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Thinking on Chris Hedges, Revolution, and Climate Change

March 3, 2019 9 comments

I was watching a lecture by Chris Hedges entitled Corporate Totalitarianism: The End Game. In it, Hedges engages with the subject with both frankness and humor, both of which I appreciate. Hedges has, for a long time, spoken quite well on the problem facing us. What he, and most any social or political critic has been awfully short on, is how to address the predicaments we are in.

He rightly points out that the prison systems rely on slave labor to operate and that, were prisoners retaining even a minimum wage salary, it and the industries this work supports would collapse. He rightly points out that our democracy doesn’t function, which by this point is almost “No shit?” passe. He could have cut a huge chunk of his lecture out by just saying “There is no top-down approach coming because the top is going to watch the bottom burn and drown.” It is the same damned song regardless of political party that has been pursued for the entire length of time that I have been alive. This is a point I am grateful that Hedges hammers on throughout his lecture and in the Q&A. The politicians are not coming to save us.

Something a lot of folks watching this lecture are probably going to miss is a very key point I felt was buried in the lecture among all the socio-political commentary. It is something I hammer on a lot in my writing and that folks from the Post-Carbor Institute, JMG, and others have been hitting on the head for some time. Namely, that the oil and natural gas markets are operating on what amounts to gambling to keep money in the system and keep production somewhat commensurate with needed supply. Except the field outputs are down. The Bakkan Oil Shale is being run by large companies with lots of land that they lease to small, risk-taking companies whose primary income is venture capital. The main way most of the large fossil fuel companies here stay afloat has nothing to do with well productivity, but land leasing. When that glut runs out the ability to generate income will also dry up, not because the gas will all be gone, but because the cost to extract and produce it in useable forms will eclipse the revenue from selling it.

In other words, the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is going to go down and bring a good chunk of the energy market with it. The whole system is facing this all at once alongside climate change. We would be lucky, and I use that term loosely, if the whole damned facade of the energy industry fell away before that 12 year mark for 1.5F increase in global temperature hits, because the damned near complete demand destruction we saw in 2008 when oil hit almost $150 a barrel of crude was one of the most effective acts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that we made in this country. It was hell for any of us who were low-income, as I was fired in 2007 not long before the financial chickens of the crash came home to roost. When a gallon of gas hit $4 and was threatening to hit $5 the ripple effect was enormous. So trust me when I say such a thing will not be a picnic nor even desireable for the average person, but it may be something that could save us from our own consumption of fossil fuels.

Hedges’ point in the lecture about going to Scranton, PA where the city is insolvent is happening in every State and damned near every city I can think of in my own State. Hell, the DIA in Detroit almost sold off its collection to pay debts. His point that capitalism eats itself and its own until collapse is what we are in the middle of right now. The economic system is simply unsustainable. I appreciate he hooks this into his point in the lecture where he talks about the money system, especially in regards to how personal and student debt cannot keep churning out new debtors if the means to pay off interest and principle are subject to these interruptions. As he says, 1/3 of the employed people of America make less than $12 an hour and have no health insurance provided by employers. Keep in mind that Obamacare takes another chunk out of that, either directly through one of the health care plans, or with the year end penalty for not choosing a provider. There is a growing swathe of Americans who bought into the lie that a college education would help us become solid middle-class members. Instead, it has indebted us, some of us through our whole lives. Those, like myself, who went into public service with the promise that if we gave 10 years of our lives that our debt would be forgiven are now coming out the other side, having served that obligation, and our debt forgiveness being rejected. With the costs of living tracking to increase with energy costs there’s not going to be a way to pay off the debt, let alone stave it off much longer.

If we are to make any progress anywhere it is in getting that point across. It doesn’t matter if you are a conservative, liberal, leftist, rightist, any of it. The economic system is unsustainable. The energy infrastructure that allows for the modern American way of life is unsustainable. If you don’t get that then there is no conversation to be had. Without energy being available, on which money depends so it can work, the whole house of cards collapses. If folks disagree with basic reality, that we cannot expect infinite growth on a finite planet, then there is no more conversation to be had. The person can be on the same exact part of the political spectrum that I am on and if they deny the basic nature of where we are then speaking with them is completely without merit.

If, as I feel, Hedges is speaking well and pointing out fundamental problems in regards to our political and economic systems why do I feel such a disconnect from him? For the same reason I imagine most folks do. Though he has covered war and conflict as a journalist and lived alongside folks in those horrible situations I get the distinct feeling that his life, given he was educated at Harvard and has taught in prestigious universities, is a world apart from my own.

Hedges is right in saying that we were conned by Bill Clinton and his pushing through NAFTA, stating it would make us countless of middle-class jobs. I can look out into the neighborhoods where the auto industry was king and clearly see this lie on display, as can anyone who has seen similar scenes in coal and natural gas country. He is right to talk about the collapse of societies and bring his experience of what that looks like into this lecture. He got to watch Yugoslavia’s disintegration up close from the sounds of it. He’s right that we could well be facing the same damn thing here for the same kinds of reasons.

Hedges speaks of democracy as though we could possibly save it at this stage in America. His proposal to save America from totalitarianism is “sustained mass acts of political disobedience”. To me this is completely and hopelessly naive. He uses Standing Rock as an example, and I think it is a poor one in the way he uses it. Standing Rock was a powerful example of civil, sustained disobedience because, at its core, there was and continues to be a series of communities, the Standing Rock Reservation peoples, with real spiritual and physical stakes in the care of Standing Rock and in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline. So long as there is abstraction there is inaction, and for far too many people Standing Rock is and remains abstract. Mni Wiconi for too many people is a slogan, something to put on their Facebook wall and to think about every now and again. If Mni Wiconi is merely words then its impact and its meaning is truly missing. The peoples of Standing Rock, and those who joined them long-term in their work, had real skin in the game and something to lose: sacred lands and sacred water their people were tied to in sacred right relationship.

I was at Occupy Wall Street protests near me not long after OWS started to come together across the nation. I attended rallies and I found them complete and utter wastes of time. Hedges states we need to not be restrained by the tyranny of the practical. I got to see what that looked like with OWS rallies local to me. The decision making process, if ever it could be called such a thing, was long, drawn out, tedious, needlessly time consuming and without any sense of order, duty, or use to the communities in which they were arranged. They actively repelled anyone older than maybe folks in their mid-30s. Even for those in their age group, many OWS folks pushed us out because we could see nothing was going to get done. There was no interest in folks with years of experience in organizing, non-profit work, none of it. The OWS in my area died about as quickly as it appeared.

Not a few moments after this statement regarding the tyranny of the practical Hedges calls for revolution, for ‘the overthrow of the corporate state’. Without practicalities addressed this will never happen, not for all the faith one has. Countless Marxists and Communists since Marx wrote Das Capital have been eagerly awaiting the Worker’s Revolution. So many millenarian, apocalyptic, and radical sects who have had faith in and waited for the coming of saviors and the awakening of ‘the people’ have been waiting for the exact same thing. Whether secular or religious, both groups who have had abiding faith in their salvific movements have ignored that revolutions that seek to succeed must pay attention to the practicalities of things so that not only is the revolution succesful, but that any of its gain can stick.

For anyone that has studied the abdication of the Tzar and the rise of the Bolsheviks, to call that anything like a nonviolent movement is foolish at best and obfuscating history at worst. It also ignores that deep, ravaging pain that the Bolsheviks and later Communist regimes would exact on those people they would be in charge of or conquer. These are not revolutions to look at as examples. Rather, I would see such be avoided.

The Founding Fathers understood that the practical and idealistic had to walk hand-in-hand. They understood the notion very well, organizing on levels that I think anyone thinking of such revolutions would do well to pay attention to. They did not merely speak pretty words. Their necks were, on signing the Declaration of Independence, very-much on the line. Hedges’ assertion that we can have a revolution with non-violence, especially in this country where corporate interests are entrenched with violence, where the State stands as it had with the Pinkerton agency in coal’s heyday times with TransCanada and Enbridge Energy today, and come through to victory, is foolish at best and at worst dangerous for his would-be revolutionaries.

The corporate people who hosed down the Standing Rock protesters in sub-zero temperature were committing violence. That pipeline is still getting its building permits worked on. The company, TransCanada, has not stopped to see that its aims are realized. Non-violent protest stalled the progress of the pipeline, but has it stopped it? No. For all the attention the pipeline garnered, all the protest, needed as it was, for all the symbol it was and how good a victory it felt when it was temporarily stopped, folks need to get that it, and countless B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s like it are not done. They are not stopped -yet. These B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s still need killing. Thankfully, the Standing Rock people of the Dakotas, the Anishinaabek Line 5 Protesters here in Michigan, and so many others are standing up again and again with folks in and across their communities. Not everyone standing up, proverbially here, will be doing so before a pipeline; not everyone can. There are plenty for folks to do who are unable to be a physical presence, and the best place where people can go to and learn how best they can contribute is to talk to those who live on the land and waters being threatened.

Another source of disconnect I feel with Hedges is that he is still living a very comfortable upper middle class life. Unlike many peak oil folks there is nothing I can point to that comes through in the lectures I have seen or interviews he has given that give me an impression of him like those I have seen of Richard Heinburg, James Kunstler, or JMG who live their values through living as sustainably as possible on the land each lives. He is not showing the future, showing where he has put up solar panels, started community gardens, or grown his own food. For all that he speaks well, he has not shown, even in general, how he seeks to enable future generations to live well in a post-petroleum climate change future. It is one thing to approach a crowd with a good speech. It is another to approach a crowd with a vision of the future where a good life is possible, even if it is not the life we have been sold by countless companies and TV shows. We need more than speeches. We need living leaders whose lives show us how we may live better on and with the planet and one another.

Now is time to do everything we can to live well with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Now is the time to organize our communities; the politicians will not save us, and the States are not going to make the coming crises easier to face. Now is the time to learn the skills we can, to pass on what we know, to do everything in our power so the next generation can face what is coming with every possible advantage on their side. We must do the work before us however we can do it. It is not enough to merely write and speak on what we need to do. Each of us concerned with our Holy Powers, our communities, and the Earth we live on will, wherever possible whenever possible, be living examples.

On Ritual Praxis -Structure, Roles and Responsibilities

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Up until now the majority of the On Ritual Praxis posts have been applicable to both the individual and to groups. Having started at the individual level and worked our way outward, it is time to dig into the larger spheres Heathens are within. I will start with how my Kindred and I understand the structures Heathens operate within, the structures of Heathenry, and then on to the roles and responsibilities people within them may take up. As with other posts in regards to On Ritual Praxis, these are meant to be guides rather than exhaustive, and reflective of how my Kindred and I work. Folks may have different kind of relationship based on structure, worldview, or specific home culture from which their Heathen religion springs.

Structures in Heathenry -Innangarð and Utgarð

The most basic structure in Heathenry for my Kindred and I is the innangarð and utgarð. The innangarð, meaning within the yard/enclosure, start with our Gods, Ancestors and vaettir, us as individuals, our families (chosen and blood), and our Kindred. This innangarð extends out to our allies and friends. Those who are not innangarð are utgarð, outide the yard/enclosure.

Why does this structure matter so much?

It is how we prioritize our lives. It is where we understand ourselves as fitting within, and to whom we owe obligation. It is how we understand how our ørlög and Urðr unfolds, and to whom both are tied most tightly. This does not mean that those in the utgarð are beyond consideration, that only our innangarð matters, or that we are given license to ignore the responsibilities we share with the larger communities in which we live. It means that those within our innangarð have highest priority, and it is where the bulk of our energy, attention, and work belongs.

If the basic understanding is that one’s first priorities are to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then good relationships with Them are one’s first obligation. Likewise one develops a hierarchy of relationships and obligation to one’s self, family, friends, and allies. An understanding of the structure of one’s life begins with understanding one’s cosmology. That understanding then extends into every relationship one has, whether it is with those in the innangarð or those outside it. It extends to every piece of food we eat, even to the media we consume. A cosmology exists everywhere in every moment or it exists nowhere. We do not put our cosmology on pause, we live within it.

The innangarð and utgarð are extensions of our polytheist understanding. Those Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we worship and hold relationships with are within our innangarð. Those we do not are utgarð. This does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir that are utgarð are always bad for us or wrong to worship, merely that they are not within our primary scope of obligation. The Holy Powers in our innangarð are those we worship and have relationships with. They are who we turn to when things are rough and who we celebrate festivals and victories with. Likewise, the people in our innangarð are those we turn to when things are rough and help in turn, and celebrate our victories with.

Structures in Heathenry -Families, Hearths, and Tribes

Heathenry as an identifier is useful only insofar as it signals to ourselves and others that our worldview, religion, and culture is based in lived religion whose backgrounds are based in reconstructing/reviving ancient polytheist religions of Northern Europe which included Scandinavia, Germany, and Anglo-Saxon peoples among others. So we may say we are Scandinavian Heathen group, or an Anglo-Saxon Heathen tribe, or a Germanic Heathen hearth. Even so, this breakdown can miss the differences a given Anglo-Saxon Heathen tribe may have from one based in Texas vs Tennessee. We may share cosmological principles, and our conception of and relationships with Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir may be similar, but there will always be variations between how we relate to and understand each principle, God, Ancestor, and vaettr based in each person, family, hearth, or tribe’s relationships with these principles and Beings. Innangarð, utgarð, ørlög, and Urðr (or culture-specific names holding similar meaning) as understood through one’s Heathen worldview are the primary means for understanding and establishing webs of relationships. With this in mind, I primarily understand and refer to Heathenry as communities of tribal religions.

Some Heathen groups have not and may never make it to being a tribal group simply because they are a single person, family, or hearth that does not ‘click’ with any other ones. A Heathen whose organizing stays at the individual level has no more or less inherent value than one that is a tribe. It means the way one does ritual will change, who one is tied to in obligation changes, and the complexity of one’s relationships changes. The point of identifying structure is not to make tribe something to aim at nor solitary worship in Heathenry as something to avoid. The purpose of going through these terms, especially in how I am using words here, is to develop words with clear meaning for our communities.

Simply put, a family is a group of people related to each other by blood, marriage, or association. A hearth is the home/place in which a family or many families are gathered with a common religious outlook and practice. Tribes are associations of families and/or hearths linked by shared culture and religion. Mimisbrunnr Kindred, for instance, is a tribe made up of many hearths, each with its own family.

Divisions of Innangarð

I like to think of innangarð and utgarð as a series of circles. The first circle of the innangarð is the hearth, the second the bú (farmstead), the third the Kindred/tribe or other groups, the fourth is the Thing, and fifth are the wider associations we hold.

The hearth, as mentioned before, is in the home. These are the people closest to you, often those sharing your physical space every day. This is the level at which folks provide daily mutual support, raise their families, and live together.

I chose to use the word bú, or farmstead, to describe the second circle to connect the importance of those who are within it. As with a farmstead, those in the second circle together work together in close contact, trust each other, and mutually support one another and complete projects together that benefit each other and their communities. Why not name it something like family or the Kindred? Not everyone who is Kindred may have that kind of relationship with one another, either due to the nature of one’s relationships with a Kindred, time, or space limitations.

The third circle is the Kindred/tribe. These are members of our particular religious and culture communities, such as Mimirsbrunnr Kindred. Some folks at the Kindred level might blend back and forth between the different circles of innangarð, providing support for one another and caring for members within their Kindred/tribe as they can. A person within a hearth circle vs a Kindred circle is that they may provide less material and work support than others at the hearth or bú circle. Kindred ties are often likened to family ones, and this is also part of my experience. The emotional ties are certainly there, but the kinds of things that are expected of me at the hearth level, which includes the meeting of financial obligations and physical needs are less expected at the Kindred level. While I am fully happy to help Kindred members with meeting these needs the expectation is not there that I do that on a regular basis as it is with my hearth.

The Thing is another circle in which I took inspiration from history. A Thing was called to engage in trade, settle disputes, and make plans to work on projects. To my understanding the Thing circle is locally based, including my Kindred in relation to other co-religionists, allies to my hearth, Kindred, and tribe. The Thing circle are those our hearths, Kindreds, tribes, etc. are co-equal with who may come together for cross-community projects, conversation, conventions, or settling of disputes.

The fifth circle, associations, are the communities we have connection to but little in the ways of formal oaths or direct ties into our hearths, Kindreds, tribes, and other closer communities. The association circle we could look at as communities in which we may have mutual interests or some connection with, such as Pagan Pride groups, pan-Pagan groups and gatherings, perhaps the local brewing guild a member might be a part of, etc. These are people we have connections with and may even be important members of, but the connections we maintain with these communities stops at anything insular to our lives. The PPD communities aren’t going to be coming over to my home to help vacuum my house or make sure there’s food in the pantry; that’s a hearth through to Kindred circle thing. We might come together to celebrate Pride day or circle around to remember our Dead, but the community is not involved in one’s everyday life so much as one belongs to the community. A local brewing guild might be a source of great inspiration and camaraderie in the journey of a brewer, but aside from maybe hosting a gathering they will not be involved much in one’s day-to-day life.

Structure in Heathenry -Organizational Models

Since Heathen religions are tribal each group may organize itself differently and for different reasons. In my Kindred’s case our organization structure is hierarchical. I am a goði, filling a role as leader both as a chieftain and priest of the Kindred. As a goði I represent the Kindred as an organization to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the communities in which we live and interact. The others are, at the moment, lay members and do not hold leadership or ritual role positions though any of us might make offerings or prayers. The point of a Heathen goði insofar as we are concerned is as a leader, diviner, priest organizing and conducting rites, a representative for the group before the Holy Powers and communities, and a helpmeet to the Kindred’s members in keeping good relationships with one another and the Holy Powers.

We organize hierarchically in Mimisbrunnr Kindred for a few reasons. The Kindred started as a Rune study group with me leading it, and grew from there into a Northern Tradition/Heathen study group. From there, we grew into a working group, and from that group we grew into Mimisbrunnr Kindred. Our worldview as Heathens is hierarchical, whether we look to our Gods, our ancient Heathen Ancestors, or many of our vaettir as examples of how to organize ourselves. We work with a hierarchy model because through it we are organizing ourselves in a manner similar to our Gods, Ancestors, and many of our vaettir. We work in a hierarchy because it works for us, and we have not been told by our Holy Powers to adopt another model. Our roles in the Kindred are clearly delineated, and the work each of us has to do is supported by each of us doing our work.

Other groups may organize along different lines. I have read on groups which operate in egalitarian ways, and others that organize along strict king/subject relationships. Others organize as loose groups of people who come together to share in the occasional rite together. Each group will need to find which model works for it and the purpose it is gathering for.

Structure in Heathenry -General Roles: Laity, Leaders, and Spiritual Specialists

Laity

Laity are non-specialists in religious communities and tend to comprise the core of most religions’ members. There may be leaders in the laity, such as a head of a hearth or heading up a charity or some essential function in a family, Kindred, or Tribe. What differs laity from spiritual specialists is that lay members’ lives share the common elements of Heathen worldview and religious communities.

Just because a given Heathen is a layperson that does not mean they cannot do spiritual work or that they have any more or less value to a given Heathen community. Any Heathen, given practice and dedication to the work, can learn to divine. What differs a layperson who divines from a diviner, who is a spiritual specialist in a given community, is that the diviner does their work for the community as a respected authority or guide, and the layperson who divines may be talented but does not hold a wider communal role in doing divination.

Leaders

To lead is to “organize and direct”, to “show (someone or something) a destination by way to a destination by going in front of or beside them”, “set (a process) in motion”, to be “initiative in an action; an example for others to follow”.

A leader is someone who shows the way forward by walking it. It is someone that takes responsibility not only for one’s own actions but for anyone that follows them. A leader organize, directs, and sets those around them in motion. Leaders in Heathenry tend to be some kind of spiritual specialist whether or not they hold a formal title in a group. However, this is not a strict requirement. One can hold a leadership position in a group and still refer to spiritual specialists for things like divination or spiritual work needing to be done.

There is at least one leader for the hearth. This is someone who, whether by choice of the hearth or by default, represents that hearth before the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. They model right relationships if there are others in the hearth, tend to be the ones who makes the prayers and offerings first, and does divination to see if offerings are accepted. My wife and I share these duties in our hearth.

Spiritual Specialists

A spiritual specialist is a person who has developed skill, expertise, and works in some kind of religious role within a Heathen community. Some examples of this include goði/gyðja, priests, spiritworkers, diviners, spáworkers, seiðworkers, Runeworkers, and sacrificers, among a great many. Spiritual specialists may do one job, eg diviner or sacrificer, and otherwise hold a role in a given Heathen group like laity.

Spiritual specialists are not, by default, leaders, though many are. For example, a diviner may be consulted by a group, but the diviner may have absolutely no role in how the results of divination are acted on by the group or how a leader reacts and plans once divination has been done. Depending on the size of a hearth, Kindred, tribe, etc there may be no specialized roles like these, or one or two people may be called on to fill multiple roles.

Structure in Heathenry -Hosts and Guests

The structure around hosts and guests in Heathenry has a long history on which the home cultures have a lot to say. The Hávamál, for instance, has a great deal to say on the roles of hosts and guests. Structure of this sort extends to the holders of a hearth and visitors to the hearth itself in or out of ritual. This structure also is present in Kindred members hosting a ritual or gathering to non-members. Whether or not a visitor has religious business with a host makes little difference. As these are lived worldviews, structures like these do not end or start at our doorstep; these are lived wherever we go.

A host’s responsibilities include making sure a given guest is comfortable, free from hunger and thirst, and understands their role in the hearth, Kindred space, ritual, etc. This includes what taboos they need to observe such as “do not touch the altar or ritual items without permission” or a requirement like “make an offering to the hearth’s Holy Powers on entering”. For purposes of a ritual, a host may need to provide instruction for a newcomer to Heathenry, or to provide offerings for a given ritual so the guest can make them. The host needs to be aware as they can of everyone’s taboos, requirements, and so on, so both ritual and non-ritual situations can proceed in peace and order.

A guest’s responsibility includes being careful, humble, and not demanding too much from their host while making every effort to be firm in their own needs and requirements prior to visiting. Observing the rules of a hearth, Kindred meeting, and/or ritual is a must, as is following directions for ritual, and abiding by the host and other guests’ taboos and requirements where able. If conflict can arise it is the guest’s responsibility to inform the host. While a host needs to know everyone’s taboos, requirements, etc they do not live with a guest’s taboos or requirements, and may need reminding.

While this may all seem self-explanatory, the back and forth reciprocity of what I have written here is anything but. Many people may consider asking a person what their taboos or requirements are invasive, while others may be too shy or shrinking to state the needs their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, or personal circumstances have placed on them. Still others may simply not know how to ask or say, so having that onus on both host and guest is one that can prevent sources of problems. This same onus in regards to ritual also helps to prevent issues arising from a given host or guest’s taboos, needs, or requirements in ritual space. Far better to be notified ahead of time needing to apologize in a ritual for a slight, even if it was not meant.

Such a taboo or requirement may be quite simple. While I drink I have Kindredmates that do not. Part of the onus on me as a leader in a Kindred ritual, such as a celebratory feast, would be to ask what they can drink as a substitute, such as juice or root beer, and provide it, or to encourage them to find an alternative they are comfortable with. The Kindredmate has to be honest with me, asserting their need to have an alcohol-free choice just as I need to sensitive to that need. Likewise, being a diabetic, I may ask that there be diabetic friendly options for me in the celebration feast. The role of host and guest is reciprocal, each having a piece in determining the comfort and well-being of the other.

Structure in Heathenry -Grith and Frith

The word grith is related to sanctuary and security, while frith is related to peace and good social order. Both are to be held sacred by guest and host. A host provides an environment that is safe and secure for the guest, providing a place for grith and frith to be, while the guest does not bring things or do things that would harm grith or frith. Again, reciprocity is the rule of Heathenry.

Which Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are being worshiped are part of how one designs a ritual and influences what good conduct for it would be. Part of keeping grith, especially in ritual, is to be sure that everyone gathered observes the rules of the ritual and the sacred space. If a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or vaettr to whom the ritual is dedicated has a taboo to observe then the host needs to be sure everyone is keeping to it. Something as simple as everyone turning off their cell phones prior to a rite is keeping grith.

Keeping frith in ritual is everyone being involved in the ritual and carrying it out well, and avoiding what would interrupt the rite, or cause problems during it. This is part of why roles can be important. If there is a need to do divination then having a designated diviner who divines and interprets the divination will allow the ritual to proceed with good order and clear ways forward. Having a ritual leader allows for the leader to correct missteps or to help with folks unused to ritual, or one of its forms without folks stepping on one another’s toes or undoing the ordered space of the ritual.

Being mindful of the vé, what to or what not to place on it, and at what time, is part of grith and frith. Each hearth’s relationship with the Holy Powers, layout of their vé, what is and is not acceptable as offerings, on and on, has the potential to be different from any other hearth’s. Open and honest communication about every aspect of a ritual, and if there is to be some kind of celebration, what everyone’s taboos, allergies, etc are is a must. Nothing will spoil a ritual like having to firmly stop someone from making an offering that is taboo, or a post-ritual feast like having to rush someone to the hospital because someone did not list the ingredients in a dish!

Structure in Heathenry -Gebo, Megin, and Hamingja

The focus of Heathen ritual praxis has its feet firmly planted in the idea of gipt fa gipt, gift for a gift. In other words, reciprocity. I often refer to it on this blog as simply Gebo or living in good Gebo. The reason we do ritual is to establish, strengthen, and appreciate our relationships with the Holy Powers. Doing this allows for the good flow of megin and hamingja between the Holy Powers and us, and between those we engage with in ritual.

Megin translates to “might”, “power”, “strength”, “ability”. Hamingja translates to “luck”, “group luck”, group power”, “group spirit”, or it has to do with the guardian of one’s family line or power, often seen in a female fylgja. Where megin is more straightforward, because of the issues Lars Lönnroth states about how hamingja has come down to us, different people relate to the concept in different ways. Some view or experience it as a straightforward force, and others as a spirit. Regardless, megin and hamingja are built well in good Gebo.

Why might we care about having healthy, well cared for megin and hamingja? These are pieces of our soul. Megin is the ability to affect the world around us, to do things. Hamingja is the unfolding of our ørlög and Urðr with others, whether through the spheres of influence we can affect or how others affect us. Megin and hamingja are how we get things done, how are actions are felt through the things we do.

Gebo, megin, hamingja, and all they touch are integrated. By doing right by our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another, we allow for the good flow of Gebo, and the building of good megin and hamingja. By building good megin and hamingja we build our webs of relationships well in ørlög and Urðr. Whether we are alone or in a hearth, Kindred, tribe, or a larger community, in doing this we allow for the foundation of good relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and with one another. These good foundations are what Heathenry is built from.

Thinking on Polytheism and Media

November 11, 2018 7 comments

I thought this would be a fun topic to explore as I’m working on finishing up the On Ritual Praxis series of posts.

So much of my thinking on media has been shaped by a key number of factors, including my own perspective as a polytheist, my consumption of and conversations around media with family and close friends throughout much of my life, the books Narrative Medicine and Coyote Medicine by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and looking at various video bloggers such as Bob Chipman aka Moviebob or Lindsay Ellis on the role of media in modern life. I use the previous two video bloggers as jumping off points for a lot of thoughts on the very topic of this post because they give nuanced and comprehensive looks at the material they review, and both acknowledge biases they carry up front.

Media is a shared source of culture. It is the music, podcasts, and audio novels we listen to, the news, movies and shows we watch, the books, magazines, and papers we read, and so on. Rather than attach polytheism to an aesthetic, style, genre, etc, polytheist religions and their adherents embrace many Gods, and right along with this embraces many forms of media, and its attendant aesthetics and styles as well. Each kind of media we have the ability to engage with has the capacity to connect us, to enforce or renew our connections, to deepen our relationship with our polytheist religions, Holy Powers, and one another. It’s other edge is that it can do the opposite.

Right now my ears are filled with Flykt’s Forndom as I write on this phone. Much of my playlist is filled with works of similar music, including Wardruna, Heilung, Hagalaz’ Runedance, and Paleowolf. I lean to furs and leathers in my winter dress and t-shirts and shorts in the summer, usually with some kind of geek/nerd or religiously meanginful iconography on the shirts. Folk music and polytheist-oriented podcasts or Great Courses audibooks fill my ears most often. Among the shows I watch are the Marvel Netflix series, anime such as Princess Mononoke and Wolf’s Rain being among my favorites, and documentaries about history, religion, technology, and science. My wife recently turned me onto the English Heritage channel and the BBC series Tudor Monastery Farm on Youtube. I play video games as diverse as The Walking Dead, Civilization, Final Fantasy, and Battlefield. I am a long-time tabletop RPG player, DM, and storyteller.

Despite my various forms of engaging with modern media, as a polytheist I often find myself frustrated. Media’s modern incarnations are so often geared towards the marketing of lowest common denominator material that its overall contribution to the positive development of society has been, and will likely continue to be debated for a long time. Set that aside, and most of the media made is not made for polytheists and much of the media makes that quite clear up front. Modern media is part of culture, and any part of media has a hard time breaking away from the mindset in which it is based. Modern American media, as modern American culture, is so mired in a Protestant Christian mindset, arguably the most toxic elements of Calvinism and Puritanism being its largest holdovers, that it seeps into many space in which there are actual diversities of work taking place.

The last video game I remember playing in which a polytheist religion figured prominently in the plot was in Mass Effect 2, where one of the squad characters worships many Gods as a matter of course and his gods and relationship with them explored in a generally respectful manner. In many of the books that I read polytheism is simply part of the landscape, such as the Jim Butcher Dresden Files books, or American Gods. These two both come with their own caveats. In a funny twist Harry Dresden has interactions with many Gods, but in this he draws a distinction between his interactions with Them and with his friend, Michael Carpenter’s faith as a Catholic, in that Harry does not need to believe in these Gods. They just exist, and his jury is out on Carpenter’s Catholic God. Despite being surrounded by Gods, and in some cases having contractual relationships with different Gods and spirits, Dresden never commits to worshiping any. This is not a problem in and of itself, but Dresden never comments on any but a Native American medicine man/wizard character working with spirits in a relationship rather than transactional way. No one in the Dresden universe has ever to actually have been shown to worship Gods, despite how much They show up and have pull in many of the plotlines he is involved in.

American Gods subordinates the existence of Gods to living through Their worshipers. The central conceit of the story is that Gods are real and live, but their ability to live and affect reality is enabled through the minds of their worshipers, the memories their descendents carry, and through the offerings that the few who believe in Them give. Where Dresden is an agnostic, Shadow is wandering into a world full of Gods, both ancient and modern, blind. As an audience surrogate to start with, he is not bad. Gaiman could have done far, far worse. Shadow struggles with doubt and disbelief in ways familiar to many of us who worship Gods, and his path in the book is similar enough to how I began working with the Old Man that the first time I picked up the book my jaw dropped at some of the parallels.

As a polytheist my view is that both works suffer from positioning the Gods as real, but their worshipers as unreal or utterly absent. As neither Butcher or Gaiman seem to engage the Gods and Their worshipers as being real in their respective works the polytheist view is utterly lost to agnostic points of view embodied in Dresden and Shadow respectively. Are the Gods real in these works of fiction? The simple answer is “Yes”, and the more complicated answer is “Real in what sense?” Butcher’s Dresden universe seems to treat the Gods as real Beings with Their own motivations, some at loggerheads with each other and others in cooperation. His view of the Fae is that They have control and power over/with the forces of nature, and His view of Odin is that the Einherjar are real, and the Wild Hunt actually features in one of his books in a really cool way. The Gods do not lack agency, power, or ability to influence the world in his books. However, Butcher’s development of monotheist characters like Murphy or the Carpenter family without any development at any time of polytheist characers or families shows the operating mindset that Christianity and agnosticism are the default worldviews even with the massive amount of Gods and spirits sprawling through his books.

Gaiman does treat the Gods as real with Their own motivations, views, and conflicts. However, his central premise (Their existence relying on worship) robs Them of being understood in Their own terms. His New Gods, such as Media and Technical Boy, are counted as Gods as well, with sharp divides between Old and New, and the dynamics of these relationships are the lattice on which the plot is built. Yet, his treatment of America is that America is hostile to Gods, that They don’t really have a place here. The one time a Pagan is featured they do not recognize Ostara standing right in front of them, nor recognizes the meaning or impact of Her Day. Granted, when I read this part I grinned like a damn fool since I have heard almost the same thing come out of Pagans’ mouths word-for-word, so Gaiman’s strawperson here clearly isn’t built up out of whole cloth. However, at no point is there a contrast to this person, at no point is a worshiper who keeps good cultus brought forward.

For all that the Gods are treated as real in these stories, we polytheists are non-people in these stories. Despite this glaring flaw I do like American Gods and The Dresden Files quite a bit. It is unfortunate that both works have these flaws, not only because I enjoy these stories, but also that these two are front-runners of urban fantasy fiction. These two have set the tone for many of the urban fantasy series in existence now, with many taking far more liberties with the abilities of their various protagonists’ powers, and more liberties with the reality and abilities of the Gods. Where both Butcher and Gaiman in their works seem to have respect for the Gods even if both are agnostic in regards to Them, more urban fantasy fiction seems to use the Gods rather than have Them as part of the reality of the world their characters are in.

My issue is not with fantasy, urban or otherwise, but with the treatment of Gods as mere characters for plot advancement. It seems many authors do not think through the impact that having many Gods takes on a people, most egregious in fantasy settings. A basic example is a story with a forest God in it. If there is a God of the forest it should make an impact on how the local village would interact with the forest and its denizens, festivals, etc. If polytheism is the default for a fantasy world it should have impact on how characters think, act, fight, fuck, marry, work, worship, raise kids (if they do) and express themselves. Many forms of media, not just genres of writing, could use some healthy polytheist mindsets and attitudes not only in terms of worldbuilding, but focus of plot, worldview of characters, and so on.

This kind of critique carries into any creative media where writing or messaging is a key factor. I do not just want more representation in media of polytheism, I want good representations of polytheisms in media. Whether a work of fiction takes place in our world or another, media does impact how we are perceived and does impact how we ourselves can see ourselves. As the saying goes, “Representation matters.”

Yet, we also need to be careful of taking too much of ourselves from media. Most media is made to sell. That which isn’t are often labors of love, thankfully more being supported through platforms like Patreon, YouCaring, GoFundMe, and similar. To my mind these platforms are powerful ways polytheists can support one another without resorting to dumbing down our ways of thought or the messages we may be asked through our work to bring into the world. Certainly, Bob Chipman and Lindsey Ellis use Patreon as their primary source of income so they can do their work on Youtube. Jim and I’s first podcast, The Jaguar and the Owl, had its costs taken care of by our Patreon supporters.

If we support polytheists in their various ways of making media then our media has more reach and better ability to actually be done and make an impact. An artist will be able to fully commit to their art because they are able to focus on it. An artist only able to do their art part-time because they have bills to pay with a full-time job will have a harder time producing consistent quality work. If we want quality work, whether that is art whether digital or physical, leatherwork, woodwork, yarnwork, video, the written or spoken word, music, workshops, audiobooks, or podcasts, we need to support that work.

A starving artist is one concentrating on trying to get their next meal rather than writing their next book, painting their next painting, or knitting their next project. People suffer more than enough just with the work needed to get to making quality media. This attitude that suffering should accompany media is actively unhealthy and halting a great many people who could be putting themselves to working on something of quality.

It is not just the media we passively consume that we need to be mindful of. We also need to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves. When I play D&D, Shadowrun, or a White Wolf game, I run each setting as a polytheist with polytheist assumptions. As much as D&D has contributed to folks thinking about God purely in terms of functionality, i.e. this is a God of Healing, even D&D has gotten better over the years for expanding on and giving the gods of their worlds mythology for characters and players to dig into. A creator god of the elves in the Faerun setting, Correllion, has an active conflict with Gruumsh, the creator god of orcs. This plays out into gameplay, potentially between player characters (PCs) and certainly between PCs and non-player characters (NPCs). At least since the beginning of 3rd edition, gods in D&D have become more fleshed out. Granted, they are still boiled down in stat blocks, being “God of this” and “Domains for clerics are this” and “alignment is this”. For instance, in alignment Corellion and Gruumsh are chaotic good and chaotic evil respectively.

Being mindful of how we consume our media and how we portray gods through it, even fictional ones, can better portray what a powerful impact a polytheist mindset has on the denizens of a given world and in turn give better representation of a polytheist mindset and its impact to one’s players. What does this matter, though? Isn’t this just something we pass the time with? Sure, as with any media some of it can be mindless consumption, but what we are engaging with we are bringing. It does us good to think on the impact that such consumption and sharing media has on us. Roleplay especially is impactful because we are not passively engaged in someone else’s story. Truth be told, if we are actively reading we are not passively engaged in that, either. Humans roleplay and make stories all the time, so the stories we tell ourselves have impact. Far better we take in and engage with stories in which our voices are heard, understood, respected, and engaged with.

There’s a lot of intersection between polytheists and various media just looking at my own interests that I’ve written about here. Rather than keeping our Gods and our views to ourselves, I would see us expand the people our works touch. To this, I don’t mean boiling down our beliefs to something easily digestible to the lowest common denominator. I mean that whatever our creative interests or engagement with media we make conscious choices so our religions are part of them. Some of our views will be deeply challenging to dominant paradigms just on their own. Being polytheist in and of itself is transgressive because our identity is wrapped up with believing in and worshiping many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

I blog, I podcast, and on occasion I make music and Youtube videos. I recognize that for all the good I may do there I am, by and large, talking with my own people. Some media is just going to do that. There is nothing wrong with that. When it comes to developing and exploring ideas in/of/to our religions many of these conversations are only relevant when in dialogue with our fellow polytheists. Even so, I think polytheists could do with being more forthright in our exploration, engagement, and creation of media so that our religions, norms, communities, and we ourselves have more representation, say, and impact on the societies we live in.

There’s a few reasons for why I would like to see this happen. Practically, the polytheist communities are quite small compared to the American population. Yet, if folks can blow thousands of dollars on various media there is no reason I can see that we cannot or should not tap into that as well for our own purposes. Further, so long as we are not in control of our own messages others will be. Polytheists producing and disemminating our own media is part and parcel of wielding power and influence. We can change perspectives by actively engaging in the public spheres as polytheists. Engaging in this way can deepen dialogue, develop perspectives, and open channels of communication between our wider communities and with one another. Engaging with the wider sphere of our cultures through media of all kinds allows our views to be heard and allows for change to take place, great and small, whose course we help to directly influence.

Around the Grandfather Fire

September 11, 2018 1 comment

Around the Grandfather Fire is a podcast that James Stovall and I host that explores topics ranging from shamanism to animism, polytheism to interests we hold outside of them but relevant to our spiritual interests and lives.

So far we have four shows done with more to come. Because we are no longer limited by air time or topic we can dig into the meat of different ideas, issues, and views we discuss. It also gives us more time to really get into good conversation with our guests.

Around three years ago we were co-hosts on a podcast and live internet radio show called The Jaguar and the Owl. The format was restricted more or less to shamanism and related fields in we only had an hour in which to record and did it live for most of the last two years of our broadcasting. It was a good time. Over time, between the restrictions of time to record, the demands of life increasing, and the format itself becoming hard to work shows into, we eventually had to let go of the show. Since things have come back together and the fire was lit for us to sit around, Jim and I came back together and made the new podcast.

Around the Grandfather Fire allows us to expand our content in both time and depth, something we had talked about wistfully at varying times on our older show. The app we use also allows us to interact with our listeners and guests. With the Anchor app we are hosting the content on listeners can send us voice messages that we can then integrate into the show.

So, if you have thoughts you want to share with us or you want us to explore, questions you want to ask, or guests you want us to interview, use the Anchor app, or email Jim at James at thewanderingowl.com or I at my email Sarenth at gmail.com.

Places to find Around the Grandfather Fire:

Anchor

Facebook

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We can also be found on iTunes, Podcast Addict, and, of course, the Anchor app.

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 hereon 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 reactionto 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 orscientific 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 hugris 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 beall 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 thatscience 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 thatits missionis 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 somethingto 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, andour 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.

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