A few weeks ago (give or take), after I"d posted about one of House Sankofa's rituals, one of my readers asked me a really insightful question. He was curious about what differences I might have noticed between the Greek/Mediterranean Powers as opposed to the Norse Powers to Whom I am given. I'd never thought about it much, beyond acknowledging that there were two very distinct protocols to follow, but I have to say, after having participated in several Hellenic rituals, there is a marked difference in the feel of the Numinous Powers involved.
Of course, this is subjective. I can only describe those sensory differences by trying to describe, to the best of my ability, the information gleaned by virtue of my sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel. Not having discussed this with anyone else familiar with both families of Deities, I'm not sure that others' experiences would yield the same sensory description. Still, it was an intriguing question so I'm going to give it a go.
I think the most obvious difference for me is that the Greek Powers when compared with the Norse Powers have a dramatically different "frequency" of energy. The kinesthetic feel of Their Presence is completely different. For me, the difference in experiencing the Norse and Greek Powers is like moving from a frozen tundra, a stony cliff hewn cave temple to an open air mountain shrine. It's the difference between ice capped stone and chilly, clean, bright wind. That's the best analogy I can come up with right now. It's different, but They are all different Gods so that makes sense.
Of course there's different ritual protocol, and there seems to be more emphasis on ritual cleanliness before, during, and after rites involving Greek Deities. I've never been pushed to physically cleanse (often with use of kernips or lustral water) prior to a ritual with the Norse (though I might personally choose to do so) whereas this is usually very, very strong prior to rites involving the Greek Powers. I personally also find the Norse Powers heavier and denser in feel when They are present and the Greek Powers brighter and broader but that's very subjective kinesthetic experience, and also me trying to put into the net of language what is very difficult to express.
I did find that because I'm not accustomed to the Greek Deities so much, it took much less exposure to Their presence, and the energy of the ritual to get me light headed. I have a fairly strong tolerance for the type of liminal flow of things that occurs in a competent ritual setting when the Powers are properly invoked. I'm usually the one responsible for holding the container of the ritual space so really, this tolerance is a necessity and it's one built up over twenty years of ongoing ritual and devotional work. It's the spiritual equivalent of working out regularly to build up one's muscles! Because of that experience I can withstand a significant degree of numinous energy before either falling into a deeply altered state or becoming radically ungrounded. That is not the case with the Greek Powers. When I am dealing with the Greek Powers, I go hard and fast into an altered state, because I am not accustomed to Them and Their Presence yet. At the same time, I am extremely sensitive to the feel of Their Presence. I think these two things go hand in hand in contributing to how easily I fall into liminality in Their presence.
There are other differences that translate to my senses in terms of shading but words are inadequate to the telling. I have found that the Greek Powers tend to want things a bit more orderly than the Norse and there is more of a sense of everything and everyone in its place (not in terms of rank, but in terms of structure and flow of the ritual). This doesn't *always* hold true (depends on the Deity) but often. For both, the idea of ancestor cultus is present, and with the Greeks there was more of a devotional push toward hero cultus as well. I'm culling these impressions in retrospect from the rituals in which I've participated. Certainly navigating between two different ritual protocols has made me far more aware of my own behavior and mindful participation during any ritual. That to me, is a blessing.
I would love to hear from others who have experience with both the Greek and Norse Powers. How would you describe the differences in feel?
My newest Heathen Heretic column is up here
. In this post, I discuss working in a blended House and how House Sankofa manages it.
Check it out, folks.
Sannion has written an excellent series of articles on miasma or spiritual pollution. I don't think there's enough serious consideration of this in contemporary polytheisms. Check out his articles:
Part IPart IIPart III
Quite often in House Sankofa, immediately prior to the start of rituals, we each wash our hands and asperse our faces and necks with lustral water. It's something we started doing a few months ago and since the Gods and ancestors seemed to approve, we've continued the practice.
Several of our recent visitors have expressed an interest in the recipe and I thought perhaps some of you might like it as well. It's fairly easy to make and it's certainly no House secret!
The basic recipe is as follows (measurements are estimates….I don't really measure, I just make it to scent):
a cup of Florida Water
quarter cup of kosher salt
teaspoon (or two good pinches) of mpemba - white kaolin clay
Fill container to the top with good, clean water.
To this, I usually add a dash of high john the conqueror oil, and (in a cheese cloth pouch that I then allow to steep in the water, otherwise the resins will turn to something approximating glue in the water!) a bit of frankincense and copal, myrrh and sometimes dragonsblood (not always).
For the Aphrodite ritual, I added the following to the base instead of my usual: few drops of high john the conqueror, few drops of abramelin oil, frankincense, myrrh, rose buds, damiana, and a very little bit of master of the wood (a fragrant herb) all in a cheesecloth pouch.
For my own personal work, if i use anything other than Florida Water , 4711, or Herba de santa maria cologne, I'll add (in a pouch) frankincense, dragonsblood, and a bit of high john oil to the base.
The base is easily adaptable to almost any ritual's needs. So how do you all purify and cleanse before rituals?
(the image is from http://humanflowerproject.com).
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.
Heathens don’t give much thought to the idea of miasma. I didn’t either for a very long time until my father died and I was helping to prepare the body for cremation (contact with dead bodies being a primary cause of miasma) and I realized in a heartbeat of a moment that I was now in a state of spiritual miasma. There was no other word for it. I could feel it clinging to me and only ritual purification set me right again. It wasn’t bad, mind you, being as it was a natural consequence of such contact with a dead body, but it was there and it rendered me ritually unclean.
I should probably explain what ‘miasma’ is. In ancient Greek religion, it was the word given to ‘spiritual pollution.” Now, I almost hesitate to use the word ‘pollution’ because of its negative connotations in our language. To my mind, miasma was a natural thing, neither good nor bad, a natural consequence of certain actions or coming into contact with certain things. Sometimes this is inevitable and then you perform the appropriate ritual cleansing. No big deal; except it is. Ritual purity was practically an obsession to ancient Greeks and maybe it should be for us as well. (1)
I think there is more opportunity in our contemporary world to enter into a state of miasma than in the world our ancestors faced. After all, so much of what is common in our world stands diametrically opposed to the values and virtues the Gods would have us cultivate. Not all miasma is the same either. I once, tongue in cheek, said there was big miasma and small miasma but in a way, that’s true. There is the miasma that comes when one accidentally blunders into an unclean situation. There is the miasma that comes of doing a necessary or kind act but one that led to contact with something unclean (such as handling a relative’s body to help prepare it for a funeral), there is the miasma that comes of consciously choosing to expose oneself to something disrespectful to one’s Gods, there is the miasma of certain horrible crimes. (2) How one deals with a state of spiritual contamination depends largely on what caused it.
There is positive contamination too, which complicates the issue a bit. Anyone who has had direct experience with the holy may be in a state of what I term positive miasma. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s very, very good. But, it leaves a mark, an energetic signature by which others may be contaminated, others who have not prepared themselves properly for such contact. Shamans have this, which is why few of us are touchy-feely types of people. Anyone who has just been possessed by Deity has this. Anyone who has just had a powerful encounter with the sacred carries it. The sacred is a type of positive contamination. This is why in “Till We Have Faces,” C.S. Lewis has one of his characters speaking about the ‘smell of the holy.” (3) It does have a smell, a feel, a sense, a taste even I suppose---for those who perceive energy and presence very kinesthetically. This type of miasma, I would go so far as to say should be reverenced. It should be respected and attended to appropriately. I would, however, counsel that the person in this state of holy contamination understand that transitioning back into kronos—that mundane headspace that I spoke about several articles back on my blog – might be difficult, painful, may even cause a moment or two of emotional and cognitive disconnect. I would counsel such a person to be gentle with him or herself and to take the time necessary to process and experience the after-effects of such contact. I would also counsel them not to rush back into kronos and the places and things and people associated with it.
This article isn’t about positive miasma though. It’s about the more negative kind. Why do I call it negative when I said above that miasma isn’t something good or bad in and of itself? Well, the type of miasma I call ‘negative miasma’ is the type that came about because of the conscious (and poor) choice on the part of the individual. Sometimes it’s a lack of mindfulness. Sometimes one accidentally falls into this type of miasma though not having all the necessary facts beforehand. I’ll give you two choices using myself as the necessary guinea pig.
A couple of years ago there was a public winter solstice ritual held in my town and I was invited. There was, of course, a bonfire. The woman serving as ritual facilitator was incredibly unskilled. She had no concept of the sacred whatsoever. The man building, lighting, and tending the fire did to some degree but not enough to challenge what occurred. The ritual was already suspect from the beginning because there was a sense in these two facilitators that it was a performance piece. While there is an element of performance inherent in a good ritual, the purpose of this is to enhance the cultivation and experience of the ritual state, not as an end in and of itself. So, as the fire was blazing, after invoking the elemental powers (poorly), the man says that now it is time to give offerings to fire. Fire blazed up at that. The woman interrupts and says ‘no, we’ll do it later.’ (So already you have a violation of ritual protocols right there…banter and incompetence have no place in ritual. On top of that there is the denial of promised offerings). She goes on to deny fire any offerings. At that point, being initiated to fire as I am, I was in a state of massive miasma. All of my taboos as a fire-worker had been violated, ritual protocol had been violated, and a family of spirits with whom I am very close had been shown massive disrespect. I pushed my way to the fire, made offerings despite what the two of them had said (Gods and spirits trump humans any day of the year in my book), and left. When I got home, I made massive offerings to the spirits of fire with my apologies, and underwent a full ritual cleansing. Then I wrote an article about it to educate other people on how to behave both in ritual and around fire (i.e. here’s a negative example: here’s what not to do!). Because I recognized the ritual violation and knew that miasma would attend it, I was able to deal with it appropriately right away, instead of waiting until it ran its course (never a good thing) bringing with it misfortune, possible illness, and the anger of a family of good and gracious allies.
My second example is far more mundane.(4) I went to the movies. As a child, I’d loved the original “Clash of the Titans” (I went through a period when I was seven or so when I was obsessed with Greek cosmology) so when the remake came out, I eventually got around to watching it. I was appalled. It was nothing like the original and was, in fact, one of the most vile and singularly disrespectful presentations of myth that I have ever seen before or since. I was sickened. I also came away from the movie feeling to the core of my being as though I was now polluted, tainted, utterly ritually and spiritually unclean. I wrote about this at the time (the link to that article may be found in note #4) and I was heartened to find other polytheists had experienced the same thing. Perhaps this wouldn’t have affected someone else as deeply but for me, it rendered me spiritually filthy. It was several days of meditation, prayer, and deep cleansing before I felt like anything approaching my mundane normal again, and even longer before I felt ready to approach the Gods properly in ritual space. I had exposed myself willingly to that which impugned the Gods.
This second incident really brought home to me the nature of miasma. This was the turning point for me in my conception of it and of its impact. I believe that if one’s mind, heart, and spirit are centered rightly on the Powers, if one is acting from heart-felt piety and devotion that perhaps the impact of such contamination is minimal and easily cleared away (for all that it might conversely be felt more astringently). For those who, as I did, blunder into such situations oblivious to the potential for contamination, it is far, far worse. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our Gods to be mindful. Always. There are times where entering into a state of miasma might be inevitable, but we should consider where we go, with whom we spend our time, to what influences we expose ourselves. They matter: these things, no matter how small and mundane matter.
It also made me realize that as much as it is about external contamination, miasma is also about keeping one’s mind, spirit, heart, and body in a proper state and properly centered on expression of one’s spiritual connections and fulfillment of one’s spiritual duties (whether that is communing with the Gods, holding ritual, teaching, raising a family, running a farm, or heading off each day to an office so one can support one’s family). It is about endeavoring to do this consistently and cleanly. One might easily shake off external miasma, not so easily when it’s a matter of mind, heart, or spirit.
There is a concept in Buddhism called ‘right mindfulness,’ and in many ways (as I understand it), this means this means directing your thoughts and attention to spiritually wholesome endeavors, focusing on those things which will enhance one’s spirituality.(5) By doing so, one enhances one’s life. I think that starts with the small things…like what movies one chooses to watch and how one behaves in ritual. I think it should expand until it encompasses the large: like how one treats the homeless man hungry on the street, and how one reacts when legislators threaten to begin fracking in one’s neighborhood. In the same way, I think that we don’t just court miasma by foolish choices and mistakes in ritual, we court it by the decisions we make every day, by how we choose to live in our world and the harm we choose to permit pass by unattended, unchallenged, unchanged. These things make a difference.
Now some people may have specific taboos, or duties that either render certain types of miasma more damaging or put one in a position to court miasma more readily. The advice I offer there is to develop a ritual of cleansing and purification before and after engaging in such acts. For instance, according to ancient Greek religion (if I’m not mistaken), performing a sacrifice had the unusual effect of both being a potential curative for a state of miasma in the one requesting the sacrifice, but also rendering the ritual priest performing the sacrifice in a state of miasma. But this is inevitable miasma and I would warrant easily cleansed away as anyone trained in such rituals would have doubtless learned in the course of training. This, by the way, is my theory about why so many Pagan rituals ancient and modern stressed entering the ritual space clean, or even incorporate(d) some type of cleansing into the ritual itself (something that Christianity with its holy water, and Islam with its required ablutions adapted): it was a means of ensuring that those entering ritual space were free of miasma.
In my House, we make liberal use of Florida Water (our version of lustral waters I suppose) before, during, and after rituals to ensure cleanliness. We will sacrifice if need be, though this is unusual and usually saved for special offerings to the Gods. We care about each other and will subtly help ensure that whoever happens to be speaking doesn’t forget or neglect some aspect of ritual protocol. We work together to ensure that the rituals are engaged in properly, fully, absolutely respectfully and with as little lack of mindfulness as possible (which also means taking time beforehand to prepare everyone for what is going to happen, give them some idea of the order, what will be expected, and what is and is not permitted and doing divination before and after to make sure all was properly attended to and well received by the Gods and ancestors) and we try to carry that mindfulness away into our lives. We all fail or muck this up on occasion, but it’s an ongoing goal and way of being. How we behave in ritual and with each other in ritual affects how we engage with our world in our daily lives and that’s as it should be. When miasma happens, we’re ready for it and know that we have support in dealing with it no matter how bad it might be or possibly become.
Understanding miasma, what it is and how negatively it can impact someone, is an essential component to ritual studies, one that I feel has been sadly neglected within contemporary polytheisms until now. I hope to see that changing. We need more mindfulness in our communities, both within our rituals and without.
- “Miasma” by R. Parker
- A brief Google search on the term ‘miasma’ brings up multiple references to the house of Atreus, in which misfortune follows misfortune because of heinous crimes and the slaughter of children. That’s massive, massive miasma of a level beyond what I’m discussing in this article.
- “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis, p. 11.
- I wrote about it here at the time: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pantheon/2010/07/a-conundrum-of-conscience/. One of the comments pointed out that the movie wasn’t about Heathen Gods (the Norse Gods) as if that mattered. I strongly believe that if we are present, it diminishes us to allow any Deity to be shown disrespect and I do not believe that our Gods, those we claim as “ours” would necessarily protect us from any ill consequences of such blindness and bad manners.
The image of the bowl of lustral waters used in this picture was originally found here: http://www.humanflowerproject.com/index.php/weblog/comments/songkran_with_lustral_waters/
. I thought it pretty.
(I'm posting a day early due to my crazy work schedule).
My post last week stirred up a lot of questions, and inspired a colleague of mine, Kenaz Filan, to write his own post on the topic of belief vs. praxis (which folks can find here: kenazfilan.blogspot.com). It’s clear from the response in terms of comments that the idea of faith that is not dependent on “belief” is a difficult leap for many people to make. I struggle with it too at times, I’ll admit that for reasons that I described in my initial article. Despite this general discomfort, however, I think that it’s an important theological topic to consider. One question above all else kept coming up: how can you love what you don’t believe in? So before I go on to tackle the topic of today’s post, I want to take a moment to answer that question.
How do you love what you don’t believe in? You make the conscious choice to do so. This is part and parcel of developing a strong, enduring, resilient faith. It’s a matter of personal discipline and commitment. Emotions are transitory, for all that we live in a society that seeks to invest them with a tremendous personal authority. Loving and behaving rightly to the Gods is a choice. It’s about behavior and moreover, the Gods should not be held prisoner to the vagaries of our emotions. More and more I am coming to think that hubris. Belief will come and go—it’s different from faith though both involve recommitting to one’s Gods every single day. It comes down to the ability to make and re-make that conscious commitment and that commitment is a conscious choice.
Often when I am training students and the internal self-examination and work so necessary to clean service or an engaged devotional life becomes difficult I will hear the inevitable refrain “I’m uncomfortable” or “it hurts.” My response to that is simple: “how is that even relevant? How is that even a factor in this equation?” How on earth, why would you ever allow that to be the defining factor of one’s spirituality, in what you do or choose not to do? We’ve been taught by our culture and society to do so, but that doesn’t mean that doing so is right. The resistance to any type of spiritual discipline or in fact any type of personal discipline so pandemic today is, in my opinion, the natural response to generations of monotheistic oppression, where belief was everything and thought was a dangerous occupation. But developing excellence in any field, any art, any craft takes perseverance and discipline. Why should spirituality be any different?
I’ll be touching on these topics in greater depth in a few weeks as the Pagan Blog Project moves right along. But for now, consider this; the defining aspect of ancient polytheism was not belief, it was action. That doesn’t mean that people didn’t believe fervently in their Gods, it means that their theology did not rest on belief but on how they engaged with their world and with those Gods in ritual praxis.(1) What that meant in practice is that there were a lot of different ways of approaching belief. Today, at least in Heathenry, the dreaded UPG (unverified personal gnosis) is met with hostility and suspicion, while right thinking, adherence to lore, and correct belief is valued over anything else. Ironically, I believe our ancestors would have reversed that equation completely and added a healthy dose of ritual praxis to the mix. That, however, is an argument for another article. For now, let’s move on to today’s post: blasphemy.
It was difficult actually, to choose a topic for this week. I first intended to write about boundaries and how they’re good things, whether one is learning the basic energy-working exercises of grounding and centering and shielding, or whether one is learning to hold the line against those in one’s life who would steal, time, energy, and emotional integrity (you know, the ones who don’t respect you, your needs, or your wishes but expect to be constantly emotionally catered to) or the need to maintain a firm boundary line against those who would interfere in our devotion and love for the Gods (I have a strict rule that I have maintained for twenty years: if someone in my life knowingly gets between me and service to the Gods, they’re no longer in my life. Period. No “do-over”). I might yet write about that when we reach the letter ‘P’…for priorities.
Then I intended to write about the ancient concept of beauty that so informed our polytheistic ancestors--beauty being more than loveliness of form, but resting as well on a well-formed character and what that means within the context of contemporary polytheology. Then of course I considered writing about that most holy of Heathen rites: blót but decided I’d written about that just a few months ago and wasn’t ready to revisit the topic. So finally, I settled on something that I think needs to be discussed within the bounds of religious practice today: blasphemy. I know that many Pagans think blasphemy is something that only Christians have to worry about, with their dogmas and interdiction against various “Heresies” (and interesting word that comes from a Greek word meaning “choice”). It’s actually not something that Christianity came up with, however; it originated within ancient Paganisms.
Blasphemy comes from a Greek word βλασφημέω, a word that means to harm, injure, speak ill of, or to speak impiously. Its original meaning wasn’t restricted to religion but could be used to imply any type of slander or verbal abuse. Today, when this word is used, its meaning is usually restricted to the realm of the sacred and it is used to imply some sort of reviling of “God.” The word itself predates Christianity, I might add, answering the question—at least to this philologist in training--of whether or not Pagans can blaspheme. Of course it raises the question of what exactly does that mean for contemporary polytheists and what exactly might blasphemy entail for us?
I’ve met many people who come to one branch or other of Paganism because they expect that there will be no rules, that they can do whatever they want, without answering to anyone. They can do what they feel, when they feel like it. There is often the unspoken expectation that there isn’t any protocol or proper way of doing things for the modern polytheist. This is an attitude that would frankly appall our ancestors, because there is such a thing as proper protocol and there is such a thing as blasphemy against the Gods. I’m just not sure that we’re at a clear place in the development of our theologies where we can put our own personal prejudices aside (i.e. one is not blaspheming if one is worshipping Deity X in a way that is different from you) to determine what might constitute this type of violation. This is further complicated by the fact that what each God or Goddess might require from each individual devotee can vary greatly. Still, I think it’s possible to point out a couple of areas of clear and present danger.
Etymologically, it’s clear that blasphemy implies something that is spoken. The etymology of the word actually breaks down into two parts meaning “false + something spoken.” There is, of course, also the fine and fertile field of ritual protocol and all the many egregious violations that can and do occur in the average Pagan ritual. I have seen offerings promised and then not given (or worse, taken back). I have heard accounts of the ritual facilitator –I won’t use the term ‘priest’ a) because the person in question was neither trained nor ordained and B) a priest should know better—breaking off in the middle of a ritual to chat with her friend about how much she wanted to go on vacation. I have heard crude and disrespectful language used in general and sometimes even about other Gods, and once, I had a rather slatternly woman begin clipping and filing her nails during the beginning invocations. These things are *all* inappropriate. Let me say that again, because this really isn’t rocket science: these things are *all* violations of appropriate ritual protocol. I can hear some people whining now that there are many different ways to do things and “my way is just as valid as yours.” Bullshit. There is one appropriate way to do a ritual and that is respectfully. That being said, none of these things mentioned above, with the possible violation of the ritual facilitator, involve blasphemy. They involve disrespect (consciously or unconsciously) and lack of mindfulness, but they do not involve a spoken offense.
Belonging to Odin, I have a rather intricate relationship with the spoken word. Odin is a God of words, of poetry, of galdr—a type of magical incantation. He is the father of the God of bards and musicians. He is known for tremendous word-skill and it tends to be a craft much favored by those who follow Him. Moreover, not only am I a writer, but I’m doing graduate work in Classics, a field obsessed with linguistic precision, accurate syntax, clear etymologies, and complicated morphologies. I read several languages and, because of the requirements of the graduate program I’m currently doing, I’m required to learn several more. An awareness of the power of language permeates almost every waking moment and everything that I do. Moreover, as a galdr-worker, I am very well aware of the power of spoken or chanted incantation – word fetters as I like to call them. I have often said that Odin doesn’t care what goes into my mouth (get your minds out of the gutter folks lol. I am referring to attending ritual feasts or rituals that involve some sort of communion) as eating and sharing in a meal is often a matter of hospitality even, perhaps most especially, in a ritual setting. He cares considerably however, for what comes out of my mouth, because words are binding and as the rune Ansuz teaches us, a word once spoken can never, ever be unspoken or taken back again. It cannot be undone. The action of speaking cannot be unmade and the consequences may be many.
With this in mind, I define blasphemy as any of the following (in no particular order):
These are the four “big” ones for me, the main areas in which I see the concept of ‘blasphemy’ being applicable and certainly it’s clear that there are levels of offensiveness and violation. I’m sure there are other contexts and spoken actions that might fall into this category and I’d certainly like to hear what people think constitutes blasphemy in our various traditions. I do think that we have to all be very, very careful that we don’t transplant the rather dualistic and narrow interpretation of the term inherent in monotheism (with which most of us were raised) onto our evolving Pagan perspective.
- Speaking ill of the Gods--any Gods. This is so fundamental that one would think I wouldn’t even have to mention it, but Heathens are particularly at fault here. Despite the fact that He is numbered amongst the Gods, many seem to have no compulsion against slandering or speaking ill of Loki, even in ritual space. One doesn’t have to love or honor all the Gods and Holy Beings, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to show a modicum of respect especially in a ritual setting.
- Speaking untruthful ills about those in service to the Gods (and if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, you best be damned sure it’s true before you open your mouth to spread it about); or worse, calling for violence against them. If someone is in service to the Gods, when you slander that person, you’re also slandering the God they serve. Furthermore, as a student at the seminary where I teach pointed out in one of our classes, if someone truly is in service to a God or Gods, and such ill spoken abuse prevents or interferes with their work, then you are guilty of keeping them doing the work that their Deity set them to do. It is, at best, a thing that brings ill luck. This is not to say that there must be agreement but make certain that your words are truthful before speaking them. This pretty much rules out malicious gossip and random accusations as something ethical or ritually clean. It also rules out threatening physical harm. The opposite of this, is that if someone is engaging in a ritual violation or blasphemy of some sort, then there is an obligation to call them out. If one is a priest, there may also be an attendant obligation to do what is necessary for proper redress with the Deity so slandered.(2)
- Verbally violating ritual space. When a ritual is in progress, be respectful. Everything spoken, every action taken should be done with the Gods for Whom that ritual is being done in mind. There shouldn’t be any extraneous chatter. I have known very devout polytheists to take such care here, that when, in offering to one Goddess, a colleague inadvertently and accidentally misspoke the name of another Deity (the names sound very similar), she immediately apologized and after the ritual went on her own to make major offerings to the Deity Whose name she accidentally called. She did not consider it blasphemy, but certainly a ritual violation. Mindfulness is the key here and governing one’s tongue in ritual space. Do I consider this a major violation? Not necessarily. It depends on the context, but I think care must be taken. That level of care must be taken. There is such a thing as ritual protocol after all and right ritual behavior. Let us not diminish ourselves in the sight of the Powers.
- Deceit in one’s work, specifically pretending to speak for the Gods, or (most especially) faking Deity possession. No one with any sense or devotion would *do* this, but it does happen. It is one of the worst ritual crimes imaginable. It is, to my mind as a priest, the height of blasphemy. Deity possession happens and there are people whose primary function for the Gods is serving as a vessel in this capacity. It’s tremendously holy work. To contemplate the faking of such a process is horrifying for me to even write about. The idea makes me physically ill. It is the only crime of this nature for which I believe a person should be completely ritually and socially shunned. At the very least.
Writing about blasphemy and ritual violation also brings up the question of what can one do when this happens, because most of us are still finding our way and we’re going to make mistakes. I know for myself, I usually discover that I’ve committed a ritual error only after the fact. In the restoration of our traditions we’re in the position of having to learn by doing and that includes learning through screwing up. This is uncomfortable but, I fear, inevitable. Of course, I also think that this is where our gifted spiritworkers and diviners become invaluable: they can negotiate the spaces between the Gods, ancestors, and common person to discover what actions need to be taken to put such offenses to right. It was, in fact, one of the ancient functions of such folk.
What it comes down to is that the Gods are real. They are real, and we are not their equals. They are not archetypes nor are they manifestations of our unconscious or whatever other nonsense people tell themselves to avoid their ritual obligations. They are Gods, holy Powers and as such a level of respect is right and proper and while some error is inevitable given our circumstances, we should always be working toward greater understanding, greater respect for the Holy Powers, and greater ritual mindfulness. It’s not a game after all and the sooner we realize that to the core of our beings, the better.
Next week the Pagan Blog Project moves onto the letter "C" and with it, I shall move on to cheerier topics!
- When I was studying about Epicurean philosophy in one of my grad classes, I was given a perfect example of this. Epicureans believed that the Gods existed but that they existed in a pure state far removed from humanity. This was very, very different from the prevailing view of the time. Their rivals occasionally accused them of atheism. The Epicurean response was something along these lines: we know that real truth about the existence of the Gods but it’s important to be civic-minded and maintain the peace. Nothing is gained from trying to force this knowledge on others. Therefore, maintain the traditional practices, make the appropriate offerings at the appropriate times. These practices can be spiritually edifying so long as we in our hearts understand the “true” nature of the Gods.
- For those Heathens reading this who might think our ancestors eschewed this concept all together, think again. The most famous example of blasphemous speech (which was duly punished, I might add) is recorded in “Njal’s Saga,”wherein a Christian mocks Freya with an unseemly and derogatory rhyme, calling Her a “bitch.” This poetic slander was punished by outlawry, and rightly so.