Of course, talking about impiety begs the question of precisely what is piety. What is it and how is it best expressed in our day-to-day lives? This is not an insignificant question nor is it new. In the 4th century B.C.E. the Greek philosopher Socrates posed precisely that question “what is piety.” (1) He purportedly asked this shortly before his own trial for impiety (a trial that would lead to his death) and the ensuing debate was an attempt to delve deeper into the question of the nature of piety than the traditional classical definition of ‘that which is pleasing to the Gods.’
There’s a certain hubris in assuming, after all, that we know for a fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is pleasing to the Gods. All too often human beings tend to define that as what is personally comfortable for the individual human being in question, and what reinforces their own biases, ultimately projecting those limitations onto the Gods Themselves. Maybe this is the reason why the French author Voltaire (not the musician, people) said that ‘if God created us in his own image, we have more than repaid the favor.” Ironically, I would call this a terrible impiety.
So that being said, I suppose the best definition of “piety” and thus, its opposite that I can come up with is ‘proper concern for the behavior and obligations owed to the Gods.’(2) In other words, it’s behaving rightly, properly, and maintaining one’s sacred obligations, obligations to something, or in the case of the Gods Someone – several Someones—outside of ourselves. I would tack on a corollary that it’s also ensuring that we do not damage another’s relationship to the Holy Powers. In essence, I would define piety as maintaining an ongoing awareness of one’s place in relationship to the Gods and ancestors, with all the blessings and obligations that flow from that at all times. One might say that this is part and parcel of acting like a responsible adult.
This doesn’t mean that one won’t struggle. It doesn’t mean that one needs to live a completely contemplative life either. One can be in the world most assuredly and be pious---just ask any pre-Christian Roman.(3) Piety is a way of being in the world, a way of interacting with everyone and everything, but it begins with the Gods and ancestors. It begins with learning to acknowledge and navigate the sacred.
In fact, I think that at its heart, piety begins with the understanding that the Gods (and ancestors) are part of our lives, part of everything and that we’re forever connected to Them and They to us. Recognizing that isn’t something relegated to the realm of a specialist like a priest or shaman; rather it’s something for everyone. Every single person has a relationship—however that relationship might unfold—with the Powers. There’s connection, indeed interconnectivity there and in many ways it something is tremendously polyvalent.
At its heart, piety begins with the understanding that we are in a hierarchy, a very natural and positive one and as with any hierarchy there are benefits and obligations on both sides. Accepting that one should behave with proper piety is part and parcel of taking a positive place in the fabric of being. From there, from my perspective at least, several other things go into piety, and we can extrapolate from their opposites on the nature of impiety. Firstly, it’s a matter of respect and mindfulness. One must make the conscious decision to behave properly. To my mind, that’s a given. Piety is a choice. It’s a choice that one must make again and again every moment of every day. There’s no magic here. There’s nothing remarkable or beyond the power of every single person reading this. It’s nothing more than a matter of conscious choice.
This begs the question of where and how do we learn what constitutes proper behavior. Well, ideally, we’d learn it from observation. We’d grow up in a family that maintained right relationship with the Gods, the ancestors, the land and Elemental Powers, and we’d see the rituals being done at the right time, the respect and mindfulness being lived, the traditions being observed. We’d see those attitudes echoed in the greater society outside of our families. We’d learn it just as we learn what is proper social behavior: by constant reinforcement of that which is correct from everyone else in our world. Our entire habitus would be shaped by it. Unfortunately, the spread of Christianity destroyed our indigenous traditions. Very few of us (if anyone) grew up in polytheistic households. Even if they did, nothing in our dominant culture--which is doggedly Christian—would have reinforced or supported the type of organic piety that one would have imbibed with mother’s milk in a polytheistic culture. The line of cultural and religious transmission was severed.
Since we cannot learn it from our families and society, we’re left to learn on our own and all too often we either learn bad habits (or not at all), or we learn what is proper only by making mistakes. Mistakes may be useful teachers but they’re certainly not the most comfortable ones! Recognition of our place in the scheme of things and properly engaging with the Gods and ancestors are, after all, learned behaviors. With few healthy models, errors will occur. This is one of the reasons, as I’ve said in other articles, why having an ongoing ancestor practice is so vitally important. Our ancestors have a vested interest in having us get this right. They can help and they will help if we give them half a chance. Our dead can help us get it right, or at least better than we ever would without their aid. It doesn’t take being a medium either to honor the dead. They’ll find a way to communicate and/or get us to where we need to be. We just have to put our feet on the path, so to speak.
In the meantime, the other huge stumbling block that most of us have to contend with (especially within Heathenry) is accepting that piety is a good thing. Nothing in contemporary Heathen culture really teaches that. When piety is expressed it’s usually nothing more than empty forms designed to keep the Gods and ancestors at a safe distance, and to reinforce community status quo. That’s not piety. What passes for piety within contemporary Heathenry is very, very Protestant in its orientation and that’s a shame.(4) Of course, I think where I differ from the average mainstream Heathen is that I believe what constitutes proper behavior depends on the devotee and His or Her Gods, not the community consensus. Gods always trump humans in my estimation and different Deities require different things. This is one of the things that led in the ancient world to the development of myriad cultus to various Deities. The Gods do not necessarily all require or desire the same things. The same God may not require the same things from amongst His or Her individual devotees. This is where polytheism takes work, and developing discernment, and sometimes seeking out those specialists to check and double check so one does not fall into hubris and error.
While it’s inevitable that errors will occur, I think that we can also classify them into two very different types: conscious and unconscious. There are the mistakes, the times of falling short of the mark (to use the original meaning of the Greek word later translated as ‘sin’ by Christian writers) that occur because we are engaged in a learning process, a process inherent in the restoration of broken, severed traditions. That’s inevitable. We make those errors accidentally, innocently, take the consequences and hopefully learn from them. I’ve been known to term this accidental impiety. I’ve been in this situation and so has every polytheist that I personally know. How I remedy the situation depends. It may be that removing myself from a given situation is enough. It may be that I must do divination to find out what steps I must take. Perhaps an offering is required, perhaps simply an apology. It depends. No two situations are alike but if one has been working those spiritual muscles, you know instinctively when you have fallen into the miasma of accidental impiety. You know, or if you’ve the skill for it, your Gods and ancestors will tell you in no uncertain terms. Sometimes you figure it out by the natural consequences of being out of rightful balance with the world.
Then there is conscious impiety. This is the ‘I won’t bow my head before the Gods’ crap that one so often sees cropping up in Heathen circles. It’s the chattering during ritual – no one should have to tell a person that this is rude – or the unwillingness to give more than ten or fifteen minutes to ritual. It’s behaving incorrectly out of lack of caring, or lack of devotion. It’s attacking another for their service to their Gods and ancestors. It’s conscious destruction of altars and shrines. It’s refusing to do what is right and proper to do before the Gods and dead (one reason why early Christians were considered so impious by polytheistic Romans). It is this and a thousand other things that bespeak a tremendous lack of respect for the Gods, ancestors, and other Powers. It is that egotism which tells us –inherited from monotheism -- just read Genesis, folks—that we are masters of the world and need bow our heads to no one. It is that which tells us that the Powers are there for our benefit alone, and that we have no obligation to anything or anyone (Anything or Anyone) outside of ourselves.
Piety requires work, ongoing conscious work and choice. It’s much more demanding than impiety. No one around us questions our impiety but the same is not true for its opposite. We’re not inconvenienced by impiety. Impiety allows us to be both lazy and self-absorbed not just with the Gods, but with each other as well. It feeds the beast of our egos.
In many respects, piety is protocol and we’re still re-learning the proper etiquette and protocols for being in relation with the Gods and ancestors (and elemental Powers too). That doesn’t happen overnight. We’re learning and that’s an ongoing process. I know that my own understanding of piety and by extension impiety has changed dramatically over the last ten years and I’ve made my share of mistakes, missed the mark a time or two in my ritual behavior – usually in the little things, the things that we’re not taught to look at as important.(5) I know that I give far more thought to it now than I ever did when I was starting out as a polytheist. We grow in these things just like our understanding in other areas of life grows. I think the secret, or one of them at any rate, is to not assume that we have ultimate knowledge, that we know – now and forever, amen—because we read in a book for instance, that XYZ is “true.” Ultimate truth is not something that any polytheist can claim to have. Truths plural…maybe, but they’re not found in books, no matter how fascinating the requisite piece of lore may be. They’re found in practice, in engagement, in mindfulness, and in wrestling with ourselves, perhaps most especially where issues of piety are concerned.
1. At least according to Plato in his dialogue “Euthyphro.”
2. Wikipedia, which I usually deplore as a source, has an interesting little article under ‘impiety,’ which notes—accurately I might add-- that this was the primary objection to Christians in the Pagan world. They were considered impious.
3. One of the things that really surprised me when I took my first Latin translation class – we were reading Pliny’s letters—was the quite unselfconscious concern with proper behavior toward the Gods and dead. It permeated Pliny’s writing in subtle ways and I’ve found this to be true of many classical authors. Piety wasn’t just something that affected one’s personal spirituality; it was a civic responsibility since the good of the land (and by extension the state) depended on the goodwill of the Gods. I might point out that Rome didn’t fall until it was Christianized…..
4. I also think that what many consider to be an experience of the sacred in such gatherings is nothing more than an experience of collective consensus…and a sense of having a place, a sense of belonging to the collective. That is a far cry from collective experience of the Numinous. I’ve witnessed the latter and those present, no matter how many rituals they had done, were completely unprepared, in ways that they would not and should not have been had they actually been experiencing the numinous through rituals consistently.
5. The last time I wrote about impiety for instances, was immediately after watching the recent remake of ‘Clash of the Titans.’ I’d loved the original as a child but when I saw the new version, I felt contaminated. It was so disrespectful not just to the Gods, but to the way its dominant narrative was encouraging people to treat the Gods, that I knew I was in a state of miasma and had inadvertently committed an impious act by watching it. Would it affect everyone like that? Probably not, but it put me right into this space.