requirements will this spiritual specialty require of me?
Does this spiritual specialist work dovetail with my current spiritual work, discipline, etc, or will I need to modify my spiritual work in order to do this? How?
If I take this work up what down time, if any, do I have? How does my relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits change through it? How does my relationship with my communities change through it?
What discipline(s) will I need to maintain in order to train and become this spiritual specialist?
Do I currently possess the skills, training, and/or abilities required to carry out this spiritual specialty? If so, where do I need to improve? If not, what do I need to work on?
With regard to a given skill within a spiritual specialty: What is the skill? What does it do? What is its function within the spiritual specialty?
Do I have the ability, clearance, temperament, and time to learn this spiritual specialty well? Do those teaching me have the ability, clearance, temperament, and time to teach me well?
What are the requirements of training in this spiritual specialty?
What are the necessities to train to become this or that spiritual specialist?
What are subjects that are not core to this spiritual specialist but still useful to it?
What are subjects to avoid until the initial training/initiation period is over?
How do I train? Is there academic work needing to be done? Experiential? Both?
Who do I train with? Is the training self-directed or is there a regimen or outline to follow?
Is there an expectation of hours of service, experience, etc before I am qualified to move into a new phase of training, work, etc
Is initiation necessary for this spiritual specialty?
If I am to undertake an initiation what are the boundaries to it so that it is as safe as possible?
Is an initiation needed to perform certain duties within this spiritual specialty?
What are my obligations, role, relationships, etc before initiation?
What are my obligations, role, relationships, etc after initiation?
A key aspect of figuring out where you are as a polytheist is orienting your everyday life around your spiritual outlook. This is particularly true if you are going to be a spiritual specialist. An example of this would be a monastic schedule during which periods of contemplation, prayer, and devotion are scheduled alongside any other activities the monastic has. They are far from the only people who could benefit from such a thing, and even so, not all polytheist monastics have such a schedule if they have a formal one at all.
Whatever you do, there should be time in the day for at least 5-15 minutes of cleansing, grounding, centering, shielding, prayer, offerings, and connection with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. Keep in mind I am not saying this time even needs to be all at once. My family and I make prayers throughout the day -when we first see Sunna, each meal, when we see Máni (if He can be seen) and before sleep. We make offerings as often as we are able. The strictness or laxity of your schedule will depend on your needs, the requirements of your religion, and, if you are a spiritual specialist, the requirements that brings.
Beyond spiritual self-care and cultus, there is also a need to orient as much of your life to be in concert with your worldview as possible. In my own life this has meant that I have foods that are taboo, so I have to work to avoid them. It also means that I avoid certain actions, spend my money on companies and causes that align with my interests as a polytheist and animist, and literally schedule my life around my religious obligations. Not only do I set aside hours of my life for things like divination, my family respects this time because it is service to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and to those who come to me for that service.
There are as many ways to be a spiritual specialist as there are people, and despite the length of this post, I am only touching on the outline of the subject. A polytheist understanding of things like priests, monastics, spiritworkers, and so on is fundamentally different from that of monotheists. The requirements of different polytheist religions’ spiritual specialists will differ from one another as well. A Heathen priest will differ from those of a Kemetic priest, and even within a given polytheist religion individual requirements of spiritual specialists will differ from one another. A priest of Anpu will likely not have the same role as a priest of Aset even if many of the requirements to be a priest, the taboos held, the conduct during ceremony, the offerings made, and so on, are the same.
Whatever brings you to the work of being a spiritual specialist, whatever way you engage in it, whatever work you need to do is just that: yours. No one else can do it, no one else can do your work for you. So, if yours is to be a spiritual specialist, ves Þu heil to you, and may your luck be strong.