Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.
I have noticed an alarming trend in certain devotional communities and certainly amongst up and coming spirit-workers of late. Oh I suspect it's probably been an issue for awhile, but from my perspective it's now reaching such a critical mass that I and other spirit-workers are slowly being pushed to address it. I've watched this become more and more of an issue over the past few years and I just shake my head in utter incomprehension. What is this issue? It's the overwhelming need I see in so many spirit workers coming into the work now for external (and ongoing) validation. It's the constant attention seeking. It's the endless quest for a pat on the head.
Firstly, go and read this article by Sannion: http://thehouseofvines.com/2013/02/11/you-do-not-need-external-validation/. He lays it out for the reader. There is no way one can constantly give a god damn about external validation and still live a life of anything approaching integrity, and that goes a thousand times more for spiritual work. Go. Read his article. I"ll wait.
Have you read it? Good, let's continue. While that article about sums it up I'm going to add my two cents too, because I've been really concerned about this of late. Spiritual work is hard. it's the hardest thing that a person will ever commit to doing. It's ongoing too from the moment we're born, the only choice we have is how well we choose to step up and actively, consciously, willingly engage. Doing that takes courage. It takes sacrifice; and sometimes it takes some very hard, frighteningly hard choices. I have had to do things, say things, stand up and buck the herd for Odin, for my Gods, in order to remain in right service to Them that terrified me at the time. Hell, it happened quite recently with a task that I was set by Odin. But you know what? I'm still here. The world didn't end. The work went on and so did I. Even when I've had to pick myself up after making an error, the world didn't cease to be. So I know how agonizing some of what the Gods ask can be and how terrifying.
What I don't know is what it's like to be A) bereft of a sense of Their presence, B) head-blind, and C) lacking warrior medicine/orientation. I fully admit, when I slip into the headspace of a priest instead of a cranky spirit-worker, that having a constant sense of Them makes it easier to know if I'm on the right track. Likewise being strongly psi-gifted. Having a shit-ton of warrior medicine makes me able to stand my ground, hold a line, and maintain my duty regardless of how I might feel about it. Those things have really served me well. But, they're also why ten years ago, for a solid year, Odin blocked me from any sense whatsoever of His presence. That was the most horrific year of my life. It wasn't until i was over and I was given to know why it was necessary (even the constant validation of presence is validation and we need to be sure and committed to our path, to walk in way that nourishes our faith rather than dependent on *any* external "you did good, honey" pat on the head. Otherwise, it's not devotion, it's sycophancy; and you know what? The Gods don't want sycophants). Every so often I think though, about what it was like to do the work (because while He may have blinded me to His presence, the work and personal spiritual challenges didn't stop-- in fact, they increased) without that sense of completion deep in my heart. I thought about the grief, the constant aching hunger for some type of connection --anything, the barest wisp--the guilt (what did i do wrong?), and the confusion. This was all with me still being able to sense other Deities, and still being able to divine (so long as I didn't ask anything about my own situation). I am not completely blind to the fear and the sense of desolation that is so often a part of finding one's footing in this work. No one starts out with a fully open set of gifts and talents. We earn them. We develop them. Sometimes we suffer for them. That's part of the work too.
Even for the best spirit workers and devotees out there, there will be fallow periods. There are times where one is just not feeling as deeply connected. There are times, where the Gods and spirits seem very far away. There are times where you have no sense of internal 'course correction' when the question arises "am I doing this right?" Christian mystics referred to this as the 'dark night of the soul' and mystical tradition considers it an essential part of any authentic spiritual crafting (a word i like ever so much better than 'seeking', because this is our life's masterwork, whether one is a spirit worker, a mystic or just a regular joe trying to get by). Having period of disconnection, having a fallow time does not mean you did anything wrong. It is a normal part of the spiritual cycle. I've often found that it means you've done quite a bit right and your spirit is in the process of integrating all the changes, epiphanies, and effects contact with (hell, even plain old seeking) the sacred brings.
How can you ever find your way, or center yourself fully in the road of devotion if you're endlessly willing to change your path on the whim of a random person's say so? How an there ever be integrity in what you do if you're constantly worried about how others are going to respond? I come from a tradition that puts great stock in elders and having elders as maintainers of the lineage, guardians of the tradition. This is well and good and, I believe, necessary. Certainly none of us is evolving and working in a vacuum. We're interconnected whether we want to be or not. We can draw great nourishment from one another --one of the reasons I like talking to colleagues and friends, and other spirit workers and devotees. There are times where it is right and proper, in moments of spiritual crisis, to go to one's elders to get oneself sorted out. That is a far different cry from posting on tumblr after every meditation "I got this when I prayed. Is it right? Does Loki like me? am i doing this right? huh? huh? huh? huh? " just stop it. For fuck sake, stop. Are you doing this out of love of the Gods and a desire to serve or are you doing this because you want to be part of what you think is some cool club?" Just. Stop. Spirituality makes a really bad hobby.
Furthermore, if your Gods and ancestors are satisfied with your work, then my opinion "don't mean a thing." If they're not satisfied, then I can be telling you you're doing everything fine and that also doesn't mean anything. In fact, I"d be wrong and I"d be responsible on a wyrd level for potentially causing spiritual harm. If you can't figure out if your Gods and ancestors are satisfied, then maybe consult a diviner but do so to find out what you must do and do so asking also how you can learn to communicate with Them better. You don't have to be highly psi-gifted to do this work. The work will teach you how to do it and the results will, in time, be apparent. You will gain a sense of whether or not you are in right relationship with your Powers. You'll gain a sense of when you need a 'course correct.' You'll also learn when it's time to consult an elder or diviner. Part of this means developing a backbone.
I began this article with a quote by Clemetine Paddleford. It's something that I actually learned at my adopted mother's knee. She used to keep a copy of this saying--written in her extraordinary calligraphy, which I might add, was her every day handwriting---hanging in her home. She would refer to it often, and it proved inspiring. She lived it's message too every day of her life. Anyone wanting to do this work well, should take note. There's a reason that the first precept at the oracle of Delphi was 'know thyself.' There's no getting around this requirement. Know yourself and who the Gods and ancestors want you to be. Know who you want to be…not who your friends, parents, neighbors, or boyfriend might want you to be. For Gods' sake, give over the need to have everyone like you. Spiritual work isn't a social event. When those of us doing this work come together as colleagues, it's to share knowledge, exchange ideas, to enjoy the company of others who walk similar roads, who have been taken up by Gods and spirits and in so many ineffable (and some quite obvious) ways been rendered "other" in the sad and disjointed world in which we live, a world many of us have been tasked with transforming. We're not coming together to be told we're doing it right.
Recently I was reading a book on women in business. It was mildly interesting but what struck me was a comment the author made about those just entering the workforce (Gen-Y? i can never keep them straight). She commented that this generation has been used to getting a lot of attention from adults, and they don't really grasp necessary hierarchies or the need for hard, solitary work so well so they can make faux pas in interviewing situations that take them right out of the running. Putting all the interview advice aside as irrelevant here, I was struck by the generational comment because I do think that's a large part of what we're dealing with in the community. I see this predominantly with younger spirit workers and devotees…those just reaching adulthood, or in their early to mid twenties. I"m not saying us older folk can't have the same type of nonsense going on, but I've mostly seen it with twenty-somethings. I believe that at least a large part of this is a generational thing. A lot of attention from adults means a lot of constant feedback and external validation. Add that to a generation that went through a school system that tended to give kids a prize just for showing up (forget about excellence), and who have been raised so coddled and medicated as to have the emotional resiliency of soap bubbles and you have a generation ripe for disaster. There's a learning curve, and for y'all, it can be a big one. Good. Challenges met make success all the sweeter. Learning to forego external validation and attention is a good first offering and challenge, one that will put you in good stead throughout the rest of your spiritual life…i.e. your life.
I also think the fact that most of us are converts to polytheism is coming into play. There's a certain psychology of conversion: one converts and then, in a need to distance him or herself from the birth faith, tries to be "more Pagan than other Pagans". While i'm not seeing that so much here (though I do see a pathetic amount of attempted one-upmanship) what can also happen is a really desperate need to make sure one is doing it 'right.' Monotheism teaches one to look for validation in a book or from a priest, or in gospel or orthodoxy…all external sources. So we default to what is known. Then part of me, a very cynical part, thinks that sometimes the person constantly seeking attention and validation really just wants to foist responsibility for his or her own spiritual life off on someone else. After all, if you don't have to make any choices, if you don't have to live with occasionally making the wrong choices and then having to go back and make it right (or live with the consequences) then it's not so bad after all, is it? Problem is, it doesn't work that way and trying to dump your spiritual shit on random spirit workers really pisses us off. I'll go to the wall for someone working as hard as he or she can to get right with the Gods and ancestors. No matter how hard that person struggles or screws up, I'll go to the wall for him or her. Many spirit workers I know feel the same. Working hard and still dropping a few balls is a far cry from abrogating all responsibility for one's spiritual life into one big "just tell me i'm doing good."
We must be bold in loving our Gods. Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote that 'love comes with a knife, not some shy question.' That is devotion. That is what falling headfirst into the sacred brings and when it does, it changes everything. First though, there must be courage and a willingness to throw oneself headlong into that abyss. Don't worry, the Gods and ancestors will catch you; and if they don't, it's not such a bad way to go after all.
Just for Gods sake, don't post about it on tumblr.
This is a compelling article about the plight of Pagans in the Middle East. I urge everyone reading this to pray for these folks. They're the hope of their homelands, a nascent seed holding the promise of a future free of monotheistic domination. Pray that they are safe. Pray that their numbers increase. I'd include, as my colleague T. Dawson reminded me, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories in those prayers. Those areas too are troubled.
Engaged as some of us are with fighting the system that privileges the Christian right here in America, it can be a shock to realize how much better we have it than Pagans elsewhere. As frustrating as it is here, most of us are not risking torture and death to practice our religion. I think on that sometimes when I grow frustrated in this fight.
Anyway, here is the link:
and here is a powerful prayer to the Goddess Ishtar *in Arabic*. There is something incredibly compelling about hearing Her praised today in the language of those who helped destroy Her veneration. We are still here. To every monotheist out there who would like to believe their victory complete: we're still here, you sons of bitches. We are here. our ancestors are here. Our Gods are still here. You have not won at all and one day, we *shall* overcome.
There is also an excellent blog that I frequently follow on contemporary Canaanite polytheism. I recommend it here:
Tess Dawson was kind enough to provide me with a few other links that might be of interest. Thank you, Tess!
Firstly, there is 'Alexandria 415' (the blog):
It is in Arabic, but Google Translate can help with that--they cover everything from Yoga, to Buddhism, to Wicca, to pretty much anything "alternative". They also have an FB group, with posts in English and /or Arabic: https://www.facebook.com/groups/116771911743235/
Next, here is a shop in Israel for Wiccan/Pagan/New Age/Polytheist needs, and Tess notes that even in Israel this is a brave thing to do: http://www.natalie-shop.com/ (the page is in Hebrew).
Here is another shop in Israel, with a blog in Hebrew: http://www.tapuz.co.il/blog/net/userblog.aspx?foldername=medea as well as an FB page in English: https://www.facebook.com/Ardensarcnum
Tess Dawson's own page may be found here http://tessdawson.blogspot.com/ . This blog is in English. There are also a number of links down the right side column on her blog that provide helpful information on Near and MIddle Eastern polytheism. Please check out her book at amazon.com "Whisper of Stone." I believe it is the first book available on contemporary Canaanite polytheism. Here's a link:
note: please avoid pork as an offering to these Deities. Tess was kind enough to remind me that ancient polytheistic Canaanites, Mespotamians and Egyptians did not use pork in offerings and viewed it as inappropriate. thank you, Tess!
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.
I recently shared a case study with my seminary students and one of them asked two very, very good questions:
- How did I personally (and do I in general) keep from being pulled into the client’s “drama”?
- How did I keep myself grounded and “safe”?
Both of these are excellent questions and it’s not the first time that someone has asked them of me so I’m going to take a moment to answer them here.
I see a lot of clients. It’s part of the job of being a shaman or a spiritworker. People come to me for divination, to get their spiritual problems sorted, and they come to me in the midst of spiritual crisis. This is par for the course. I’m also a clergy person, so I do quite a bit of pastoral counseling and yes sometimes the line between priest and shaman cross in this. Yes I have the appropriate training. So I’m going to answer this question as honestly as possible, drawing on the response I gave to my student about client X:
“On a purely emotional level, why would I be pulled in? This wasn’t a friend or colleague after all, it was a client (although an unexpected one). My job was to sort him out and give a [spiritual] prescription or refer him (and I did a bit of both). I chose to get as involved as I did because the Deity involved with that client is most beloved in my House and I wanted to see the situation righted for the sake of Deity. I knew going in that it was unlikely X would follow the prescription but my job was done the moment it was given.
I rarely become emotionally involved with my clients. I often find myself having to triage the worst of them, the ones that persistently refuse to take responsibility for themselves. I do what any good psychotherapist would do: I remind myself that it’s a job and I debrief with a colleague to make sure I’m not risking transference. But I have no feeling whatsoever toward “X.” (or generally any other client). This is part of the job.”
What’s more, I do this job for the Gods, not the people. My concern as both a priest and shaman is restoring and maintaining balance between an individual and the Gods, ancestors, and land and/or between a community and the same. It’s never personal. If I allowed myself to become emotionally entangled in my clients’ drama I wouldn’t be doing my job. I wouldn’t be able to do my job. What I feel is irrelevant anyway in terms of the Work. It has nothing to do with the job at hand and/or whether I shall complete the work at hand. I will. Period.
As to the second question, I had very good early training in the basics of psychic/spiritual self defense and hygiene: centering, grounding, shielding, warding, cleansing, etc.—all the things that will help a person hold proper and healthy boundaries both spiritually and emotionally. I highly recommend a book, written by one of my former students, called “Spiritual Protection” by Sophie Reicher. In it, she gives pretty much the year long course of training that I gave her (with my ok) and that is the condensation of everything I was taught in my early twenties. I also maintain a strong practice of ancestor work and they are the best protection one can have. Those two things together are almost unbreachable.
But mostly, I shield energetically. I keep my ancestors in the loop and called upon them, I make the proper engagements with my Gods, and I do the basic exercises as a matter of daily course. Then when something like an imbalanced or overly dramatic client comes up, I just stay the course of my regular routine and all is well. I have a routine of grounding, centering, shielding, offering (to Gods and ancestors) and cleansings that I do before and after seeing any client. I do my best never to deviate from that routine. It’s saved my skin on more than one occasion because now it’s habit and that means when I’m wiped out, I’ll go through the requisite motions automatically, which is very, very good. I don’t miss any dangers.
Essentially it all comes down to discipline: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical (in terms of developing a routine of grounding, cleansing, etc.). Then all one has to do is stay the course. These questions were really about boundaries: how do I maintain them or perhaps even should I maintain them, what kind should I maintain? The answer to that, in this and I suspect every other field is “yes, yes, and whatever type makes you the most efficient.” Involving oneself in client drama never, ever does that latter.
A big congratulations to the New Seminary class of 2012. It was a pleasure to assist in your ordination today. May you go forth and set the world on fire, knowing always that you walk in the loving pride and protection of your ancestors. Ashe, to 19 amazing men and women.
This one is seriously late, folks but, as the saying goes, better late than never. I’m afraid last week corresponded to finals week for me and well, studying for my Latin final took precedence over anything else (including sleep. Lol). Anyway, here’s my column for last week, a short one, but I hope, a stimulating or at least thought-provoking read. It’s a bit of a polemic, I’ll admit, but much of this is the outgrowth of a discussion I had recently with a colleague.
This article isn't really about the Jotnar, one of the three primary tribes of Holy beings in Norse cosmology; rather, it's about issues that arise every time Their worship is mentioned. Some of you reading this may not be Heathen and may not know anything at all about Norse cosmology or the infighting and denominational disputes that seem to so define the “community” (and I use that term loosely), but I can almost guarantee that y’all know at least one of the Jotnar by name: Loki, that most infamous of Gods (at least in our tradition). I think it’s safe to say that there’s nothing so controversial within our community as the question of whether or not to honor Loki and by extension His kin.(1)
Of course, some Heathens would tell you it’s no controversy at all. They’re the ones who have made a clear decision, for whatever reason as to which side of the divide they fall. They either like me, adamantly honor Loki, or like many of my detractors, adamantly don’t. There’s no room for compromise between the two poles either. For those who are finding their way in the religion, this particular issue is a minefield, particularly if they have a devotional affinity for Loki without being primarily dedicated to Him.
To put it mildly, Heathenry is a very polarized religion right now. Perhaps it has always been so. For whatever reason (and I’ll be discussing those reasons as I see them in forthcoming articles), it’s also a religion filled with fundamentalism and in some cases, flat out bullying. What is a fundamentalist after all, but a bully? For all the talk about restoring ancestral traditions, the only thing happening in large swaths of the community, is a pseudo-restoration forced through the unconscious lens of monotheistic dichotomy. ..something that would have been phenomenally alien to those self-same ancestors we so venerate today. Most people don’t even realize it. I didn’t for a long time. This isn’t really about honoring Loki or not honoring Him—Whom one honors is a personal decision after all. It’s about the dominant attitudes, what an academic might call Weltanschauung or world-view within American Heathenry today.
Contemporary Heathenry is –though many would deny it-- built upon an insidiously monotheistic mindset. I maintain this is true even though we claim many Gods. Last week, I wrote about Julian the martyr, who tried so hard to restore ancient Paganisms within the Roman Empire. One of the things that he actually wrote about was that he felt, no matter how Pagan he was, that he was tainted mentally. He had been raised and moreover educated Christian, you see, and he was well aware that there was this filter, this lens, this way of looking at the world with which he’d been inculcated, and of which he was largely unconscious. This meant that even when he didn’t realize it, it was possible that monotheistic attitudes and approaches, monotheistic ideas might creep in to his understanding of Paganism and he fought hard to be aware of this, fight it, and root it out of his thought processes. Each one of us, having grown up in a world two thousand years into what I like to call the Christian occupation, has a similar filter and it is a thousand, thousand times more deeply rooted. Before any true spiritual engagement can occur, we have to at the very least crack the wall of that filter, acknowledge that it’s there, start examining its seams, and eventually break it down. Most contemporary Heathens barely acknowledge the existence of such a filter---as though throwing Jesus away and taking on many Gods ---which they barely acknowledge as well, mind you---is enough of a conversion when it doesn’t even come close.
Why? Because even when we’ve cast off the chains of this ‘one god’ nonsense, we’ve still been patterned, inter-generationally I might add, to use certain tools (for instance, to rely on the written word for spiritual authority over and above any personal experience), to approach the world a certain way (in dogged binaries), and to assume that there is only one way to truth, to doing it “right” (which in turn leads to one allowing oneself the moral right to attempt to compel and harass everyone else into following that same one right way). These attitudes are deceptive. Moreover, they’re comfortable. They seem ‘right’ to us, because that is how we have been taught in our culture to define that which is correct.
I believe that Heathenry is in the state that it is in right now specifically because of this. I also think that any attempt to reconstruct ancestral traditions through this lens is destined to fail. This type of narrow thinking is diametrically opposed to the polytheistic worldview. Ancient polytheisms (and while the written material that we have is either very late or written by Christians, there is no reason to suppose that ancient Germanic and Scandinavian polytheisms differed in this) openly reveled in ambiguity. It’s the ambiguity, the lack of systematic, clearly defined unity (unity…you know, from unus, meaning one.) that is at the root of many of the conflicts I see within the community today.(2)
Not only do I believe that any restoration built along these lines is destined to fail, I think it should. Better that it fail than that we simply reinforce monotheism in our world under another—seemingly polytheistic---guise.
Am I saying that every single Heathen has to be involved in ecstatic devotion, or has to make offerings to Angurboda, or has to actively honor Loki? No. But I am saying that the discomfort we have with UPG, the over-emphasis on lore within the community, and the fundamentalism (which expresses itself not just in the insistence that there’s only one good way to be Heathen, but also in paternalism, misogyny, obsession with gender roles, homophobia, and a very, very subtle expression of white privilege that has made me literally weep for the future of our religions) that I see there have their roots not in the attitudes of our polytheistic ancestors but in Christianity, specifically a fundamentalist, white, Protestant Christianity the effects of which have remained largely unexamined within Heathenry at large (why, because it’s what people are used to and we’re not taught to think that the way we view the world is wrong).(3).
Jason Pitzl-Waters recently posted a news blurb about my involvement in a UN conference on May 10. As expected, several Heathen detractors immediately piped up with accusations and allegations. One brave commentator told them that they had not yet rid themselves of their monotheistic filter. I believe she was correct. She erred only in one thing: she used as evidence the fact that these detractors don’t worship Loki. That’s not what I would have called out, had I been the one commenting. That they don't worship Loki is between each individual and his or her Gods. That they try to compel others, thinking it appropriate to harass, engage in libel, and attack those who do not agree with them is the issue and one far, far more indicative of that aforementioned filter. The larger issue, to my mind, is that not only have many Heathens---and I can’t really restrict this to Heathens. I think all polytheists struggle with this at some point-- not rid themselves of the filter, but they then try to remake Heathenry in its image. That is the problem, not whether or not one worships Loki or any other Jotun Deity.
The Jotnar are the “third rail” in Heathenry. They threaten and challenge all of our assumptions about the Gods, morality, the importance of humanity, and the role of lore. If we rely solely on lore, of course we would be led to hate Them, to cast Them as the Heathen version of devils. If we rely on personal experience – the dreaded UPG—we might end up honoring Them or even devoted to some of Them. (More and more Heathens coming into the religion seem to fall somewhere in the middle). Over and over again, I’ve seen people badgering those who honor Loki about why they would hail or honor such a God. The answer is simple: because we love Him, because we have taken the time to develop a relationship, because He has been good to us. Because we have had direct experience with the Gods (something our polytheistic ancestors would comprehend and respect). The answer falls on deaf ears. What these people want to hear is that we worship Him and His kin to be rebels, to stir up trouble, or for some other distinctively puerile and unworthy reason. The real answer will always fall on deaf ears because people poisoned with that filter will never understand devotion. They will never, ever understand true commitment to any of the Gods, not even the ones of which they so hubristically approve.
That’s what annoys me personally about the Jotnar debate. I don’t care what someone else does in their personal worship. It’s not my business. That’s why it’s “personal.” What annoys me, however, as a theologian is the presumed hubris of assuming that we have any right at all to determine which Gods are “good” and “right” versus “bad” and ‘wrong.” It elevates human understanding and will to a level that I find at the very least impious. That I also find it wrong-headed and coming from a very Protestant way of looking at the world is a whole other factor, which I’ve already touched upon.
I suppose diversity is a scary thing. That’s what polytheism leads to: diversity of thought, of Deity, of worldview, of devotional practice. It’s inherent in the polytheistic filter. This was its greatest strength and, with the coming of monotheism and its promise of easy salvation, it’s greatest weakness. I would like to believe that we are wise enough to gird against that weakness (which is the weakness of men and women who lack focus, commitment, and honor) while at the same time celebrating its strength. While there may be lively debates within polytheism, there should not be the need to force someone to view the world and the Gods in a particular way. There should not be the need for such ideological exclusivity. Such an attitude is foreign to the way polytheism works. It is not, sadly, foreign to Heathenry.(4)
It doesn't have to be like that. The need to control and to dominate each other’s spirituality is not a polytheistic virtue. If the ongoing conflict and debates over the Jotnar can teach us nothing else, let it teach us that. Certainly we’ve a long way to go.
- I have a whole chapter on this in my most recent book “Essays in Modern Heathenry” wherein I discuss the controversies surrounding Loki. In fact, one’s “denominational” allegiance can best be determined by where one falls re. Loki: to honor or not to honor. My preference is obviously for the former.
- I see the same thing in interfaith communities too, though it usually lacks the hostility and infighting that one sees in Heathenry. Within the interfaith world, there’s a complete lack of willingness to move away from this one god nonsense or even to engage in any authentic way with polytheists…unless those polytheists are pantheists who can embrace the idea of a unifying divine One. …which is not much different than monotheism, is it?
- I recommend three books on this very topic: “Love the Sin” by Pellegrini and Jakobsen, “Secularisms” by Pellegrini and Jakobsen, and “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber.
- Those who follow Loki have been harassed and threatened not just online where anonymity and distance allows for greater stupidity, but via phone and occasionally in person. Many mainstream Heathens dismiss this as hyperbole, however to those threatened it is very real and has come to define their Heathen experience. I know many who simply would not feel safe attending a mainstream Heathen gathering. To dismiss this, as so many in the community do when confronted with a truth that they don’t want to acknowledge, shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness. Heathens are all too often proud of their bullying, rather than seeing it for what it is: spiritual fascism.
There is no term I dislike more, and none that gets my proverbial hackles up more than “the greater good.” I hear it a lot in Pagan circles. I hear it a lot in the interfaith circles in which I move and work too. In both cases, it’s used almost inevitably as a universal panacea when the speaker is about to abrogate any sense of personal responsibility. Again and again, I’ve seen it used as a justification for moral cowardice. Again and again I’ve seen it used not only to excuse thoughtlessness or laziness, but to grant such questionable behaviors the moral high ground. Not only do I consider this term nine times out of ten a moral cop-out, but I also consider it an incredibly dangerous sensibility, one that can be used –and historically has been used—to justify incredible cruelties.(1)
We live in a society that does not encourage personal challenge. It does not encourage anyone to live an examined life. Instead, we’re encouraged –by the media, by the Christian dominated culture, by our corporate sponsors (yes I’m being sarcastic) to stay numb and dumb. We live in a culture that raises personal mediocrity to a high art. Worst of all, we live in a culture that, courtesy of the new age movement, fetishizes ‘feeling’ over personal obligations, and un-thought-out pleasure over any sense of personal responsibility. All of this (and more) contributes to the moral laxity that all too often creeps into our communities, so much so that not challenging ourselves to moral excellence has become the norm. I remember years ago, a Heathen man and kindred leader telling me most avidly that it was “ok” to be “mediocre.” He believed it too. I was appalled.
Before going any further, I think it is important that I define my use of certain terms like ‘moral” and ‘virtue.” The word “morality” comes from the Latin and implies something about one’s conduct or manner of behaving.(2) This has evolved into a branch of philosophy dealing with questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Ethics is related to morality in that it examines and categorizes various concepts of morality, the nature of right and wrong, the origins of moral theories, and the ways in which a moral decision might be reached. Ethics are, to my mind, the practical application of moral principles. ‘Virtue’ also comes from the Latin and refers to specific qualities of moral excellence as well as the ongoing process of their development.(3) In no way am I using either term to refer to sexual repression or social prudery, as I have occasionally heard them misused. In my use of both ‘morality’ and ‘virtue,’ I am specifically referring to the development of one’s character.
That being said, the questions inherent in the use of the term ‘the greater good’ are most definitely moral ones. Who gets to determine what that greater good is? About whose greater good are we talking? To whom do the benefits of this greater good go? My colleague Sarenth put it thusly:
“The Greater Good is usually not; it is, in fact, an appeal to the lowest common denominator in that it neither challenges individuals in terms of personal responsibility, nor does it hold larger society accountable for securing its own Good, as this Good is balanced on the back of a few who may never see the benefits of their sacrifice.”(4)
Whenever I hear someone allude to ‘the greater good” – and oddly enough, in interfaith settings at least, I often hear it said in prayers. In Pagan settings, it tends to come up in magic or energy work, particularly healing work and I can think of no worse places in which to abrogate personal responsibility—I grow very wary. It is a facile term, one that is far, far too easy to use and therein lies precisely its danger.
When I hear someone claim “the greater good” as the excuse for their decision (or more often their lack of one), I also know that I am very likely dealing with someone who, while inevitably well-meaning, has not yet shaken themselves free of the monotheistic paradigm, the paradigm that gave us colonialism, the doctrine of discovery, and endless bloodshed. Why? Well, talking about the greater good presupposes that there is a singularity, in other words one greater good. That is not too far from the belief that there is one and only one true way. It presupposes a tremendous arrogance on the part of the one making the decision as to what the greater good might be – often unconscious arrogance, but arrogance nonetheless. Who gets to determine this? Who or what is going to be sacrificed?
I’ve also found that quite often the real motivation is fear. One will do or not do a thing in order to maintain the status quo, to keep themselves from personal discomfort, or from having to make a clear-cut decision in a given situation. It does not matter what decision is morally correct, convenience takes precedence. In our spiritual lives this can come up in many surprising small ways. Perhaps you are a Pagan woman whose devotion to the Gods requires dressing a certain way, or doing a particular ritual one day a week. Perhaps your boyfriend objects to the time this takes away from him. What do you do? (my answer: bye bye boyfriend). Perhaps you are in school and you see someone being harassed because they are gay, or overweight, or unpopular, or a particular ethnicity. What do you do? Do you speak up or stay silent and by your silence collaborate with the bullying? Someone asks you if you’re Pagan. You are. What do you say? Do you have the courage and commitment to claim that space publicly for yourself?
I hadn’t ever really conceptualized this until quite recently. I’m going to go off on a tangent for a moment, but have no fear, it will lead me back to the point at hand, I promise. Lately, several times in fact over the past month, women have come to me in some way, shape, or form asking my advice over what to do if their boyfriends or spouses didn’t approve of their religion or certain practices in their religion. My point of view is simple: I am committed to my Gods and ancestors. This is the central facet of my life. Anyone coming into my life, or wishing to be part of it had best understand that. If someone makes it an issue, or in any way gets between me and my spiritual Work, or causes me to expend unnecessary emotional energy on the matter, they will be out of my life post haste. I have lived by this rule for over twenty years. After all, one is either committed to one’s Gods or one is not; and if one is, then there is no excuse for allowing one’s practices to be compromised. In every instance, the woman in question thanked me and complimented my strength but it was clear that she did not think she could ever find it in herself to do the same, even if she wanted to do so. In every instance I was deeply bothered by this well meaning and sincere compliment. It was only recently that I realized why.
It’s not a question of strength.
It has nothing to do with being strong. It’s a matter of commitment and choosing to hold to one’s personal (and spiritual) commitments every day. It’s personal choice nothing more. Moreover, to dismiss it as “strength,” in the way that these women did –with the emotional overtones that said very clearly that it was beyond their ability to conceive of such “strength” within themselves (because they did not conceive of themselves as strong, which is heartbreaking in and of itself) -- is to place the very idea of personal commitment and yes, personal strength outside of one’s personal potentiality. It is to deny that one could possibly be strong and/or committed to something too. It makes these qualities something that others do. That is very sad. In part though, I think this comes from the expectation that strength, courage, moral excellence, and any other virtue that one could possibly mention, are inborn graces, suddenly springing up in a person’s character whole and in full bloom when nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, qualities like personal strength are born out of very small, every-day, seemingly very mundane choices. They are developed and honed through constant effort and mindfulness. They are exercised through attention to the small choices that each one of us has to make every day. They’re polished through failure and learning how to come back to center afterwards; and they exist always in an agonistic exchange with their opposite: one who has courage knows terror all the time, one who is strong, daily confronts weakness, the most compassionate person might struggle with depression or the urge to wall oneself off to the pain of the world. Strength doesn’t just happen; it’s the result of years of making those small and seemingly insignificant choices in ways that lead toward a greater sense of one’s capabilities and personal commitments. There is nothing grand about it. It’s choosing to get up and do that weekly ritual when you are tired and inconvenienced. It’s choosing to not buy from X brand, owned by fundamentalist Christians, it’s choosing to make that phone call to the friend fighting with cancer, even though you feel awkward and uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. It’s something that everyone can aspire to, which does not, I might add, translate into it being something that is easy to acquire.
I also think that this love affair with the idea of the greater good stems from a deep discomfort with conflict. One can speak of the greater good and of leaving things to the greater good or of doing this ‘for the greater good of all’ without feeling as though one has made any challenging decision. It removes the possibility that any conflict might arise as a direct consequence of taking a particular stand or making a particular choice. Lack of decision becomes the de facto decision. In the interfaith community particularly I see this cropping up a great deal. There’s an underlying discomfort with taking a clearly defined moral stance outside of something akin to ‘love and light for all.’ Conflict and disagreement, which can be powerfully fertile ground from which new ideas and shared endeavors might grow, is eschewed out of a fear that it might mean “being judgmental.” Taking a moral stance on any issue at all is viewed as being unfairly judgmental and as such is discouraged on a very deep, fundamental level; all of which leads to moral impotence.
I very strongly believe that our Gods and ancestors call us to make a stand…large or small, we are called upon to be people of substance. Sometimes this means making the uncomfortable or inconvenient or terrifying choices because they are the morally correct choices to make. This means being willing to take a moral stance and yes, to make a personal judgment. One can do that without expecting that everyone else will follow suit: one can believe a thing passionately, without demanding that every other person bow down and believe the same (this, by the way, is one of the essential differences between monotheism and polytheism). One can be judgmental without being cruel.
Is there ever a time when one must consider ‘the greater good’ beyond the abstract? I believe so. Warriors confront it, but they don’t call it ‘the greater good.’ They call it ‘awful necessity.’ In this vein Gandhi led his people in revolt against the governing power and transformed a nation. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and many other brave men and women bucked the status quo and in some cases laid down their lives for the greater good of their people. Winston Churchill allowed British cities to be bombed shortly before D-Day taking no measures to move people to safety. Why? Because had he taken preventive measures, he would have revealed to the Germans that the allies had broken their codes and plans for D-day would have been for naught and the war might have dragged on far, far longer costing thousands more lives. He made the decision to stay mute, and continue plans for the offensive that helped end the war, in service to the greater good. One might question what all of these instances have in common. They have very little if anything to do with one’s personal comfort. They are in no way self-serving and that is the key. Of course, this presuppose that one knows oneself well enough to acknowledge one’s deepest motivations, and to know when one is in fact being self-serving. But that is part of our spiritual work too, part of what I believe we are each obligated to explore. It goes back to that maxim said to have been carved above the entrance to the temple of Delphi: know thyself. No one said this task was easy.
- The American government thought it was serving ‘the greater good’ when it tore Native American children away from their parents and enslaved them in Christianizing schools : “kill the Indian to save the man” was the saying of choice. Charlemagne surely thought he was serving the greater good when he slaughtered my Saxon ancestors for refusing to convert to Christianity. The “pro-life” man who shoots a doctor for providing care to women certain thinks he’s serving the greater good too.
- The Latin root is the word mos, moris.
- From the Latin virtus, virtutis
- Private conversation with Sarenth Odinsson, March 29, 2012.