A couple of months ago, I read an article by Anglo-Saxon Heathen Swain Wodening on the subject of Divine patronage. It was such a beautiful example of a Heathen missing the point, that I saved the link so that when the PBP week for ‘P’ came around, I could comment and that’s just what I’m going to do today. The original article can be found here: http://swainwodening.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/patronage/ and I strongly suggest before reading my piece that folks go there and read Wodening’s thoughts, so you can A) make up your own mind on his article and the topic at hand and B) have the appropriate context with which to read my article here.
First of all, there seems to be an assumption –and this is not just in Wodening’s article, but generally within Heathenry---that ‘patronage’ means focusing one’s attention on one Deity to the exclusion of all others, almost as though it’s some twisted version of monotheism creeping into polytheistic practice. That’s not necessarily the case, no more than having a spouse means you never talk to anyone of the opposite sex again. (Probably a poor analogy but I’m still on my first cup of coffee so y’all are going to have to deal with it).
Then of course, there’s the misguided idea that the purpose of patronage is to extort favors and gifts, or blessings from the Deity in question. Wodening writes in the first two lines of his article: “The idea behind it is that one dedicates one’s self [sic] to a single deity, and seeks special insight, favors, or gifts from them.” This is a common idea in Heathenry that doesn’t just crop up with the concept of patronage, but with the concept of prayer, ritual, and offering in general. There’s an overwhelming idea within the community that the only reason to pray (or do ritual or any other devotionally oriented practice) is to ask for things. There’s not really any community wide comprehension that one can have a relationship, a deeply satisfying, mutually beneficial, and intently engaged relationship that is not based around the need to constantly be making requests. It’s almost as though the dominant trope of Heathen spirituality is an immature one, where the Gods are only there to grant wishes. Anything more, anything approximating a more devotionally aware spirituality is suspect. (I suppose the idea is ‘why pray if you can’t get things? What are these Gods for anyway?’ because of course, it’s all about us and what we can get).
Magnanimously, of course, Wodening allows that there’s nothing wrong with the abovementioned type of attitude toward patronage. Of course, it’s also not what having a Divine patron is all about, which Wodening would know, if he actually had one (which, in his article, he implies he does not). I should mention that I do not fault someone for having or not having a Patron. Whether one does or does not have such a relationship with a Deity or Deities does not, in fact, make one a better or worse Heathen than anyone else. It’s not a matter of personal value or worth, something that I’m going to be coming back to a little later on in this article. I just wanted to get that out of the way now, because I think the assumption that having a Patron somehow makes one “better” is part of the reason that the concept is so problematic amongst Heathens who don’t.
There is an unfortunate idea that crops up in Heathenry again and again (ok, there are a lot of unfortunate ideas that crop up in Heathenry repeatedly, this is just the one I happen to be focusing on today) that the Gods only took an interest in Heathens of the past, kings and heroes and other (to use Wodening’s terminology) “extraordinary” people, of whom there aren’t many running around today. I find it particularly ironic that Wodening specifically notes—before any other descriptive factor-- that to have the attention of a Deity one must be independently wealthy. What a marvelous indicator of character and spiritual excellence. How 20th century. How Protestant.(1)
That’s really part of the problem, you see. So much of contemporary Heathen culture, far from being rooted in anything indigenous, is rooted in a deeply Protestant mindset. When I was doing my first graduate degree, I read a book by Max Weber called “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” I was expecting to be rather bored, but instead, I was shocked –as the saying goes—to my foundation. What Weber describes in his work was, essentially, what I saw every day within contemporary American Heathenry.(2) While I had long suspected that the high percentage of Heathens having converted from Protestant fundamentalisms might have something to do with certain unfortunate aspects of community attitudes, until I read and studied Weber’s work, beginning with this text, I had no idea of how deeply entrenched the Protestant Weltanschauung was within the contemporary Heathen world.
What does this mean for our discussion here? Well, for starters (and I’ll even itemize it in a list to make things easy):
- For starters, a high value is placed on finding fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form of moral activity (Weber, my paraphrase, p. 40). Involvement and engagement with the world –not a bad thing, in fact, quite a necessary thing—becomes the only acceptable form of religious expression. This consciously and adamantly excludes monasticism, mysticism, and anything approximating direct engagement with the Powers.
- The more emotional aspects of religious life are viewed with suspicion at best and hostility at worst. Anything which is not placed securely in the mundane world is viewed with suspicion. (Weber, p. 76).
- A repudiation of anything spiritual (outside of focus on the world), emotional (within the realm of spirituality) and esoteric permeates the religion. This goes hand in hand with a distrust of anything sensual. (Really, have you seen contemporary Heathen aesthetics?). If it involves the body, it’s suspect….(see my article below on ordeal work. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had Heathens ask me, with some desperation, ‘why does it have to be so body focused’?).
- A very prosaic rationality stands as the driving force behind both Protestant and Heathen ethics, to a degree that attempts not only to leave no room for Mystery, but to quash and destroy it. Direct engagement with the Powers is no longer viewed as a rational or worthwhile goal.
- In something almost like a certain twisted Calvinism, there’s an unconscious worry about whether or not one is of the spiritual elect. Of course, no Heathen would phase it that way, but I believe this question of moral, personal, and spiritual value is at the heart of much of the discomfort and controversy of issues like Patronage. After all, this attitude says, if one has a close relationship with a Deity, isn’t that person saying he or she is better than everyone else?
- A discomfort with religious ceremony, particularly if there are any ecstatic or mystic elements. (Weber, p. 61). This is one of the reasons that early Protestants stripped their churches of anything sensual or lush that spoke to the sensorium.
- An obsession with rugged individualism and supremacy of personal will. (see Weber, p. 72)
- A deeply rooted antagonism to anything smacking of aristocracy or the elite. The majority of American Heathens are staunchly working class and for all the talk about the need to be well versed in lore, there is, I believe, a deep distrust of intellectualism and education….we argue lore not like academics but like Baptist bible scholars and there’s a world of difference in critical thinking between the two and that bleeds over into the dominant community dynamic. This, of course, impacts community response to things like patronage, which can be (incorrectly) viewed as a type of spiritual elitism.
- Finally, to go back to Wodening’s comment on wealth as a sign of Divine favor, nothing could be more Protestant. The idea that one’s state in life is a direct indicator of one’s character and the state of one’s soul is at the core of Weber’s treaties on Protestant ethics and the rise of Capitalism.(3)
I’m throwing these ideas out as food for thought. I’d like to add to the mix the fact that the secularism of American society is, in reality, deeply Christian. In fact, it’s specifically Protestant.(4) All of these things have seeped into Heathenry from the beginning of its restoration without examination, without conscious awareness. All of it impacts the way a huge swath of American Heathens view aspects of spiritual life and its expression, things like the potential for Patronage.
The real problem is what patronage implies: that a person has a special relationship with a Deity. I think this is, however, yet another area where Wodening’s article misses the mark. He doesn’t seem to clearly differentiate between ‘dedication’ to a Deity and ‘Patronage.” Oh, he notes that he’s dedicated to Woden and Frigga and is quick to point out that much can be gained from working with more than one Deity but he doesn’t clearly delineate the difference between the two facets of practice. he also assumes, incorrectly, (as I’ve already noted) that someone in a Patronage relationship with a Deity will only honor or in his parlance ‘work with’ that Deity, as though Patronage excludes polytheism which is a particularly vexing binary way of viewing things. Only in monotheism does devotion to one God nullify and exclude one’s ability to honor Others. It’s not an ‘either/or.’
The difference between dedication and patronage, by the way, is a rather important one. In dedicating oneself to a Deity or group of Deities, the human being is initiating the dedication. What Wodening doesn’t seem to grasp about Patronage is that it’s not initiated by the human being in question, it’s Deity driven.(5) Use of the term implies that the Deity chose the person, not the other way around, and that is often (incorrectly) taken to imply that such a person is somehow special and particularly deserving of the Deity’s attention. This in fact, is an even bigger issue for most Heathens than the idea of spiritual elitism. In allowing for patronage, one is allowing for the possibility of a Deity driven spirituality. One is allowing for the possibility that the Gods can act directly and indisputably in our lives. One is also allowing for the possibility that They might exert a claim on some but not others, that spirituality is not a completely egalitarian field.(6)
In fact, I think that is my biggest issue with Wodening’s article, not that he finds the concept of patronage problematic, but that he misunderstands from the outset its nature. His article clearly assumes that the impetus for patronage comes from the human end of the equation. No thought appears to be given to what the Deity my want, or even to the possibility that a Deity might initiate such a relationship. Second to this, is the neat dismissal of Deity attention as something given only to the ‘elite.’ This automatically – whether this was the intended effect or not—makes engaged spirituality and devotion something relegated to the purview of specialists.
- Not to mention the dubious ability of someone who is, by his own words un-extraordinary, to judge and accurately evaluate how extraordinary someone else might be.
- I’m only commenting on American Heathenry here.
- See “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber. From this, the Victorians drew their ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor, by the way.
- See “Secularisms” by Pellegrini and Jakobsen and “Love the Sin” by the same authors.
- Even in relationships of human-human patronage, it is the dominant partner who determines whether or not to assume patronage. One may petition all one likes, but if the dominant partner (in the case of spiritual patronage, the Deity) doesn’t agree and initiate the relationship, it doesn’t exist.
- We do so like to invest spiritual attainment with moral and personal value. I do not believe that having the patronage of a Deity has anything to do with one’s personal worth. I think this is a matter of Mystery. I don’t know that there’s any easy answer to “why him and not me?” I do not, however, think it has a thing to do with personal worth, value, or goodness.
I'm really excited about this news. There's a Freya shrine available and it's beautiful! I've been slowly being pushed to honor this Goddess a bit more, so this particular shrine is dear to my heart. I'm really overjoyed to see it go live. Check it out here
: http://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/freya/welcome.html and hail, Freya!
Throughout this Pagan Blog Project, I’ve consciously avoided writing about specific Deities. When I wrote my L is for Loki article though (http://krasskova.weebly.com/1/post/2012/06/pagan-blog-project-l-is-for-loki.html) I knew almost immediately that I had to write about Odin as well. I have belonged to Odin for close to twenty years but somehow, at times I find it tremendously difficult to actually write about Him. Putting together a collection of devotional poetry is easy; writing a simple blog article about the God that has redefined and reordered my life, not so much. Still, I’m going to try because I feel that I owe Him and perhaps myself too, the attempt.
People often ask me how I knew that I was claimed by Odin. I’m always puzzled by that question. I never, ever know how to adequately answer it. The truthful answer (a description of the direct experience) would frighten and the equally truthful but less personal answer (“trust me, you know”) would seem overly facile and perhaps even condescending. But how exactly does one explain what it is like to swallow a whirlwind or take beneath one’s skin the icy burn of a glacier’s fire? I’ve found that when I do take the time to explain in detail, not only does it often frighten the listener, but experiences that to me are the most sublime ecstasy and joy seem to the listener a horror. Some things cannot be explained; they must be experienced in order to be fully comprehended.
This is actually the core mystery of initiation. It is the nature of ‘mystery’ itself. It cannot be understood through reading. It cannot be understood through study. It cannot be understood through words alone, no matter how eloquent the speaker. It can only be understood through direct experience, through crossing the threshold of engagement itself. Sometimes that experience can be searing. Sometimes it can be ecstatic. One doesn’t come back (or through) such experiences the same person and sometimes one doesn’t come back at all. That is the core of an initiatory experience and it highlights –when it is a legitimate initiation—the mutual dance in which the dangerous and the sacred are always engaged. Initiation is a complete and utter transformation of the self, -- an opening up, a taking apart, a restoration--through direct encounter with the Holy. It is that which rips away one’s devotional innocence, ravages the spirit, impregnating it with both an all-consuming ecstasy and a hunger for more (and the dubious ‘wisdom’ of the GOP notwithstanding, *sarcasm* we don’t necessarily have ways of shutting its effects down). The doorway to initiation is a precipice, one which can never be crossed twice, or become uncrossed, undone, un-experienced, un-remembered.
I see Odin very much as a God of initiation. He certainly is a God of extremes. There’s no middle ground with Him. He is a God Who very much seeks always to ‘suck the marrow’ out of every possible experience, every possible devotee. It is all or nothing for those who are His. Being His, at least from my experience, is sometimes very much like an unending series of preparing for initiation, undergoing initiation, and surviving, remade and wrapped in the whirlwind of ecstasy that such experiences often bring. He is initiation. I believe that this may hold true for all Gods to a degree, but with Odin, it is something essential to His nature.
He delights in taking one’s innocence. He delights in bringing wisdom and always there is a hunger for more, deeper, more intense, more authentic experience. Whether I’m talking about Odin here, or those who belong to Him…well, I’m not quite sure. We eventually become a reflection of Him to a certain degree, as much as any mortal may reflect the immensity of a God. He fills and remakes those He owns, faceting their natures until – when He wishes it—He may pour through the channels He has made within their minds, hearts, and spirits raging out upon Midgard. We are doorways for Him, meat suits that He may wear or work through whenever He wishes. It is the initiation of His [ongoing] presence that makes us so.
He is madness and rage, exaltation and ecstasy, joy and terror and everything in between. Most of all, He is hunger, raw, un-sated, never ending hunger. As He learned civilization, He learned to discipline the expression of this hunger, but it is always there, at His core, metallic, dangerous, burning. Being His is like throwing yourself into that maw of ravening hunger, falling into the Gap, having one’s nerve endings taken up by fire, being strung between two worlds, being devoured. It is agonyecstasyterrorjoydeathendingrestorationcompletenesslosspassiondestructionlaughterorgasmexaltation and a thousand, thousand other things….words do not possess the ability to begin describing the experience of Him -- ironic, given that He is a God so skilled in language. It seems almost cliché to say that while all Gods are dangerous, Odin is danger. Some of us like that though and it is true. Some of us crave it, crave Him like a drug. That’s the danger of being His as well: He becomes an addiction. I think He likes that though, binding His people to Him through our very hungers, our need – a need that He birthed in us. It has a certain poetry, a certain balance.
When I write about Odin, particularly my devotional poetry, (I actually, to my amusement, initially misspelled that as ‘pietry’), I have a tendency to use rather brutal imagery. He is brutal, in what He takes and what He gives. Initiation can be brutal too. It is beautiful but it can be brutal. There is sacrifice inherent in the experience, not only of initiation itself but in readying oneself for such an encounter too. To enter into the process of initiation –however long or short a time it might last---is to open oneself up, to be opened up, and to lay oneself down/raise oneself up in a state of complete vulnerability. That may be horrifying to those who have not undergone such encounters, and pure ecstasy to those who have. Either way it’s terrifying. Perhaps initiations just teach one to ride that terror a little bit more effectively. Terror is inevitable.
Odin is terror. He is that. He doesn’t often show that side of Himself to me (though it’s there, under the more appealing facades He sometimes chooses to wear), but I saw it once. He came to me once when I was alone in the woods, came to me a corpse walking, came to me as Yggr, reeking of death, reeking of terror. I was unable to do anything else, no matter how much I longed to go to Him, than fall to my knees with my face covered. When I returned to the living, I was infused with that terror too. I stank of death and none would come near for a very long time. That was my initiation as His valkyrie. That was my last chance to flee. That is His mystery as well, a thing to be savored, perhaps even sought out over the hurdles of terror that rise in the way. When I sought out the place where He had come, the next day, in the light, all the trees there had been felled in a circle, as though by a great storm. He, however, had been the only storm that had passed that place in the night.
With some initiations the question of whether or not one is ‘ready’ becomes irrelevant. We do not control the process. We do not choose the time and place of our initiations. We can go through all the rituals we want, but only the Gods and ancestors can determine the true time of initiatory rending. Nor can initiation be demanded. A friend and colleague told me once that this was the lesson that Dionysus gave him: initiation cannot be approached with a sense of entitlement. It is not for us to say when we are ready, that a thing should be given. I did not seek Odin out. He came for me. What I had done, and what everyone can do, is prepare for the possibility of initiation: we all have it in our capacity to ready ourselves, our minds, hearts, and spirits through devotion, through mindful cultivation of respect, piety, proper behavior to the Gods, our ancestors, each other. Through consistently seeking out the expression of devotion, of patterning the heart and mind in the habit of receptivity to the Gods (through ritual, through prayer, through offerings, through contemplation, study, and right action) we can prepare so that when the whirlwind comes, we can be transformed, we can ride its heavings, instead of being swept away.
This summer, in my Greek class, I read Euripides’ “The Bacchae.” To someone who is owned by a God like Odin, and who also respects Dionysus (He is a main character in the play), this play is the most terrifying piece of literature that I have ever read. It’s about the mysteries of Dionysus, and an impious man who sought to interfere in things for which he had not been initiated, who sought to profane the mysteries of the God, and to attack His initiates. It reinforced lessons that my time with Odin had already taught me: it is an impiety – and a senseless danger---to muck about with Mystery when one has not been initiated. It is dangerous and great harm can come from such a thing. To comprehend Mystery, one must be initiated and that is a thing that comes from the hands of one’s Gods alone. All we can do is prepare ourselves.
I have a colleague who is a devotee of Dionysus and he and I have often discussed the similarities between our respective Gods. So I’ll leave you with his words for though I do not belong to Dionysus, as Odin’s, I completely concur: yes, THIS:
"I must proclaim that the gods and spirits are real, that they cannot be reduced to this vague concept of the universal divine. That we feel them and talk to them and sometimes they take hold of us and drive us insane. That the greatest gifts of the gods often come about as a result of that madness. That our gods are earthy and sensual and wild and dangerous. That we dance and feast and shout and bleed and cry and fuck and get intoxicated for them, and that this is right and necessary and the essence of true worship as we Dionysians understand it. That we must pursue liberation and wholeness with everything in our power, no matter what sacrifices it requires, what painful things must be endured or how the pursuit deforms and damages us along the way. And if that scares people and makes them uncomfortable, so be it." --Sannion
There is nothing more that I can say.
I’ve been terribly remiss about posting my Pagan Blog Project posts the last few weeks (six weeks to be exact!). I’m afraid summer classes ate up a good deal of my free time so I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks getting caught up starting with this article on ordeal.
Perhaps no aspect of my work has caused more controversy or garnered more slander and personal attack than my work as an ordeal dancer and master. Ordeal work is a contemporary term referring to a body of practices that often (though not always) utilize the careful application of pain to create an altered state of consciousness, or to achieve another spiritual goal (increased receptivity to one’s Gods, the making of an offering, breaking down of a fear and finding one’s courage, etc.). In the contemporary Northern Tradition, the ordeal path is viewed as one of the many paths to achieving an altered state (the altered state being a necessary pre-requisite toward accomplishing certain types of spiritual work).(1) An ordeal dancer is one who engages in personal ordeals whereas an ordeal master is one who is trained to facilitate such ordeals for others. Ordeal is not an invention of the Northern Tradition. These self-same practices appear across religions and cultures from the dawn of time. They keep reappearing for one reason: they work.
Now, not everyone is suitable for ordeal work. It’s not a body of techniques that will work for everyone. That in no way should be taken to privilege ordeal, by the way: no technique works for everyone. Still, for those who have an affinity for ordeal, these practices can be amazingly effective. Why would someone subject themselves to frightening or painful rituals? Well, the reasons are, in reality, very likely as varied as the individuals who choose to engage in such rites:
- A Deity has requested it: this was certainly the case for me with my nine worlds ordeal cycle and I’ve known many other ordeal dancers for whom this is equally the case. Sometimes, for whatever reason, this is what one’s Gods request.
- One wishes to make an offering: in some cases, depending on the devotee and the Deity in question, ordeal makes a powerful offering.
Despite loud protestations to the contrary (by many people who have never, ever undergone ordeal, mind you), ordeal is not:
- Expiation: sometimes, when one has deeply offended a particular Deity or family of Deities, an ordeal will be requested, or divination or discernment will indicate that an ordeal is the appropriate way to make amends. For instance, I know of someone who deeply offended the God Set and who in offering and expiation got a large skin removal, in a particular design, on his back. Divination had been done and this was what came up as the acceptable payment of the debt.
- Hunting for Power: by undergoing an ordeal one will find the limits of one’s endurance or courage, face down a fear, in some way deal with a trauma, acquire allies in one of the other realms, acquire specific skills, earn a measure of respect from one’s allies, or gain access to specific lines of power.
- Initiation: this is particularly so when ritual psycho-drama forms part of the ordeal process.
In fact, at the core of ordeal work lies the concept of respect for one’s personal agency. Nor would any ordeal master ever facilitate ordeal non-consensually. That goes against the very nature of ordeal. By the way, I’m often asked in fact, when I lecture on the topic of ordeal, what the difference is between someone who engages in ordeal work and someone who engages in self-harm. This question inevitably arises both in academic circles and amongst both polytheists and spiritworkers who do not practice ordeal. It’s a good question, and its answer goes right to the heart of what ordeal is all about. The answer is simple: the difference between the two is personal agency. Someone who engages in self-harm is not acting from a place of personal agency, power, or choice. Someone engaging in ordeal is making the conscious choice to utilize a specific tool in order to accomplish a particular goal. They do not need to do ordeal. They are not, one hopes, addicted to the practice. In fact, many of us don’t particularly like it. I know I approach any ordeal I must undergo or facilitate with a certain amount of dread. It rather goes with the territory.
- rape/sexual assault
I’m also often asked (or the affirmative answer is assumed) that I and other ordeal workers must, of necessity, be masochists (people who derive pleasure from pain). Nothing could be farther from the truth. I do not like pain. In fact, I try to avoid it to the best of my ability. I have a chronic pain condition, a gift from my first career (ballet), which involved a good deal of physical pain on a daily basis. The point in that career was never pain and in ordeal the point is not pain. Some ordeals don’t involve anything physical at all. The point is getting to a particular place and headspace and ordeal –often with the attendant pain—is the most efficient means of doing so. Pain is irrelevant in that it is a by product or a tool, not the purpose of the ordeal.(2)
I realize this may be difficult for non-ordeal workers to really grasp: it has nothing to do with the pain involved, nor with any specific technique. Ordeal is what gets us to a particular point, which enables us to do what we need to do for a specific purpose. Many of the techniques involved are highly charged. The typical ordeal worker will utilize flogging, branding, cutting, needle play, ritual psychodrama, tattooing, sensory deprivation, and dozens of other techniques depending on their personal preference, the preferences of their Deities, and what is available in terms of human resources at the time (i.e. what ordeal masters are available to them and what training and skills do those ordeal masters possess?). These techniques may (and often do) seem horrific and torturous to non-ordeal workers.
Added to this, many ordeal workers train with people active in the BDSM community. For some, the idea of BDSM can also be somewhat challenging. Mind you, the ordeal worker may or may not also be active in that community, but even if they are not, it’s often necessary to seek out technical training from this particular community. Why? Because there is a great deal of cross-over with specific techniques. A single tail whip is a single tail whip regardless of who might be wielding it. If I needed to learn to utilize one, I’d seek out a master. Odds are, that person will probably come from the BDSM community. Most of us who function as ordeal masters will go to great lengths to ensure that we are adequately trained. I may be called upon to inflict pain on a person in the course of an ordeal, but if they are in pain, it should be so because the ordeal demanded it, it was worked out beforehand with the person, and I consciously applied it, not because of my own lack of training or competency.(3) Harm is not the point of an ordeal.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the ordeal path twins best with either the ascetics path or the sex path. The former involves a tremendous amount of personal discipline, paring down, and opening up by going within; the latter involves utilizing sex and sexual engagement to open oneself up in a different kind of emotional and spiritual receptivity.(4) Thus one often finds ordeal dancers who also walk one of these other paths. In reality, most of us utilize a combination of techniques, “paths,” tools to get our work done. Ordeal is only a small part of that process.
Ordeal forces us to confront our own shadow. It forces us to face our fear and it forces us to deal with our shit. Pain is medicine (or it can be for some people): it cuts through our bullshit, our facades, our manipulations, our ego like nothing else. It takes us deeper than we can sometimes go ourselves and allows us to reach places within of deep integrity and vulnerability. That too is inherent in ordeal: it takes one to a deeply vulnerable place emotionally and spiritually. That is its magic, its medicine, perhaps its purpose.
- The other primary ways of reaching an altered state and enhancing one’s spiritual receptivity are prayer/breath, ritual work, rhythm/dance, ascetic practices, the use of plants, sexually based practices, and divine possession. None of these practices work for everyone and in the case of some (like ordeal and possessory work), a certain level of inborn wiring is required for them to work at all.
- In fact, I would think a masochist would make a problematic ordeal dancer. If one is deriving pleasure from the ordeal then it’s not much of an ordeal, the necessary biochemical and neurological changes are not occurring, and the requisite state of spiritual and emotional receptivity will not be reached. If I have an ordeal dancer who is a masochist (and this is something we would discuss in the course of planning the ordeal), I would find out what practices specifically caused pleasure and make sure the ordeal did not utilize them.
- For this reason, many of us develop a good network of referrals. No one person needs to know every technique. I don’t work with hooks, for instance; but if someone came to me wanting an ordeal that involved them, I’d give them an excellent referral. For the same reason, I recently turned down a request from a colleague for an ordeal that would involve flogging with a single tail. I’m good with a cat o’ nine tails. That is what I trained with; using a single tail is a completely different set of techniques, I’m not that good (I never have time to practice) and I would have done harm. Harm is not EVER the point of an ordeal.
- Should readers be wondering, I came from the ascetics path into ordeal…which should come as no surprise to anyone who understands what training for and maintaining a career in ballet involves.
Last week, a colleague sent me this article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2012/08/guest-post-humanist-paganism-on-the-rise.html, asking my thoughts on the whole matter. Needless to say, I was pretty appalled at the whole thing, both the misuse of the word ‘humanist’ in this article, and that this nonsense should be creeping into Paganism and Heathenry, and I fired off a quick response on my facebook. I wasn’t able to sit down to write anything more in the interim, as I had houseguests, leaving me with very little time to actually get on the computer. Still, I’ve been thinking about this article all week and I think that the topic is important enough, that it deserves something more than a quickly worded, vociferous response. To be fair, I’m not sure this is going to be that well-reasoned response; I still find myself incredibly disgusted with the original article.
I’ve noticed over the past few years (both in Heathenry and in various branches of Paganism) that growth of dabblers, dilettantes, and other nonsense is on the rise. I remember attending a Pagan Studies conference in Santa Clara a few years ago (I was presenting a paper), and having the dubious fortune of sitting next to a very well known name in contemporary Wicca. She began to talk to me about the Morrigan and I was delighted. I love this Goddess dearly and so happily asked about this woman’s experiences, and how she honored Her, etc. All of that went right over the woman’s head. It was clear within twenty seconds of talking to her, that not only did she have no devotional relationship whatsoever with the Morrigan (she made masks for some performance art project and had made a Morrigan mask), but there was no acknowledgement that the Gods exist outside of her own psyche either. The Gods were merely psychological foils to better work out the issues in her life. It was incomprehensible to her, or so it seemed, that Gods were…you know, GODS. Her whole spirituality – if one could call it that---was centered around making herself feel good. It was people-oriented in a way that left very little room for anything approximating devotion or piety.
It was the same nonsense I had encountered at a COG meeting a couple of years earlier (at which I was invited to also present), the type of impiety that caused every polytheist there (of which there weren’t many) to grow very uncomfortable. I remember Michael York was speaking about the archetypical nature of the Gods (see above for my thoughts on that nonsense) and a Hellenic polytheist challenged him. There had been much talk that weekend about finding common ground and respect across traditions and as my Hellenic colleague rightly pointed out: respect and piety are hard lines for polytheists. You’re talking about building bridges and developing cross-tradition respect and yet the moment you start pushing archetypism as a universal trope, you hit our hard line. We’re not going to be disrespectful to our Gods to make you feel comfortable. (now obviously I don’t remember her exact words but this was the jist of them and it impressed me enough for the incident to have stuck with me: both what she said and the fact she beat me to it. Lol). I had thought at first, that these attitudes were aberrations, that there wasn’t this level of utter disregard for the Holy Powers but in the intervening years, I’ve come to realize to my horror, that this is pandemic. Polytheist restoration doesn’t just have to fight the monotheistic filter that so defines our society, we don’t just have to fight our own ingrained biases, we have to fight this shit as well within our own community.
Onto Brendan Myers article. Within the first paragraph, he defines himself as an atheist. Right there, I have to ask: why are you pissing in Paganism’s sandbox? If you’re an atheist go away. You have your own community. Why are you mucking about in ours? We don’t need this level of disrespect for the Gods gaining ground or legitimacy. We have enough from people who purport to actually believe in the Gods. If you’re an atheist, why are you setting yourself up as a Pagan philosopher?
Then, we have the misuse of the word ‘humanist.’ The term ‘humanism’ refers to a type of ethics centered on human morality. While contemporary usage of the word may at times be somewhat ambiguous, there is nothing in ‘humanism’ that need cancel out religious belief and devotion. Where I find it lacking is that when twinned with religious belief, it often centers around human needs and interests, wants and desires, abilities and potential instead of centering around devotion to the Gods. Still, the term is not in any way synonymous with ‘atheist.’
Most disturbing, I find, throughout the article is the blanket conflation of any spiritual engagement with ‘woo.’ I see this in Heathenry a lot, usually from people who want to erase spirituality from the Heathen equation. There is a trend, a push to make those normative aspects of any healthy spirituality: prayer, meditation, devotional work something that is largely relegated to the fringes of the community or only to specialists, people like shamans, spiritworkers, or maybe priests whose job it is to engage with the Powers. Personally, not only is this a spiritual cop-out on the part of the community, but it’s also devastating to the growth of the religion itself. Why bother practicing a religion if one is going to remove all the religious aspects from it? Go and join a LARP, or maybe the SCA instead.
Myers writes that his self-described ‘humanist pagans,’ tend to be interested in science, and take inspiration from scientists as much as from Starhawk or Crowley. He praises them for their critical, scientific eye, their love of folklore and mythology….as though Pagans who are actually pious and devoted to the Gods don’t’ share these traits. Obviously, he’s been hanging around with the wrong sort of Pagans, if that’s the case. Most polytheists I know are very well educated, and very interested in science, mythology, and the humanities.
Then, he compares his Humanist Pagans to ancient Pagans of Greece and Rome in what I find to be the single most ludicrous statement in the entire article (and my friends, there were many). Pagans of Greece and Rome, despite whatever they may have believed privately, were generally conscientious in performing the appropriate rituals and behaving with a modicum of piety. In fact, Epicureanism counseled its adherents to maintain all the traditional rituals. They were not atheists (if anyone is interested, shoot me an email and I’ll send you reams of academic article references). Their idea of the nature of the Gods may have been far different from the average non-philosopher, but they were not in any way atheistic. The same could be said for the Stoics. In fact, Stoicism became one of the primary rivals to Christianity in the early Common Era.
The article isn’t all bad. Myers points out:
“Remember, the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans. Our Pagan intellectual heritage includes poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Cicero, just to name a few, all lived in pagan societies. Some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, such as Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome, were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. And speaking of Pagan societies: some of today’s highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet that fact is almost always ignored when people study the origins of western civilization. In the face of anti-pagan prejudices, it might be better to point to accomplishments like these, than to something mostly amorphous like “freedom”.
I just find it pathetic that he looks at this and ascribes reverence and piety toward the Gods as unsophisticated. Myers here seems to suffer from the same anti- Pagan prejudice that a few lines before this, he notes in others. Then he goes on to praise human rationality (which yes, is a good and positive thing, if you can find it) equating it with spirituality. I see in Myers the same tendency toward spiritual hubris: the elevation of humanity above the Gods, that so poisons Heathenry. Myers is openly condescending in his writing toward Pagans who are actually polytheist, or (to steal my colleague Dver’s term “devotional polytheists”), implying that one cannot be devotionally engaged and intellectually critical at the same time (which is nonsense).
I have often noticed that people who are actually spiritually connected to individual Deities make those wading in shallow spiritual waters uncomfortable. Fetishizing human intellect to the level of the Divinity isn’t intellectually more challenging—as Myers so facilely writes; it’s sad and it’s a spiritual cop-out. This is precisely the type of ‘theology’ that I’ve seen coming out of both interfaith and “Pagan” seminaries over the past few years: devotionally bereft, borderline impious, very well trained philosophers for whom the Gods are irrelevant or at best psychological constructs. These folks do sound great on paper though—none of that pesky polytheism to make academics and mainstream folks uncomfortable. It’s very similar to a philosophy/theory/mess (not quite sure what to call it) that is growing in popularity in interfaith circles currently: integral theory.
I think even less of integral theory than I do of Myers’ humanist paganism. It’s the type of thing that could only have come from a post-modern, post-conquest white man. It places humans above the Gods, looking at the Gods as little more than facets of the same reality (if it doesn’t dismiss them as archetypes all together). There’s no acknowledgement of the need to engage, honor, sacrifice/offer to the Powers; instead They’re viewed as servicing the advancement of humankind. It reinforces and repeats the same hierarchy of religions that I’ve found in the academic field of Religious Studies: dismissing polytheism, animism and anything indigenous as ‘primitive’ or, in integral theory-speak on the lower rungs of human evolution. It’s what a colleague of mine calls, and rightly so, I think: ‘flat-earth thinking’.
I very much hope this is not a growing trend in contemporary polytheism. We have enough problems with hubris and impiety with out this coming into the mix. I tend to agree with Dver, who commented early on in the comments section of the original post: the point of Paganism is not to make every person feel welcome. The point is to worship the Gods.
Well, folks, this year’s Etinmoot might well have better been called Monsoon-moot. LOL. each day brought with it a most impressive deluge and my heart went out to those attendees who were camping in the back field at Cauldron Farm (where the event was held, though it’s not a Cauldron Farm event). I, being old and cranky, chose instead to stay at a nearby hotel. Hah.
The first night I arrived, I chose to skip the two rituals. I was scheduled to carry Mani via possession on Saturday and I arrived in MA Friday feeling a bit under the weather. I was just getting over the very tail end of a migraine that had side lined me for the better part of ten days (the perils of being in a grad program that requires heavy translation and thus many long hours pouring over dictionaries) and I wanted to rest Friday night in order that I might be in top shape for Mani the day following. That being the case, I can’t speak from direct experience about the events of Friday night. Having gotten a report from those attending, however, I can tell you that there was a lovely ritual to Gerda which took place in the gardens attached to the house. There is a huge herb garden and nestled amongst the lady’s mantle and other medicinal herbs is a carved god-pole to Gerda. So Etinmoot began with folks having gathered in the garden for a ritual to this Goddess.
After a break for dinner and to allow people to get settled (many were camping and needed to set up tents), there was a ritual to Angurboda. Originally it was planned that She would be carried via possession (what we call ‘horsing’) but the requisite horse was also ill and Angurboda chose not to come (I would have been more than willing to go over, recovering from a migraine or not, to horse Her, but the ritual facilitator did not know that I could carry Her). This was a blessing and a grace as horsing can be exhausting and is not the best health choice when one is ill. So instead, there was ritual honoring Her.
Saturday dawned grey and rainy. We began the day with a powerful ancestor ritual. First, [ancestor worker and author] L. Patsouris and I gave an hour and a half talk on honoring the ancestors, how one goes about it, why it’s important, and how it works all peppered with personal anecdotes. Then we led a group ancestor ritual. We spread a cloth on the ground and as we chanted and sang for our dead, people came forward and made offerings (food, drink, tobacco, etc.) to their individual ancestors. We honored our collective foremother, mitochondrial Eve, and many of our lineage ancestors. It was tremendously powerful (I drummed the ground with my ancestor staff until my hands were blistered and didn’t even realize it until the rite was over). Several people sent me names of their ancestors and honored dead, which I read off and for whom I made offerings before the rite was finished. (For those of you who want to learn more about honoring the ancestors, please check the ‘ancestors’ tags at the left. I also highly recommend “Weaving Memory” by Laura Patsouris, available at amazon.com).
There was an hour break after the ancestor ritual so folks could ground and also perhaps get some lunch. I chose not to eat very much because I knew that I’d be carrying Mani in a couple of hours. I wasn’t quite sure that He would come down….everything felt different than it usually does before He possesses. Having carried Him for several years now at Etinmoot (He is most beloved in our community), I had a set of expectations built up based on that experience, about how it would feel as He was opening my head up and preparing to possess. Mani tends to be subtle and to seep in, little by little, rather than drop like a thunderclap into the consciousness---and He also tends to be a gentle “ride.” He leaves the “horse” in the same condition in which HE found him or her, which is also not generally the case. Over and above that, however, there is a sense of His presence, a comforting recognition of Who and What He is that starts about an hour before He seats Himself fully in the head of the one carrying Him. Those overtones were definitely Mani but very, very different in feel from how He normally comes. They were darker, more somber, almost with an edge of restrained anger.
In fact, I got the distinct feeling that it was very nearly Sinthgunt Who came rather than Mani. Sometimes after a possession, whilst I don’t recall the possession itself, I can get traces of feeling, sensation of where the God has passed through the channels of my consciousness. In retrospect, I feel strongly as though Sinthgunt almost came through to spare Her brother and to spare the horse (me) having to deal with Mani’s pain because when He came this time, He came in anguish.
I had a great ground crew (these are the dedicated people who tend to the “horse” before and after and attend the God or Goddess during the possession) and that was really, really crucial during this particular possession. The crew helped get me into Mani’s regalia (having special regalia for the Deity isn’t necessary, but it’s a nice and very, very helpful in helping the horse come back to themselves when the possession is done. There’s often disorientation and stripping off the Deity’s regalia and reclothing in normal, human clothes is a ritual and grounding process in and of itself) and it was rapidly clear by that point that He was already about ¾ seated. I was struggling with the last little bit because for the first time, it hurt. The crew helped draw Him in and my last conscious memory is of agonizing pain in my heart…not physical pain, but emotional.
Everything from here on out, which I shall note in italics, was relayed to me by my ground crew after the possession was finished and when we were debriefing later that evening, Sunday, and today.. I have pieced this account together from their recollections.
It was pouring and began to pour harder as Mani seated Himself fully. He said that He was mourning for His son and it was His wish that the heavens weep as well. A young man, Jon N. who was greatly beloved of both Mani and Hela died a few months ago and it was this young man about whom Mani was speaking as evinced by the fact that upon existing the large tent where He had been robed, He immediately asked His ground crew to take Him to Jon’s memorial, which was set up in a small grove some ways up a rocky path, a distance away from the field. Accompanied by His team, He went to visit the grave, grieved and apparently left a bracelet. (Mani habitually wears many necklaces, bracelets, etc. …all things that jangle and by which He keeps time and He is not averse to giving them out). Then He came back into the field, again accompanied by His team, to greet the assembled people. I should note that before He was fully seated, He said to me that He would show a face that He customarily keeps veiled and indeed, He requested that His face be half veiled by a black scarf. He had never before worn anything on His head.
In previous years, Mani has requested that there be dancing and music and so this had been prepared for Him this year. I am told that upon coming back to the assembled folk, His first act was to open and take into His arms a small child, my friend’s baby A. He apparently held her for some time, and blessed her before handing her back to her parents.
He sat for a time, watching, shared out some food and alcohol. He danced with His attendants but His mood was somber. At one point He wandered away from the people and went to sit in the middle of a labyrinth. His crew followed and He spoke with them a bit, noting that the Moon was not always mild and gentle and kind, that He was lord of the hungry scimitar, that there was a violence in Him that today He longed to unleash as He mourned His son. He said He wished He could show His harsher faces…to not have to put on a pleasant face…but that was not what the people gathered needed to see. he said, according to one attendant, that we all have our parts to play and so…He composed Himself and rose, going back to attend the people. (Mani has, as several Who have interacted with Him have noted, a deep and abiding sense of duty and responsibility).
To those Who had experienced Him before, He seemed harsher, darker, and anguished. To those who hadn’t, He seemed slightly more somber than usual but still the gentle, playful God.
He danced with His people and, from my perspective and given what was recounted to me later, went on a bit of a bender in my body. Apparently, after drinking half a bottle of sambuca, He shared the rest out to the group. He sipped a bit from a horn filled with marshmallow vodka and shared the horn around while drinking almost a full bottle Himself, straight *from* the bottle. He danced more violently and intensely than ever before and at one point, began to dance so violently that a voudoussaint present grabbed my body to stabilize Him (and prevent me from falling in seizure to the ground) because Mani was sliding out of me, but then Mani controlled Himself –and there was the sense of Him exerting a very conscious control—and repossessed.
I think, from the accounts that this was the point that Mani sat down and bade folks to come to Him if they wanted to speak and several did so, receiving His blessing. One of the crew said that while He was very gracious, there was a wryness about Him when He gave out the occasional moon-token. She said that Mani smiled and said “and now I shall give you a token because I’m told that’s what I do.” Once everyone who wanted to speak with Him had done so, Mani rose and departed, allowing His team to lead Him back into the tent.
At that point, I was more or less back and my team got me out of the regalia and into street clothes. He took most of the alcohol with Him, though not all…enough that I didn’t end up with alcohol poisoning and within an hour I was fine and sober and dandy. While my team drove me back to the hotel, Raven led a workshop and ritual to Jord, focusing on getting everyone properly grounded after the experience of Mani’s visit.
Later that night, they had a party for Loki, but I didn’t attend. I was tremendously sore from the Mani possession. My team told me that when He danced in my body, He swayed and bent and did things that my back, injured as it is, could not normally do. Also having Him walk across a sharp, rocky path to get to Jon’s memorial marker left my feet a sore, spasming mess. This is par for the course and after a soak in the hotel’s hot tub, a good dinner, and a muscle relaxant (I have prescription meds for my back for when it gets very sore or painful) I was fine, a little achy, but fine. That’s the thing with possession: a Being very large and powerful, immense, fits part of its consciousness into a very small human body. A bit of ache and cognitive discombobulation afterwards is normal.
Sunday morning was supposed to consist of two blots, one to Modgud and the final one to Loki but it was pouring so egregiously that we decided to close Etinmoot a little early. The two Deities in question will *not* be denied the promised sacrifices, however, they will be performed today by a colleague, and in far better weather. My concern yesterday was largely that with the poor weather, and how very sore my arms and hands were, I would not be able to insure technical proficiency for the sacrifices. One doesn’t just promise a Deity a thing and then not give it, however, so after making sure that the Gods in question were ok with postponing a day, we decided for very practical reasons to do so. Everyone bade each other goodbye and I and my crew headed back to NY, another successful Etinmoot under our belts.
I want to give a huge thank-you to my amazing ground crew: Jess, Laura, Elizabeth, and Matt. You guys did an amazing job in less than optimal conditions. I could not have had a better team. Bravi.