In scrolling through the various blogs that I generally read as a matter of course, I came across a comment (from a non-theistic pagan of course) asserting that the primary purpose of ritual was 'to experience a sense of community.' Of course I disagree, as I suspect would many of my polytheistic colleagues but since ritual can surely provide a sense of community feeling, I wanted to clarify why I found the statement troubling. I'm not going to go into a discussion of what ritual is, or how to construct one, or what its constituent parts might be though I have the formal training in ritual studies to do so. It's not important to this discussion. Instead, I'm going to focus on what, to a devotional polytheist, the purpose of ritual might be. Then, I'm going to share a brief outline of a typical House Sankofa ritual to give you some idea of what I get up to in my community ritual work.
Firstly, that a ritual can bring about a sense of community is a side effect. It's not the purpose of a ritual. To stop there, is like stopping a six course dinner before reaching the main course. It's a by-product, nothing more, of a well run public ritual. (I specify public, because there are individual and personal rituals as well that do not involve any other members of one's community). Of course it is a joy and a comfort to find oneself in the presence of like-minded folks, all the more so when you're all collectively paying homage to the holy. This goes without saying. It is not, however, the purpose of a ritual, not to a polytheist. You see, this comes down again to where one puts the locus of one's devotional focus: on the self (non-theistic pagans) or on the Gods (polytheists). While there are rituals that can bring a tremendous amount of healing to all involved, I've never been a fan of ritual as therapy, ritual as self-help, ritual as entertainment, or ritual as social club. I would like to think that as a species we're not that self-absorbed. Clearly though, I'm an optimist.
There are rituals where the focus of the ritual is the transition of a person from one state of being to another. Coming of age ceremonies are a perfect example. I would personally not call such services 'ritual,' but might refer to them as 'ceremonies' instead though this is parsing semiotics at this point. Suffice it to say that when I talk about ritual in this article, I'm referring to a basic ritual in which the Holy Powers are in some way invoked. The word itself comes from the latin and refers specifically to religious customs and sacred rites. Durkheim be damned, those of us who actually honor the Gods believe that there is more to religion than social mummery.
For a devotional polytheist, the purpose, first and foremost, of a ritual is paying homage to, honoring, and expressing veneration for the Holy Powers (Gods and/or ancestors). That it can be done in a community or at least group setting lends power to the rite and is in itself a joy. Ideally, one's religious expression in ritual is the culmination of all the devotion and practices that one has engaged in by oneself. Throughout, the point of one's attention and mindfulness is on the Powers.
When someone asks me how to create a ritual, that is what I tell them: every thing you do or say should in some way honor the Holy Powers. Social hour can come after the ritual, during potluck. I once had a colleague tell me about a ritual she attended where the facilitator stopped in the middle to chat with a friend about how much she wanted to travel to London. I"ve seen people complain when rituals took more than 10 or 15 minutes and when they weren't allowed a share in the offerings given to the Gods and/or dead. I've seen interfaith rituals where no specific Holy Powers were ever once invoked. I once saw a woman start filing her nails during an invocation. To all of this, i say no. that is not appropriate ritual behavior. Save it for social hour, folks. From the moment the space is consecrated and ritual begins, the focus is on the Gods and/or ancestors.
It's for this reason that while i've seen, participated in, and even led lovely rituals that incorporated activities, meditations, ritual drama, etc. in the past, more and more I'm coming to favor simple offertory rites. I wouldn't necessarily exclude those other tools and techniques, because they can be quite powerful and effective, but when it comes to teaching people that stepping into ritual space carries with it a necessary corollary of turning one's mind and attention firmly on the Gods, I find that the simpler rites are best. There is still beauty and there is still drama, but it's much easier for a newcomer to see where the appropriate focal point might be.
To highlight what I mean here, I what to share an outline of a basic House Sankofa ritual. This is a format that we generally adapt as needed. Sometimes we get more elaborate, sometimes less but this structure has served us well. This will give readers some idea of what i'm talking about in the above article and it's what we've found works best for us, blended House that we are.
Preparation for ritual usually starts one week, sometimes two (occasionally more) before the actual day of the ritual itself. The night before, the space will be thoroughly cleaned physically and energetically. An altar will be set up, usually on the floor. Sometimes we raise them up and use an altar table, but our House tends to follow the custom of setting up the altars on the floor. We usually don't complete the altar the night before. An altar is an invocation, a living welcome to the Deities involved so we complete that welcome right before the ritual when the last items and offerings will be placed. Divination is done to confirm that so far, everything is pleasing to the Powers involved and that no different or further offerings than what has been planned are desired.
People usually start gathering an hour before ritual. I usually ask that folks bring whatever they wish to offer (I almost always provide a list of appropriate and /or traditional offerings a week or so before the rite) and something for potluck. Offerings are organized and placed where they need to be. We might talk a little bit about the Deity or Deities behind honored, and if there's anything that people want to add to the altar, they do so at this time. In many cases, I will divine again to make sure that what we are doing is pleasing to the Deity or Deities in question, that nothing more is needed, and that we are good to proceed.
Before we start, I or whoever is leading will go over the order of the rite, what is going to happen, when, and what people can expect. If there are any taboos associated with the God or Gods behind honored they are shared with those gathered then. Then I call folks into the space and begin by consecrating the space. We have now entered ritual time and space.
* An offering is given to the Powers that guard the roads of both blessing and misfortune.
* Offerings are given to the ancestors along with prayers.
* The Deity or Deities being honored are invoked. Many prayers are given by various folks in attendance honoring Them.
* Offerings are made.
* Usually there is a chant or galdr or something and during this time, people may go up to the altar and make personal petitions, prayers, speak private words before the image of the Gods, etc. The chant honors the Deities but also creates interference so that no one else can hear what each devotee might be saying to the Powers
* More offerings are made. If there is anything special going on in this particular ritual, it usually happens here.
* If it is a Norse ritual, a horn might at this point be passed.
* At this point there is usually either another long prayer, or a call and response.
* Special petitions may be made.
*the Gods and ancestors are thanked.
At that point, we close ritual space and move into another room for potluck and socializing. Some people usually want to spend more time by the altar communing with the Gods and they are free to do so.I or another diviner in the House will then do divination to make sure that the ritual was acceptable, the offerings were acceptable, and that it is right and proper to conclude the rite. Our rituals take about an hour and a half to two hours usually from start to finish. Ancestor rituals tend to run a bit longer. There are exceptions to this order of ceremony and what i've described here is a generic structure, a flexible structure that we often alter to accommodate various Deities or as need dictates.
I would love to hear how those of you reading this structure your rituals. I'd also be happy to answer any questions folks may have on this topic.
I’ve been dreading having to sit down to write this particular article. I knew I wanted to write about modesty, but I also knew that it was such a troublesome concept, at once somewhat nebulous and yet highly charged. I have seen both men and women become rabidly angry at the mere mention of the word, particularly when it was noted as a virtue, and moreover, as something worth cultivating. I would go so far as to say that there’s probably no other Pagan virtue so prone to misconception, misapprehension, and deep seated ambivalence. For all that, I do very much believe that not only is modesty a particularly polytheistic virtue, but it is one that both men and women would indeed do well to cultivate.
Let me take a moment to discuss precisely what I mean when I use the word ‘modesty.’ Being lazy today, I went to http://www.dictionary.com and looked up the word. It comes from the Latin modestia and I’m going to get back to that in a moment.(1) For now, suffice it to say that the given definition (drawn, or so dictionary.com says, from Collins English Dictionary) is as follows:
1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
3. simplicity, moderation. (2)
Perhaps there are different types of modesty. It is predominantly a cultural convention and construction after all, and standards of modesty are culturally determined. Regardless, it’s primarily with the second definition, that of regard for decency of behavior and deportment, that I am primarily concerned. I want to be clear about one thing: I do not think that modesty necessarily has anything to do with one’s attire. Appropriateness of dress is a matter of context. One may be half naked and completely modest, or wearing full hijab and completely immodest. It’s a matter, to my mind at least, of personal integrity and integrity of behavior.
I look at modesty as a way of interacting with others in our world, a way of presenting ourselves. Whenever discussions of modesty come up, two aspects seem to garner the most attention: physical dress and sexual behavior. Certainly no less a personage than Honore de Balzac called modesty the ‘conscience of the body’ and British essayist Joseph Addison referred to it as ‘a guard to virtue.” While I don’t disagree with that necessarily, I think we do this virtue a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of sexual mores. We diminish the quality of modesty when we focus solely on sexual expression. It’s so much more.
I suppose there is a physical, sexual component to modesty. I can’t help but think of a documentary about indigenous religion in the Ivory Coast that I had the pleasure of recently viewing.(3) I was struck, forcibly, by the contrast between the women who maintained their ancestral ways and those who tried to mimic western styles. The former practiced their religion, honored the gods and spirits of their land and people…they were magnificent, powerful, and respected to the point of veneration within their communities. It was blatantly, delightfully obvious (nor was I the only one to notice this; the friend with whom I was watching was also struck by precisely the same thing). The latter, largely those living in the rapidly westernizing cities, dressed provocatively, behaved outrageously and were treated like trash. It was clear that they thought of themselves as nothing more than ornamental. They treated themselves like trash. They had abrogated their ancestral connections; they had abrogated their power, and instead attired themselves in the shallowness of sexual exploitation and mimicry of a culture that historically has brought nothing but spiritual desiccation wherever it colonized. It was exhibited by the way these women were behaving (and in turn by the way the men behaved toward them) but I think that was only the most obvious and outward expression of a deeper dynamic. The problem wasn’t their overly-sexualized behavior; the problem was that such behavior, in this particular instance, was a manifestation of a lack of self-worth.
Whenever the discussion of modesty comes up, inevitably modesty becomes linked with feeling shame about oneself or one’s body. I can think of nothing more diametrically opposed to what modesty actually is. True modesty has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with valuing both oneself and the quality of one’s interactions with family, friends, the world at large, and most of all within the realm of one’s spiritual obligations, i.e. with the Gods and ancestors, the Holy Powers. Remember when I pointed out that modesty comes from the Latin? Well in Latin it’a primarily associated with discretion, sobriety, correctness of conduct, moderation, and propriety.(4) These were the virtues, in this polytheistic community, that an adult was expected to cultivate. Latin has another word pudicitia which encompasses the shyness – bashfulness the dictionary says – and emphasis on chastity that we so commonly ascribe to ‘modesty.’(5) Moreover, modesty in Rome was not something that women alone worried about. Most of the references that I’ve come across on my reading (in Pliny, Sallust, Cicero, and Suetonius primarily) have referred to the proper modesty of men. Nor did this modesty usually have anything to do with their sexual behavior. It was, however, not unusual to see it linked to piety. I’d go so far as to say that modesty in the ancient world – i.e. in many polytheistic cultures (and I know I’m focusing on Rome here largely because I’ve been immersed in that source material of late. That is not to say this idea was found only in polytheistic Rome.) went hand in hand with piety. That’s an important point and I’m going to say it again:
Modesty went hand in hand with piety for all genders.
Perhaps for this reason, authors like the younger Pliny recommend it as the most shining of virtues. (6) It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the acknowledgement that there is something greater (to a polytheist many somethings greater) than we out there and to whom just maybe, we owe a modicum of decorum; and behaving with that appropriate decorum enhances not just our interactions with the Holy but with each other as well. It augments who we are as human beings. An apologist for modesty would say that we enhance our lives by cultivating modesty because valuing and cultivating modesty is a way of cultivating ourselves as well. It’s a way of saying “I value the gifts the Gods and ancestors have given me too greatly to squander them for public consumption” (or by behaving like a fool). I would say that not only is modesty a guard to virtue (though what I as a polytheist mean by that term has nothing to do with sexual repression and everything to do with the development of character) but it is an essential, perhaps the most essential, component toward developing dignity and personal integrity.
Someone who cultivates modesty as a virtue would, I believe, be unlikely to behave with complete and utter disrespect in a ritual. Even if he or she did not know the proper protocol, modesty is a good teacher of behavior. The modest person is not going to rant and rave about how he or she would never, ever bow their heads before the Gods. They know better. The cultivation of modesty has taught them [not to act like they were raised in a barn]. Moreover, there are times when it is appropriate to feel shame for one’s actions. This too is a lesson modesty teaches. When we behave in a way that diminishes who we are both as human beings and as children of the Gods, as inheritors of our ancestral blessings, we ought to feel shame. It is the right and proper state of being. When we behave badly, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves. That’s called conscience, something that I believe modesty hones. Being polytheist does not relieve us of every moral obligation after all. It actually enhances them.
In the connection between modesty and piety, one often encounters the idea of taboo: those things one is not permitted to do without violating both modesty and the bounds of proper piety. This is the reason that ancient Roman polytheists -men as well as women – would cover their heads when performing rituals. It’s the reason while certain types of priests from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and quite probably in the North lands as well, lived prescribed lives, lives full of ritual and personal taboos that cultivated modesty, enhanced their personal connections with the Sacred Powers, and enabled them to avoid miasma.(7)
This is the reason that a growing number of polytheists today are choosing to veil themselves, to cover their heads, some only during rituals (as I was taught to do) and some all the time. It is a way of reminding themselves to behave properly, of nurturing their spiritual connections, of keeping themselves clean of the filth of the monotheistic world, and for a thousand other reasons.(8) It cannot be denied that doing so sets the person apart, and perhaps that is part of it too: it implies a different standard of living, a different standard of behavior and as in all things that so many of us do, carries with it a certain didactic function. I’m not going to belabor the point of head-covering here. When we get to the letter V, I’ll write about it then in a far more nuanced fashion. I mention it here largely because there are extant polytheistic sources that note men covering in Roman temples so this is the example that came to mind of an outward expression of both piety and modesty.
While I did say that modesty has nothing to do with how one chooses to dress, conversely how we choose to attire ourselves is an easy avenue for the expression of modesty or any other personal virtue. This is all the more true in a culture that is obsessed with appearance, as I believe ours is. These choices stand out. There is a joy in attending to our spiritual obligations (and welfare) rightly and that joy can indeed spill over into every aspect of our mundane world. Dress is an easy way by which to allow it to do so. It’s a side effect for some people of modesty, not the core of modesty itself.
So what is modesty? It’s examining potential behavior and saying to oneself : I won’t do that. I do not believe it will do honor to me, my Gods, or my ancestors. That will not enhance me as a human being. Or maybe it’s being in a situation where you are the only one behaving respectfully and you do so because of your modesty and piety combined, regardless of what others around you might think. Ultimately, I think modesty is the choice to consciously avoid doing that which diminishes us; be it by commission or omission. Take that as you will. I believe it is an essential spiritual virtue.
- (modestia, ae, feminine)
- Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary, see entry on ‘modestia.’
- Ibid, see the entry on ‘pudicitia.’
- He goes on in several of his letters about the virtues of modesty, praising people he admires for their modesty. Letter 1:12, iirc, is a good example.
- See last week’s PBP article for more information on miasma.
- in many cases, it is done by the request of a particular Deity that the individual honors. Vesta apparently, has pushed several of Her devotees to cover their hair on a daily basis.
In my book Root, Stone, and Bone, Fuensanta Arismendi and I talk about Andvari: Duergar, and God of resource management, if you will. He is not the only member of the Duergar to Whom rune workers (and Northern Traditionalists) ought to pay heed though. There are four others, mentioned only briefly in the surviving lore that the rune worker would do well to honor: Austri, Sudri, Vestri, Nordri. We really don’t know very much about Them. They’re only mentioned in the Voluspa and Gylfaginning, and even there, the information is scanty. According to scholar Rudolf Simek, we have the following gems of knowledge:
Austri (east), Sudri (south), Vestri (west) and Nordri (north) are four Duergar who support the vault of heaven, crafted from Ymir’s skull, each in the direction indicated by Their name.
This tells us several things; first, that They are extremely old. They were form around that time when Odin, Hoenir ,and Lodur slaughtered Ymir and crafted the worlds from His carcass. They support the vault of the sky and this does not specify *just* Midgard’s sky. In other words, they support the structure of the worlds: all the worlds. They guard the quarters, and no one approaches the Tree without Their knowledge. Their job is to maintain the integrity of the upward support of the worlds.
Many traditions have a Deity Whose specific job is to guard the gateways between the worlds, the crossroads of the worlds if you will. They are gatekeepers and guardians and are often hailed first in rituals. Gods like Ellegua, Exu, and Ganesha (for example) determine what comes in and what goes out. They open the doors of communication, and unlock the gates of the worlds so that energy may freely flow. They are powerful allies and help gird the worlds, all the worlds, against contamination and internal destruction. In the Northern Tradition, Loki sometimes takes on this job, but the four dwarves of the compass points, fulfill it always on a cosmic level. What Loki will often do for those of us here on Midgard, Austri, Sudri, Vestri, and Nordri do at the Tree, especially where rune-magic is concerned.
They contain. They maintain that which is hallowed. They contain all the power that can manifest within hallowed space and keep it from leaking and contaminating that which is “profane” space. They help to order the smooth functioning of the multi-verse. They watch over the Tree and note the comings and goings of those who Work there (i.e. rune workers). I am coming to believe that it is expeditious and proper to invoke them and make offerings prior to any ritual involving the runes.
I approached Them recently, asking for a few words of wisdom. While none of Them are particularly talkative (especially Nordri. The impression is that They are very focused on Their work), I received the following advice:
Look to the stars. Look to the sky. Always, look forward. You must know and see where your work will strike, how it will affect the wyrd. You must know these things, not just for you but for those who will follow you; not just for you, but for your children and your children’s children. Do nothing, until you know what it is exactly that you do. Look to the east before you begin and consider. Everything.
Focus. Work with passion but work with focus. It must never yield. It must never waver, not for a single second during the work that you do. Focus as though everything in your world depended upon that skill. It does. Believe me, children, it does.
Know what you can control and what lies beyond your reach. Accept this. There is that which you may wield and that which will flow through you to wield itself. Know the difference. Know yourself and why you do the work that you do. Know what you will sacrifice and what should never, ever be placed upon that altar. Know when to yield and when not to yield. Know and do not waver in the knowing.
Look to your roots. Look to your dead. Look to the source of your power. Look to the Tree and take your turn at nourishing its roots. If you do not do these things, you deserve to be swept away, into the aether, into the void, into nothingness. This you will have done to yourself.
In honoring Them I was also instructed to honor the Tree, specifically by Nordri, to pour out offerings directly to Yggdrasil. Working the runes, and feeding the runes as they often wish can be powerfully raw and very intense energetically. By calling upon Them prior to making offerings, it seems to raise up the level of the offering. It opens more pathways into which that energy can flow. I don’t know what this means, or where it will take me. This is a very new epiphany for me. I do know, however, that from now on, fairly frequently, I shall be making offerings to the Four Dwarves of the Compass points, and from now on, when I do formal rituals to make offerings to the rune spirits, I shall also be pouring out offerings to Yggdrasil, that place to which all would-be rune workers must one day go.