Something I have been reading quite a bit is the use of the word ‘tribal’ as a derogatory term, especially in online places and discussions on Heathenry. Mostly, it is being used as it appears in the Oxford Dictionaries’ second definition “The behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group” rather than its first: “The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.” The word ‘tribe’ is not without its issues; tribe was a word used by colonialists to describe the indigenous cultures they saw, as the definition for ‘tribe’ notes. That said, most people understand what you mean when you say a tribe, whether one is using it in the first or second definition. Some folks use the word tribe when describing their indigenous communities, others do not. It is still used to describe some indigenous groups, such as Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. They define tribe as “a group of people organized through kinship or family relationships.”
As a Heathen, tribe, tribal, tribalism, and tribalist as terms carry meanings more in line with the first definition and with how the Piaute Indian Tribe of Utah uses it. I would at least like to get some dialogue started on why that is, and why I use ‘tribal’, ‘tribalist’, and ‘tribalism’ as terms to describe my understanding, and living of Heathenry.
Many of the cultures I take as inspiration and much of my understanding of my religious path were organized into what is usually referred to as tribal groups. The Suebi or Suevi, for instance, were a recognized tribal group that was itself known to be made up of smaller tribes. This was first recognized in what writings we have from Julius Caesar, and later Tacitus and Pliny. Funny enough, like a lot of indigenous groups, the name Suebi may mean something to the effect of “people” or “we, ourselves”.
What Tribal Heathenry means
Tribalist Heathenry means that you worship the Gods of Northern Europe, England, France, Iceland, etc., your Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits), and that you care for and about those in your group, your tribe, first. It means that those you count as within your walls, in your innangard/innangarðr, are within your society. Those who are utgard/útangarðr, are outside of them. This does not mean that those who are utgard are without meaning or not considered when looking at the impacts of a decision, but you do not owe loyalty to them as you do to those in your innangard, and they generally have far less impact and say in your life. Rather, they are guests when they are within your walls, and given the amount of writing that exists on how hosts and guests are to treat each other, are important, but not in the same way as those who are part of your people.
There is another side to this besides the human interaction level, though. Those one brings into their innangard, or who are brought into another’s, tie their Wyrd together far tighter than those who are utgard to one another. We tie our hamingja, our group luck, into one another’s. Me keeping my word is far more important for those who are within my innangard, particularly with important things like big promises to those within the community, or oaths to the Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir, because it directly impacts their hamingja, and through this it can affect their maegen, or personal power.
Tribalist Heathenry as it applies to my life
Friends are within my innangard, and acquaintances are utgard. Allies are within my innangard and those without alliance to me are utgard.
This means that those I care for, am loyal to, responsible to and for those I have deep personal and/or community connections with, whether they are family by blood or choice, friends, or allies, are first priorities in my life. Note that the way I am using the word friend does not have a thing to do with Facebook definitions of ‘friends’. When I call someone Brother, Sister, or a term of endearment meaning equivalently the same thing gender-neutrally, such as friend, these mean very specific things to me. The same goes with the term ally. I have very clear lines of distinction, then, between friends and acquaintances.
If I count you as part of my tribe, family, a friend, or among my allies, generally speaking, I would take a bullet for you and, in equal measure, I would use such means to protect or save you. This means that while I count myself as part of the Heathen communities, the communities I am not a member of mean less to me both socially and spiritually speaking than the ones I am part of. This understanding of things is how I allocate my time and resources, and to whom I owe loyalty and make spiritual ties with. This is discernment in action.
Reviving tribal community and reviving tribal worldviews
I am a tribalist, a universalist, and a reconstructionist-derived Heathen. Being a tribalist means that I care for those within my innangard. Being a universalist means that I believe that anyone regardless of ancestral background can come to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of Heathen religion. Being reconstructionist-derived in regards to archaeology and the texts regarding Heathen Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir means that I respect that these things can teach us information on and give some understanding of our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, practices and beliefs that have survived the conversion periods are incomplete. It means that I recognize some practices are unsuited or impractical to reviving a religion and culture for where and when we are, or that we simply lack the information necessary to do so, and I am willing to innovate with the help and guidance of the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir and community where needed or called.
In reviving tribal community and tribal worldview associated with Heathen paths, what I am seeking is to revive the concept of the tribe itself within a polytheist Heathen context, and the attendant worldview which informs it with those in my innangard. I do this by referencing and revitalizing the concepts that are essential to this, and where this is not possible to follow what old ways we do know about, we communicate with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir and with one another to innovate and adapt what we can to work with us in this time and place.
Tribalist Heathenry as I understand and live it cannot be revived in full from where ancient Heathen cultures were prior to conversion or destruction of the cultures and folkways. There is simply too much time between us and the Ancestors from which these ideas, structure, and worldviews spring. In other words, the maps of archaeology and texts are useful to a point until we recognize it is outdated or no longer referencing the territory before us.
Given the diversity of religious/cultural paths within Heathenry, I do not expect our Michiganian Northern Tradition and Heathen tribalist religion or culture to look like another’s, even those that may be located in the same State. I would expect our religious calendar to look different, especially from, say, a Texan tribalist Heathen’s religious calendar. A given tribe’s worship of Gods might be very specific, i.e. only worshiping Anglo-Saxon Gods, whereas we worship Gods from a variety of culture backgrounds. A given Heathen tribalist or their tribe may only worship the Aesir and/or Vanir, whereas mine worships the Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar.
It is my hope this post is a gateway to more conversation, not a stopping point. I encourage folks to post in the comments, to write their own posts exploring this, to talk with friends, family, kindred, and talk with their Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. I encourage us to deepen the dialogue around these things, so that our communities grow, and keep growing, strong, healthy, and well.
The road rushes past
My cigar glows in my hand
The rainvaettir come down, a billion upon billion rattling dancers
The road, the car, all full of the sound of Their feet
The road rushes past and I see it
The first lightning bolt of the season here
Arc through the sky, behind the clouds
A silhouetted dancer
Whose drumming partner pounds and the sky shakes
Tendrils of smoke out the window and up to you all
The Thunderbird People
The Jotuns of storms
The Spirit of Storms
I call to you and say your names as Midgard fills with stomps with billions of feet
As the skies split with the fury of dancers and beating of wings
As the wind shakes and the clouds let loose the crowds
As the drumming thunderers crash and clash
The Worlds are alive and here
The Worlds are alive and there
and I am thankful to bear witness
I just got back from a weekend at Strawbale Studio, taking the Rocket Stove and Earth Oven workshop this last week, and the Roundpole Timber Framing workshop with Sylverleaf, gifted to us by her mother.
There are some things where you just need to do them to know you can do them, and this would be one of those. Like a lot of things we’ve fallen away from doing, building our own structures can garner a quality to it that makes it seem only able to be done within the realm of professionals. We forget that our Ancestors used to build their own homes from the ground on up. We disconnect from the understanding of knowing the land, and our place in helping to keep the trees, the forests, all of that healthy, by being collaborators with Them.
This is not to say I’m an overnight expert; hardly. What it does mean is that with very simple tools and techniques, what I have learned can empower me and mine to build a house. Given enough people, a community could raise several homes if we put our minds to it. A small build team supported by a community could do the same if there was need or desire for it.
That is part of the power of places like Strawbale Studio. You not only can learn the skills and get guidance on where to go from there, you understand in a real, in-person way that you can do these things. It goes from a conception or an idea of the thing, into hands-on experience with the skills and techniques with the tools and materials. It goes from feeling so far away, to very here.
I found myself at several times thinking, or saying aloud, “Oh wow. If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.” Every time I went to one of the classes, or watched the Roundwood Timber Framing DVD by Ben Law, I could feel the push that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were giving us were actually able to be achieved. That the dream our family and friends have can quite readily become reality.
We were taught what kind of growth we needed to look for in our wood, and when seasoned vs. green wood was useful. With teams I helped to make roundwood joints that, with a bit of refinement, could hold up a roof or become a support beam. I learned how to use a sawhorse and draw knife to debark wood, and also to make square pegs into round pegs. After drilling out a hole and inserting the peg into or behind a joint, then splitting the peg and inserting a small wooden wedge into the peg, it would hold them together tight. All of these were simple building techniques that utilize the wood harvested around the place we were learning. I went to the chainsawing demo, because even though I do not currently own one, learning the basics of tree felling is a skill I may need. Granted, if I need a chainsaw I’ll be taking a safety course on that as Mark Angelini recommended.
There was a deep communication with the wood I was working with, and it’s not dissimilar from working with the body of an animal. After all, the tree’s bark is the ‘skin’, and the wood is the ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ of the tree. It once lived. Learning to work with a tree by shaping its with a chisel is a very different experience of that tree and working with its body, and its spirit. It’s similar to when I skinned a mole; it is one thing to work with an object in which leather is part of it, like a book cover or a drum, but a whole other thing entire to work with the skin before it becomes anything. Same with the wood before it becomes a mallet, a peg, or an a-frame.
I had a similar experience this last week in working with the rocket stoves and forming the earth oven. As with the previous workshop, I would catch myself thinking and saying “If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.” Sylverleaf and I have a few books on our shelves, one of which is the Cob Builder’s Handbook by Becky Bee, and we picked up The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linday Smiley, and Deanne Bednar. As part of the workshop we received a copy of Rocket Mass Heaters by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson. It’s one thing to read these books, and a whole other thing to experience their contents.
The books can only describe so well how good cob feels in your hands for making the earth oven, how the slip layer for insulation should feel and look. While I find it fairly easy to learn by sight, most of these things can only be learned by doing. For instance, I was having a really hard time visualizing how the dividing bricks between where the feedbox for the firewood is and the chimney were supposed to be put down. Seeing it done and helping to do it put it together made things click in a way I just couldn’t wrap my head around looking at the diagrams.
During the workshop on the second day I was the only person who took their shoes off to feel what the cob should feel like as you work it through the stages of adding water to the mix, which will be helpful when we do it outside in the spring or summer. After doing that, I can hardly blame the other folks. The cob was so cold my feet were aching till I put them near the rocket stove and scraped the mix off of my feet. It was a lesson in why cob is used for mass thermal storage, though.
I really, really wish we could have finished off the earth oven. From what I understand the drying process can take most or all of a day, depending on how big it is. All we would have had to do was apply the insulation and the plaster layer, and we could have started making bread or pizza. Albeit, since we made the earth oven at half scale, it would probably be more suited to breadsticks. When we go to make our own we’ll be putting down foundation for the first time, since the model we worked on we really couldn’t put down a foundation as our diagrams depicted and all work on forming it.
One of my big takeaways from the weekend was that we really can put our hands to making a new world with the things around us, and do so in a respectful manner with the Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir. As with the coppicing, working with the materials around one’s home or locally sourced materials harvested with care worked very, very well for the work we were doing. Having actually seen Strawbale Studio’s full-size earth oven work, and what’s more, tasted the amazing pizza that came out of it, I appreciate the art of making it all the more.
As with the roundwood timber framing, what I deeply appreciate and enjoy about natural building materials is that working with them is not some locked-off secret no one can access. It’s the accessibility of the material and the building process that is really the key to it all. The natural building techniques and skills I have learned require relatively few tools, almost all of them simple ones. Most of the tools I was able to pick up for less than $100 all together. Some day I will commission or make my own. Especially when I sit and watch an episode of HGTV or DIY with the folks and see how much it takes to even remodel a kitchen using contemporary building measures. What galls me about watching these shows is how often the turnaround time comes for needing to gut them and remodel them. There are wattle-and-daub structures that still stand 600 years after their construction with relatively little input. With cob thatched roof homes, the thatching needs replacing every 20-30 years, but do not required reconstruction of whole sections of the home. The multigenerational aspect of working with the land, multigenerational homes and home ownership has been lost in going for materials that have built-in breakdown times, planned obsolescence, and we’re worse for it.
Othila or Othala presents the idea of odal land, ancestral land, and it is this concept that, in part, inspires me to learn and to pull together all these skills and to work with those in my family, clan, tribe, and with those in alliance with us. It is why I am looking at working with those already in the community and doing these things, and it is why I encourage folks to take the steps for making firm ties now. Putting our hands to crafting our own homes and things, or supporting those who do, strengthens our ties as community, and our resilience together. If you get the chance to do something like this, formally or informally, I would take the opportunity with zeal. If you’re not in the Michigan area, check around! More and more folks are engaging with natural home building, reskilling, and networking with those willing to learn.
If you are not sure where to start, I am putting together a post which will give a general start for folks to work with, including basic internet resources, books I have read or worked from, and video links to get started. There is a lot out there, so if you find or have done work from a source, let me know either in the comments section or by email, and I can add your recommendations to the list.
There’s a simple, beautiful connection in lighting a candle, some incense, and saying prayers. I’ve done it all my life. I did it when I was a Catholic, praying for the Intercession of the Saints, Mary, and Jesus. I do it when I light candles now, asking for my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to speak with me, to bless my family and I. Just sitting and talking with Them for ten, fifteen minutes, and despite a crush of harsh things coming down in the last week, I feel a sense of connection.
It’s not that I think anything is going to get resolved tomorrow, or even by my next paycheck. It’s walking forward knowing the Holy Powers are walking with me. Knowing that I can face the problems in my life with allies before, behind, and alongside me. It’s the feeling of connection I get when I smoke with the Holy Powers, sharing the pipe with each statue, and talking about the day, the week, what is on my mind, and thanking Them for being in my life, for the blessings They bring. That connection doesn’t always bring peace. Sometimes it brings anger, sometimes it brings weeping for the things They’ve gone through. Sometimes the connection brings frustration, as yet another thing gets added to my plate, or something I thought was key to me is taken away.
I think at times I give the impression that my conversations with the Gods are completely staid, or totally ceremonial affairs. However, a lot of my prayers go something like this:
- Hail or rote prayer.
- Whenever I light a Fire I always make a rote prayer that is made out of respect.
- Extemporaneous prayers, talk with the Holy Powers about the day, week, month, fears, thoughts, hopes, dreams, etc.
- Divination might be involved, especially if I’m asking questions I need confirmation on.
- Hail or rote prayer of thanks.
Offerings may be made before, after, or book-ending the prayers and dialogue. But how do I hear the Gods?
Sometimes I have impressions of, or spiritually hear words. Sometimes impressions of or spiritually get smells, an emotion, music, the feeling of a hand on my shoulder, or lips on my forehead. Sometimes I get a combination of these. Sometimes I get abject silence. My conversations with the Holy Powers can go in a number of directions, and part of that is natural intuition on my part, and what They are able or willing to use on Theirs. What also plays into this is what ritual tools I am using, and where I am. Outside in the garden, I feel a kind of flowing connection with the Gods of our garden with the Earth beneath my feet, the Ancestors, and the landvaettir as we pray to Them, whether planting, plucking, harvesting, or otherwise working with Them. Inside in the dark at the altars with the candles lit, the energy tends to be much more focused, intense, and personal. Again, it depends on how the Holy Powers respond. There have been times in the garden, particularly when I take out the compost and hail Hela and Niðogg, when the connection was focused, intense, and personal, equally as much as inside. That reminds me: I need to get some devotional items for Them inside.
What I find powerful with regular devotional work is that such conversations, dialogue, impressions, and so on, can become part of, to borrow a phrase from John Beckett, ‘our ordinary times’. I say ‘can’, because not everyone has such connections, nor are they required to be a polytheist. That said, that awe, that connection, that intuition can be cultivated by devotional work. It can be, and is invited each time we kneel in respect, prostrate in honor, give thanks, gift our offerings, open our mouths to pray, and share our lives with Them. We invite that connection to suffuse our lives each time we make space for Them. Each time that our religions twine with the whole of our lives, becoming lived rather than just identifiers. Each time we put our religions forth in our lives as matters of consequence, and not merely matters of belief.
The simplest connections have made for some of the most powerful interactions with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I have had. The simple little connections are what have sustained me in the hardest times, and keep me righted in the easier ones. Regular devotional work does require discipline, but it does not require a lot of ‘stuff’, especially if that would get in the way between us and the Holy Powers. Heck, even the rituals I put on with the church I serve require relatively little tools. What matters is that the connections between us are made, Gebo is made, and respect is kept.
So even in the hard times, keep up the devotional work. Especially then. Having that ground of discipline and connection has gotten me through, and keeps getting me through the challenges I face in life. As the polytheist religions continue to grow and thrive, putting down these roots will build up each member in strength and resilience, and do the same for their respective communities.
I ask myself every time I see a proposal like this from Graymont, or another Oil Pipeline repair or request from Enbridge Energy. Where does it end? When is enough money, resources, and ecological destruction enough?
What does Graymont want? 10,000 acres of land for open pit and underground limestone mining operations that will take place in 3 counties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Public comment for the Canadian Limestone proposal from Graymont ends March 19th. Please make your comments here, at the email address, DNRGraymontProposalComments@michigan.gov, and at the public mailing address listed below:
Customer Service Center, ATTN: Kerry Wieber, 8717 N. Roscommon Road, Roscommon, MI 48653
Anyone who has an understanding of modern capitalism already knows the answer. There is never enough. Whether to feed the profit motive or the equally hideous beast of debt, like an unholy Ouraboros, there is never enough. Between the greed of the profit motive and the utter despair generated by the countless billions (whether personally or via their country) in poverty, there is no end. The only end is when the beast itself is dead.
Let us take stands wherever we can, however we can, for Jörð, for Nerthus, for Midgard our home!
To this end, I nið Graymont and their supporters, including political supporters, financial backers, and those who would speak on behalf of destroying the ecosystem of 10,000 acres of land!
Share this curse on your blogs, Facebook, wherever you deem appropriate. Let us not give one more inch to a corporation’s greed.
Three Isa and three Thurse I give
To Graymont and its board
May your projects fail
Your stocks plummet
Let the landvaettir be riled up
May They rise against you
Wherever you dig or set down
Your foul roots
May the people be riled up
May they rise against you
Wherever you dig or set down
Your foul roots
Leave the landvaettir be
Dig no hole, cut no wounds
Into Jörð’s flesh;
Let Her forests and fields grow!
Isa Isa Isa!
Thurse! Thurse! Thurse!
Isa Isa Isa!
Thurse! Thurse! Thurse!
Isa! Isa! Isa!
Thurse! Thurse! Thurse!
I was recently reading a piece on io9 “The Real Reason Why Techies Are the New Yuppies”, and it occurred to me as I was reading in the comments that there is a parallel here. Not being alive any earlier than the 1980s, and not officially part of Paganism/polytheism until 2004, I cannot speak on what Paganism or polytheism was like. I am wholly a product of the early 2000s in regards to my religious development as a polytheist. The parallel that struck me was actually in the comments section in reference to a person having computer use and literacy as a skillset. They had a far easier time navigating things like the Obamacare website, versus a person who was not as computer literate. The person with the skillset took about 5 minutes to find the relevant information, whereas his housekeeper was sobbing after 3 hours of trying to get the damned thing to work. This, to me, brought something to light.
A lot of spiritual specialists are working with wholly different skillsets oriented towards different things than most people. We are often wired different for our jobs by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we serve. Many of our initiations serve in this capacity to alter our spiritual form, functions, etc. to the task at hand. For some this makes a certain skillset far easier, and for others, nothing changes aside from getting the go-ahead from the Holy Powers in question to do a thing or perform a service. Even if we are not altered by the Holy Powers for the task at hand, our skillsets develop in differing ways, and so, it may appear that we’re really awesome all around from the outside, when really we might be hyper-specializing in a few areas.
So for some of us, to use an example, entering trance or meditative states is a whole hell of a lot easier than someone else. This can (and often is) simply a matter of “I have had x number of years doing/working on this”. Other times it is a matter of “I am, for whatever reason, wired to have these experiences easier” and others “I was rewired to have these experiences easier”. There’s tons of reasons for this, but at the end of the day it makes little difference in terms of my worth as a person, religious, spiritual, or otherwise. Spiritual practice is, like a great many other arts and disciplines, something that has to be worked at to develop the capacity to do it, and do it well. The ability to use a computer well, likewise, does not make me better as a human being compared to a person who does not. It merely means that my skillsets are in areas that are immediately useful to the task at hand. I cannot do carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or other forms of trade skills (though I would like to learn, even on an amateur level) but that does not make me less of a person. I am absolutely at a loss with cars; if it sounds weird, I trust someone who is better experienced with my car. So while I am a piss-poor mechanic I am not a piss-poor human. A mechanic expecting me to be on hir level in regards to car repair would be like me expecting a person wholly new to polytheism to be on my level in regards to shamanism or priest work. It’s not realistic, and not what I expect of others any more than my mechanic expects me to have his working knowledge of my car.
Much like my mechanic expects me to do baseline maintenance though, I think that it is wholly fine for spiritual specialists to have expectations of the people who come to us for help. Some of the first questions I ask anyone who comes to me are: “Do you have an altar/shrine to your Dead?” “What Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and/or spirits do you worship and/or have relationships with?” and “Do you do daily devotional work?” and “Do you do daily personal work like grounding, centering, cleansing, shielding, etc.?” For me, these questions are no different than my mechanic asking me “What is the make and model of the car?”, “When was the oil changed?”, “What have the sounds/experiences been in driving the car?”, and similar questions. He’s not being a jerk by asking me these baseline questions, he is being thorough. Because his skillset is in a different place than mine, he has to ask the basic questions before getting to the meat of what might be wrong with my car. I am being very general, but even so, some of these questions come up even when the problem is something specific, i.e. my door won’t go back up and the motor for the window makes a clicking sound.
The comment in the article also made me think of the privilege involved in developing these skillsets, and the privilege these skillsets can bring. To be able to develop some of these skillsets, you have to have certain things, among them a computer or at least disposable income for car/bus fare (i.e. library trips), books or materials. To be able to have access to good resources, and/or a good teacher so you can develop these skillsets is another privilege. To have good training or teachings passed on to you, to be able to afford the various things that make such training, education, and making it to rituals and events to have experiences made possible for oneself is privilege. Once you develop skillsets as a spiritual specialist there may be things that you are simply better at due to the training, the hard work, and/or experiences, as in getting into trance mentioned above. It does not make you inherently better, but it does mean that there are opportunities in terms of training, resources, and experiences that may be available to you that are not available to the average person.
I have had powerful religious experiences throughout my life, first as a Christian and then, as a Pagan. I find it harder to teach someone to connect to the Holy Powers who does not or cannot connect as readily because of this. I haven’t, in general, had to work as hard as others to experience the Presence of the Holy Powers. I do not understand what it is like to go through life with an absence of the Holy Powers being readily in one’s life in a recognizable way. This is a huge blind spot for me when I teach people. It is not like I sit down every time I meditate or sit and pray at a shrine and have a ‘kaboom!’ reaction (read: peak spiritual experience)…but I also look at my experiences and understand why folks might be skeptical of them, to say the least.
I recognize that my experiences are not average, nor that they should have to be. I also recognize that my skillset is different, not better, than others. There are a good deal of skillsets I would like to have, among them, gardening, and ecologically sound building skills, i.e. making cob, strawbale, and similar structures. I have a lot of focus in my life to upper-head type of things, like psychology and theology. Yet, when it comes to things like gardening vegetables, which to a gardener would probably be really simple, like the housekeeper in the comment I get overwhelmed by all the options and data. So, I ask questions of friends who have green thumbs. Do I want results like they get? Of course, but to expect at the start to have plants that grow as well as theirs is probably unrealistic without help. I don’t know much about growing vegetables. Dad has shown me how to do simple gardening, from tilling to planting to watering cycles. Before he gave his help my plants were withering and some died because I did not understand them well enough on my own. I am nothing like a master at this; I am lucky that the aloe plants we keep are so hardy. I have not managed to keep any other plants of mine alive inside the house.
This reminds me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that comes around my Facebook feed now and again: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” If I judged my gardening by Master Gardeners then I would continuously feel like a failure. Context for understanding where the quality of a skillset should be is pretty important.
Skillsets within religion are important. For some religions, understanding the text of the religion may or may not be important. Singing may be important to religious rites and services. There are too many individual instances to list here. Religion is more than a value system, or system of beliefs. It is lived. It is the way in which one conducts themselves in the world, understands their place, and relates to everything. With religious and spiritual engagement devotional work is a must. Religion requires certain skillsets to develop to be done well. While belief is not, to a great many polytheists, as important as worship and right relationship, the ground of these two things is in acknowledgment of the Holy Powers as real and worthy of worship. It is a given, not altogether different from a fish being surrounded by water.
So if there is a baseline set of skillsets for a polytheist, what are they?
There will, I imagine, be different emphases depending on the Gods and Goddesses one worships, Ancestors, spirits, one’s tradition(s), and individual group(s) within those traditions. Rather than write a list full of caveats and exceptions, here are some ideas of general skills to develop:
- Develop and maintain relationships. Have or be willing to develop a working relationship with your Holy Powers, whether this is the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. This does not need to be a do-all end-all kind of devotion with every minute given over to your Gods, it just needs to be consistent. Even 5-15 minutes of prayer, song, or something where you directly engage with the Holy Powers a day is good.
- Reciprocity. Have or be willing to develop or engage in a regular system of offerings, even if all you can afford is tap water. Take out the tap water after a full day on the altar, or, if you cannot because people in your home are hostile to your religion, respectfully flush the water or pour it out in a sink. Another option would be to put the offering in a bottle of water, collecting the offerings in the bottle each day, and taking it out to a river, lake, or a tree nearby.
- Ask questions. I know of no Holy Powers that expected me to know or understand everything all at once. I am still learning about my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If you have people you can contact, use them. If you are in luck and have a community that works with or worships the Holy Powers you are interested in learning about, so much the better.
- Research. If you have a license to drive a car, you sunk some time into understanding how the car starts, runs, and operates. The Holy Powers deserve just as much, if not more consideration. If nothing else, ask for a recommended reading list. Some texts that would be useful to deepening an understanding of the Holy Powers may be on free websites, like Sacred-Texts.com, the Gutenberg Project, or similar public offerings.
- Dedication. Do the work. Whatever it is, whether it is research offerings, prayers, meditation, gardening, cleaning, etc.
- Ask for help. If you are stuck, if you do not understand something, or if you need or want more help even after asking for help, ask for help. As with ‘ask questions’, I don’t want people to not understand what is expected of them by a tradition or to have to reinvent the wheel, or repeat mistakes I or others have made.
- Double or triple check. If something feels off, maybe it is. It is always better to be sure than to be wobbly on where you are planting your feet.
- Simple divination. This can be throwing stones, dice, coins, or something small and simple that costs little to nothing in terms of money. While not everyone may have a knack for divination, a really simple yes/no divination style can be very helpful in answering questions, especially when you are stuck.
- Decolonize your life. A lot of Western ideas are intertwined with Christianity, and many of the sources, including many pieces of lore, are heavily influenced if not corrupted by the scholars who wrote them down. Many scholars themselves have and still do go back and forth over how Christianity, i.e. in the Norse myths, influenced what was recointerrded, and what is genuine religion, holdovers, mixed tradition, and so on from the original peoples being written about. Clean engagement with the Holy Powers will require this, especially since many of our Gods do not fit well within modern Western paradigms of acceptability. Even speaking about the Gods as real Beings unto Themselves is met with derision in much of society, and untangling that from our minds, thoughts, and words is hard work. It requires us to be careful of the words we use, the ways in which we approach our Gods, and even the ways in which we approach the lore available to us. Treating Loki as the Norse Satan, for instance, is a holdover from Christianity. I am not saying you have to like Loki, or believe His actions/reactions are good, but putting Him where Satan was, especially if you are a convert from Christianity, belies the complex relationships the Gods have, and how important He is, given how intertwined He is with almost every myth we have. It also will interfere with how you understand the other Gods, as Loki is often a traveling companion to Thor, Odin, and other Gods.
Skillsets do not have to be developed in isolation either. You can develop skills while also doing devotional work, for instance. These are just a few ideas, but they are the main ones I can think of right now. It may be that you are or develop a craft, and making origami boats for Njord is devotional work for you. Researching your genealogy, and then including the Ancestors you find can be a powerful piece of devotional work. Gardening and tending your land, or a community garden can be a devotional activity involving your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping your home would be a good offering not only to your Ancestors, but to Gods and spirits that are part of or have domain/dominion in the home, i.e. Frigga, Hestia, and houesvaettir, among a great many. While it will not, in my view, replace a daily offering of water or a weekly offering of food, finding ways to incorporate your Holy Powers in your life provides more ways of connection, dedication, and devotion.
To borrow a word from Rhyd Wildermuth, this process is re-enchanting the world around you, suffusing it with the understanding and active acknowledgment that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can be connected with anywhere, and the world itself, wherever you are, is holy and a potential place for the sacred. This is good work wherever one is in their life, whatever their relationship is to the Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, spirits, or communities. Our skillsets will not look the same, nor should they. I would hope that as polytheists we could agree that the basics of devotional work, dedication, and right relationship with our Gods would be among the common ones. This does not require one be a spiritual specialist. The main requirement is that each of us is willing to do the work that each of us can do, each of us in our own time, space, and ability in accordance with our tradition(s) if any, and the will of our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits.
I have been a Pagan for 10 years, and in that time I have seen very few groups in which priests were not also the leaders of whatever group they were part of. This can be done, and done well. I am part of groups that are very well run and well taken care of by their priests.
Some time ago I went into the difference between what a shaman and a priest are. This is how I defined a priest then, and this is how I still view a priest:
“A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods. When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion. A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity. A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.”
Since this post I have felt the need to put more emphasis on the notion that a priest serves their Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits) first and foremost. That the priest’s first duty, within polytheism as I understand it, practice, and experience it, is service to the Gods. This may have absolutely nothing to do with one’s human community/communities. Much of my work with Anpu, as I noted in the article “Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest”, has nothing to do with living people. Much of my service to Him is to help the Dead. In the last seven or so years I have not done a single public ritual with anyone in regards to Him, yet He still counts me as His priest and others have come to me asking for help with Him. I serve Him, and I serve Him in the ways He asks me, and on behalf of Him with other people where called.
Being a priest does not, by default, make me the leader, or even a leader outside of certain circumstances. It makes me a priest. So if I am making the point that priests are not necessarily leaders, then what are leaders?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”. A leader is someone who may be a trailblazer, just as they might be someone modeling good values, just as they might be the head of a group. The focus of a leader, at the end of the day, is on people first and foremost. They are about the people they lead. A volunteer coordinator is a leader just as a head of the local Kuwanis Club is a leader. Often a leadership position is in service to other people. Contrast this what I have written above in regards to being a priest, and there is a stark contrast: the leader is about the people, and the priest is about the Gods. Their actions are geared towards their focus.
If you are a priest you might be a leader, just by default in a situation like a ritual. You might be the only leader(s), as many groups are lead by priests. However, I think that the onus of leadership is something that ought to be more shared. It is a lot to ask of a person to keep a personal cultus with Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, in addition to possibly holding rituals for a group, making offerings, and holding a job, and lead a group on top of all the other things required to make a group function well. The list of demands grows if your group is official with the government at all, or if you have a busy ritual schedule. That is a lot on one person, or even two people.
Some people are able to do all of this and keep their group running well. I think, though, that we would have more effective priests and groups in general if this was an option and not a necessity. Note: I am not saying every priest who is in this situation should give up their leadership roles. From where I stand that is a lot of weight on a person’s shoulders. If they choose to, this is where the priest, especially if they are in or have been put in a leadership role, needs to be willing to speak up, set boundaries, and especially to delegate responsibilities and trust people to fulfill/look after them. In turn, those they trust with the leadership and various responsibilities need to follow through on their obligations and promises.
I saw this at work very effectively as a Catholic. There are councils set up to help the priests do their work, i.e. pastoral councils, financial councils and the like, so that the priests can focus on doing their mission: serving their God and in turn, their congregation. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be laid to make this work well for polytheists, but if we want to have dedicated priests, temples, and the like, some amount of hierarchy, organization, and heavy lifting will need doing. A council format allows for concerned folks to get together and pull their weight together, vote on ideas, and make things happen with a core membership that then goes out into the community and gets things done. In the Catholic Church they work with the priest hand-in-hand to make sure that what is needed is taking care of so the priest does not have to worry about the lights getting turned off or what they are going to do about needed work on the church. This is an effective model that works. Granted, the Catholic Church itself kicks in much-needed money so the wheels are greased. Yet, I believe this council model can effectively work so that our communities can make the amenities, like temples, charities, communities, public ritual space, and so on, that I have heard so many wish for. A priest alone trying to do all of this, pull of this together, would have a very, very hard time.
Why is now is a good time to think about this, and separate priests from large amounts of leadership responsibilities? Because we are coming into a time where we may have the people to do so. There are second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation polytheists, Pagans, and those of like mind who are coming into the world. I would like to see effective foundations laid for them all. Part of this, I see, is defining who and what we are, as-is the need to build lasting groups, buildings, and so on for them to inherit. Not everyone is a priest, nor should the notion that ‘everyone is their own priest’ mean that priests, themselves, and all the skillsets required to be an effective one, get put by the wayside.
More on skillsets in the next post.